Chapter 3 - He Who Is
THERE is no better illustration of the way in which a mental image can still affect thinking even after it has been formally expelled from the mind than the picture of God as a venerable man with a beard. Nobody who can think at all, any longer believes that this is what God is like, but may find that they were still dangerously affected by it. The influence of that long established image is so great that the moment they begin to think of God as a person, they begin to think of Him as that person.
To the influence of this same image we may trace two of the principal modern tendencies about God, the tendency to treat Him as an equal, and the tendency to treat Him as an extra. Neither tendency could abide for one instant the light of the true idea of God's nature and person. But they do abide, and indeed they grow.
First, the tendency to treat God as an equal, the failure to realize the relation of the creature to the Creator. It is commoner in the semi religious fringe than among practicing Christians, but it is liable to show up anywhere. The commonest form of it is in the feeling that God is not making a very good job of the universe and that one could give Him some fairly useful suggestions. Another deadly effect of it is in the diminishing, to the point almost of disappearance, of the sense of sin.
The second tendency - to treat God as an extra - is far more widespread. Religion, it is felt, is something that some people go in for; it might be better for ourselves if we all did a little more of it; but it has no place in the practical business of man's life. What a man believes about God is his private affair: in other words, it does not affect anyone but the man himself, and it does not affect him in a way that matters to anyone else.
What men have believed about God has caused more wars and fiercer wars than any other thing whatever. And now, suddenly, it has become their own private affair. Obviously, this can only mean that men do not believe anything very intensely about God, or, if they do, are not likely to do anything very extreme about it. But the belief in God has a more total effect upon everything whatsoever. Error about God cannot be a private affair. It can only lead to a diminished and distorted life for everyone. God's will is the sole reason for our existence; be wrong about His will and we are inescapably wrong about the reason for our existence; be wrong about that, and what can we be right about?
This question of what is private error (that is, one not likely to damage anyone but the man subject to it) and when it becomes public, is worth considering. Supposing that a man refuses to believe in the existence of the sun. He will, of course, be ready with a theory to account for the widely held view that the sun does exist. So far it might well be his own private affair. But if he persuaded large numbers of people that the sun did not exist, his private error would be in a fair way to becoming a public nuisance; and if he were the captain of a ship, passengers' lives would not be safe with him: he could not be trusted to get them across the ocean. You could not discuss astronomy with such a man because, however much a man may be entitled to his own opinion, the sun remains a fact, and a fact essential to astronomy and navigation. Similarly, you cannot discuss the purpose of life with a man who denies the existence of God. You cannot profoundly collaborate in human affairs, in sociology, say, or education, with a man who denies the existence of God. You cannot simply agree to omit God from the collaboration for the sake of argument, any more than you could agree to omit the sun from navigation. The sun is a fact and essential to navigation. GOD IS A FACT & ESSENTIAL TO EVERYTHING.
Everything exists because God called it into being from nothing and continues to hold it in existence. The formula for all created beings, from the speck of dust to the highest angel, is nothingness made to be something by the Omnipotence of God. Omit God from the consideration of anything or everything, and you omit the reason why anything exists and make everything forever unexplainable; and this is not a sound first step towards understanding. Living in the presence of God, that is being at all times aware that God is present, Is no more a matter of sanctity than being aware that the sun is there. Both are a matter of sanity. An error about either means that we are not living in the real world; but an error about the sun damages the reality of our world immeasurably less than an error about God, for that, indeed, destroys reality totally.
We must then study God, if we are to understand anything at all. We must come to a knowledge of God and then grow in that knowledge. How? In two ways, the way of reason or philosophy, what the exploring mind can discover for itself; and the way of revelation, what God tells us of Himself. [Marvelously supplementary to these is the way of mystical experience, whereby the knowledge of God men have gained by reason or revelation is given a new intensity which is almost a new dimension. But this each man must learn for himself, under the guidance of teachers more learned in the spiritual life than I.] We shall consider first the way of reason.
We may begin with the extraordinary compliment that the Vatican Council paid to human reason in the year 1870. It defined that the existence of God can be known by the human reason without the aid of revelation. This is the mightiest compliment ever paid the human reason, and it is of faith. As Catholics we are bound to believe that the human reason can establish the existence of God. What the Vatican Council put in its carefully measured words, the Holy Spirit had said a good deal more abruptly three thousand years before?
The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God.
Both, as you see, come to the same thing; that the existence of God can be known by reason; therefore, if you do not know it, your reasoning is defective, suggests the Vatican Council, you are a fool, cries the Psalmist under the inspiration of God.
There are various proofs for God's existence. The most famous are a series of five proofs formulated by St. Thomas Aquinas, working upon and supplementing the efforts of the great Greeks Plato and Aristotle some sixteen hundred years before him: one way or another they are a development of and a commentary upon St. Paul's words:
foundation of the world,
men have caught sight of his invisible nature,
his eternal power and his divineness,
as they are known through his creatures
For a Catholic there is vast intellectual joy in these five proofs. There can be a kind of intoxication in his first meeting with them. But for many of us, once the intoxication clears away, there is a certain sense of anticlimax. They do indeed establish the existence of God with certainty: but we were already certain of the existence of God. It was delightful to find these proofs, but we did not need them. We were already quite sure about God. It was only on reflection that we realized that these proofs still had a vastly important function for us. If a man is already certain by faith that God exists, he should still study the proofs most carefully, not because they lead to certainty, CERTAINTY THAT GOD IS, but because no one can study them carefully without coming to a far PROFOUNDER UNDERSTANDING OF WHAT GOD IS.
It is in this aspect that I shall consider reason's approach to the knowledge of God in this place. This book is being written not to prove the truths of Christianity to those who do not hold them, but to aid those who do hold them in their exploration. I shall take one of St. Thomas's five proofs, not using it as a proof, but as a most useful way of exploration in the nature of God. And this may be useful even to unbelievers: most of the argument about the existence of God is due primarily not to doubt of His existence but to inability to make head or tail of His nature. Even a little light upon what God is would settle many doubts as to whether He is. We shall see what light can be got from what is called the ARGUMENT FROM CONTINGENCY, partly because it is in itself the most fascinating, partly because it links up most closely with the truth we have already twice considered, the elementary truth about ourselves and all things, that God made us of nothing.
The line of thought runs roughly thus. If we consider the universe, we find that everything in it bears this mark, that it does exist but might very well not have existed. We ourselves exist, but we would not have existed if a man and a woman had not met and mated. The same mark can be found upon everything. A particular valley exists because a stream of water took that way down, perhaps because the ice melted up there. If the melting ice had not been there, there would have been no valley; and so with all the things of our experience. They exist, but they would not have existed if some other thing had not been what it was or done what it did.
The effect of this is that none of these things is the explanation of its own existence or the source of its own existence. In other words, their existence is contingent upon something else. Each thing possesses existence, and can pass on existence; but it did not originate its existence. It is essentially a receiver of existence. Now it is impossible to conceive of a universe consisting exclusively of contingent beings - that is of beings that are only receivers of existence and not originators. The reader who is taking his role as explorer seriously might very well stop reading at this point and let his mind make for itself the effort to conceive a condition in which nothing should exist save receivers of existence.
Anyone who has taken this suggestion seriously and pondered the matter for himself before reading on, will have seen that the thing is a contradiction in terms and therefore an impossibility. If nothing exists save beings that receive their existence, how does anything exist at all? Where do they receive their existence from? Even if you tell yourself that this system contains an infinite number of receivers of existence, you still have not accounted for existence. Even an infinite number of beings, if no one of them is the source of its own existence, will not account for existence.
Thus, we are driven to see that the beings of our experience, the contingent beings, could not exist at all unless there is also a being which differs from them by possessing existence in its own right. It does not have to receive existence; it simply has existence. It is not contingent: it simply is. THIS IS THE BEING WE CALL GOD.
All this may seem very simple and matter of course, but in reality, we have arrived at a truth of inexhaustible profundity and of inexhaustible fertility in giving birth to other truths. Not all at once does the mind realize the immensity of what it has thus so easily come upon. But consider some of the consequences that may be seen almost at first look. We have arrived at a Being, whom we call God, who is not, as all other beings are, a receiver of existence: and this satisfactorily accounts for their existence - they have received it from Him.
But what accounts for His existence? God exists not because of any other being, for He is the source of all being. Therefore, the reason for His existence, since it is not in anything else, must be in Himself. This means that there is SOMETHING ABOUT WHAT HE IS, WHICH REQUIRES THAT HE MUST BE.
Now WHAT A BEING IS we call its NATURE. There is in His nature something that demands existence, better still, something that commands existence. In other words, His nature is such that He must exist. Consider how immeasurable a difference this makes between God and all contingent beings.
They may exist or may not.
GOD MUST EXIST,
HE CANNOT NOT EXIST.
Their nature is to be able to exist.
GOD'S NATURE IS TO EXIST.
They can have existence.
GOD IS EXISTENCE.
All the receivers of existence exist because there is one who does not have to receive existence. He does not have to receive existence because He is existence. What we see at once is that since God is existence, that existence must be utterly without limit, for there is no principle of limitation in a being thus self existent. Limitation is a deficiency of existence, something lacking to fullness of existence. But what deficiency of existence could there be in one who is existence, what could be lacking to the fullness of existence of one who is existence? God is infinite. What is not infinite is not God, not the source of all contingent beings.
Since all things owe their existence totally to Him, all that they have is from Him and therefore all the perfections that they have must in some way be in him. Obviously they will be in Him in a way immeasurably higher. For He made all things from nothing, and these perfections will be in things only in so far as nothingness can receive them, or to put it crudely, with a certain mingling of nothingness: whereas they are in God in utter purity. Some notion of what this means we shall try to arrive at in the next chapter.
But in the concept of person we have just outlined there is nothing either limiting or anthropomorphic (having human characteristics). To say that God can know and can love does not impose limitations upon God, it removes limitations - for to be unable to know and to love would be very limiting indeed. There is nothing limited about knowing and loving as such. There are limitations in my knowing and my loving, but these are limitations in me. Knowing and loving in themselves are expansive, not limiting. In an infinite being they will be as infinite as He.
Knowing and loving are not a scaling down of God to the measure of man. For we know that our knowing and loving is only the faintest shadow of His. We have them because we are made in His likeness, so far as creatures made of nothing are capable of receiving his likeness. Our concepts of knowing and loving are necessarily dimmed with our own finitude, stained with our nothingness. They are not adequate to God. But they are the best we have. To throw them away would be less adequate still. Knowledge and love in God are infinitely greater than in us, but they are not less. We can say them at least, and use the uttermost effort of our mind to purify them of the limitations that arise in them from our limitation. That is the way of advance for the mind. Human language is not adequate to utter God, but it is the highest we have and we should use its highest words. The highest words in human speech are not high enough, but what do you gain by using lower words or no words? It is for us to use the highest words we have, realize that they are not high enough, try to strain upwards from them, not to dredge human speech for something lower.
GOD IS SOMEONE
not only SOMETHING,
A PERSON NOT A POWER,
HE NOT IT.