The Ineffable Mystery of God – Fr. Robert Barron

August 21, 2012

The cloister yard of Santa Sabina where it is reputed St. Thomas walked and pondered.

After many years of exile from the courts of Egypt where he had been raised, a Hebrew man named Moses, while tending the flock of his father-in-law on the slopes of Mount Sinai, saw an extraordinary sight: a bush that was on fire but was not being consumed. He resolved to take a closer look. As he approached, he heard a voice: “Moses! Moses! … Come no nearer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). Then the speaker identified himself as “the God of your father … the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6), and he gave Moses a mission to liberate his people enslaved in Egypt.

When Moses asked for the name of this mysterious speaker, he received the following answer: “I am who am” (Exodus 3:14). Moses was asking a reasonable enough question. He was wondering which of the many gods — deities of the river, the mountain, the various nations — this was. He was seeking to define and specify the nature of this particular heavenly power.

But the answer he received frustrated him. For the divine speaker was implying that he was not one god among many, not this deity rather than that, not a reality that could, even in principle, be captured or delimited by a name. In a certain sense, God’s response amounted to the undermining of the very type of question Moses posed. His name was simply “to be,” and therefore he could never be mastered. The ancient Israelites honored this essential mysteriousness of God by designating him with the unpronounceable name of YHWH.

Following the prompting of this conversation between Moses and God, the mainstream of the Catholic theological tradition has tended not to refer to God as a being, however supreme, among many. Thomas Aquinas, arguably the greatest theologian in the Catholic tradition, rarely designates God as ens summum (the highest being); rather he prefers the names ipsum esse (to be itself) or qui est (the one who is). In fact, Aquinas goes so far as to say that God cannot be defined or situated within any genus, even the genus of “being.” This means that it is wrong to say that trees, planets, automobiles, computers, and God — despite the obvious differences among them — have at least in common their status as beings. Aquinas expresses the difference that obtains between God and creatures through the technical language of essence and existence.

In everything that is not God there is a real distinction between essence (what the thing is) and existence (that the thing is); but in God no such distinction holds, for God’s act of existence is not received, delimited, or defined by anything extraneous to itself. A human being is the act of existence poured, as it were, into the receptacle of humanity, and a podium is the act of existence poured into the form of podium-ness, but God’s act of existence is not poured into any receiving element. To be God, therefore, is to be to be.

Saint Anselm of Canterbury, one of the greatest of the early medieval theologians, described God as “that than which nothing greater can be thought.” At first blush this seems straightforward enough: God is the highest conceivable thing. But the longer one meditates on Anselm’s description, the stranger it becomes. If God were simply the supreme being — the biggest reality among many — then God plus the world would be greater than God alone. But in that case he would not be that than which nothing greater can be thought. Zeus, for example, was, in ancient mythology, the supreme deity, but clearly Zeus plus the other gods, or Zeus plus the world of nature, would be greater than Zeus alone. Thus the God whom Anselm is describing is not like this at all. Though it is a very high paradox, the God whom Anselm describes added to the world as we know it is not greater than God alone.

This means that the true God exceeds all of our concepts, all of our language, all of our loftiest ideas. God (YHWH) is essentially mysterious, a term, by the way, derived from the Greek muein (to shut one’s mouth). How often the prophets and mystics of the Old Testament rail against idolatry, which is nothing other than reducing the true God to some creaturely object that we can know and hence try to control. The twentieth century theologian Karl Rahner commented that “God” is the last sound we should make before falling silent, and Saint Augustine, long ago, said, “si comprehendis, non est Deus” (if you understand, that isn’t God), All of this formal theologizing is but commentary on that elusive and confounding voice from the burning bush: “I am who am.”

Arguments For God’s Existence
I have firmly fended off the tendency to turn God into an idol, but have I left us thereby in an intellectual lurch, doomed simply to remain silent about God? If God cannot be in any sense defined, how do we explain the plethora of theological books and arguments? After all, the same Thomas Aquinas who said that God cannot be placed in any genus also wrote millions of words about God. Chapter 33 of Exodus gives us a clue to the resolution of this dilemma. Moses passionately asks God to reveal his glory to him, and Yahweh acquiesces. But the Lord specifies, “I will make all my beauty pass before you … But my face you cannot see, for no man sees me and still lives” (Exodus 33:19-20). God then tells Moses that while the divine glory passes by, God will place his servant in the cleft of a rock and cover Moses’s eyes. “Then I will remove my hand, so that you may see my back; but my face is not to be seen” (Exodus 33:22-23). God can indeed be seen in this life, but only indirectly, through his creatures and effects. We can understand him to a degree, but only obliquely, glimpsing him, as it were, out of the corners of our eyes. We see his “back” as it is disclosed in the beauty, the intelligibility, and the contingency of the world that he has made.

Following this principle of indirection, Thomas Aquinas formulated five arguments for God’s existence, each one of which begins from some feature of the created order. I will develop here the one that I consider the most elemental, the demonstration that commences with the contingency of the world. Though the term is technically philosophical, “contingency” actually names something with which we are all immediately familiar: the fact that things come into being and pass out of being. Consider a majestic summer cloud that billows up and then fades away in the course of a lazy August afternoon, coming into existence and then evanescing.

Now think of all of the plants and flowers that have grown up and subsequently withered away, and then of all the animals that have come into being, roamed the face of the earth, and then faded into dust. And ponder the numberless human beings who have come and gone, confirming the Psalmist’s intuition that “our years end like a sigh” (Psalms 90:9).  Even those things that seem most permanent — mountain ranges, the continents themselves, the oceans — have in fact emerged and will in fact fade. Indeed, if a time-lapse camera could record the entire life span of the Rocky Mountains, from the moment they began to emerge to the moment when they finally wear away, and if we could play that film at high speed, those mountains would look for all the world like that summer cloud.

The contingency of earthly things is the starting point of Aquinas’s proof, for it indicates something of great moment, namely, that such things do not contain within themselves the reason for their own existence. If they did, they would exist, simply and absolutely; they would not come and go so fleetingly. Therefore, in regard to contingent things, we have to look outside of them, to an extrinsic cause, or set of causes, in order to explain their existence. So let’s go back to that summer cloud. Instinctually, we know that it doesn’t exist through its own essence, and we therefore look for explanations. We say that it is caused by the moisture in the atmosphere, by the temperature, by the intensity of the winds, and so on, and as far as it goes, that explanation is adequate.

But as any meteorologist will tell us, those factors are altogether contingent, coming into being and passing out of being. Thus we go a step further and say that these factors in turn are caused by the jet stream, which is grounded in the movement of the planet. But a moment’s reflection reveals that the jet stream comes and goes, ebbs and flows, and that the earth itself is contingent, having emerged into existence four billion years ago and being destined one day to be incinerated by the expanding sun.

And so we go further, appealing to the solar system and events within the galaxy and finally perhaps to the very structures inherent in the universe. But contemporary astrophysics has disclosed to us the fundamental contingency of all of those realities, and indeed of the universe itself, which came into existence at the Big Bang some thirteen billion years ago. In our attempt to explain a contingent reality — that evanescent summer cloud — we have appealed simply to a whole series of similarly contingent realities, each one of which requires a further explanation.

Thomas Aquinas argues that if we are to avoid an infinite regress of contingent causes, which finally explain nothing at all, we must come finally to some “necessary” reality, something that exists simply through the power of its own essence. This, he concludes, is what people mean when they use the word “God.” With Aquinas’s demonstration in mind, reconsider that strange answer God gives to Moses’s question: “I am who am.” The biblical God is not one contingent reality among many; he is that whose very nature it is to exist, that power through which and because of which all other things have being.

Some contemporary theologians have translated Aquinas’s abstract metaphysical language into more experiential language. The Protestant theologian Paul Tillich said that “finitude in awareness is anxiety.” He means that when we know in our bones how contingent we are, we become afraid. We exist in time, and this means that we are moving, ineluctably, toward death; we have been “thrown” into being, and this means that one day we will be thrown out of being; and this state of affairs produces fear and trembling. In the grip of this anxiety, Tillich argues, we tend to thrash about, looking for something to reassure us, searching for some firm ground on which to stand.

We seek to alleviate our fears through the piling up of pleasure, wealth, power, or honor, but we discover, soon enough, that all of these worldly realities are as contingent as we are and hence cannot finally soothe us. It is at this point that the scriptural word “My soul rests in God alone” (Psalms 62:1) is heard in its deepest resonance. Our fear — born of contingency — will be assuaged only by that which is not contingent. Our shaken and fragile existence will be stabilized only when placed in relation to the eternal and necessary existence of God. Tillich is, in many ways, a contemporary disciple of Saint Augustine, who said, “Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.”

In 1968 a young theology professor at the University of Tubingen formulated a neat argument for God’s existence that owed a good deal to Thomas Aquinas but that also drew on more contemporary sources. The theologian’s name was Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. Ratzinger commences with the observation that finite being, as we experience it, is marked, through and through, by intelligibility, that is to say, by a formal structure that makes it understandable to an inquiring mind. In point of fact, all of the sciences — physics, chemistry, psychology, astronomy, biology, and so forth — rest on the assumption that at all levels, microscopic and macrocosmic, being can be known. The same principle was acknowledged in ancient times by Pythagoras, who said that all existing things correspond to a numeric value, and in medieval times by the scholastic philosophers who formulated the dictum omne ens est scibile (all being is knowable).

Ratzinger argues that the only finally satisfying explanation for this universal objective intelligibility is a great Intelligence who has thought the universe into being. Our language provides an intriguing clue in this regard, for we speak of our acts of knowledge as moments of “recognition,” literally a re-cognition, a thinking again what has already been thought. Ratzinger cites Einstein in support of this connection: “in the laws of nature, a mind so superior is revealed that in comparison, our minds are as something worthless.”

The prologue to the Gospel of John states, “In the beginning was the Word,” and specifies that all things came to be through this divine Logos, implying thereby that the being of the universe is not dumbly there, but rather intelligently there, imbued by a creative mind with intelligible structure. The argument presented by Joseph Ratzinger is but a specification of that great revelation.

One of the particular strengths of this argument is that it shows the deep compatibility between religion and science, two disciplines that so often today are seen as implacable enemies. Ratzinger shows that the physical sciences rest upon the finally mystical intuition that reality has been thought into existence and hence can be known. I say it is mystical because it cannot itself be the product of empirical or experimental investigation, but is instead the very condition for the possibility of analyzing and experimenting in the first place. This is why many theorists have speculated that the emergence of the modern sciences in the context of a Christian intellectual milieu, in which the doctrine of creation through the power of an intelligent Creator is affirmed, is not the least bit accidental.

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  1. I don’t see how to reconcile what you say here with what I read in the New Testament. Jesus Christ has a name and he taught his followers to address their Father in Heaven. He told Philip that in seeing Jesus he had in effect seen the Father. He taught that God loves us. He taught that we can and must know God. None of this fits with your description of a remote non-being that we cannot comprehend. How do you explain this discrepancy?

    • I’m not sure that I see a “discrepancy” as much as mystery. Fr. Barron comments on another post at payingattentiontothesky:
      “The one who is must be beyond any of the particular things in the world, while at the same time he must be at the deepest ground of all created existence. “I am who I am” must be utterly mysterious and closer to us than we are to ourselves, and this means that the revelation of God is always, at the same time, the concealing of God. The fathers of the fourth Lateran Council caught this biblical idea nicely when they said that even as we affirm a similitude between the world and God, we should always simultaneously affirm a greater dissimilitude.

      The cry of the seraphim, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” which we echo at every Mass, indicates this unique form of God’s difference. For biblical Israelites, “Holy” meant “set apart” or “absolute.” God is set apart in a unique way, for his otherness is not a conventional otherness of spatial or metaphysical distance; it is an otherness that transcends and includes the distinction between ordinary distance and ordinary closeness. To use theologian Kathryn Tanner’s phrase, God is “otherly other.” And this uniquely divine strangeness is precisely what the angels are singing about.”

      What you say about the second person of the Holy Trinity is all true but Catholics know that we accept both/and of scripture rather than either/or. James Schall, writing on Benedict XVI Deus Caritas Est , noted Benedict cites the famous passage from his (Benedict’s) favorites, Augustine: “‘Si comprehendis, non est Deus’ (#38) — roughly, ‘if your idea of God claims to totally comprehend God, then your idea is not God at all.’ In other words, if we would love God and one another, as we should, we must be open to what God reveals to us about Himself. It is in this very opening that we will begin to find the explanation of all else, including ourselves.

      The Pope exists to remind the world that its understanding of God is not God, and that the deepest cause of its suffering is ‘the absence of God.’ The Pope also deals with some of this topic when he talks of the difference between eros and agape–the love that ascends and the love that descends (#3). ‘Love looks to the eternal. Love is indeed ‘ecstasy,’ not in the sense of a moment of intoxication, but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery, and indeed the discovery of God” (#6). Love ‘at first sight’ must also become love ‘at hind-sight,’ something that lasts over the years, something that includes, as Aristotle put it, a complete life. The essence of biblical faith is “that man can indeed enter into union with God — his primordial aspiration. But this union is no mere fusion, a sinking in the nameless ocean of the Divine; it is a unity which creates love, a unity in which both God and man remain themselves and yet become one” (#10).

      Thank you for your comment. You have an impressive blog BTW.


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