Saturday, December 8, 2012

In Layman's Terms: On God

           This week begins a series of posts in which I will attempt, to the best of my ability, to explain the Catholic worldview from start to finish "in layman's terms." This is not so much an attempt to prove or demonstrate it, but more just a chance to lay it out in the open for all to see.
Please keep in mind that I am not a trained theologian or a priest; just a humble layman with a blog, so if I get something wrong please just pass over it with a contemptuous guffaw and turn instead to more learned sources.

                  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the Beginning. Through Him all things were made, and nothing that was made was made without Him.
                  -John 1:1-2

                  Everything begins and ends with God. Now, there are a lot of misconceptions of God floating around (and, oddly enough, it tends to be these that atheists reject: there aren’t very many ‘true’ atheists in the world, atheists who reject God as Christians understand Him). For one thing, God is not a thing like us. He’s not a Zeus-like deity; a merely superhuman figure living above the world and meeting out rewards and punishments as He sees fit. He’s not the Invisible Man in the sky.

That would be this fellow

                  God isn’t some invisible ‘force’ operating in the world (the ‘flying spaghetti monster’), or even something operating outside the world. He is not something like a super-powerful ghost, or the android Amazo, or Dr. Manhattan; simply an unfathomably powerful being operating in the world.
As I understand them, atheists conceive of God as something like that; as an invisible, super-powerful ‘boogeyman’ that flies around the world punishing people who have sex before marriage: sort of a cross between Superman and Jason Voorhees.

Just to be clear, this is not what we mean by 'God.'
                  So what do we mean by God?
Well, it’s hard to really put a label on God, because anything we call Him will necessarily convey something much less than He actually is. Let me put it this way; St. Thomas Aquinas was quite possibly the most brilliant theologian who ever lived. His life’s work was the massive Summa Theologica, in which he presented some of the most exalted, beautiful, and supremely intelligent ideas about God. A couple years before his death, while he was still working on his masterpiece, he was praying in the chapel and entered a state of ecstasy (a kind of elevated trance in which the subject is so caught up in contemplation of the Divine that he doesn’t notice anything else). When he came out of it, he said that he had had a vision of God, and that everything he ever wrote – some of the finest, most careful philosophy and theology ever conceived by the mind of man – was “all straw” compared to what he had seen. He never wrote another word, but spent the rest of his life in prayer.
Try to keep that story in mind throughout this post.
In the Book of Exodus, God gives His name as “I Am” (sometimes rendered “I Am Who Am”). God is the One who Is; who exists.
But, you say, couldn’t that be applied to…well, anything at all that exists? Not necessarily. Think of it this way; can you say that the computer you are reading this on exists? Of course. Would you be able to say the same thing in a hundred years? Well, probably not. If I sent you back in time a hundred years, would you be able to say the same thing? Of course not.

(Sorry, that was mean)
                  So, your computer exists conditionally; it only exists up to certain point. A hundred years ago it didn’t exist, and a hundred years from now it probably won’t exist any longer.

                  And, if you think about it, everything we know of follows the same pattern; you yourself once were not and one day you’ll be either turning to dust in the ground or sitting pretty on a future anthropologist’s shelf. The Pyramids have been around for 4000 years, but at one point they didn’t exist and one day they will go the way of their fellow wonders of the ancient world. The Earth itself was once nothing but a cloud of gas and vapor and one day will get incinerated by an expanding sun (or whatever the current prediction of doom is).

                  So everything we know of only exists up to a certain point: if you could see all of time, you could pick out a point when everything we know of today does not exist. And existence is conditional: the Earth only came into being because gravity worked on the particles, which only were in a position to be worked on because the Big Bang went off, and your computer only came to be because Steve Jobs got fired from his first job.

"You'll never amount to anything, Jobs! Do you hear me? Anything!"

                  But wait a second: if existence is conditional, and if everything that exists didn’t exist at some point, then how could anything at all exist? Obviously, there must be something that exists unconditionally and absolutely; something that always was, is, and will be. Basically, if there ever was a point where there was nothing, when nothing at all existed, then nothing ever could exist. Some people try to get around this by saying “well, given the laws of physics, then you could create from nothing…” but that’s just silly. “Nothing” means “nothing:” the laws of physics don’t exist! And even if they did, there’d be nothing for them to work on; they’d just sit around in the nothingness congratulating each other on their reasonableness for all eternity with nothing else to do.

                  God, therefore, is the principle of existence; He is that which Is unconditionally. Everything that exists comes from Him and points back to Him.

                  But there’s more to it than that.

                  God is not just neutral ‘existence:’ He is supremely good. God is pure love, pure beauty, and pure truth. I’ll get into this more in the next post in this series, but Catholics believe that goodness is essentially synonymous with ‘existence.’ A thing is good to the extent that it exists, is real: love is more real than hatred, beauty is more real than ugliness, truth is more real than lies. God, as the source of all existence, is also the source of all goodness.

Therefore, whenever we see something that we call ‘good:’ a beloved friend, a beautiful landscape, a wise saying, a newborn baby, etc. what we are really seeing is a reflection of God. Everything that is good is of God, and what we feel when we experience goodness is an echo of what we will experience in the presence of God.

                  There’s a beautiful Celtic song called Long, Long Before Your Time, in which a man tells his child the story of his life-long love for his wife, who died giving birth to the child. The last verse runs:

“So you ask me why I look so sad
On this bright summer’s day
And why the tears are in my eyes
And I seem so far away.
It’s just you seem a lot like her
When your eyes look into mine,
And you smile so much like she did
Long, long before your time.”

                  Every experience of goodness that we have on Earth is like that; a reminder of the God who made us and for whom we always long. You see, God has inscribed the desire for union with Him into every human heart, and when we experience goodness it rubs that longing raw again.

                  God is the source of all existence and, as such, the source of all goodness. Once you understand that, there’s a kind of shift in your mind. The question “does God exist” seems quaint and almost absurd to you; like asking someone whether they were born or not. It’s so obvious it hardly bears mentioning.

                  So the question moves from the existence of God to the question of what God is like. Here Catholics and other Christians differ sharply from their fellow theists by positing a Triune God; a God in Three Persons. Not three gods, not a god with three identities, but a single, perfectly simple God encompassing three distinct persons.

                  Head spinning yet?

                  Don’t worry; you’re not supposed to be able to really understand it. This is one of those things about God that is simply beyond human comprehension. Some of the most brilliant minds in history have struggled with coming up with ways of expressing it. St. Patrick likened the Trinity to a shamrock (which is why the shamrock is a symbol of Ireland), as a shamrock has three leaves, but is only one plant. St. Augustine of Hippo, operating on a more cerebral level, likened the Trinity to the mind, self-knowledge, and self-love.

                  Leaving aside trying to understand the idea of the Trinity, let us consider what it means and why it is so important. First of all, there’s the fact that if there is love in God – which there must be, as we have already said that all good things have their ultimate origin in God – then there must be a plurality of persons in God, since otherwise God would simply be loving Himself, which would leave Him in a state of imperfect love (since love is necessarily ‘other centric’). This would also impose a necessity on Him; if He were to love, He would need something else to love, meaning that His creation would be based on need rather than a gratuitous gift. In short, without the Trinity we would be faced with the absurd idea of a lonely God.

"All by myself! Don't wanna be / all by myself anymore..."
                  There’s another reason why the Trinity is so important. Most theists agree that God is something beyond mere ‘personality:’ that God is more than a person. But the trouble is that most theists, when they try to describe what this means, instead come up with something impersonal: something less than a person. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, if you’re going to posit that God is beyond personality, the Trinity is simply the only idea on the market.

                  So we see why the Trinity, but we haven’t said much on what is the Trinity. Well, the Trinity consists of the ‘Father,’ the ‘Son,’ and the ‘Holy Spirit’ (I put them in quotes to head off temptations to read those names too literally). The short version; the Father is God the Creator, the Son is the ‘Word of the Father:’ the Father’s perfect conception of Himself. The Holy Spirit is the spirit of love that passes between the Father and the Son.

                  Does that make any sense?

                  I’ll slow down: you have the Father; perfect existence. The Father has an idea of Himself. That Idea is from perfection of perfection, and hence must itself be perfect. But a real person is more perfect than a simple idea of a person, and so for the Father’s self-conception to be perfect, it must be a real person. Thus, the Son proceeds from the Father.

Now, between the Father and the Son, perfection to perfection, a relationship exists; a ‘spirit of love.’ We see this phenomenon in human relationships: success guru Napoleon Hill, taking an idea from Andrew Carnegie, described how when two minds come together for a specific purpose a ‘third mind’ is formed: the mind that comprises the combined knowledge, experience, and personalities of the two individuals. When a devoted husband and wife are together, their friends will notice a kind of ‘combined personality’ formed by their bond (for more information, see these articles on The Art of Manliness).

Well, what in humans is a faint, shadowy spark is in God blown into a roaring fire. The elusive ‘third man’ of any relationship must, in a perfect relationship between perfect existence, become a real third person.

So you have the Father, who begets the Son, who is His perfect self-conception, and the loving, perfectly unified relationship between the Father and the Son forms the Holy Spirit between them.

In any case, that’s about the closest I can get to explaining the mystery of the Trinity. It is one of those things that are simply beyond human comprehension, and our greatest minds have only succeeded in catching glimpses of it. But, of course, we’re dealing with God here; we shouldn’t expect to understand. I know that sounds a bit like a cop-out, but logically it’s obviously true. If God is God, and if He is as far above us as all that, then He should always remain, in large part, a mystery. Catholics believe that even in the highest heaven God will remain a mystery to us; a mystery that we will spend eternity trying to comprehend. It’s not so surprising, really; many people spend their whole lives just trying to comprehend the mystery of one other person. It’s called ‘marriage.’

The last aspect of God we have to consider is His status as creator of all things. Since God is the first principle of existence, logically He must be the origin and maker of all things that do exist.

But let’s dig a little deeper: what does this mean?

Catholics believe that God created the world ‘ex nihilo:’ from nothing. All that means is that there is no ‘eternal matter’ which God then worked on until it formed the universe. Instead, everything that exists is from God. How does that work? Basically, God conceived of the world, and it came to be. The Book of Genesis describes this as God speaking His commands into the void and each command bringing forth aspects of creation. J.R.R. Tolkien in The Silmarillian describes God conducting the angels in singing the world into being. The point of all these images is that God made the universe by an act of His will; He conceived of creation and willed that his conception be made real, and it was done (and is still being done).

Does that sound far-fetched, or overly mystical? Well, it really shouldn’t; we see something dimly similar in our own lives. When an artist – a musician, a poet, a painter, etc. – sets down to make a work of art, he starts with a conception; the idea of the thing he wants to create. From there he engages his will to bring the conception to life so that it becomes something apart from him, and yet a part of him at the same time. A painter’s personality is suffused in his painting, an author’s mind is revealed in his novels, and so on, yet once they are made the whole world can experience them without ever meeting the author.

This is an image of what happens with God. Of course, God being much greater than any human artist, His conceptions are expressed perfectly and by an act of Will, and are both much more separate and more united to their creator. Separate because they have a life and will of their own, united because they are absolutely dependent upon God’s love for their existence.

The great mystery and glory of Catholicism (or one of them) is this idea of “united individuality.” That is to say, we believe that individuals do exist; that each person and, indeed, each particle of being is unique and specifically made by God. They are not just “bits” of a single whole, but wholes unto themselves. At the same time, however, they are made for union with God and cannot exist apart from Him. But the union is not the union of a part rejoining a whole (as in, a drop returning to the bucket), but the union of lovers reuniting. The former involves the part ceasing to be a part and instead simply joining in becoming ‘the whole’ (the drop ceases to be when it enters the bucket). The latter requires the parts to remain parts in order to maintain the union (if one becomes completely subsumed into the other, it ceases to be a union because there’s only one individual).

Now, the question might arise “if God is absolutely simple, as you said earlier, then how could everything that exists be an expression of Him? Wouldn’t that require Him to be absolutely complex?” Well, consider it this way; there is only one source of natural light on Earth, correct? The Sun. But that light enters our eyes and our brains in the form of a myriad of different colors and hues. How can that be if there is only one light source? It’s because that one light is reflected in different ways; if it’s reflected off a leaf, it’s green. If it comes off of the moon, it’s white. And if you put a filter in front of your eyes (say, if you’re visiting the Emerald City), then everything appears in one color.

So, if you wanted you could say that everything that exists is a filter through which we see God in a different way; through a thunderstorm, for instance, we might see His power and majesty. Through a baby, we might see His innocence and joy. And through a certain young lady we might see His beauty and goodness.

Now, all these qualities: power, joy, beauty, etc. are the names we give to the effects of the filters; not to different aspects of God. God, again, is absolutely simple. In Him is a ‘total’ quality which includes everything we mean when we say “power, joy, beauty,” and so on. We don’t have a word for this, obviously, but the closest would probably be “goodness.” It is this that is expressed in different ways by everything that exists.

Such is a summary of the Catholic idea of God the creator. Now, before we end, I would like to clarify two images of creation that are not Catholic, but which are often brought up.

One idea (much beloved of 18th and 19th century scientists) was the “watchmaker” image of God: a God who set the world into motion, but then more or less abandoned it to its own devices. The trouble with this is that, if God is, as we said, the principle of existence then a thing could only exist through Him. So, if God did ‘abandon’ the world to its own devices, it would cease to be. Moreover, to be active is more ‘real’ than to be idle, and since God is pure Reality, pure Existence, He can only be an active God. Finally, we’ve established that God is Love, and love does not involve abandoning the beloved to their fate. Sea-Turtles are not generally considered images of maternal love.

(Though these days...)

So the watch-maker God won’t fly. God must be actively involved in His own creation.

The second idea (sort of) is ‘Creationism;’ basically the attempt to make the Book of Genesis fit the fossil record. It doesn’t, and it was never intended to. Awesome as the image of Adam and Eve riding around on dinosaurs is, it’s also bad philosophy, bad science, bad theology, and bad literary criticism. Just bad all-around. Trying to make Genesis into a scientific treatise does nothing but give atheists more reason to despise us and make it easier to miss the actual meaning in the creation account. Needless to say, Creationism is not a Catholic idea.

To summarize what have so far: Catholics believe that there is a single absolute and unconditional source of all existence which we call ‘God.’ God is an incomprehensible mystery, but what we can say about Him is that He is absolutely simple, yet expressed in three distinct ‘Persons.’ This reality of tri-part unity is called the Trinity. God willed all things into being, and as all things are created by God, all things direct us back to God. We call things ‘good’ to the extent that they remind us of God.

Now, if God created all things, and God is good, then the question must arise “Then why is there evil?” and that’s what we will deal with next week. 

For today, however, if there is one thing I’d want you to take away from this post, it’s this; Catholics believe that at the center of the Universe, at the uttermost foundation of reality, you will find truth, beauty, and love.

Vive Christus Rex!

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