Saturday, October 18, 2014

Is God So Much Above Us That We Can Never Truly Know Him?

Some people, in a seemingly pious display, will claim that we can never - it this life or the next - really know God as He is. We will always view Him only through the veil of symbol and sign. God is so far above us, they claim, that all religion can only stutter at the mystery, weaving myths and telling tales, but always falling short of really expressing anything that is absolutely true about God in any meaningful sense. Thus, it is claimed, the signs and symbols which religion is made up of can and indeed ought to be changed to fit the times - nothing, it seems, is essential to any religion.

In his book Truth and Tolerance, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) aptly describes this all too common modern understanding of religion through an illustration (drawn from a Buddhist parable) in which a mighty king leads an elephant out in front of a gathered group of blind people. Each blind man is only allowed to touch one part of the elephant; one a tusk, another a foot, a third an eye, etc. When the king asks the group what an elephant is like the men begin brawling with one another, each proclaiming the elephant is like something different, based solely on their very limited experience of one part of the elephant. Ratzinger points out that,
The conflict between religions seems to people today like the quarrel of those born blind in the story. For we are all born blind to the mysteries of divinity, so it seems. For the way people think today, Christianity by no means finds itself better placed than other religions - on the contrary, with its claim to be true, it seems particularly blind to the limits of all our knowledge concerning what is divine... (pgs. 162-163)
But is this parable an accurate account of the state of world religions? Suppose one religion wasn't "man's search for God," but rather was "God's search for man." Suppose one of the proverbial roads leading up the mountain, actually ran down from God to us. In that case, the group of "blind men" would have among their number one who could see, better still - it would have a man who could see who was a professional zoologist with a PhD in elephantine studies and decades spent in intensive field research of elephants. If the group contained such a man, would it be wise to laugh at his answer to the question, "what is an elephant like?"

This, however, is the exact claim Christianity makes for itself among the world religions - it claims not to be the product of men with a limited experience of the Divine, but to be nothing less than the self revelation of God. The Buddhist parable, while clever, merely "begs the question," assuming that all religions are in the same category, that they all are the products of man's attempt to reach God.

Such is the claim of Christianity, but is there any reason to believe such a revelation, such sure knowledge of God (even if it be incomplete) is within mankind's grasp? Surely, a look at the person of Jesus Christ and the history of Christianity would be one way, even the best way, to answer whether or not Christianity is this "road down the mountain," but a more fundamental question might be whether we can really expect man to have any sure knowledge of God, even in the next life.

No less a mind than the great St. Thomas Aquinas grappled with this question in his Summa Theologiae, where he asks whether or not even the blessed can see the essence of God. Aquinas argues that they must because
the ultimate beatitude of man consists in the use of his highest function, which is the operation of his intellect; if we suppose that the created intellect could never see God, it would either never attain to beatitude, or its beatitude would consist in something else beside God; which is opposed to faith. For the ultimate perfection of the rational creature is to be found in that which is the principle of its being; since a thing is perfect so far as it attains to its principle. Further the same opinion (that man cannot really ever know God) is also against reason. For there resides in every man a natural desire to know the cause of any effect which he sees; and thence arises wonder in men. But if the intellect of the rational creature could not reach so far as to the first cause of things, the natural desire would remain void.
Hence it must be absolutely granted that the blessed see the essence of God. (S. Th, Prima Pars, Q 12)
From this we can conclude that sure knowledge, even if it be necessarily incomplete knowledge, of God must be available to men in this life, for how could men be expected to see the very essence of the Almighty in heaven while simultaneously being completely unable to know Him at all in this life?

Perhaps, though, the best answer to the claim that all religions are equally false and mythic isn't an argument at all. Perhaps the visceral experience we Christians have felt when we crossed over from a distant, unknowable God, to the Risen One. I can think of no one who describes this better than atheist-turned-Christian, CS Lewis,
"Men are reluctant to pass over from the notion of an abstract and negative deity to the living God. I do not wonder. Here lies the deepest taproot of Pantheism and of the objection to traditional imagery. It was hated not, at bottom, because it pictured Him as a man but because it pictured Him as a king, or even as a warrior. The Pantheist’s God does nothing, demands nothing. He is there if you wish for Him, like a book on a shelf. He will not pursue you. There is no danger that at anytime Heaven and Earth should flee away at His glance. If He were the truth, then we could really say that all the Christian images of kingship were a historical accident of which our religion ought to be purged. It is with a shock that we discover them to be indispensable. You have had a shock like that before, in connection with smaller matters – when the line pulls at your hand, when something breathes beside you in the darkness. So here; the shock comes at the precise moment when the thrill of life is communicated to us along the clue we have been following. It is always shocking to meet life where we thought we were alone. “Look out!” we cry, “it’s alive!” And therefore this is the very point at which so many draw back – I would have done so myself if I could – and proceed no further with Christianity. An “impersonal God” – well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness, inside our own heads – better still. A formless life force surging through us, a vast power which we can tap – best of all. But God Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband – that is quite another matter. There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (“Man’s search for God”!) suddenly draw back. Supposing we found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?" (C.S. Lewis - Miracles, chapter 11)
It is in the person of Jesus Christ that God has indeed "found us" who belong to Him and God will, if only they allow it, find those who do not yet belong.

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