42 God transcends all creatures. We must therefore continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, image-bound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God -- "the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable" -- with our human representations. Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God.
I can’t do much about my age, and many of my own intellectual influences date back to the Jurassic era, or so it might seem. But I can recall that from the 1950’s forward there was always debate about the negative influences of television. I was too young to grasp the full implications of TV’s broadcasting of the McCarthy Hearings in the spring of 1954, but closer to home I was aware that some mothers’ groups were trying to get my 5 PM Howdy Doody off the air as being too frenetic and agitating for young children. (They might have done better to worry about “The Three Stooges,” whose films were released to TV around 1957 bubbling over with slapstick violence that my brother Al and I can replicate to this day. Nyuk! Nyuk! Nyuk!)
By the time I got to college in the mid-1960’s there were more serious academic questions about the influence of television on its viewers and the culture. One of the most popular works of the 1960’s was Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Message. The general thrust of thinkers like McLuhan was the idea that whatever medium one used to communicate, the medium changed the communicated event. I believe it was the Greek philosopher Sophocles who argued that the invention of the alphabet would destroy the human capacity for memory—whether that was true or not, the alphabet captured conceptual thinking into a variety of forms that lived long beyond the writer.
The heart of this discussion is truly philosophical and contemporary—does any human medium perfectly capture the truth it conveys? This has been an issue for the Church as well, and our Paragraph 42 admits that all mediums at our disposal fail to capture the fullness of God. Para. 42 follows a previous proposition about deducing a perfect God from the perfection of his creatures. “Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God” is a more pessimistic contention than last week’s para. 41, repeating a pattern of checks and balances that appears frequently in the Catechism.
The emphasis here in para. 41 is on “language,” and it has powerful implications on the way that the Church has attempted to serve as the “medium,” if you will, of God’s intent. A bit of a review of the Church ‘medium” may be helpful here. In its earliest belief texts, the Church depended upon the body of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospels—the bulk of which were narrative in nature, describing the effects of God’s work. The fact that the Church sanctioned four variants of the Jesus narrative (the four Gospels) is an admission that no one text embodied God’s plan and Jesus’ meaning perfectly. In fact, next Sunday’s Gospel, where Jesus proclaims that “the Father is greater than I,” was ambiguous enough to create debates that proceeded into the fifth century.
The Councils of Nicaea, Ephesus, and Chalcedon, ranging from 325 to 451 A.D., were invoked to bring unity to the Church in its belief and practices, and each Council expressed this unity in propositions, the Nicene Creed being the easiest remembered. In doing so the Church established a particular medium—propositions—that would become the template for its teaching and ruling exercises. One can argue that the penitentiaries of the Irish monks from the sixth century were propositional—itemized summaries of sins and reparations, for example.
However, the fullness of the propositional medium should probably trace back to the noted early medieval scholar, Peter Lombard (1096-1160). Lombard is best remembered for his Four Books of Sentences, best described in Wikipedia in this fashion: “Though the Four Books of Sentences formed the framework upon which four centuries of scholastic interpretation of Christian dogma was based, rather than a dialectical work itself, the Four Books of Sentences is a compilation of biblical texts, together with relevant passages from the Church Fathers and many medieval thinkers, on virtually the entire field of Christian theology as it was understood at the time.”
It was, nothing more and nothing less, than a compendium or collection of all statements of Christianity from a variety of authoritative sources. As the Wikipedia author observes, The Sentences was not as much systematic as quantitative. Peter apparently intended this work as an aid to students, but by the thirteenth century The Sentences was the starting point for any aspiring student of theology, employed by not only the Catholic greats of the age such as Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham, but Martin Luther and John Calvin as well.
The Sentences cemented the “Catholic medium” as propositional, that is, all serious issues of faith life were expressed as collections of statements. Church Councils throughout the middle ages issued their conclusions as propositions. The new science of Canon Law would do likewise. After the Reformation the Catholic Reform Council of Trent (1545-1563) would do the same. I own a copy of the decrees of Trent, which run to 273 pages. Here is a link to the propositions approved by Vatican I in 1870.
Vatican II broke tradition when it adopted its more pastoral and personal style in many, if not all, of its documents. But in the half century since, the Church has returned to its propositional medium, most notably in the 1983 revised Code of Canon Law, and the very Catechism of the Catholic Church, which contains 2865 propositions. [We have treated all of 42 so far, so get comfortable.]
Paragraph 42, interestingly, serves as something of The Medium is the Message reminder, that if the medium of talking about God and his laws is words, then the medium will always be imperfect, as words will at best be imperfectly analogous to God. Which raises the question: how accurately do Church pronouncements express the intentions of a living God? This is not to suggest that words, particularly those in the revealed books of the bible, do not connect with the divine. But there is a legitimate question if Church declarations/propositions are equal to the exact mind of God in every case.
I wrote yesterday that Pope Francis was coming under fire for creating confusion by not simply reiterating Church teaching in propositional brevity instead of “clouding the issue” over 280 pages. Francis has chosen to adopt another medium; I guess you could call it “pastoral narrative” to unify the many dimensions of marriage, family, and human sexuality. In doing so he has incorporated aspects of faith and life that propositions do poorly, if at all. But while we are at it, consider another teaching medium of Francis, the “prophetic action,” specifically his loving and observable conduct toward children, the infirm, the prisoner, the refugee. If para. 42 is correct that no medium captures the perfection of God, it is equally true that a multitude of mediums are capable of doing so imperfectly—not only propositions.
41 All creatures bear a certain resemblance to God, most especially man, created in the image and likeness of God. The manifold perfections of creatures - their truth, their goodness, their beauty all reflect the infinite perfection of God. Consequently, we can name God by taking his creatures" perfections as our starting point, "for from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator".
Paragraph 41 continues the Catechism’s teaching on the natural knowability of God. The emphasis here is placed upon the innate goodness of creatures—their truth, goodness, beauty. The text makes an intriguing claim—that “we can name God by taking his creatures’ perfection as our starting point.” And while para. 41 is rich in its theology, a good deal of spadework must be undertaken to engage in its wisdom and avoid significant misunderstandings.
The source text or footnote is Wisdom 13:5; the Book of Wisdom falls into the classification of Hebrew Scripture texts known as “Wisdom Literature.” The Jerome Biblical Commentary (1990) places the date of composition as late in the first century before Christ, making it possibly the last book of the Hebrew Scripture, and curiously, a text that apparently was never written in Hebrew. Its place of authorship was most likely Egypt and its language Greek, the universal language at the time for intellectual discourse.
The JBC commentator on the Book of Wisdom, Addison G. Wright, provides an interesting commentary on the unknown author’s theological intent in writing Chapter 13, a text subtitled “A Digression on False Worship” in the New American Bible (1992). Wright points out a developing conflict on the nature of God resulting from the intermingling of Hebrew and Greek thought after the conquests of Alexander the Great. It is hard for us today to understand how the God of Israel contrasted in concept from the Greek concept of God we use in Western Christian theology. As Wright puts it, “Israel’s knowledge of God was derived not from rational arguments but from the experience of God’s saving acts on Israel’s behalf. The Greeks, on the other hand, strove to know God in a philosophical manner.” (p. 519)
Wright explains that the Wisdom author was actually trying to combine the two in the text cited in the Catechism. Chapter 13 of Wisdom is divided between the errors of nature worship and idol worship. Wisdom is actually more understanding of those who see gods in the works of nature, including animals, and there are clues of Aristotle’s thinking that the created thing reflects the one who made it. Wisdom 13:5 reads “For from the greatness and the beauty of created things their original author, by analogy, is seen.” It is interesting that the NAB translation, a Roman Catholic enterprise, uses the word “analogy,” a term that has rich usage over the history of Catholic theology.
Para. 41 attributes admirable qualities to “creatures.” Is the Catechism referring to animals in a special way? It would seem so. I came across a noted scholar who has researched the issue of animals in the Bible, Joshua M. Moritz. His 2009 journal piece, “Animals in the Image of God in the Bible and Beyond,” is available for free and worth saving in your resources file. Moritz covers both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, but I will limit myself to a sampling of his Hebrew observations today. He observes, first of all, that the act of Creation was theocentric, not anthropocentric—that is, God’s bestowing of being and life extends to everything. Creation is not simply a tale of man and his accessories. The Genesis vocabulary speaks of God gift of life, or basar, as infused in man and animals.
In the six-day creation narrative, God moves in concentric circles of importance, so to speak, from taming the chaos and creating sun and moon, to the sixth day, when God crowns his work by creating both animals and humans and bids them all to be fruitful and multiply. What I found more remarkable was the Israelite sense of “animal morality, so to speak.” The serpent, for example, “the most cunning of all the creatures God had made,” is just as severely punished as Adam and Eve, in that the snake would be singled out as the most odious of all creatures (akin to Cain, a few paragraphs later?) and would be cursed by having to make do with no legs, which makes one wonder what serpents looked life before this fateful day in the Garden of Eden. Animals, like humans, are cursed with mortality, a point made in Ecclesiastes 3:19.
We know from the second creation account that God allowed Adam to name the animals, and it is common to hear interpreters speak of this naming as “domination.” Moritz argues that the naming is more symbolic of relationship, more along the lines of naming a child. “Naming” assumes great intimacy, as the name given is symbolic of the full quality and distinct characteristics. If man was given authority to name, it was because he understood the nature and destiny of what he was naming. There is a very real kinship here, long before Greeks and Christians introduced the concept of “soul” and thus made it near impossible to theologize on the shared destinies of man and animals.
Moritz points out that animals were included in the Covenant of God with ancient Israel. The Noah’s Ark story, after all, describes (mythically) the deluge punishment of both man and beast. When the flood waters receded and Noah offered sacrifice, God made a solemn promise never to destroy all living things, i.e., man and animals. When the Law became more detailed, the life and well-being of animals was spelled out: a mother bird could not be sold and separated from her offspring, an ox could not be muzzled, mutilating and castrating were prohibited, etc. Animals could be punished for transgressions of the Law, too; an ox who gored a human was sentenced to death.
In the best of all worlds, Hebrews would not have eaten any meat. Where necessary an animal could be butchered, but there were strict provisions about its life-giving blood, which could not be consumed. The devout Jew was reminded that animals belonged to God, and that their birth, life, and death were matters of intense interest to him. Moritz reminds us, too, that the sacrifice of animals in worship was not just symbolic; there was an actual substitution of lives taking place for the forgiveness of sins. In perhaps the most touching sentiment of his treatment, Moritz writes that “as a sacrificial surrogate, the blood of animals is taken in lieu of human blood. As our silent stand-ins and faithful friends, animals liberate and rescue us as they pay with their lives for the covenants we break.” This principle of Jewish theology underwrites the Catholic Mass where the lamb of God takes away the sins of the world.
It is also true that the apocalyptic or future oriented writers of the Hebrew Scriptures envisioned the glorious days to come as a holy reunion of man and animals. Hosea (2:18) writes that “In that day I will also make a covenant for them; with the beasts of the field, the birds of the sky and the creeping things of the ground. And I will abolish the bow, the sword and war from the earth; and will make them lie down in safety.” Whether the Catechism authors of para. 41 understood the full implication of the text it cites is hard to know, but if the point of para. 41 is to see the glory of God in his creatures, it is also true that creatures teach us something of our own image, too.
Since our knowledge of God is limited, our language about him is equally so. We can name God only by taking creatures as our starting point, and in accordance with our limited human ways of knowing and thinking.
I looked it up this morning, and it was there in my transcript, SY-511, “Foundational Theology,” Fall Semester, 1971, Rev. Edmund Dobbin, O.S.A., Ph.D. For the historical record, Father Dobbin would go on to become the longest serving president in the history of Villanova University, and he died just a year ago. I was told by another graduate professor years later that Father Dobbin also served as treasurer of his Augustinian community in Washington and became annoyed at the high cost of auto maintenance, so he taught himself to perform basic car upkeep such as changing the oil. A theologian/professor/auto mechanic sounds like a splendid resume for a president of a Catholic college.
Unfortunately, he was unable to jumpstart my brain into the basic question of theology, is it even possible to talk about God? SY 511** was the “starting line” course for “systematic” theological study, and I just couldn’t wrap my head around the philosophical debate over the possibility of knowing God. I recall Father Dobbin lecturing extensively on a scientist/philosopher of the day, Michael Polangyi, who I now understand was bringing the possibility of all knowledge into question. My failure to capture the essence of this course cost me some in subsequent courses in discussions about free will, grace, revelation, etc. I did get a “B” in the course, possibly due to my end-of-semester gift of a case of Mobil oil. But mastery, no, and in course SY-512, “Christian Anthropology,” I got a “C.” Now who gets C’s in graduate school?
Paragraph 40 of the Catechism is based upon this foundational truth of the gulf between the God who is “totally other” and we humans who depend upon sensory knowledge and verbal communication to access knowledge. Thinking back a few months, we have seen that the Catechism wobbles a bit between a joyful confidence that man, by his very nature, is capable of coming to both a knowledge of God and a sense of God’s eternal law. Our text here, however, is more restrained: not only is this knowledge of God limited, but our ability to talk correctly about God is limited, too.
One difficulty right off the bat is the limitation of human language. The words we say are descriptive, not real. We speak in similes and metaphors, speaking of things in comparisons with other similar things. Our words are not metaphysical or scientific realities, but our best efforts to summarize what have learned, felt, or experienced. So when my physician recently prescribed a steroid medication for a tendon problem, he did not say to me that in three days I would no longer walk like Frankenstein, but he explained experiences of researchers, other physicians, and patient reports with the implication that other humans with my constellation of symptoms have found temporary relief. All human language has a provisionality (my term, as word-check has rejected it.)
When a student of religion begins the path toward masters or doctoral level accomplishment, one of the first shocks to the system is the discovery of theological provisionality. (Father Dobbin put this much more eloquently, of course.) That is, the first challenge of theology and religious study is the question of whether it is even possible to know and talk really and truthfully about God. This is not just a modern problem. St. Augustine in the fifth century addressed the issue squarely in his famous definition of theology: “faith seeking understanding.” For Augustine, possibly the greatest theologian of all time, the very act of undertaking theology was provisional, and only a man of faith (in things unseen) would sanely jump into the religious academic undertaking.
We are generally not accustomed to facing a hurdle about whether it is even possible to speak of God, but the question is significantly embedded in Jewish and Christian tradition. The Pentateuch tradition (the first five books of the Hebrew Scripture) speak of God as unknowable and unapproachable; to even utter the name of God was an ultimate blasphemy, as the use of a name, or the process of naming, conveyed a power over the thing named. This is why God permitted Adam to name the animals in the second creation account, since the man was to have dominion over them.
In the Gospels as we have them today, Jesus speaks freely of God as his Father, even addressing him as “Abba” or its English equivalent “daddy.” In his Jewish culture this language of Jesus must have stunned his listeners, though the idea of a “totally other” God now involved in the life of his listeners must have been equally thrilling for those who took Jesus seriously. The bridge to knowledge of God is the assertion of Jesus that he and the Father are one; Jesus is thus the only and the perfect simile of God.
Para. 40 appears early in the Catechism, before discussion of Christ, in the position of “foundational theology” where the Church discusses, among other things, this issue of whether one can even talk about God. Para. 40 has a remarkable mood of resignation, conceding that when “naming God” we can only draw examples from creatures or creation itself, which will always be finite. Medieval scholars came at this problem from several directions, but purely philosophical discussion ran aground at several points. A key word in the theology of that day was analogy. Any and all efforts to ascribe qualities or descriptions to God were failures. To say that God is “just” is impossible for a number of reasons: (1) justice is a finite quality which falls short of the perfect dignity of God; (2) the application of a relational virtue to a God who is perfect unity is illogical; (3) justice makes sense only in a world where riches can be shared; God is totally other and immaterial, unrelated to concepts of resources and belonging.
Thus, one of the great tasks of Christian theology, the primary one if truth be told, is the discovery of language that bridges human experience with a divine one. It is Augustine’s “faith seeking “understanding” or “expression.” We will follow this through the Catechism in terms of how the Church has come to discover and preach its analogy of God. In terms of personal subjective faith, one must personally come to grips with the “SY Courses” of life and determine by faith and experience the times, words, and places that the totally other God has created an analogy for you by which you may know Him and speak of Him.
**”SY” is shorthand for Systematic Theology, the basic branch of the theological sciences. It is closely aligned with philosophy.
Due to some scheduling conflicts, I was unable to post today on Paragraph 40. I hope to post tomorrow on Friday's page, particularly if the Pope's long-awaited teaching on marriage and the family is released tomorrow, as many outlets are reporting. As I have to remove dead shrubs in the early morning (the joys of home ownership) I would hope to have my post up by about 6 PM Friday if everything goes well. The Commentary on Paragraph 40 will go up next Thursday, all things being equal.
I should add that I very much enjoyed my catechetical seminar with Catholic school teachers yesterday (Wednesday) afternoon in SE Orlando and look forward to our next meeting in three weeks.