I have a feeling that many of us, myself included, have a habit of thinking of God as a sort of monolith. (You know monoliths – giant, solid rocks of a single, undivided nature). C.S. Lewis remarked in Letters To Malcolm that in the mind, the stand-in for God is often something like a bright mist, and to this monolithic bright mist I assign monolithic superlatives: God is Great; God is Light; God is Love. The list of superlatives may go on and on, but each superlative is rock-solid, existing forever, like the faces on Mt. Rushmore or the facets on a diamond. This makes defining and relating to the “God” in my mind much easier, as long as the integrity of the superlatives remains intact.
But what if God stooped to exist as a baby in a womb? Would that make him not Great, but small? What if his presence has been described as “cloud” and “thick darkness” (Ex. 20:21;25:16)? Does that negate the superlative Light? And how do we reconcile God asking God “Why have you forsaken me?” with the mantra “God is Love”? When I consider these, I’m forced to nuance God’s monolithic superlatives. But one does not simply nuance a monolith.
I recognize these seeming problems now as paradoxes: qualities of God which seem to oppose one another, and yet which correspond to truth. We see something like this in the way particle physics and astrophysics (the laws governing the smallest and largest scales of our universe) don’t agree or apply to each other yet both correspond to some sort of reality. God is both much bigger and much smaller than we can ever imagine. He is both closer to us and farther from us than anything else. Our fallible minds can’t hold all this together, so we often have to settle with relating to God through descriptors like Great, and Light, and Love which we can better approach (though even these are inferior, says Lewis, to images God has more often used of himself like Father, and Shepherd, and Husband). But none of these things are actually God. God is God [Ó ωn]. And God, in Christ, has opened up the way for us to experience him directly, not merely through conceptual descriptors.
This is the very essence of the faith “catholic” (according to the whole): to make humans partakers of the divine nature (2 Pt. 1:4), that is, of God himself. And the method of the catholic faith is to practice and make known to all people the means Jesus gives us by which we may become partakers of God (Mt. 28:19-20). This is very different from the faith whose essence and method are simply believing things about God – the faith of monoliths. If the most important thing we can ever do is believe something about God and/or what he did for us, then we elevate our own reasoning to indescribable importance and thus whatever thoughts we have about God to unalterable truths. But as we form and carve the monolithic image of God (or scheme of theology, or moral framework) in our minds, we find ourselves forced to ignore some of the data and to exclude any paradox. When, however, God is recognized primarily as free, wild, dynamic, and full of infinite creativity, depth, and wonder, and not as the static Monolith that works so well with the descriptions and definitions we give him, then the narrative of Scripture can be seen for what it is: an account of God’s interaction with his creation in a way that is free, wild, dynamic, and full of infinite creativity, depth, and wonder.
This wild, rich story of God’s activity in his creation revealed its center and climax to be Jesus Christ, and it’s Jesus himself, the Way, who revealed the true nature of God’s saving activity until his second appearing. I mentioned above the means that Jesus gave us for partaking of God, to which he refers in his great commission to his disciples to teach all nations “to observe all that I have commanded you.” These commandments are the means Jesus gave his apostles, and his apostles made certain to pass them on to those they evangelized. Paul is clear in his admonition to the Christians in Thessalonica: “…hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Thes. 2:15). These commandments and traditions, referenced but not necessarily exhaustively enumerated in the pages of the New Testament, formed the life of the earliest Christians and were then passed on to subsequent generations of Christians down through the centuries. The content of this early Christian life has been preserved by living tradition, but it can also be found in numerous primary sources (such as the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, and Clement of Rome) and include, among other things, the basic principles I wrote about in Part 3.
At the end of Part 3 I said, “So after we become oriented to the whole…”, as if after reading those few paragraphs, you, the reader, would have known what “the whole” was and would have become “oriented” thusly. But “the whole” of God’s saving activity in this world and the fullness of the life of the Church is too big to see in its entirety. There is no vantage on earth or maybe even in heaven from which we could view it from end to end. So what I call “becoming oriented” to the whole only means becoming awake to this reality — the reality that God is no “thing” to be defined, and neither is the life of God given through his Son by his Spirit. This Spirit, in the form of flame (Acts 2:3) dances unpredictably and cannot by seized, and in the form of wind “blows where it wishes” (John3:8).
And yet – and yet – though God cannot be defined, much less conjured, the means given by Jesus and passed on by the apostles and held to by the faithful are, at their core, promises of God’s very presence. The blowing Spirit of God is promised verily in baptism and chrismation; Christ who ascended is promised verily, verily in the Church’s thanks offering of bread and wine. This sacramental understanding, along with the individual’s dependence on the community of the Church and the maintaining of the proper liturgical worship and way of life, are part of the means by which people in our time (that is, the time between the two advents of Jesus) are to lose their own lives to find God’s life. But surely people can experience God without all those traditions, sacraments, and so on, right? Yes. They may not need to have even heard the name of Jesus to experience God. But this is because the Spirit blows where he wishes, not because he does not also appear where he promised to appear. It’s because God is good, not because the traditional means of the Church are bad.
And so here is the irony: the faith that goes on encountering God in rites and sacraments understands best that God cannot be controlled or contained, while the faith of monoliths confidently declares that God cannot be found in those things on the grounds that God cannot be controlled or contained. I pray that we may drop any hubris and trust the promises of the un-circumscribed God. And may we experience the paradoxes of the fullness of the catholic faith keeping us on the straight and narrow path, the increase in thirst for the living water the more we drink of it, and the depths of God becoming even more enticingly mysterious the more we learn of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.