31 Created in God’s image and called to know and love him, the person who seeks God discovers certain ways of coming to know him. These are also called proofs for the existence of God, not in the sense of proofs in the natural sciences, but rather in the sense of “converging and convincing arguments,” which allow us to attain certainty about the truth.
These “ways” of approaching God from creation have a twofold point of departure: the physical world and the human person.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit the country island of St. Kitt’s, the smallest nation in the western hemisphere. Many, probably most, of the Caribbean islands were colonies of European powers, desired for defensive purposes, native crops such as sugar, and cheap labor, notably slavery. In one of history’s great ironies, all the lands of the Louisiana Purchase on the American continent (fully fifteen future states) were held by the French as a “bread basket” to feed their Caribbean holding, at that time Haiti. Napoleon sold the entire parcel to the United States for three cents an acre after a violent slave rebellion in Haiti ended his dreams of a Caribbean empire.
St. Kitt’s is another island built upon slavery and sugar harvesting, though in this case under the British, who originally called the island St. Christopher. The worldwide demand for sugar declined over the years till the industry ceased operating in 2007. One of its main industries today is tourism, notably cruise ships, due to its water sports along the coast. Our cruise ship offered a number of excursions, including a railroad ride around the island on the tracks used by the old sugar mill train. I was reading reviews for possible ticket purchase when I came across several comments of this nature: “I was disappointed. For the cost of the trip we spent a large amount of time passing through areas of ugly poverty.” My wife Margaret found a local taxi-van driver on shore who gave us an excellent close-up tour of the island for about 15% of what the train would have cost. (I put some photos at the end of the post.)
St. Kitt’s is poor. It is naturally beautiful, too, and a wooded volcano sits at the center of the island. I imagine that that the volcano loses some attractiveness when it flares up and expels ashes and lava. I was reminded of St. Kitt’s when I reviewed paragraph 31 of the Catechism, which moves to a discussion of the reality and knowability of God. My high school freshman seminary teacher drummed the physical proofs of existence of God into our adolescent craniums. I could tell he truly believed them, though of the five proofs outlined by St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, the only one I could truly understand was the need for a first cause for everything, an identity assigned to God, who “always was.” A few years later I discovered that that Aristotle, among others, had come to something of the same understanding centuries before the Christian era. Aristotle identified his “first cause” as the “Prime Mover,” though he did not speculate further on the identity of such a force in a theological way.
The Catechism states that man is created in such a way that he comes to learn certain ways of knowing him. It goes on to call these ways “proofs,” though it is quick to differentiate between proofs of the natural sciences and proofs from the sense of “converging and convincing arguments.” Paras. 32-35 will unpack this definition more thoroughly, but the gist of the teaching here is the knowability of God from two sources, the natural physical world and the metaphysical world of man, both on the natural plane.
It is important to remember that the Christian evangelical mission has addressed itself to pagans, and later to men of the Enlightenment, over the centuries. The evangelists, by contrast, were addressing themselves to audiences of faith—or at least incomplete faith—who were familiar with the treasury of the Hebrew Scriptures and who required little grounding or convincing of the existence of God. For most of the Christian era, though, this has not been the case, and Christian philosophers and missionaries have struggled to speak of God—to establish the reasonableness of his existence—in contemporary language and thought of the time.
For St. Thomas Aquinas, whose feast incidentally is today, the thought language of the day was logic and a unity of the material and the supernatural world. His five proofs come from this era, and Catholic scholastic theology has maintained this Thomistic approach in the face of the Reformation (where reformers argued that scholastic thinking undermined the Bible and the need for uncluttered faith in Revelation) and the Enlightenment (which introduced a secular, humanistic and idealistic approach to philosophy.)
It will be interesting to see what the Catechism will have to say about these “converging and convincing arguments” for the existence of God. As a Facebook reader, I am the recipient of countless posts of lovely scenes from nature, notably sunrises and sunsets. Usually there is an accompanying caption, something along these lines: “Only a great and all powerful God could have created the sun, moon and stars.” True enough. But I wonder if the posters know about the sun. It is a giant nuclear furnace with a finite fuel supply. When suns (stars) burn off enough of their stuff, they become novas—one gigantic gasp of energy—that in our case would enlarge the sun till it expands to the orbit of Jupiter or Saturn. Then it shrinks into a tiny ember or becomes a black hole.
And this, I think, is where the division of proofs for God by nature and argument take a hit. Stated or implied, all of the medieval scholastic arguments from nature imply a perfect world reflective or analogous to the glory of the Godhead. But nature includes the human species. Going back to St. Kitt’s (and you never thought I would) the visitor beholds beauty in nature, but like the disgruntled woman on the train, the ugly effects of human misdealing cannot be ignored, either. In some way, difficult to comprehend, the Prime Mover of the turquoise blue ocean is also Prime Mover of the men who colonized indigenous peoples into slavery. Squaring that circle is one of theology’s greatest challenges.
Nature is beautiful but finitely so. The quest remains for an adequate analogy, let alone proof of God, must go beyond nature and logic. The great German theologian Karl Rahner may have put it best: “Jesus is the grammar of God’s utterance.” Or better, the Savior’s own words, “Phillip, he who sees me sees him who sent me.”
30 “Let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice.” Although man can forget God or reject him, He never ceases to call every man to seek him, so as to find life and happiness. But this search for God demands of man every effort of intellect, a sound will, “an upright heart,” as well as the witness of others who teach him to seek God.
You are great, O Lord, and greatly to be praised: great is your power and your wisdom is without measure. And man, so small a part of your creation, wants to praise you: this man, though clothed with mortality and bearing the evidence of sin and the proof that you withstand the proud. Despite everything, man, though but a small part of your creation, wants to praise you. You yourself encourage him to delight in your praise, for you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.
Paragraph 30 presents the conundrum between belief in the infinite desire of God to draw all beings to himself, on the one hand, and the free will of man to reject this offer from God on the other hand. As in para. 29 the writing is a bit ambiguous—documents produced by a committee often are—and we bounce a bit between God’s initiative and man’s. The opening line comes from Psalm 5, and it introduces a paragraph in which the action or agency of man receives significant emphasis. Man is called by God, but it is up to man to make every effort of intellect as well as a sound will (or mind and heart), and to live with “an upright heart” (morally) and attentive to the witness of others who teach the importance of seeking God.
The second paragraph is a protracted text from the Confessions of St. Augustine, one of the greatest works in the library of Christian literature. (As of today’s post, sales of the Penguin edition of the Confessions is rated #800 in Amazon’s entire inventory of millions of books). Augustine will be the source for 87 paragraphs throughout the Catechism, so it is worth our while to focus for a moment on Augustine’s position in history, particularly his thoughts and writings on the relationship of God’s will to man’s will.
Augustine (354-430 AD) was a native of North Africa. In the days prior to Islam, North African civilization was robust economically and intellectually, though young men seeking higher learning traveled to Rome for advanced studies. Augustine’s relationship with his mother Monica is fairly well known. A devout Christian herself, she nonetheless did not have her son baptized at infancy but prayed earnestly for his own adult embrace of baptism. It was customary in Augustine’s day to postpone baptism until adulthood, in some cases to the point to death, because of the sacrament’s power to forgive all sin. Augustine reportedly prayed for the gift of chastity, but with the added sentiment, “but not yet.”
From his Confessions and biographers, Augustine’s biggest sin appears to be a misplaced certitude in the pagan doctrine of Manicheism, a belief that truth and purity resided only in the spiritual world. Such a school of teaching would contribute to a pride and aloofness from the concerns of this world. Augustine finally encountered the brilliant St. Ambrose of Milan, who refuted his arguments and introduced him to the integrity of the Christian Creed. Ambrose baptized Augustine at the Milanese Easter Vigil of 387, described dramatically in Gary Wills’ Font of Life.
Augustine returned to his native North Africa a different man, and in due course became the bishop of Hippo. A brilliant thinker and writer, over the years Augustine produced an immense library of writings, which included sermons, theological tracts, commentaries on scripture, and a majestic definition of the Church, The City of God, a response to wholesale disarray among Christians when the barbarian prince Alaric overran the city of Rome in 410. He maintained a friendship with St. Jerome, the author of the Latin Vulgate Bible used at Mass until 1970. It is not too much of a stretch to say, as many do, that all of Catholic Theology is a footnote to St. Augustine.
For sixteen centuries Catholic thinkers have debated one of the key issues of Augustinian thought: the power of God and man’s utter need for God’s intervening redemption. The failure to reach a satisfactory explanation of God’s power in human existence is probably a main cause of the Reformation, as Church practice endorsed the idea that man could effect salvation by his own actions, as in the acts associated with indulgences. Martin Luther, by contrast, found in the text of St. Paul the principle that man is saved by faith, not works, and that this faith is a free and unfettered gift-act of God. In Lutheran thought, the Christian is saved by full faith in what God is doing for him and in him.
It is hard to know exactly where Augustine adopted this primitive Lutheran construct. It is most likely that Augustine was a highly self-conscious individual who regretted the prideful arrogance of his Manichee days as well as his ongoing struggles with chastity after Baptism. It is true that Augustine came to believe that while baptism forgave sin, it did not remove the desire to sin, or the technical term concupiscence. Augustine’s anthropology has been interpreted as somewhat negative toward the creation of man, a sentiment that would work its way into his scriptural interpretation of the Adam and Eve account. Thus the term “original sin” (or Adam’s biologically transmitted sinfulness) entered Catholic usage and led to the baptism of infants, not for the sins they had committed but for the sinful condition they had inherited.
If Augustine held that man could do little or no good of his own volition, he was opposed by the British theologian Pelagius, who argued that the human moral will was capable of free acts of good or evil. Wikipedia’s description of Pelagianism is quite accurate and useful. Pelagius in fact never said that man could win salvation independently of God; rather, he argued—with considerable merit—that God has created man in such a way that the human person is capable of excellent moral acts. He does note that God’s grace is helpful, and thus does not close the argument by defining how much of or to what degree God’s grace or saving influence determines human actions.
The Catechism takes the middle ground in acknowledging that God originates the desire for himself in the very way that man is created, and that man of his nature seeks union with God constitutionally. That said, the Catechism gives considerable weight to what a man must do in response to this divine attraction, and throughout subsequent paragraphs will affirm that man does indeed possess the power to refuse the divine call, a statement that man can in no way be considered a puppet of the divine.
This week marks the first anniversary of our daily blog. For my impressions of the first year and plans for 2016, click here at your leisure.
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29 But this “intimate and vital bond of man to God” (GS 19,1) can be forgotten, overlooked, or even explicitly rejected by man.3 Such attitudes can have different causes: revolt against evil in the world; religious ignorance or indifference; the cares and riches of this world; the scandal of bad example on the part of believers; currents of thought hostile to religion; finally, that attitude of sinful man which makes him hide from God out of fear and flee his call.
I had to go back to December 3 to reacquaint myself with this thread and—to my embarrassment—figure out where we are in the numerical sequence. It was helpful to me to go back and read that entry for para. 28 to recover our train of thought. Para. 29 is located very early in the section on “belief;” the previous paragraph addresses the reality of an inherent desire for the divine within the hearts of men as their natural condition.
Having established its anthropology, the Catechism progresses quickly to perhaps one of life’s greatest and most agonizing mysteries: alienation. Quoting from Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, the text describes our relationship with God as “intimate and vital.” Put another way, the ideal of the human experience is a union with God that meets the need for intimacy and life itself. Disunion is the state of death and utter loss of love, even love of self. It is no accident that one of the Church’s seven sacraments embraces the ultimate human experience of life and love, marriage.
What I find interesting about para. 29 is its expansion of the reasons for loss of union with God. Prior catechisms had addressed this condition rather exclusively in terms of sin—original sin (inherited) and actual sin (committed). Sin is included here, to be sure, but there is an intriguing little spectrum of how the relationship might deteriorate—God might be “forgotten, overlooked, or even explicitly rejected.” The parallel between divine union and the human realities of friendship and love relationships is rich, and consciously or not, the language expresses a venerable truth of religious life: one is either growing in holiness or declining; there is no “cruise control” religious experience. The Catechism is stating that where God is concerned, there is no such thing as stasis.
Para. 29 is not the literary gem of the Catechism. There are poor word choices and clumsy constructions, at least in the English translation. The phrase “such attitudes” in the second sentence does not follow from the first sentence. No one cultivates an “attitude” of forgetfulness or overlooking; a relationship fails precisely because there is no attitude or conscious pulse taking of the relational dynamic. The balance of this sentence explains the conditions which foster neglect and deterioration, though again the language is not helpful. The phrase “revolt against evil in the world” is so out of place here that it might be better dropped altogether; I have no idea what the authors have in mind here.
However, the rest of the catalogue is clearer. “Religious ignorance or indifference” certainly makes sense, though I would have divided the two conditions because there is considerable difference between them. Religious ignorance is an absence of understanding the Revelation of God; it is a condition with victims and perpetrators. It is hard to blame someone for a poor understanding of God if (1) the true nature of God has never been adequately preached to them, or (2) if the image of God passed on to them is such a distorted one that meaningful personal encounter with the divine is either impossible or even repulsive. On the other hand, it is also true that religious ignorance is the end product of the failure of believers to evangelize and catechize with urgency. Poor preaching and especially the low standards of competence that marks so much of faith formation—along with the collapse of formal Catholic education—is a sinful omission, a dereliction of duty.
“Indifference,” on the other hand, may be a personal judgment that the matter of Revelation can be easily dispensed without loss. Consider St. Paul’s brilliant discourse before the altar of the Unknown God in Athens, where his listeners responded that they would like to talk to him again on his subject, kicking the can down the road, so to speak. For a long time, the term indifferentism in Catholic journalism and official decrees had come to mean an erroneous belief that, at the end of the day, all religions—or all lives of humanitarian focus—are essentially the same, that involvement with the Judeo-Christian God is one of a number of worthy entrées available to the hungry heart.
“The cares and riches of this world” is no doubt a reference to the familiar Gospel theme about riches, notably in the books of Matthew and Luke. The parable of the sower comes to mind, where some seed (the word of God, as Matthew explains) falls among thorns and the new growth is enveloped by the concerns of this world; and the story of the rich young man, who goes away sad when Jesus invites him to sell his possessions and come and follow him. From the earliest days of the Church, the divestiture of excess goods has served as a first step into organized religious communities such as monasteries, and our vow of poverty is interrelated to intensive communities of prayer as freedom to pray and serve in ministry.
“The scandal of bad example on the part of the believers” is another example drawn from the Gospel; Jesus’ warning that it is better to be thrown into the sea with a millstone than scandalize a little one is the premier example of the need to avoid scandal. “Currents of thought hostile to religion” is possibly a reference to the direction of post-Enlightenment thinking in which even the most sacred sciences came under the scrutiny of secular sciences. A more contemporary read on this phrase might include the actual assaults on Christian communities in Islamic militant states, for example.
Finally, “the attitude of sinful man which makes him hide from God out of fear and flee his call.” This is vintage Old Testament imagery: Adam and Eve dressed themselves in fig leaves and hid in the garden, ashamed of their nakedness after their sin; and the reluctance of Jonah to preach to Nineveh, which resulted in his Moby Dick conversion moment. Again, the literary style is confusing, but it seems on its face to address the downward spiral of sin and shame and fear of God that fosters an ongoing sinful existence like a perpetual motion machine. If para. 28 describes the innate need for God, para. 29 is a reference book on how the relationship can be broke.