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.