Sense and Nonsense: On Teaching Us About God

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On Pentecost, 1986, John Paul II published a fundamental encyclical, Dominum et Vivificantem, on the “Holy Spirit in the Life of the Church and the World.” This encyclical is meant to be the third part of a series on the Trinity — still, as Frank Sheed used to remark, the most fascinating of topics to mankind. Dominum et Vivificantem is to be read with Redemptor Hominis, on Christ, and Dives in Misericordia, on the Father. Almost the only thing in the popular (and even religious) press that I noticed about the content of this third encyclical was the passage in it about atheism, especially Marxism.

However, on reading the section on Marxism, I found it clear that the Holy Father was intent on placing atheism within a broader context than the Marxist movement. He noted that there is a permanent rebellion within the human heart, which expresses itself externally in every era and people. In our own generation, this rebellion manifests itself as a “philosophical system, an ideology, a program for action and for the shaping of human behavior.” This rebellion expresses itself as a “materialism” both in theory and in practice. Marxism is called the system that has carried materialism to its extreme limits — which is why, as Father Charles N. R. McCoy used to say, it deserves particular intellectual attention. The pope then explained how this materialism excluded “the presence and action of God … because it does not accept God’s existence.” In other words, it does make a considerable difference what we hold about God.

What is unique about this document, I think, is that it is “thought” oriented. What we think is, in a fundamental sense, as significant as what we do, since what we do originates in what we think. Here, John Paul II is concerned to teach what it is we hold about God, particularly the Holy Spirit. The pope thinks, at some basic point, that we ought to understand rightly about God, and that, to some quite elevated degree, we can do so. Only when we do this will we understand ourselves rightly. Contrary to the “spirit of the age,” it does make a difference what we hold to be true. The skepticism about truth, especially in our academies, is rooted in a spiritual, not intellectual, reality within ourselves. Subjective sincerity does not excuse us from the necessity to seek and know the truth insofar as we can, even when the source of this truth is revelation. Thus, one of the principal functions of the Holy Spirit is “to help people to understand the correct meaning of the content of Christ’s message.”

The Christian understanding about God — which is, in certain essential points, different from any other understanding about God — why there are three distinct persons in one God, and what this might mean, finds clear expression in this encyclical. “The supreme and most complete revelation of God to humanity is Jesus Christ himself.” To expect some other “messiah,” or to find God as some intellectual abstraction such as “justice” or “mind” is, in this context, a clear lowering of human sights. Indeed, it is a betrayal of the individual person of this human race, whose actions, deeds, and even sins are taken seriously by this God. This encyclical on the Holy Spirit, then, deals in great part with the meaning of sin, original and actual, because it maintains that human beings are so important in God’s eyes that the whole drama of the redemption, culminating in the actual Crucifixion of Christ, came about in God’s mercy. In the fading afterglow of Vatican II, the Church begins to realize in this encyclical how important it is to talk about the fact that things do go wrong — that they go wrong because of choices made by ourselves, and by our neighbors. (Augustine, I suspect, is due for a sudden revival in the Catholic Church.)

The action of the Holy Spirit in the world is the continuation and guidance of this, God’s plan, for each of us — which is to know and love not just our world, our neighbor, our family, or even ourselves, but God Himself. This is why, in a way, the ordinary stuff of science, politics, or technology does not get at the origin of all being, action, and movement in the world. Thus, John Paul II can write: “The Triune God, who ‘exists’ in himself as a transcendent reality of interpersonal gift, giving himself in the Holy Spirit as a gift to man, transforms the human world from within, from inside hearts and minds.” Ultimately, this is why also the whole project of so-called “liberation theology” has been misconceived from the beginning, as John Paul II insisted from Puebla on.

God’s reality and action in the world are its heart. The almost maddening thing about human reality is that what it is, what is best for it, is something “given” to it, so that the primary “act” of humanity, of each of us in ourselves, is our capacity to admit the world is made for us, but not by us. “For the mystery of Christ, taken as a whole, demands faith, since it is faith that adequately introduces man into the reality of the revealed mystery.” Here too lies the root of the paradox that we are made to know, yet there are things we cannot know except in faith (which is not contrary to knowledge, but rather is an aspect of it); so that without it, we will seek alternate explanations of the world or of our destiny, ones that attempt to substitute another “way.” “In the created world, God indeed remains the first and sovereign source for deciding about good and evil….”

This sense of challenge, of excitement about what we human beings are, can indeed be turned against our own good. This is just another way of emphasizing the dramatic importance of our particular existence. No human life, including the unborn, is so insignificant that it does not touch upon some ultimate almost daily. What John Paul II again teaches us is that the unfolding of each life cannot be understood unless and until it is seen in the context of its divine destiny, for that is why it exists. We are not to become “gods.” We remain men, human beings, yet we live for an eternal life even amidst our limitedness, sins, concrete loves, and actions.

John Paul II has much else to teach us, perhaps, but unless he first teaches us this — hardly anyone else does, even in the Church — nothing else is really of much ultimate meaning. The Holy Father remains an enigma and a mystery to the modern mind, even to the modern Catholic mind, because he insists on talking first about God and our knowledge of Him. There are some of us, at least, who are glad about this, if only because we have sensed the emptiness of all the alternatives, of all the things which are not gifts.


The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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