54 "God, who creates and conserves all things by his Word, provides men with constant evidence of himself in created realities. And furthermore, wishing to open up the way to heavenly salvation - he manifested himself to our first parents from the very beginning."6 He invited them to intimate communion with himself and clothed them with resplendent grace and justice.
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 acquiesce 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.
53 The divine plan of Revelation is realized simultaneously "by deeds and words which are intrinsically bound up with each other"4 and shed light on each another. It involves a specific divine pedagogy: God communicates himself to man gradually. He prepares him to welcome by stages the supernatural Revelation that is to culminate in the person and mission of the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ.
St. Irenaeus of Lyons repeatedly speaks of this divine pedagogy using the image of God and man becoming accustomed to one another: The Word of God dwelt in man and became the Son of man in order to accustom man to perceive God and to accustom God to dwell in man, according to the Father's pleasure.5
This is a particularly rich paragraph from the Catechism in terms of its content, and it serves as the starting point for a number of paragraphs to follow. The focal point is the manner in which God reveals His truth, or more specifically, his divine truth or what we call Revelation. Pedagogically speaking, the Catechism is moving forward from the earlier paragraphs that talk of what man is naturally created to know, to the region of what we would never deduce without the direct intervention of God.
The very opening term, “divine Plan,” is synonymous with God’s oversight. Everything that is recorded in the Hebrew and Christian Testaments is a component of that plan, though one of the most critical parts of Jesus’ ministry was “connecting the dots,” as in his lengthy Easter Sunday discussion with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. “Did not the Messiah have to undergo all this so as to enter into his glory?” (Luke 24: 13-35)
This divine plan is realized simultaneously by deeds and words which are “intrinsically bound up with each other” and shed light on each other. The footnote (4) for this quote is Dei Verbum, para. 2, the decree on divine revelation approved at Vatican II in 1965, which describes God’s desire to reveal himself to man as his pleasure, his love, and his friendship. Both documents make the point that God’s revelation is a perfect interweave of word and deed; we are saved, that is, by what we see and hear, our ultimate example being Jesus himself. Jesus expelled demons (deeds) and then explained his expulsions as signs that God’s Kingdom was at hand (words). No one could say—then or today—that Jesus was just a magician, or worse, an agent of Beelzebub; nor could he be identified as solely a wise man or philosopher. His acceptance of an ignominious and painful death was the final and lasting union of divine word and deed.
Before progressing to the next points, I should note here that both the Council and Catechism are making a strong statement of belief, that Divine Revelation resides in the total Christ we have received in the Scripture. In 1943 Pope Pius XII, in Divino Afflante Spiritu, changed the direction of the Church’s biblical studies by allowing, among other things, greater freedom to Catholic scholars to analyze the sacred texts in numerous ways. Prior to Pius XII, the Scriptures more often than not served as “proof texts” for Catholic teachings. Pius must receive some credit for changing the pastoral and catechetical mindsets of those who teach and proclaim the Scripture, so that today we work to connect the dots instead of highlighting a few.
Paragraph 53 goes on to speak of God’s graduating steps in his process of Revelation. There are multiple ways to understand this. The obvious one—and the one I think was intended by the editors—is that God revealed his truth in stages through the ages of the Hebrew Scriptures, a process that would be culminated in the person and mission of Jesus. This understanding was stated by Jesus himself in so many words; “I have not come to destroy the Law and the Prophets [the Hebrew Scriptures] but to bring them to fulfillment.” In this reading of the text there is a historical and moral merging of Judaism and Christianity that embodies God’s own sense of saving work while on a practical level delivering a death blow to lingering Christian anti-Semitism.
This formulation may also reflect a pastoral concern by the Council and the Catechism in terms of understanding the image of God that comes through the earlier Hebrew texts. The enduring picture of a wrathful God who destroyed the earth with a flood and struck poor Lot’s wife with an eternity of sodium seems to be the prevailing one in the popular mind, reinforced by a draconian elaboration of the Jewish Law in the Pentateuch. Although the violent nature of God depicted in some texts is countermanded by numerous other word portraits of a passionately loving God in the Psalms, Prophets, Wisdom Literature, and yes, the Song of Songs, para. 53 carries within it the instruction to interpret the Scripture as a whole, leading to the words of deeds of Jesus. Remember Jesus’ words to the Apostle Phillip, “He who sees me sees him who sent me.”
The sub-paragraph or elaboration under para. 53 comes from St. Irenaeus (exact lifespan uncertain, perhaps 130-210 A.D.), one of the Church’s earliest doctors of theology. He was a bishop in Gaul, now France (Lyon to be precise) who led his church through multiple crises, including a particularly cruel Roman persecution in the 170’s, and a serious heretical problem in his region involving denial of the humanity of Christ. I mention the latter because it helps to explain the logic of his teaching on divine revelation. Irenaeus speaks of the process in a way that could be misunderstood as reciprocal.
For Irenaeus the Incarnation occurred in such a way that man could become accustomed to perceive God, and then to accustom God to dwell in man. As it stands, this sentence is ripe for misunderstanding. God learning humanity from the human experience? But Irenaeus was confronting Gnosticism (from the Greek for “knowledge), a heresy with a long-shelf life: the idea that salvation was won possession by a secret wisdom, independent of a corrupt human body. It is no surprise then that Irenaeus will consistently emphasize the marriage of the “Godness of God” with the “Manhood of Man,” a precondition for understanding Jesus as truly God and truly man.
Irenaeus is one of the outstanding figures of the early Church, something of a bridge between Apostolic times and the later, more complex church structure of, say, the fourth century. It is unfortunate that he is not better known. In his lifetime he is credited with defending the most basic doctrines of the Church while developing the role of the bishop, the canon or body of books that compose the New Testament, and even the role of the Virgin Mary in the Church.
Irenaeus is appropriately cited in para. 53 (as well as in 28 others throughout the Catechism) because there is one lingering question from #53 that deserves attention: if God revealed his divine plan in stages, is He still revealing? The answer is no and yes. Paras. 65 and 66 of the Catechism state that all Revelation is complete with Jesus, or as we learned in school, with the death of the last apostle, John. However, Paras. 74-95 describe the divine authority passed from the apostles to the bishops, who preach in new circumstances and elaborate the message of Christ in new idioms and philosophical frameworks. The technical term for the Church’s accumulated wisdom is Tradition. We will address this more thoroughly as we move along. But Irenaeus is an excellent case in point of how Tradition works. He expanded the Church’s understanding of the Incarnation, Redemption, the Scriptures, Church governance, and Mary, among other components of faith. But he was always careful to cite his pedigree; he was a disciple of St. Polycarp, who had been a disciple of St. John, and thus Irenaeus could always claim with legitimacy his place in the Apostolic Tradition.
I am preparing a moral theology presentation for this evening, so there is no formal post today. However, this afternoon I received my Sunday edition of the New York Times Book Review section, and I discovered its featured non-fiction review is a new book I have been using here in several posts: Reformations: The Early Modern World 1450-1650 by Carlos M.N. Eire. I am providing a link here if you would like to see an interesting review. Tomorrow's Sacramental Saturday post should go up as usual, whatever usual is these days.
52 God, who "dwells in unapproachable light", wants to communicate his own divine life to the men he freely created, in order to adopt them as his sons in his only-begotten Son.3 By revealing himself God wishes to make them capable of responding to him, and of knowing him and of loving him far beyond their own natural capacity.
Paragraph 52 is situated in a section of the Catechism devoted to God’s coming to meet man, the process of gradual revelation, and man’s inherent inability—through lack of capacity and bad will—to know God’s revelation instinctively. This is something of a turn from earlier paragraphs last winter which discussed the natural capacities of man to know of the existence of God, the goodness of God, and even the natural law of God written on the human heat. If this strikes one as a paradox, it is, and the Judeo-Christian tradition is a history of attempts to explain where the power of God exercises restraint and the free will and understanding of man reaches its zenith. Doctrinally speaking, that point resides in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, but pastorally speaking—and certainly in personal prayer—it is a challenge to both acknowledge a total dependence upon God for wisdom and a personal responsibility of conscience to reach out for that wisdom.
Think back a moment to that epic “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” where Indiana Jones is racing the evil archaeologist Belloc to recover the actual Ark of the Covenant from Moses’ day. Belloc exclaims, “Jones, do you realize what this is? A radio to talk to God!” Jones, who has just witnessed the death of his girlfriend Marian Ravenwood, comes back with an academy-winning retort: pulling out his revolver, he says to Belloc, “Let’s go see Him together right now. I’ve got nothing better to do.” (Hey, I found the trailer on YouTube with that very clip.)
I trust that your inner struggles to know God do not quite reach the intensity of Raiders, but it is true that the direction of the Catechism takes us to the proverbial fork in the road, with one way pointing “God does all the revealing” and the other pointing “I must search his heavens for the answer.” The history of Catholicism on this point anticipates Yogi Berra’s sage advice: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” One of the true mysteries of Christianity is this dialectic of God’s revelation, and with it our labors to trust God in all things while discerning from our own religious imagination how the will of God is best applied to me.
Looking back at the Reformation—or Reformations, as there were several stages—it is interesting to see how dissidents from Renaissance Catholicism developed a variety of spiritualities on the way God reveals Himself and the degree of help God received from human agents. Luther is famous for his sola scriptura declaration, i.e., the Word of God in the Bible alone is the one divine source of truth, but he never conceived of a world without a church—he could have lived with a profoundly reformed Catholic Church stripped of what he considered to be non-biblical inventions--and was terribly agitated by the extremism of his followers. Sola scriptura notwithstanding, Luther never abandoned the idea of a church with preaching ministers and sacraments as part and parcel of one’s spiritual life.
The second wave of reformers, led by Uldrych Zwingli (1484-1531), did not hold with Luther that man was utterly helpless, but took something of an opposite theology, that man is empowered to live by the Scripture alone if he lived a totally virtuous life. If Luther held the key to salvation to be “faith, not works,” Zwingli’s reform movement called for faith and works, something of a true church-state. The reformers connected personal piety with public order, and this reformation phase called upon the local governments, such as city magistrates, to outlaw sin, so to speak, and to police local clergy to preach purely from the Bible. It was this phase of the Reformation that stripped former Catholic churches down to bare white walls so that praying individuals would not be distracted in their meditations to a purely spiritual and other-worldly God.
The final phase of the Reformation is the emergence of diverse groups who tolerated neither church nor state in matters of spirituality, holding instead to individual and/or congregational independence of conscience in matters of Biblical interpretation and truth. Such believers were called “dissidents” and they came to North America in large numbers. Our American concept of “freedom of conscience” owes something to their influence.
So how does the Catholic find his “radio to God,” as Belloc put it? [That’s the movie villain, not the renowned Catholic man of letters, Hillaire Belloc.] Officially, the Church has held from its earliest days that the Scripture and its interpretation by the Apostles and their successors known as Tradition, which embodies our history of prayer and sacrament, is the revealing voice of the Judeo-Christian God. We are a people of historical spirituality in that it is our church practice to judge our own intense experiences and insights against the combined wisdom of Bible and history. It is a little known fact in catechetics and parish life that God’s formal revelation in history has ended with the death of the last Apostle, John. Mystics today give us new expressions of devotion, but not new divine revelation, though some claim to do so.
But it would be foolish to deny that our personal spiritual dimensions are so structured and predictable. Your own life’s story, your circumstances, will heavily dictate the way you read the Bible or listen to preaching. The biographies of nearly every thoughtful saint reflect inner spiritual turmoil. The difference for the Catholic is the inner restraint we try to exercise in examining our own internal battles and, yes, ecstasies, with God in the light of the common wisdom and experience of the Church. Francis of Assisi was deeply impacted by war, suffering and poverty. He could easily have become a Robin Hood character of sorts, but instead he took his spiritual anguish and urges to clerics who would point him toward his Catholic tradition’s response to sin and evil. Francis enriched that tradition with new energy, drawing new strength for himself from the timeless image of Christ crucified.
Fidelity to God’s revelation is fidelity to the community of God’s believers.
For Folks Who Can't Read Everything