Paragraph 54 opens what I think will be a very interesting sequence of reflections on the question of how God reveals Himself to us. As I said to a class of Catholic school teachers this week during a morality course, no matter what issue of the faith you are trying to teach, everything begins with the critical questions of (1) do I believe that God exists? (2) Is God a personal God who has anything meaningful to say to me? And (3) Is there any consequence, now or after death, for my blissful ignorance or outright disregard for what we call God’s Revelation? There are many Catholics who walk the earth without ever really addressing the questions, whose religion is a sort of unreflective acquiescence to Creed or classroom. Some believe that it is sinful to reflect upon such questions; others that such God-talk is late medieval balderdash, and still many others would rather not be bothered by the depth of the questions at all.
Galileo did not invent the telescope. He is famous, for among other things, his courage in pointing it upward. (Earlier telescopes were used for military sea reconnaissance.] The idea of pointing the telescope into the heavens seemed to many as an invasion of God’s privacy or a sort of blasphemy, even in Renaissance times, as if Galileo was trying to know more about God than God intended us to know. Galileo’s observations of Jupiter and the other planets were quite unsettling and created theological problems, but his astronomy did not denigrate God—on the contrary, the greatest telescopes in existence actually support the first sentence of para. 54, that created realities provide constant evidence of someone or something very possible.
For any human being to ask questions about the existence of God—and the relationship of that Being to us—seems to me a very healthy question to ask, whether we are catechists or not. It is the foundation of any baptismal catechumenate. Morality is rooted in the answer to these three questions—there is no real point in obeying commandments and cultivating virtue if there is no God, or if God is indifferent, or if we are all headed to heaven with the certainty. And certainly, para. 54 makes no sense if we have not reflected—personally—on God thought.
Para. 54 assumes a lot. Its presuppositions include the reader’s ability and motivation to search for God in created realities—in natural creation, in human beings, and in life circumstances, including evil and suffering. The corollary is that God is indeed to be found in an unimaginably large universe which grows larger with every new telescopic satellite; that God is found in a happy spouse and a hopeless drunk; that God is present in the extremes of ISIS and the ruins of Amatrice. It is often the third point here that creates stumbling blocks for would-be believers, the thought that God tolerates suffering and injustice, or remains strangely silent along the sidelines.
The Hebrew Scriptures attempted to answer the “God question” in its own time and idiom, which is precisely what para. 54 and many to follow will look at closely. In today’s text, the editors cite the image of God in the context of the earthly paradise prepared for the first couple. The text states that God invited them to intimate union with himself and “clothed them with resplendent grace and justice. What is not stated so clearly is that creation—including the garden couple—was made with its own self-destruct gene. Despite what I learned from grades one through four, the serpent in the Garden of Eden was not the devil or some outside force beyond God’s pale, as if such a thing were impossible. In Genesis 3:1 the serpent is described as the most cunning of all the creatures God had made.
The Catechism, in this and future paragraphs, speaks of the fall of Adam and Eve as a literal event, with the consequence that every human born thereafter was genetically marked by sin—so that by St. Augustine’s time (400 A.D.) the North African theologian would write that every baby was born with the stain of Original (or Adam’s) Sin and thus need immediate baptism—a practice we continue to the present day. The Church today does not require literal belief in the two creation accounts from Genesis, but it does hold that indeed the human species—all of creation, in fact—groans for the life of God. The Baptism of infants today initiates the little child into the family of believers where God’s grace and Revelation are shared. Baptism, even for infants, is the entre to the grace and justice promised in para. 54.
It now seems that a number of the very primitive Biblical narratives from Genesis are not the work of historians but of inspired philosophers who were asking the God questions that we need to address. This is certainly true in the Noah’s Ark account, where God’s attempt to cleanse the world of sin (and sinners) falls short; having been rescued from the flood by the ark, Noah becomes intoxicated and one of his sons laughs at the old man’s shame and nakedness. The lesson: evil will always pulse through our blood, and only by the infinite generosity of God is there any hope for us. God’s Revelation will unfold throughout the Hebrew Scriptures as Israel’s gradual coming to understand who God is, what is his plan, and what are the consequences of the fashion we respond to his plan.
It took Israel nearly two millennia to grasp, if incompletely, some basic answers to these questions. Vatican II taught that the mind and will of God are fully revealed in Christ and available to those who fall to their knees and ask. Sitting back, it seems, is not an optimal pose.