Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was once asked the question, “How many ways are there to God?” His response was enlightening: “As many as there are people. For even within the same faith each man’s way is an entirely personal one” (Salt of the Earth. Ignatius. 1997. 32). Faith is an extraordinarily personal matter and yet it has ramifications for all of humanity. It is said that answering the question of “What is God like?” is akin to pouring the ocean into a Dixie cup, or as St. Augustine noted, it is like containing the sea in a sea shell.
While daunting to tackle, the question is a fundamental one for every human being. The sociological and spiritual history of man bears witness to the evident search for God and for meaning in life in the deepest part of our being. While there are roughly twenty major world religions, there are countless variations of them. To actually understand religion, literally “being bound,” we must first acknowledge that there is a God and it is not me. The anthropological result of sin is a reversal of this fundamental spiritual principal. While there are many religions, there is only one God (#292), as we profess every Sunday at mass: “I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.”
The question is sometimes posed as to why God would have given everything in the Garden of Eden to Adam and Eve, and then create the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, only to later inform them not to touch of it lest they die? Why would he put something there and then forbid man from partaking of it? While the answer to this question has been speculated for centuries, most theologians would agree that here God is accentuating to Adam a very basic tenant of life: There is a God and it is not you. The tree of knowledge is Good and Evil was a physical manifestation of a spiritual reality; namely, we are creature and not Creator.
The problem of course came when having freely entered into sin we began to assume the opposite. At this point many other problems ensued as well in the universe: sin, death, loss of the preternatural gifts, etc. These spiritual and physical effects were never intended by God but were the consequence of original sin. Thus, the Redemption of Jesus Christ, especially at work in our baptism, restores us to grace once again even though the effects of original sin remain in our nature (CCC#404,405).
So what do we actually know about God other than the fact that we are not he? It is sometimes helpful to first say what we do not know about God prior to addressing what we do. There is a field of study known simply as Apophatic (Gr: “negative”) theology, which argues theology from a negative perspective, not in the pejorative sense, but rather in the sense of noting what God is not prior to what he actually is. For instance, God is not created, nor was Jesus Christ as the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity. Likewise, God has no equal and none of his creation, including Satan, is a threat to him (#391). To speak then of what we know, Jesus was begotten of the Father which means he was never created and there was never a time when the Second Person of the Trinity did not exist, though he spent 33 years or so living among us as a man. Jesus had a human will, a divine will, and a human soul (#471, 475). Likewise, while he is one person of the Trinity he has two natures (hypostasis or “substance”). These natures are not 50% divine and 50% human, rather they are 100% divine and 100% human (#468,469). Jesus Christ was also conceived within the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary (#484) and what the Catholic Church “teaches about Mary illumines in turn its faith in Christ” (#487). While the Holy Trinity is one God, each person of the Trinity is distinct from one another as well (#253-254). Similarly, while man and woman are made in God’s image and likeness, God as pure spirit is neither male nor female (#239). This can be vexing for the human mind to grapple with, but we do our best. If that weren’t enough, God is also omnipresent (everywhere), omniscient (all-knowing) and omnipotent (all-powerful). Let us then add to this that God is immutable (unchanging), ineffable (indescribable), and he is immanent (remaining in his creation). This last point is to be distinguished from pantheism which understands God to be present in inanimate objects. Christians however, believe that while the beauty of creation points to the Creator, it is in fact distinct from the Creator, albeit beautiful nonetheless (#337-341).
As soon as we take a theological breath here we are then reminded that keeping all these things in a delicate balance is very important, as history has clearly shown. The Church has witnessed a heresy for just about everything, many of whom disappear only to reappear a few centuries later like a bad leak in an old church. Ironically, a number of these heresies over the years were actually initiated by Catholic clergy. Just to take a few, Docetism (Gr. “appearance”) argued that Jesus only appeared to be human, while Arianism argued that Jesus was in fact not divine but only human. This heresy was so insidious it won over a significant number of the Catholic bishops of the 4th and 5th centuries, ultimately leading Constantine the Great to convene the Council of Nicaea (325) which composed the Nicene Creed which Catholics profess every Sunday. Monophysitism (Gr. “one nature,” #467) argued that Jesus had only one nature, while monotheletism (Gr. “one will”) asserted that Jesus lacked a human will. Gnosticism however claimed that the material world is evil whereas only the spiritual world, and thus God, is good. Apollinarianism argued that Jesus had no human soul (#471), while the Nestorian heresy of the 5th century argued that Jesus was actually two persons, not one, and that Mary was not the mother of the second person of the Trinity, only Jesus’ human person (#466). This was condemned by the Council of Ephesus in 431. In perhaps the most overlooked of these heresies, modalism (Lat. “aspect”) argued that the three persons of the Trinity are not actually distinct, but are essentially absorbed into each other. Thus, we have the great blessing of living in a time of the Church wherein these “details” of whom God actually is have been hammered out by Church Tradition, and especially the Ecumenical Councils.
Catholics believe that God created the world ex nihilo (#296, 297, 338) that is literally, “out of nothing,” and yet all of creation, including mankind has an ultimate end, or telos, to which we are continually headed (#302). There is a beautiful order to the universe, which is apparent even to those who lack faith (#50, 286, 299). St. Thomas Aquinas (13th century) referred to this ordering in his argument for design, to which we could perhaps refer to as the “divine design.” Thus, contrary to the arguments of a number of avowed agnostics, God did not create the universe out of some preexistent matter nor did he actually need to create at all. While Catholics are indeed permitted to believe in a theistic notion of evolution, we are prohibited from believing in an atheistic Darwinism which asserts that the universe simply evolved apart from the active participation of God.
Similarly, Catholics do not believe that the human soul simply “evolved” from physical matter as well (Pius XII. Humani Generis. 1950). Nor do we believe that God is an inactive observer of human history, watching time unfold as a spectator (deism). Simply put: God was under no obligation to create, but did so out of pure love (#295). What God creates ad extra, outside of himself, is a reflection of the essence (esse) of God ad intra, or within himself. Man then is the ad extra fruit of God’s ad intra love. As having been made in God’s image and likeness then, man is the highest of all God’s creatures in the physical world, with the Virgin Mary as the model par excellence.
While the angels and demons were likewise made in God’s image and likeness with intellect and free will, they were not given a body as we were and as a result are pure spirit, whereas man is a body/soul composite (#311, 330, 362, 363, 364, 365. John Paul II. General Audience Address. August 6, 1986). Both soul and spirit are immortal, yet the soul, though of a spiritual nature, is meant to be embodied whereas the angels as pure spirit were not (#362, 365). Even though a human being is conceived by the conjugal union of man and woman, only God creates the immortal soul of a person which he/she receives at the moment of conception (#366). Thus, we have bodies whereas our guardian angels do not. For Christians, God not only created creation, he continues to be active within this creation and “upholds and sustains” it (#300, 301). As Cardinal Henri de Lubac often noted, if God created us completely out of love in order to love us, then he likewise created us with the capacity both to receive his love and to give that love to him and to others. This is yet another radical claim of Christianity, one that has both vexed and fascinated non-Christians for generations.
Speaking of Jesus Christ, St. Paul informs us: “For in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities — all things were created through him and for him” (Col 1:16). God has entered the world out of love in the Incarnation, which is the fundamental event of all time. Blessed John Paul II informs us in the first line of his first encyclical: “The Redeemer of Man, Jesus Christ, is the center of the universe and of history” (Redemptor Hominis). Thus, for Christians and especially for Catholic Christians, God is not absent from human history but is active within every moment of it. It is not surprising then that Christians really do understand history as His-story, that is, the story of the eternal Logos, the Word made flesh who has entered into the human experience and transformed it forever by his Passion, Death, and Resurrection (#280).
The Christian claim that God humbled himself to actually become a servant and the sacrificial lamb (agnus Dei) of his own creation is indeed a radical one, so much so that much of the secular world and entertainment media mock much of what we continue to stand for. No other religion in the world makes such a sweeping claim and no other religion alters its adherents in the way than Christianity, when appropriately lived, does for the Christian. Our faith is not about an institution, though we are part of an institutional Body of Christ. Our faith is not about rules, though it does ask of the Christian to put love into action. Our faith is fundamentally about a person, Jesus Christ the Word made flesh who dwelt among us. The mystery of the Holy Trinity is the central mystery and teaching of the Christian faith (#234) and yet in some ways we know very little about “it.” The Catholic Church is the living body of Christ present in the world, by the working of the Holy Spirit; all of which beckons the Christian to recall, “This is our faith and we are proud to profess it” (Rite of Baptism for Children).
Why is this important? Because while there is much that we do not know about God, we do know that for Christians, God has promised us a world and a future life beyond any joy that we can imagine. At the Second Coming (eschaton) of Christ, our bodies will be resurrected and we will forever know a new heaven and new earth in the presence of the Trinity and our loved ones. At this point all of human time, all of death, and all of purgatory will end as we have come to know them thusfar. The spiritual world, which we are largely blind to now, will be made manifest for all to see. This will be both extraordinarily wonderful for some and extraordinarily horrific for others, as all will be present for the final judgment of Christ (Mt 25). Thus, for the Christian, every moment, every breath, every action, every motive, and every human being is a gift, and every day a new opportunity to become a saint. Such is the radicalism of the Christian message.