Monday, January 26, 2009

Understanding God: advice and role models

In my previous post in the series “understanding God” I explained how the error of predestination is the result of misunderstanding the attribute of God’s all knowingness. I want to dovetail a related concept here, just to build upon this basis of understanding.

God is impossible to fully understand, not because he keeps part of himself secret, but because his vastness of “perspective” is genuinely unknowable. In fact, the more that the great religious minds have come to know God, the more they are in awe of all that is unknowable by the human mind, which is bounded by limitations of matter, energy and time. Saint Thomas Aquinas is the shining example of the saint who most used intellectual and logic capabilities to explain faith and through the centuries many have revered and studied him for precisely that reason. He is the one who has brought generation after generation to God through “the human mind.” Thomas Aquinas left volumes of writings, all based on faith and logic through reasoning, which are treasures today. Still, what was the thing that enraptured him so much that ultimately he stopped writing? It was the mystery of God in the Holy Mass, specifically in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. The way that God reveals himself, physically and spiritually, in the Holy Mass, in all its mystery and simplicity was what gave Aquinas more understanding, and at the same time more awe of the mystery, than any intellectual progress in understanding God.

Before I continue on my main point, let me make an aside. Many people outside of the Catholic Church misunderstand why Catholics venerate the saints so much. There are two reasons, one of which is related to how we understand being part of their community, the “communion of saints,” even as they are already in heaven and we are still alive here on earth. The other reason that I want to explain to you is that the saints are teachers and role models, not just as examples of holiness and redemption, but also in the many varied ways that each of them grew in their understanding of God. There are many techniques, for lack of a better word, for individuals to better understand God and often one or two saints are role models that a person can relate to in their progress themselves toward understanding God. St. Thomas Aquinas has for centuries been the inspiration for those who desired or needed to approach their understanding of God through a rigorous path of logic and reasoning. He is one of the thirty-three Doctors of the Church. Yet in direct proportion to his logic, reasoning and intellectual approach to God, Aquinas also had an intense and mystical communion directly with God, one that yielded miraculous fruits. Thus one of his titles is “The Common Doctor,” for he leads the average person to reason their way to God, while another of his titles is “The Angelic Doctor,” for his mystical qualities are comparable to how the angels themselves know God. I cannot recommend St Thomas Aquinas highly enough, therefore, to modern generations for veneration and role modeling in emulating his intellectual approach, and being inspired by the divine gifts that he, in parallel, received.

In his prologue to his best known work, The Summa Theologica, he wrote: Since the teacher of Catholic truth must instruct not only the advanced but also the beginners, according to the word of St. Paul (1 Cor. 3:1-2), “as to little ones in Christ, I fed you with milk, not with solid food…” so that the purpose and intent of this work is to treat those things that pertain to the Christian religion in a manner suitable to the instruction of beginners…with confidence in the divine help, try to present the contents of sacred doctrine as briefly and clearly as the matter allows.

Father Rengers in his book “The 33 Doctors of the Church” comments that “St. Thomas, who fought fro and is remembered for his emphasis on the place of reason in theology, relied primarily on the guiding hand of divine love” and quotes St. Thomas, “Ardor precedes illumination, for a knowledge of truth is bestowed by the ardor of charity.”

Just as another aside, Shiite Muslims have a similar understanding of saints with Catholics, where they understand that saints are to be revered, but not worshipped, and that saints are the role models for not only their virtue but also their methods of learning about God and teaching accordingly.

Therefore, St. Thomas Aquinas, who has such an intellectual approach to teaching about God, role models and articulates two important things to bear in mind,. One is to always remember that “baby steps” are needed in understanding and teaching about God, not demonstrations of one’s supposed intellectual prowess and “sophistication” of thought. He critiques previous works as being too difficult and agenda driven for many to learn from, and that is a problem that moderns are especially vulnerable toward. Indeed there is an entire industry of very marginal people writing books about God and faith who have little if any solid factual education, particularly in Christianity, yet peddle to the public books filled with the most bizarre and arcane claptrap, presented as “lofty” and sophisticated “spiritual insight.” In contrast, the greatest “expert” in God in modern times, Thomas Aquinas, always built his writings on solid intellect and baby steps, ensuring that neither his doctrine nor the readership goes even one inch astray. When Aquinas taught he started with the basics, from truly the very beginning, such as why God created humans, and what are the attributes of heaven, not with sweeping declarations of his “personal revelation” and condescending “wisdom.” The true geniuses, especially those on the subject of God and faith, are always remarkably humble and allow only one step at a time on solid factual and theological foundation that is not of their own invention.

The second thing that Aquinas role models and articulates is that when writing about God, one cannot, no matter how intellectual, write from a perspective of no love. No one can accurately discuss or represent God if one does not have or actively aspire to having love of God. At the face of this, moderns might object that loving God presents then “bias” into written works about God, but on examination that is ridiculous. God is love and all of love comes from God. One cannot genuinely write about God, including in a strictly intellectual way, without having love of God, “ardor” as St Thomas calls it or at the very least is seeking to have love of God, acknowledging that as his or her objective in writing and study. To attempt to write about God without loving God as God exists (and not how you wish him to be) is like a chemist trying to write about chemistry but not believing in hydrogen, or a physician writing about the treatment of wounds and refusing to believe that bandages exist, or a home builder who seeks to build a shelter but refuses to believe there is such a thing as walls and a roof. Thus one cannot explain or study God without feeling love of God as he is, since ultimately the sum total of understanding God is understanding and feeling love of God. One can no more understand God without loving God than one can hope for rain in a drought yet not believe in water.

So to understand God one must take baby steps based on sound and factual basis of reasoning, but one must also have love of God in one’s heart as one’s motivation, even if that love is painfully imperfect at first. One other error that moderns make is the excessive focus on God, specifically in Jesus Christ, as some sort of symbol of unconditional “love,” a love that excuses sin, and is not actually directed toward genuine love of God or genuine, rather than self serving, loving charity of neighbor. If one reads the Gospels, yes, Jesus preaches a great deal about love and charity, but he also in equal measure dishes out a great deal of criticism and reminder of the penalty of failure and of a continually sinful and godless life, which will end in being burned as the chaff. Moderns, ever since the so-called hedonistic “Love Generation,” ignore the reality of what Jesus taught about God and instead portray Jesus as some sort of pastel colored ever forgiving and ever accepting love machine. In order to write intellectually honest and correct works about God, one must have genuine love of God as either one’s reality or one’s objective, and not an agenda driven self serving interpretation of the “endless boundaries” of God’s love.

For example, many of the saints loved to read about God and write about God. But there is a remarkable difference between their motivations and the motivations of many today. The saints loved to read about God because they loved God, not because they were trying to analyze, dissect and understand him with the intent of controlling his powers. For example, when one is truly in love one wants to know more about the object of one’s love because love creates the desire to know more and immerse one’s self in the loved one’s milieu. One should not, however, wish to read more and more about one’s loved one as a way to manipulate and control him or her. Thus one who is well balanced seeks to read about God because one loves God, or wishes to love God or love him even more, and not to wrest imaginary “secrets” out of God as a way to accomplish some sort of secondary agenda in one’s life.

Likewise the saints loved to write about God because, again, they loved God and wished to share their love of God with others. Similarly, many moderns also misunderstand and misuse their own motivations for writing about God. Far too many, especially in the so-called New Age arena, write about God in order to show off their supposed enlightenment and cash in on it. I’m not saying that one cannot charge money for a book, to earn a living or to at least break even in the cost of publication. What I am saying is that too many so called “spiritual” writers write about God or their New Age “spirit” as ways to self promote. They often proclaim their “humility” while at the same time puffing up their possession of spiritual “insight” and “gifts.” Thus you have New Age Hindus or Buddhists or whatever actually writing and marketing books about Jesus Christ, and then doing the “talk show circuit” as “spiritual experts.”

Think again about my example of the chemist who wants to write a chemistry book but does not believe in the existence of hydrogen. Would you want to read anything that he or she has to say? Would you want to conduct any of his or her experiments? I mean, go ahead, light up that cigarette since hydrogen does not exist, LOL. That would be irresponsible and crazy enough, to be a chemist who does not believe in the existence of hydrogen and teaches accordingly. However, imagine this. Suppose it is a biologist who writes that chemistry book and the biologist is both is not a chemist, but also does not believe in hydrogen! So that author would not even be an irresponsible expert; he or she would be an irresponsible non-expert, a uneducated intruder into the field of chemistry.

Now imagine that a biologist writes a book about chemistry where not only do they not believe in hydrogen, but they think that neon has been treated “unfairly” and does not get sufficient “attention,” and thus pushes a “neon agenda” throughout their chemistry book. “It’s not fair that neon is an inert gas,” the author thinks, and decides to insert neon into many equations and chemical reactions in the place of the actual element that occurs there. They do not believe in hydrogen, and they think that neo does not get enough attention. Thus they teach that the chemical formula for water, H2O, is actually Ne2O. Need some water? Smash some neon and oxygen together!

To understand God one must understand God the way God actually is, based on the facts of God’s interaction with the faithful and his inspired words on the subject, not on how someone wants God to be in order to enable their own agendas. The saints are the reliable way who show the genuine path to understanding and loving God, and that is why thousands of these role models exist. The saints have all come to God in a myriad of lifestyles and life experiences, so there’s a saint that resonates somewhere for anyone in any station of life. However, they all come together in one commonality, which is orthodox and reliable, faith and reasoning based understanding and love of God. None of them, no matter where they came from in life, “made up” out of their own minds their own theology and their own “interpretation” of God. They found their way on their own paths to the same God; they did not invent different Gods as the result of “going their own way.” I cannot believe how foolish people are today when some of them basically say they are finding the “right” God who “suits their needs.” I’m sorry, but there’s only one God, the powerfully eternally consistent one, who is waiting when your life is over and you are judged, and it’s not the “convenient” God who was “best suited to your lifestyle.” God is God and the same God, no matter what people are doing on earth, or even if this planet is blown to smithereens. God never changes and it does not matter one iota if you think that God is not “suitable to your present needs.”

To summarize, just as one learns how to drive a car from someone who knows how to drive, one can rely on studying one or more of the saints for ideas about how to better understand God and make him real in your life. Do not let “the blind lead the blind.” People used to read about and study the saints so that they would have ideas and role models about how to learn about God, not to follow the saints to the stake, LOL. Many saints were not martyrs and had even ordinary and non-dramatic lives, with the problems and challenges that all average people encounter in life.

Let me give an example of how that works best, and how that might be misunderstood. St. Paul has been through the centuries one of the most frequently role modeled of the saints, but there is a correct way to role model St. Paul and an incorrect way to role model St. Paul. Remember that Paul, when he was still Saul and a violent persecutor of Christians, was an ardent believer in God. Saul was extremely God fearing and very studious in his Jewish faith. It was this love of God that became extremist zealotry which motivated his erroneous persecution of Christians. In a way Saul was like the Pharisees who persecuted Jesus because obviously the Pharisees believed very much in God. So both Saul and the Pharisees were filled to overflowing with belief in God’s existence and in the tenets of their faith. In a way Saul was better than the Pharisees because he was not a hypocrite. Saul did not have the material and prestigious benefits of the wealth of the priesthood, for example; he was a tent maker. However, obviously Saul was worse off than those Pharisees who only argued with Jesus but who personally did not seek his death, leaving that to the other Pharisees. Saul did not argue with Christians; he sought to arrest them and have them killed. Then Saul was thrown from his horse on the way to Damascus by the light and the voice of the resurrected Christ, and he was converted.

Therefore St. Paul has been a role model for many generations of Christians who relate to several aspects of his life: his belief in God but disbelief in Jesus, his dramatic conversion rather than one based on gradual study, his transformation from a destroyer of a faith to a planter of churches, and his suffering for the faith through many trials and pains after his conversion to Christianity. However, I have noticed that St. Paul has been somewhat popular as a modern role model for those who did not believe in God at all. I’m not saying that such moderns are not welcome to use St. Paul as a role model, far from it, I welcome it. But I need to point out that an important aspect of understanding St. Paul is that he always was a God fearing pious believer. The resurrected Christ’s confrontation with him did not prove to Saul that God existed, since Saul always believed that, but was irrefutable proof of the identity of Jesus Christ as specifically the Savior and the Messiah. Moderns who do not believe in God but seek him through St. Paul’s role modeling tend to make one mistake accordingly. Moderns who do not believe in God and role model themselves after St. Paul tend to maintain an inner weakness toward disbelief and pagan practices. This is because St. Paul does not offer in his own life a refuting of total disbelief or of pagan superstitions because he himself had no need of that witness and testimony in his own life, since he always believed in God.

Thus selection of a “role model” saint is very important to proper faith formation. People who have no belief in God or cultist pagan New Age temptations are often better off emulating saints who grew up in pagan households who then converted. They can surely, and should, venerate and honor St. Paul studying, as all aspiring and actual Christians should, his life and his writings. But for moral support and for approaching God through the proven path that is most near one’s own actual situation in life, one should look at the other saints for guidance and both moral and intellectual support. For example St Justin Martyr is one of the best known and helpful of the saints to those who come from a disbelieving, pagan, or excessively secularized pseudo-intellectual background. Justin Martyr lived circa 100-165 and was of a very educated pagan family. As a pagan teacher of philosophy, rhetoric, history and poetry he was inspired by an old man who had met to study Christian Scripture. He became a Christian at the age of thirty, debated with pagan philosophers, and opened a school of philosophy. Justin Martyr was raised as a child, became an intellectual, a teacher and ultimately converted when paganism was by far the majority, and Christianity was the radical, persecuted minority. Thus someone with a very godless background, especially one that was intellectual, can especially relate to Justin Martyr and his existing writings.

For many generations Christian men, whose vocation was to have an average married life with children looked to St. Joseph, spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary and stepfather to Jesus, for their path and inspiration, even though Joseph authored no testimonies or sacred literature. During the generations where many did not read or write, who were poor, and who attempted only to do the best they could for their families, the deeds of St. Joseph, his obedience to God, and his love of Jesus were all the inspiration that they needed. They read about the Apostles, studied the Bible and their catechism, but they simply loved St. Joseph. I still remember the time when millions of men looked to St. Joseph for their support and strength, finding God through St. Joseph’s humble and unique example. Oddly we live in times where people buy St. Joseph statues and bury them in the ground upside down so that they can have “better luck” in selling their real estate properties. Maybe that has not been the right approach to God, no? St. Joseph is often forgotten except as a pagan practice to shill someone’s real estate. How sadly the times have changed. As St. Joseph has fallen away as a role model for the average Christian man, we have a real estate crisis (where his statue was used for pagan purposes, not totally a coincidence) plus we have the epidemic of stepfathers and “boyfriends of the mother” brutalizing and killing infants. A generation of humans is very much like the saints that they emulate, and, to their detriment, the saints that they ignore or defy in role modeling. I can think of no more stark example, except for the degrading of God himself, of the downfall of an entire category of humans (men) and their falling away from the best human role model they ever had, St. Joseph, spouse of Mary and step father to Jesus.

Thus to better understand God it is obvious that hundreds and indeed thousands of saints who have already found their way there can and must provide role modeling and example setting to people from a full diversity of life experience and perspective.

Further, one does not better understand God by omitting one’s God given intellect and believing any baloney that anyone makes up and sells to you, including your own self delusion. Far from abandoning reason and intellect, Christianity, Islam and Judaism are rich in the opportunities to use your brain, not put it in mothballs (or some other chemicals).

Additionally, love of God, even if it is unknown to you or painfully incomplete, must be your motivation for seeking to understand God. Motivations other than love of God all lead to truncated, misleading or dead ends and great error in interpretation. Likewise, however, the love of God must be understood correctly, and not as human labeling of weakness or hedonism as being justified by some open ended sloppy agenda based philosophy of supposed “love.” God’s love is infinitely strong and infinitely pure, and one cannot understand God if one has an unwillingness to understand that. God is both understanding and forgiving, but one must also remember that God’s purity of love is never compromised. Thus that which is stained and full of sin, no matter how much God “loves all his children,” cannot enter heaven.

The many paths to finding the one true God as demonstrated by the thousands of saints, both famous and mostly unknown, demonstrates again that God wishes all to find him, and does not “predestine” anyone to heaven or hell. Like evolution and natural selection has developed many thousands of species of birds in nature, for example, each person finds the same God in their own heart and soul through various paths. What is important to remember is, however, that the paths are all real and grounded on actuality, not self invented delusion. The saints demonstrate that people can and do come to God in various directions at various times in their lives: some were child saints, holy at even a small age, while others became saints late in life after much error and sinfulness. Obviously if people were “predestined” God would not have allowed such many examples of those who individually find sanctity and role model to others. Just to close this topic, here is the statement of the Catholic Church doctrine regarding predestination:

1037. God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of the faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want “any to perish, but all to come to repentance”:

Father, accept this offering
From your whole family
Grant us your peace in this life,
Save us from final damnation,
And count us among those you have chosen.