In the winter of 1980, I faced my first class at Mercer University in Atlanta, an “Introduction to Religion” course for ten students in the evening program. The brightest of them was already well-established as the financial controller of a hotel on Peachtree Street. Two decades later, she teaches philosophy and humanities at The University of Notre Dame, having written her doctoral dissertation on Immanuel Kant at Emory University. She told me later that one of the reasons she changed careers was something I said that first night: “It’s good to think about God.”
Like most inexperienced teachers, I wasn’t quite sure how to get the class started, much less address the topic of religion in general, which even then I considered problematic. I wanted to discuss religion without demeaning the great traditions of faith by making facile comparisons with ancient “myths and legends.” To me, the core of religion was about something—God. Reducing religion to mere anthropology or ruminations about human projections fundamentally distorted the subject.
I required the students to read three texts, one by a Jew, one by a Protestant, and one by a Catholic—Martin Buber’s I-Thou, Paul Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith, and Hans Urs von Balthasar’s The Heart of the World. These books dared the students to think about God without apology or qualification, to engage the mind in the act of “theo-logia,” thinking about the God who is.
As I stood in front of the class that night, talking about God, I was unsure of myself. I almost changed course: I worried about “offending” the students in the class, “turning them off” both to me and the class. We were approaching the heyday of teaching as therapy, and, being a young professor eager to please, I considered taking a gentler approach. Somehow I resisted the temptation.
Thinking about God, especially aloud, should be frightening. Yes, all who try to be faithful end up knowing the humiliation of being ridiculed as God’s fool, but the risk of addressing God goes far beyond possible embarrassment. When we think about God, the real risk is that God will seize that opportunity to change our lives in a radical way. Looking back at my markings in the margins of Von Balthasar’s The Heart of The World, I found this passage with a bombshell beside it:
God is dangerous. God is a consuming fire…. He begins with a small love, a small flame, and before you realize it he has gotten total hold of you and you are caught. If you let yourself be caught you are lost, for heavenwards there are no limits. He is God—accustomed to infinity. He sucks you upwards like a cyclone, whirls you up and away like a waterspout. Look out. Man is made for measure and limits, and only in the finite does he find rest and happiness. But this God knows nothing of measure. He is a seducer of hearts.
Yes, the real millennial danger is not the end of the world; it is that God will conquer our hearts. What makes thinking about God so dangerous? No doubt God Himself supplies the danger. We can already see from the many cases of “millennial jitters” that people are willing to reset their spiritual gyroscopes. They are willing to put aside, for the moment, their own grudges and cherished cynicism and to consider falling in love again, with God.
The year 2000 is a second chance for all of us. It should remind us that time is always on God’s side. Time, like life itself, is a gift because it is His way of offering Himself once more. Every morning we live is a second chance.
The Holy Father anticipated at the beginning of his pontificate that the next two years would be a unprecedented opportunity for evangelization. With this in mind, he has asked us to celebrate the approach of the Third Millennium with a series of yearlong reflections on God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, and, in the coming year, God the Father. About the meaning of the coming year, John Paul II has written in Tertio Millennio Adveniente that:
The whole of the Christian life is like a great pilgrimage to the house of the Father, whose unconditional love for every human creature, and in particular for the “prodigal son” (cf. Lk 15:11-32), we discover each day. This pilgrimage takes place in the heart of each person, extends to the believing community and then reaches to the whole of humanity.
From youth to age, our attitude toward time changes with our circumstances, making it easy to forget the gift of each day. When I started teaching, I was approaching the midpoint of a contemplative period of life: Fifteen years of teaching lay ahead of me, after eleven years of college and graduate school. The benefits of thinking about God were obvious, but that was nothing to brag about: The habits of my day-to-day life were organized around the necessity of gaining and imparting knowledge. My major concern between waking and sleeping was reading books and teaching them.
Now my desk is littered with bills from vendors, letters to the editor, unedited manuscripts, and rough drafts of grant requests. After 26 years in the ivory tower, I live what the ancients would call an active rather than a contemplative life. Though Crisis serves to promulgate the truths approached in contemplation, producing Crisis month after month is a business that leaves little room for the leisure that once characterized my daily life.
No need to feel sorry for me. My learning curve in things practical and financial has made me, I hope, a better and wiser man.
If I once jousted in the realm of abstraction about the strict distinction between active and contemplative lives, and their impact on human happiness, I no longer do. Aristotle, Aquinas, and Josef Pieper are exactly right: The hurriedness of daily work gets in the way of the contemplative route to God, whether through prayer, reflection, or even conversation. The busy man has to set aside the time to go back to the well and drink the only drink that will quench his thirst. “Be still and know that I am God.”
Some people wonder what to think about, if they slow down, and think about God. Ask the question at another level and one might as well ask why anyone thinks about his parents, spouse, children, and beloved friends, or why these thoughts provide a happy reorientation in the midst of life’s troubles. We think about the people we love, and who love us, because we seek to understand them and help them understand us. The only way our love can seek what is good for others is by its rootedness in reality, in knowing the truth about ourselves and other persons.
God the Father is like our human father; just as we think instinctively about one father we will think about the other. But in thinking about the Heavenly Father, we need to understand more than be understood. His understanding of us is never in question; He “numbers the hairs on our heads.” Yet, our understanding of Him provides the ground of all our loves—or as the pope says again and again in Fides et Ratio, knowledge of God is the “horizon” against which all our earthly loves can be understood for what they truly are.
It’s good to think about God because in knowing Him you learn who you are. Modern times have been characterized by precisely the opposite gesture—remove God from our vision and faith from our hearts and only then will we face the harsh reality of human existence! Where has the anthropomorphic turn gotten us? To study man without the vast horizon that surrounds him, and surpasses him, is to reduce his stature and encourage him to live as nothing more than an animal who happens to think. In this final year before 2000, as the Holy Father says,
[I]t will be fitting to broach the vast subject of the crisis of civilization, which has become apparent especially in the West, which is highly developed from the standpoint of technology but is interiorly impoverished by its tendency to forget God or keep him at a distance.
How can we keep God at a distance, when He is always close, closer even than our own lives? In midst of our indifference, our rebellion, our denials, He is there. Because without God there would be no denials, no indifference, no turning away from Him. Without God, nothing, including ourselves, would exist. When God uttered His name to Moses on Mt. Sinai, He said: “I am who I am.” This means that God is present wherever there is existence—in the midst of life we find the Living God. God the Father is the God who shares His existence with all of creation, but in a special way with man, who was made in His image and likeness.
God the Father is as close as your own life. Look in the mirror: What you see, at that very moment, is from the Father. Your existence is being caused, being upheld, at that very moment by Him whose very being is to exist and to love us by sharing His being.
Moments like this are usually elicited by some crisis or other. How often do we see, in the face of death, people who become intensely aware of their existence—aware that they don’t necessarily exist, that they can cease existing in the wink of an eye.
The gift of life from God the Father is filled with His love. He upholds our being—our fragile contingency is no punishment, but a gift. Without His will we cannot exist.
We still wish to be God, to be grateful for life only if we can be totally in control of it. No, we did not ask to exist; we cannot be both the Creator and the created. Nothing could be more contrary to reason than assuming that the task of human existence is gaining control over our life and death.
If at the heart of our being, and the being of all created things, there is a distinction not found in God, a distinction between who we are and that we are, then what else is there left to do but give up all pretensions to control—”May I decrease while you increase.”
The basic metaphysical insight contained in the words of God to Moses—”I am who I am”—leads to an awareness of God as Father and God as Person. One so obviously implies the other that it makes you wonder at those theologians who belittle the existential metaphysics of the great 20th-century Thomists. Jacques Maritain explains the intimate connection between God’s being and His love in his Preface to Metaphysics:
We do not love possibles, we love that which exists or is destined to exist. And in the last analysis it is because God is the Act of Existing Itself, in His ocean of all perfection, that the love of that which is better than all goodness is that through which man attains the perfection of his being. That perfection … consists in loving, in going through all that is unpredictable, dangerous, dark, demanding, and insensate in love; it consists in the plenitude and refinement of dialogue and union of person with person to the point of transfiguration.
Of course, philosophy, even as enriched by faith as Maritain’s, can only go so far: Compared to the sacred deposit of God’s revelation these reflections on God are like baby steps. Yet in the midst of millennial danger, these are steps we should all be reviewing. People are already starting to think about God in all kinds of wild ways. Catholics should be uniquely suited to keep the spiritual temperature from rising too high, too fast.
Catholics used to be well-versed in what was called “natural theology.” Talk theology with a Catholic over 50 and you often find a reservoir of knowledge, a facility in handling theological terms, usually missing from the younger faithful.
These two generations did not receive the same education or the same spiritual formation. A common complaint is the loss of metaphysics and natural theology from Catholic educational curricula. Fides et Ratio, the most recent encyclical, challenges Catholic educational institutions to recover that intellectual legacy.
Long before it was released, Fides et Ratio was rumored to be a critique of New Age spirituality. New Age is mentioned by the Holy Father, but only in passing. Why talk about the problem ad nauseum when the solution has been known for centuries? We all know that New Age fads are catching on everywhere, especially among this generation of uncatechized Catholics.
Catholics, I think, are particularly vulnerable, because they belong to a tradition in which talking about God isn’t as strictly tied to Scripture as it is among Protestants. What I think the Holy Father is trying to tell us is that we are responsible for the victories of New Age. Catholics have had all the tools at their disposal to train young minds in sound and sensible ways of thinking about God, but we have ignored them.
The reasons are obvious even to the casual observer: In their attempt to incorporate psychology and politics, Catholic educators and catechists all but abandoned sound theology and metaphysics. All these attempts to make God more personal have backfired. The road to recovery, as outlined in Fides et Ratio, will take time, effort, and the gradual conversion of the Catholic establishment.
First of all, the teachers themselves, unless they are from a select group of Catholic institutions, are not familiar with the categories or vocabulary of natural theology. Secondly, the need for reasoning about God as outlined by the Holy Father in his encyclical is barely felt by those who control Catholic education. Finally, the culture itself has become antagonistic to those who would reason at all, much less in “His name.”
Yet, if we hope to embrace the millennial danger, as we should, we must be willing to think and speak boldly. Let’s pray that when we find ourselves in the company of those who want a “second chance” with God we will not be ashamed to speak His name.
Books for Thinking About God:
Joseph Pieper: Leisure: The Basis of Culture
Etienne Gilson: God and Philosophy
Jacques Maritain: Approaches to God
Romano Guardini: The Living God
John Courtney Murray: The Problem of God
Mortimer J. Adler: How to Think About God