June 10, 2010
Voltaire used a sword that cut both ways when he sardonically quipped, “If God has made us in his image, we have returned him the favor” (
Notebooks, c.1750). Even a casual reading of the Bible would seem to bear him out. In Sacred Scripture, God appears all too human. The examples are many. A few will suffice to make the point.
Right before the Flood, God looks out at the evil that men and women have introduced into his creation and “the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart” (Gen 6:6). When God establishes the covenant with Israel, God calls for complete fidelity. There is to be no divided allegiance between God who reveals himself on Sinai and the false gods of the other nations. God says to Moses, “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations…” (Ex 20:5). Then, when the Israelites face persecution from their enemies after the death of Joshua, the Lord is “moved to pity by their groaning because of those who oppressed and afflicted them” (Jg 2:18).
Again and again, God is spoken of in terms that belong to man. Jealousy, sorrow, pity: the full range of human emotions is attributed to God. God is indeed personal. He knows and loves us. But we cannot simply say that God thinks and feels as we do.
According to classical theology, there is no imperfection in God. He is all-perfect. The past, the present and the future are all present to God at one and the same time. God does not change. He is immutable, because he is all-perfect. Therefore, since emotions involve change, how can we say that God gets angry, that God is pleased, that God hates evil or that God delights in his creation?
When we think solely in terms of God’s immanence, his care and involvement in the world, we may fall into the error of reducing God in our speech to a person like us with our emotions and feelings. When we overemphasize in our thinking the absolute transcendence of God, his perfection and immutability, we may fall into the error of speaking about God as the Creator who has made the world and now remains removed from it. God is neither callous nor indifferent to our situation. Yet, he is totally Other. In the words of Job, “We cannot imagine the power of the Almighty, and yet He is so just and merciful that He does not destroy us” (Jb 37:23).
To begin, Scripture makes clear that God is infinite and we are finite. Thus, we can never fully understand God. The psalmist says, “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable” (Ps. 145:3). In another place, we read that “Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure” (Ps. 147:5). With the psalmist, we can say, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it” (Ps. 139:6).
Nonetheless, we do have the gift of reason that leads us to some limited understanding of God. Since the entire world has been created by God, then our human reason can use all creation somehow to understand God. As Paul says, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (Rm 1:20).
When we express our understanding about God, our language is analogical. This means what we say is not literally true, but figuratively. Somehow the truth about God is refracted in our limited, human speech. Not only with the concepts and terms of philosophy, but also with the symbolic use of images, we have a way to express in a limited sense the unfathomable mystery of God.
We are part of creation. We have been made in the image and likeness of God. In some imperfect way, we ourselves mirror God’s perfection. Our love, our hatred, our compassion, our jealousy can somehow say something about God. All that we are - body, mind and spirit - somehow reveals God.
To be continued...