God and the World in Christian Theology

Once it became clear that I was returning to the Church (a story for another time), I set out to study the Catechism, along with as much Catholic theology and philosophy as I could get. For the past few years I have been studying the work of Msgr. Robert Sokolowski, of Catholic University—as fine a mind and as clear a writer as I have ever encountered. Sokolowski draws on Aristotle, St. Thomas, and Edmund Husserl in order to help us see more clearly the way things are, and he does so by making distinctions that bring these things to light. In The God of Faith and Reason: Foundations of Christian Theology, and further in Christian Faith & Human Understanding: Studies on the Eucharist, Trinity, and the Human Person, Sokolowski highlights the distinctive way that Christians understand God and the world. He refers to his distinctive approach as a “theology of disclosure.”

I’ve always been fond of the idea that if you want to really learn something then try to teach it to someone who wants to know it; if you can’t explain it to an eager learner then you probably don’t yet understand it yourself. And so recently, when I was asked to help out with an RCIA class, it seemed the perfect opportunity to introduce the students to Sokolowski, and to the Christian distinction between God and the world.

In Christianity we distinguish between God and the world. God is God, and the world is everything that is not God, including ourselves. God is the creator of everything that is not God. God does not exist in the world he has created, but outside of it, outside of space and time. Indeed, God created space and time.

Importantly, within Christianity all that is, all that God has created might not have been. God created all that is out of no need, or necessity, or lack. Moreover, God is not in any way improved in goodness or greatness as a result of having created. Existence, as such, is a gift. The world was not created out of justice or necessity, but out of love. Everything was created and continues to exist because of the love of God. God might not have created or might of a moment cease to maintain his creation, and this would be no imperfection. God might have been all that there is. Such a state would not be incomplete or lacking in any way. That we do exist is, of course, cause for gratitude, which is our most fundamental and appropriate response to the fact of existence. But we must remember that had only God existed this would not represent any sort of deficiency. We exist through a superabundance of God’s love.

The Christian distinction between God and the world does not merely change these discrete objects of our thought, leaving all else undisturbed. Once embraced, the Christian distinction transforms everything else we might think. So, for example, in the natural attitude, or in a mind corrupted by secular thinking, we might think of ourselves and others as all equally anonymous, as one of billions of human beings, and as nothing special. The Christian distinction changes all this. Knowing that God created everything, and didn’t have to, we understand ourselves and others as known and specifically chosen by God who alone allows us to be. God knows each of us infinitely better than we could ever know ourselves, as only our creator could. As Sokolowski argues:

The dimensional difference introduced by belief in Creation establishes a new setting within which everything we are familiar with is understood in a new way…Another person, for example, is no longer only our brother or sister or friend, but is someone who exists through the generosity and choice of God. This truth about the person makes us act toward him or her in a new way. If the being of other persons is God’s gift, other persons are more emphatically understood as ends in themselves than they would be if they had simply the dignity, great as it is, that comes from being rational agents, fellow citizens, members of our family, or neighbors and friends. (See Christian Faith & Human Understanding, pg. 48-49; my emphasis.)

Think as well of the example of “becoming a parent” and your love for your child and how this changes how you think about other people: everyone is someone’s child. Every child has a mother who loved that child as you love your own. Elsewhere Sokolowski notes that having God on our mind affects all else in our minds like no other thing we might think.

Thus, to believe in Christianity and live the Christian distinction between God and the world means to see things in a new, radiant light. Critically, it means to see other people not as we would see them without God, but to see them as God sees them. Moreover, it also means to assert that the way God sees them is true; the way God sees them is the way they really are. The way God sees them is the truth of them. And so to treat them as other than as the way they really are, as God sees them, is to treat them unjustly. This is in accord with the view that to treat someone justly is to give to each what he or she justly deserves. And what he or she justly deserves is to be treated as God sees them and knows them and treats them, which is to say mercifully and with love.

Keeping in mind the Christian distinction between God and the world also allows us to enter more deeply into the mystery of the Incarnation. Given what we know about the transcendence of God, it becomes clear that it is only by entering his creation as Jesus Christ that God could enter into his creation at all. The world, which is created and sustained by God, cannot contain God, or that creation would be, in some sense, greater than God. And this cannot be, as St. Anselm teaches us, for we can think of nothing greater than God.

With these ideas we can better understand what it means to be a Catholic Christian. Moreover, these understandings also provide us with an opening or opportunity to respond to those skeptics who, demand “evidence,” or “proof” of God by insisting that he appear among us. Such demands confuse various pagan gods, in whom we also do not believe, with our God. We might respond to them by saying “You have already gotten the only appearance of God in the world that you are going to get, and if you properly understand what we Christians mean by God you will also know that it is the only appearance that you logically could get, given who God is.” And we might also note that the next time we do get more evidence of God in the world it might well be too late for evidence, or for the world.

(Photo credit: Magnificat Foundation)

Clifford Staples

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Clifford Staples, Ph.D., is a sociologist serving as a Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

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