Before There Was an Everywhere, I AM

The Baltimore Catechism asked the question Where is God? The answer given was God is everywhere. While this is certainly true, it is even more true that God is beyond the concept of “where.” Everywhere is too limiting to contain God, for He transcends His creation and cannot be contained even by the “everywhere” of it.

C.S. Lewis had an interesting analogy:

Looking for God by exploring space is a bit like reading or seeing all Shakespeare’s plays in the hope that you will find Shakespeare …. Shakespeare is, in one sense, present at every moment of the play, but he is never present in the same way … but to look for him as one item within the framework he himself invented is nonsensical [The Business of Heaven, p. 47].

So, just as Shakespeare is far more than and far beyond even the sum total of all his writings, even more is God far beyond the “everywhere” of this world. God is not this or that thing. He is not here or over there. He is existence itself, the very definition of “to be” (ipsum esse).

Yet unlike Shakespeare, God is not merely bigger than and outside what He has made. God is no mere writer or creator who left an impression of himself in what he made. No, God is at the same time both transcendent and immanent. He is inside what He created, sustaining everything He made from moment to moment.

C.S. Lewis continues,

[And so with God] mere movement in space will not bring you any nearer to him or farther from him that you are at this very moment. You can neither reach him, nor avoid him by travelling to … other galaxies [ibid].

This of course raises the question: Why do we attribute a special presence to Christ in the Eucharist or the tabernacles of our churches? Like the ancient Jews, who found a special presence of God in the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple, we do not lack sophistication. We understand that God is not merely in this place or that one, but we do accept by His own revelation that He is uniquely and powerfully present in certain places and in certain ways designated by Him to confer that special presence. Thus, while God speaks in and through His creation, He speaks even more clearly and powerfully in his revealed Word. And while He is everywhere immanently present, He is profoundly present in a special way in the Eucharist and in certain holy places.

In the end, God is everywhere, but he is also “beyond where,” “beneath where,” and “above where.” He is God, who said, “Before there ever was an everywhere, I AM.”

When Theology Must Fall Silent: A Reflection on a Teaching from St. Bonaventure

silence and light

silence and lightSaints often say daring and even “dangerous” things. They are able to do this because their listeners and readers take for granted their orthodoxy and holiness. As a result, they are able to use hyperbole or speak with bold flourishes that a lesser person would be unable to carry off.

Consider, for example, that St. Athanasius once wrote, For the Son of God became man so that we might become God (De inc. 54, 3). Of itself, this sort of talk is dangerous; man cannot be God nor become a god. However, no one would presume that the paragon of orthodoxy, the author of the Athanasian Creed, the one who almost single-handedly saved the bishops from the Arian heresy, was himself guilty of heresy. Instead, his words were understood in the poetic and colorful way he intended them. Clearly we are “divinized” only in a qualified and subordinate sense. Only by our membership in the Body of Christ do we participate in His divine nature. St. Thomas Aquinas reflected on Athanasius’ daring declaration: The only begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods (Opusc. 57, 1-4).

Yes, saints say daring things. Today I’d like to reflect on a saying by St. Bonaventure. First, though, let’s consider a certain idiom he used, drawn from biblical times.

In Scripture there is an “absolute” way of speaking that many of us moderns misconstrue. For example, Jesus says (quoting Hosea 6:6), For I desire mercy not sacrifice (Matt 9:13). To those untrained in Jewish and biblical idioms, the meaning would seem to be, “Skip all the sacrifice; God just wants you to be nice.” However, that misses the point of the idiom, which more accurately means this: “Practice mercy without neglecting sacrifice, for sacrifice is in service of mercy.” All of our rituals point somewhere and have the goal of drawing us to greater charity for God and neighbor. Caritas suprema lex (Charity is the highest law). Although charity is the highest law, that does not mean it is the only one. The basic Jewish and biblical idiom goes like this:

“I desire A, not B.”

This means that A is the goal, not B.
However, B is not to be neglected because it as a means or a way to A (the goal).

With all this in mind, let’s consider a teaching from St. Bonaventure, who wrote something very daring—even dangerous. Because he is a saint, we must grant him the liberty that we would not give to lesser men. As a saint he ponders truth and is thoroughly reputable. In his sanctity, his thoughts go where words no longer “work.” In a sense, he must explode our categories lest we become locked in them and forget that God is greater than words or human thoughts can express.

St. Bonaventure wrote of a kind of “passover” we must make wherein we must pass from the world of words, categories, images, pictures, and preconceived notions; to God, who is mystically beyond all that. It is a moment when the “ology” (words) of our theology must step aside for the Theos (God) of our Theology. As you read this quote, remember the cautions and context we have just reviewed, especially regarding the “I desire A, not B” idiom.

For [our] passover to be perfect, we must suspend all the operations of the mind and we must transform the peak of our affections, directing them to God alone. This is a sacred mystical experience. It cannot be comprehended by anyone unless he surrenders himself to it; nor can he surrender himself to it unless he longs for it; nor can he long for it unless the Holy Spirit … inflame his innermost soul ….

If you ask how such things can occur, seek the answer in God’s grace, not in doctrine; in the longing of the will, not in the understanding; in the sighs of prayer, not in research; seek the bridegroom not the teacher; God and not man; darkness not daylight; and look not to the light but rather to the raging fire that carries the soul to God with intense fervor and glowing love. The fire is God [From The Journey of the Mind to God, by Saint Bonaventure, bishop (Cap. 7, Opera omnia 5, 312-313)].

Unschooled readers will cringe at the apparent dichotomies: grace not doctrine, longing not understanding, sighs not research, bridegroom not teacher, darkness not daylight.

But this is why we studied the idiom beforehand. “I desire A, not B” means that B serves A, not that B is of no value. Thus, doctrine leads to and serves grace. Our teachings point to heights where words no longer suffice. Our understanding and intellect inspire the will to desire Him whom our minds could never fully contain or comprehend. Although the Lord is the great teacher and rabbi, no bride calls her husband “teacher,” or “doctor.” She calls him her beloved; the heart grasps things the mind knows not.

Thus our goal is not doctrine (precious and necessary though that this). Our goal is Him to whom the doctrine rightly points. Doctrine is the roadmap, not the destination. Follow the map! It is foolish to try to invent your own religion. Yes, follow the map! But remember, the map is not the goal; it is not the destination. God is the goal and desired destination, and He cannot be reduced to our words or categories.

The great theologian Bonaventure knew the limits of theology. Theology makes the introductions and sets the foundation, but there comes a moment for silence and a dark night of the senses and even the intellect. Now the heart and the fiery light of God’s Holy Spirit must do His work. He will not overrule doctrine but build upon and transcend it.

St. Peter speaks to this same process:

We also have the message of the prophets, which has been confirmed beyond doubt. And you will do well to pay attention to this message, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts (2 Peter 1:18-19).

Yes, the prophets and the teachings must be attended to; they are like a lamp shining in a dark place. But there comes a moment when those teachings are confirmed and a greater light dawns, the Morning Star rises in our hearts. The truth of doctrine gives way to the Truth Himself, who is also the Way and the Light.

Listen to Bonaventure; listen to Peter. The Creed is essential. Memorize it and don’t you dare go off and invent your own religion! But there comes a moment when the creed steps aside and, pointing to God, says, “He is the one of whom I speak. Go to Him and sit silently at His feet.”


Words Fall Short: A meditation on the limits of human language and thought

By Antonio Litterio,  Licensed under  CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
By Antonio Litterio, Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

It happens, quite often, that our strengths are very closely related to our struggles.  And one of our strengths, clearly, is our capacity to speak and to write, to use words to symbolize reality, and thereby convey thoughts. So also our ability to think, to abstract and conceptualize, and interpret reality. I of course am a great believer in the magnificent thing we call speech, for I write every day, and I preach every day and like to consider myself a reasonably thoughtful person. .

To speak and to write, such a magnificent mysterious capacity within our soul. Somehow with our senses, and our mind we are able to grasp the physical realities, people places and things, as well as metaphysical realities such as justice, love , nature, and purpose. And we are also able to think and to abstract. There is not just nature, there is what is “natural,” there are not just trees, there is “tree-ness”, there are not just humans, there’s something called humanness. Yes, such a miracle, thought, language, speech, and writing. By it we communicate facts, ideas, feelings, longings, and yearnings.

Yet our language and even out thoughts have a fatal flaw that introduces a great human struggle. For “words” and thoughts, by their nature, reduce complex realities to a simple sounds (i.e. words), and concepts (i.e. thoughts). Words are little more than a grunt, a mere sound. And words in written form are the mere combination of letters we call a word. But words and even thoughts are not the reality we describe, they are merely a symbol pointing to that reality.

To say the word “tree,” neither produces the reality of a tree, nor fully describes it. The word “tree” can only summarize the whole range of realities and ideas such as: wood, roots, leaves, photosynthesis, strength,  shade, green, autumn colors, things made of wood, paper, furniture, and on and on. What a tree is, potentially or actually, cannot be reduced to a mere sound.

If  this simple word, “tree,” referring to a relatively simple reality is inadequate, how much more so far more complex realities such as the human person, justice, love, poetry, and above all else, God.

Yes, words are wonderful things, a kind of shorthand. But words can also get in the way, especially when we think that because we have named something, we have fully described or comprehended it. Not so, reality is always richer than the words or thoughts that we “reduce” it to. It is perhaps necessary for us to do this sort of reduction in order to manage, and not be overwhelmed,  but, again reality is always richer than the thoughts or words we reduce it to.

In this sense, there is an old saying which goes “Don’t think, look!” In other words, we tend to rush to analysis, rather than to savor reality. And while analysis is ultimately essential, we ought to try to experience reality as fully as we can, before we “reduce” it by analyzing it, before reducing it to thoughts and words.

Another related saying is, “Don’t just do something, stand there!” For too often we rush to respond to reality, rather then to experience and savor it. Reality is always richer in our analysis in our thoughts or words about it. And without experiencing it as fully as possible, reactions are often mistaken, or off the mark.

In a noisy age, it is important to rediscover the need to slow down and experience reality, and also the need for silent contemplation before quick analysis and the “necessary evil” of reducing reality to words and concepts.

There’s yet another old saying, likely from the far East, which says, “Those who know do not say, those who say do not know.” That is, words for fall short of the reality of what is known, and the wise person grasps this.

One of the Eastern fathers, when asked to explain this saying to his disciples said, “How many know the smell of a rose?” And all of his disciples raised their hands. But when he said to them, “Put it into words” everyone remained silent.

There is a humility and recognizing the limits of words. Some things cannot be reduced to words at all, other things only partially. The wise and humble person appreciates this. St. Augustine, when asked about Grace said, “If you ask me I don’t know, if you don’t ask me, I know.” In other words, this is a truth best appreciated, and savored, apart from words.

Silent contemplation of the very deep mysteries of God is a more proper disposition than many words. And while words are eventually necessary, the silence between the words when we speak of God, are probably more instructive than the words themselves.

St. Thomas said in the prologue to question three in part one of the Summa:Now, because we cannot know what it God  is, but rather what he is not, we have no means for considering how God is, but rather how he is not” (Prima pars, q. 3, prologue).  Since God is hidden, and we could never even come close to comprehending Him. His essence is therefore beyond anything we can describe with words. Words and analogies about God fall so far short, as to be more unlike him than they are like him. And thus we are reduced more to describing what God is not, than what he is.

And even when we say what he is, we really have little idea of what we are talking about.  God is not just wise or like some wise man, He is wisdom itself.  God is not just good or like some good person, He is goodness itself. He does not exist like we exist, He is not just some other object in the universe, he is existence itself. And while we are using these words, we do not really fathom what they really or fully mean. To some extent we know what it means to exist, but we do not know existence itself. We know good things, and good people, but we do not know goodness itself. These realities are too rich to be reduced to a manageable concept. or mere word.

St. Thomas Aquinas also said in his commentary on Boethius’ De Sancta Trinitate that while we can know God through His creation, and in God’s actions through history, the highest form of the knowledge of God is to know God as the Unknown (tamquam Ignotum).   That is, to have the wisdom and humility to say that the highest form of talking about the Holy Trinity is to know that one does not know, that one does not comprehend or grasp the essence about that which we speak. We can say what God is not, but we cannot say comprehensively what He is, in essence.

Now this is humility. It does not mean that we know nothing, but it does mean that we must approach God with humility, realizing that we know very little. And what we do know is more by negation, than by positively grasping that of which we speak.

Yet because we frequently are not humble, because we forget that what we know is very limited, because we forget that our words reduce even natural concepts to simplistic signs called words, and thoughts…because we forget all of this, we often get into hideous and prideful arguments.

An old saying goes, “The wise man may point to the moon, but the fool sees only the finger.” That is, words are like the finger, our thoughts are also like the finger, but our thoughts and our words are not the reality, they only point to the reality.

But instead of seeking the reality, we debate about the words, about the reduction that we call  thought. Surely this is unavoidable in an absolute sense, but if we can humbly realize that our words and concepts are not the reality, but only that which points to the reality, perhaps in this humility, arguments about “the finger” (to use our analogy) will become less destructive and hateful.

It is true, some words, and ideas are simply wrong, are not in conformity with the truth, and are quite out of touch with reality or revelation.  In such cases, we must critique, debunk, and demonstrate the error of such notions.

But in so many other cases, we end up debating things that we ought not to debate.  And we do so, not because the words that are spoken by others are untrue, but simply because they are not precisely the words we would use, or the formula that we prefer. Someone may speak poetically, but we  prefer science, and so we scoff. Someone speaks in terms of Carmelite spirituality, but we prefer Ignatian, so we scoff. Someone encounters God charismatically  but another, more traditionally. And out come the long knives.

How foolish. God and the life he offers is so much richer than our words, concepts, and thoughts. Of course there will be legitimate diversity, there has to be. The Church, in Her Scripture and Tradition certainly sets up guardrails, beyond on which we shall not go. But within the guard rails is a road with different lanes, different traditions, both intellectual and spiritual.

Perhaps an old story I heard once on retreat will help. It is about two blind men. Each of them went separately to a man who could see and asked, “What is this thing called Green?”  But of course. how does one describe the color green to a man who is never seen? All one can do is use analogy. So the man who could see, said to the first man, “The color green is like soothing and soft music.”  To the other man who came to him later, he said, “The color green is like the smell of cool mint.”  Both men went away reasonably content. Of course, neither of them had really experienced the color green, but had only heard an analogy of it. But when the two blind men got together they were heard to be screaming at one another, and even threatening violence as the one shouted, “Green is like cool mint!!” and the other said, “No! is is like soft music!”

Of course those of us who know the color green, know that it is a far richer concept than either cool mint or soft music.  We easily laugh at the the blind men debating which analogy was the correct one. Neither analogy was correct, nor incorrect, they’re just analogies, describing some aspect of “Green”, but not even close to the whole meaning. So we laugh. To use the previous analogy, the blind men were “seeing” only the finger, and missing the moon to which it points. Green is not cool mint or soft music, it is only like them in some distant way. In fact, green is more unlike cool mint than like it, more unlike soft music than like it.

But though we laugh at the blind men, we are so much like them in so many ways. We think we see so well, but much of reality is hidden to us. So many of the words and concepts on which we insist are but reductive analogies of a far richer reality. And while we may find certain approaches, certain words, certain traditions, certain analogies, to be more helpful than others, the reality to which these things point is so much richer than any reductive word, thought or analogy of them.

It is too easy, even in matters which the Church grants us freedom, to be like the two blind men savaging each other and threatening violence over whose analogies are the best. And yet, neither analogy is even close to the actual reality. More unlike it and like it!

Perhaps it is best to end were we began: Our strengths are often our struggles. Our capacity for language, for words, for signs, analogies, and all sorts of intellectual concepts, is a remarkable and magnificent capacity. But too easily our strength also becomes our struggle because we forget that our signs, words, analogies and intellectual concepts are not the reality they describe, but merely point to the reality, a reality that is far richer the words or concepts.

Only humility can help us, so that our strengths do not turn to become the very thing over which we struggle!

The LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him. (Habakkuk 2:20)

Does God Harden Human Hearts?

082713One of the more difficult Biblical themes to understand is the concept of God hardening the hearts and minds of certain human beings. The most memorable case is that of Pharaoh wherein, before sending Moses to him God said he would “harden Pharaoh’s heart” (Ex 4:21). But there are other instances where biblical texts speak of God as hardening the hearts of sinners, even from among his own people.

What are we to make of texts like these? How can God, who does no evil, be the source of a sinful mind or heart? Why would God do such a thing since he has said elsewhere:

  1. As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?’ (Ez 33:11)
  2. God our Savior…wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim 2:4)

To be sure, these questions involve very deep mysteries, mysteries about God’s sovereignty and how it interacts with our freedom, mysteries of time, and mysteries of causality. As a mystery within mysteries, the question of God hardening hearts cannot simply be resolved. Greater minds than I have pondered these things, and it would be foolish to think that a easy resolution is to be found in a blog post.

But some distinctions can and should be made, and some context supplied. We do not want to understand the “hardening texts” in simplistic ways, or in ways that use one truth to cancel out other important truths that balance it. So please permit only a modest summary of the ancient discussion.

I propose we examine these sorts of texts along four lines:

  1. The Context of Connivance.
  2. The Mystery of Time
  3. The Mystery of Primary Causality
  4. The Necessity of Humility

To begin it is important simply to list a selection of the hardening texts. The following are not the only ones, but they sample them widely enough:

  1. The LORD said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go. (Ex 4:21)
  2. Moses and Aaron performed all these wonders before Pharaoh, but the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go out of his country. (Ex 11:10)
  3. Why, O LORD, do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so we do not revere you? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes that are your inheritance. (Is 63:17)
  4. He [God] has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn–and I would heal them. (Jesus quoting Isaiah Isaiah 6:9-10, at John 12:40)
  5. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie (2 Thess 2:11)
  6. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another…..Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. (Rom 1:24, 28)

Point I. – THE CONTEXT OF CONNIVANCE – In properly assessing texts like these we ought first to consider the contexts in which they were made and written. Generally speaking, most all of these declarations that God hardens the heart, come after a significant period of disobedience on the part of those hardened. In a way, God “cements” the deal and gives them fully what they really want. For having hardened their own hearts to God, God determines that their disposition is a permanent one, and in a sovereign exercise of his will, (for nothing can happen without God’s allowance), declares and permits their heart to be hardened in a definitive kind of way. In this sense, there is a judgement of God upon the individual that recognizes their definitive decision against him. Hence, this hardening can be understood as voluntary, on the part of the one hardened, for God hardens in such a way that he uses their own will, whom he hardens, for the executing of his judgment and his acceptance that their will against him is definitive.

A. For example, in the case of Pharaoh, it is true, as the Exodus 4:21 text says above, God indicated to Moses that he would harden Pharaoh’s heart. But the actual working out of this is a bit more complicated than that. We see in the first five plagues, it is Pharaoh who hardens his own heart (Ex. 7:13; 7:22; 8:11; 8:28; & 9:7). It is only after this repeated hardening of his own heart, that the Exodus text shifts, and speaks of God as the one who hardens (Ex 9:12; 9:34; 10:1; 10:20; 10:27). Hence the hardening here is not without Pharaoh’s repeated demonstration of his own hardness, and God, if you will, “cements the deal” as a kind of sovereign judgment on Pharaoh.

B. The Isaiah texts, many in number, that speak of a hardening being visited upon Israel by God, (e.g. #s 3 and 4 above), are also the culmination of a long testimony, by the prophet, of Israel’s hardness. At the beginning of the Isaiah’s ministry, Israel’s hardness was described as of their own doing by God who said through Isaiah: For the LORD has spoken: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” Ah, sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the LORD; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him. (Is 1:2-4). There follows a long list of their crimes, their hardness and their refusal to repent.

1. St. John Chrysostom – of the numerous texts Later in Isaiah (and also referenced by Jesus (e.g. Jn 12:40), that speak of Israel as being hardened by God, and having him shut their eyes, St John Chrysostom says, That the saying of Isaiah might be fulfilled: that here is expressive not of the cause, but of the event. They did not disbelieve because Isaias said they would; but because they would disbelieve, Isaias said they would…. For He does not leave us, except we wish Him….Whereby it is plain that we begin to forsake first, and are the cause of our own perdition. For as it is not the fault of the sun, that it hurts weak eyes, so neither is God to blame for punishing those who do not attend to His words. (on a gloss of Is. 6:9-10 at Jn 12:40, quoted in the Catena Aurea).

2. St Augustine also says, This is not said to be the devil’s doing, but God’s. Yet if any ask why they could not believe, I answer, because they would not…But the Prophet, you say, mentions another cause, not their will; but that God had blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart. But I answer, that they well deserved this. For God hardens and blinds a man, by forsaking and not supporting him; and this He makes by a secret sentence, for by an unjust one He cannot (Quoted in the Catena Aurea at Jn 12:40).

C. Of the text of 2 Thessalonians, God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie quoted in # 5 above, while the text speaks of God as having sent the delusion, the verse before and after make clear the sinful role of the punished saying: They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved….so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness ( 2 Thess 2:10,12).

1. Of this text, St. Augustine says, From a hidden judgment of God comes perversity of heart, so that the refusal to hear the truth leads to the commission of sin, and this sin is itself a punishment for the preceding sin [of refusing to hear the truth]. (Against Julian 5.3.12).

2. St John Damascus says, [God does this] so that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness (The Orthodox Faith 4.26).

D. The texts from Romans 1 speak of God handing them over only after they have suppressed the truth (1:18), persevered in their wickedness (1:18) and preferred lust and idolatry (1:23-24), hence, as a just judgement, he hands them over to sexual confusion (homosexuality) and to countless other destructive drives. So here too, though it is said God hands them over, it is really not that simple. God has, in effect, cemented the deal. They do not want to serve them and so He, knowing their definitive decision, gives them what they want.

E. Thus, our first point of distinction in understanding the “hardening” texts is that the context of connivance is important in assessing them. It is not asserted by Scripture that God takes a reasonably righteous man and, out of the blue, hardens his heart, confuses his mind or causes him, against his will, to become obstinate. The texts are usually presented as a kind of prevenient judgement by God, that the state of the person’s hardness has now become permanent. They refuse and so God cements the deal and “causes” them to walk in their own sinful ways since they have insisted so.

Point II. – THE MYSTERY OF TIME – In understanding these hardening texts, which we have seen, are akin to judgment texts, we must strive to recall that God does not live in time in the same we do. Scripture speaks often of God’s knowledge and vision of time as being comprehensive, rather than speculative or serial (e.g. Ex 3:14; Ps 90:2-4; Ps 93:2; Is 43:13; Ps 139; 2 Peter 3:8; James 1:17; inter al.).

A. To say that God is eternal and that he lives in eternity is to say that he lives in the fullness of time. For God, past, present and future are all the same. God is not wondering what I will do tomorrow, neither is he waiting for it to happen. For Him, my tomorrow has always been present to Him. All of my days were written in His book before one of them ever came to be (Ps 139:16). Whether, and how long I live, has always been known to him. Before he ever formed me in my mother’s womb he knew me (Jer 1:4). My final destiny is already known and present to him.

B. Hence, when we strive to understand God’s judgments in the form of hardening the hearts of certain people, we must be careful not to think he lives in time like we do. It is not as though God is watching my life like a movie. He already knows the choice I will make. Thus, when God hardens the hearts of some, it is not as though he were merely trying to negatively influence the outcome, and trip certain people up. He already knows the outcome and has always known it, he knows the destiny they have chosen.

C. Now be very careful with this insight, for it is a mystery to us. We cannot really know what it is like to live in eternity, in the fullness of time, where the future is just is present as the past. If you think you know, you really don’t. What is essential for us is that we realize that God does not live in time like we do. If we try too hard to solve the mystery (rather than merely accept and respect it) we risk falling into the denial of human freedom, or double predestination, or other wrong-headed notions that sacrifice one truth for another, rather than to hold them in balance. That God knows what I will do tomorrow, does not destroy my freedom to actually do it. How this all works out is mysterious. But we are free, Scripture teaches this, and God holds us accountable for our choices. Further, even though God knows my destiny already, and yours as well, does not mean that He is revealing anything about that to us, as though we should look for signs and seek to call ourselves saved or lost. We ought to work out our salvation in a reverential fear and trembling (Phil 2:12).

D. The Key point here is mystery. Striving to understand how, why and when God hardens the heart of anyone is caught up in the mysterious fact that he lives outside of time and knows all things before they happen. Thus he acts with comprehensive knowledge of all outcomes.

Point III. – THE MYSTERY OF CAUSALITY – One of the major differences between the ancient and the modern world is that the ancient world was much more comfortable in dealing with something known as primary causality.

A. Up until the Renaissance God was at the center of all things and people instinctively saw the hand of God in everything, even terrible things. Job of old said, The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised….if we have received good things at the hand of God, why should we not receive evil?” (Job 1:21; 2:10). Thus the ancients would commonly attribute everything as coming from the hand of God, for he was the “first cause” of everything that happened. This is what we mean by primary causality. The ancients were thus more comfortable attributing things to God that we are not. In speaking like this, they were not engaged in a form of superstitious or primitive thinking, but they emphasized that God was sovereign, omnipotent and omnipresent and that nothing happened apart from his sovereign will, He is the Primary Cause of all that is.

1. Of this ancient and scriptural way of thinking the Catechism says, And so we see the Holy Spirit, the principal author of Sacred Scripture, often attributing actions to God without mentioning any secondary causes [e.g. human or natural]. This is not a “primitive mode of speech”, but a profound way of recalling God’s primacy and absolute Lordship over history and the world, and so of educating his people to trust in him. (CCC # 304)

2. The Key point here is understanding that the ancient Biblical texts while often speaking of God as hardening the hearts of sinners, did not, as we saw above, mean that man had no role, or no responsibility. Neither did it mean that God acted in a merely arbitrary way. Rather, the emphasis was on God’s sovereign power as the first cause of all that is and hence he is often called the cause of all things and his hand is seen in everything. We moderns are uncomfortable in speaking this way as we shall see.

B. After the Renaissance man moved to the center and God was gradually “escorted” to the periphery. Thus our manner of thinking and speaking began to shift to secondary causes (causes related to man and nature). If something happens we look to natural causes, or in human situations, to the humans who caused it. These are secondary causes however, since I cannot cause something to happen unless God causes me. Yet increasingly the modern mind struggles to maintain a balance between the two mysteries of our freedom, and responsibility and God’s Sovereignty and omnipotence.

C. In effect we have largely thrown primary causality overboard as a category. Even modern believers unconsciously do this and thus exhibit three issues related to this.

1. We fail to maintain the proper balance between two mysteries: God’s Sovereignty and our freedom.

2. We exhibit shock at things like the “hardening texts” of the Bible because we understand them poorly.

3. We try to resolve the shock by favoring one truth over the other. Maybe we just brush aside the ancient biblical texts as a “primitive mode of speech” and say, inappropriately, “God didn’t have anything to do with this or that.” Or we go to the other extreme and become fatalistic, deny human freedom, deny secondary causality (our part) and accuse God of everything; as if he were the only cause and had the sole blame for everything. Thus, we either read the hardening texts with a clumsy literalism, or dismiss them as misguided notions from an immature, primitive, and pre-scientific age.

D. The point here is that we have to balance the mysteries of primary and secondary causality. We cannot fully understand how they interrelate, but they do. Both mysteries need to be held. The ancients were more sophisticated in holding these mysteries in the proper balance. We are not. We handle causality very clumsily and do not appreciate the distinctions of primary causality (God’s part) and secondary causality (our part, and nature’s too). We try to resolve the mystery rather than hold it in balance and speak to both realities. As such, we are poor interpreters of the “hardening texts.”

Point IV – THE NECESSITY OF HUMILITY – By now it will be seen that we are dealing with a mysterious interrelationship of God and Man, between our freedom and God’s sovereignty, between primary and secondary causality. In the face of such mysteries we have to be very humble. We ought not think more of the details than is proper for us, for, frankly they are largely hidden from us. Too many moderns either dismiss the hardening texts or accept them and sit in harsh judgment over God, as if we could do such a thing. Neither approach bespeaks humility. Consider a shocking but very humbling text where Paul warns us in this very matter:

What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” (Romans 9:14-20)

In effect, none of can demand an absolute account of God for what he does. Even if he were to tell us, could our small and worldly minds ever really comprehend it? My thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways, says the Lord (Is 55:8).

Summary – In this post, rather too long, we have considered the “hardening texts” where it seems that God is said to harden the hearts of certain people and groups. And so he does. But texts like these must be carefully approached with proper distinctions, appeal to the scriptural and historical context, and deep humility. There are profound mysteries at work here: mysteries of God’s sovereignty, our freedom, his mercy and also his justice.

We ought to careful to admit the limits of our knowledge when it comes to such texts. As the Catechism so beautifully stated, when it comes to texts like these, they are to appreciated as a profound way of recalling God’s primacy and absolute Lordship over history and the world, and so of educating his people to trust in him. (CCC # 304)

This song says, “Lord I’ve sinned, But you’re still calling my name…”

Hidden Jewel: An Advent Hymn Often Unheard

I have published on this Hymn before but want to post on it again at the beginning of Advent in hopes that a few of you who have the influence and ability may see that this hymn in used in your parishes for Advent at some point.

For my money the best Advent hymn ever written is Veni Redemptor Gentium (Come Redeemer of the Nations) written by St. Ambrose in the 4th Century.

One of the beautiful things about the ancient Latin Hymns is how richly theological they are. Not content to merely describe the event in question, they give sweeping theological vision and delve into the more hidden mysteries of each event.

So here we are beginning Advent and Jesus is coming, get ready! Well yes, but he is not just coming, he is redeeming, dying, rising, ascending and reigning at the Father’s Right Hand!  But how can we get all that into an Advent Hymn?  Well, just below you can read the text and see how.

But for now ponder the theological point that hymns like this make. And it is this:  that no act of God can merely be reduced to the thing in itself. Everything God does is part of a sweeping master plan to restore all things in Christ, to take back what the devil stole from us! Too often we see the events of our redemption in a disconnected sort of way, but it is all really one thing and the best theology connects the dots. It is not wrong for us to focus on one thing or another, but we must not forget it is all one thing in the end.

Without this we can develop a kind of myopia (a limited vision) that over-emphasizes some aspect of redemption and thus harms the rest by a lack of balance. In the 1970s and 80s we had all resurrection all the time, but no passion or death. Christmas too has its hazards as we get rather sentimental about the “baby Jesus” but miss other important aspects of his incarnation. The passion and death are present in his birth in homeless poverty, the swaddling clothes, the flight into Egypt and so forth. The Eucharist is evident in his birth at Bethlehem (House of Bread) and his being laid in a manger (feed box for animals). His glory as God and his ultimate triumph are manifest in the Star overhead and the Angels declaration of glory! You see it is all tied together and the best theology connects the dots.

So with that in mind I present you to this wonderful Advent hymn so seldom sung in our Catholic Parishes. It can be sung to any Long Meter tune but is usually sung to its own melody (Puer Natus – see video below). I give here only the English translation but the PDF you can get by clicking here: ( VENI REDEMPTOR GENTIUM) contains also the Latin text. I think the poetic translation reprinted here is a minor masterpiece of English literature and hope you’ll agree. Enjoy this sweeping theological vision of the mystery of advent caught up into the grand and fuller vision of redemption.

Among the theological truths treated in this brief hymn are these: His title as Redeemer, his virgin birth, his inclusion of the Gentiles, his sinlessness, his two natures but one person, his incarnation at conception, His passion, death, descent into hell, ascension,  his seat at the Father’s right hand, his divinity and equality with the Father, his healing and sanctification of our humanity so wounded by sin, his granting us freedom and eternal life, his renewing of our minds through the light of faith, his opening of heaven to us.

Not bad for seven verses!   St. Ambrose, Pray for us!   And now the hymn:

  • Come, thou Redeemer of the earth,
  • Come testify thy virgin birth:
  • All lands admire, all times applaud:
  • Such is the birth that fits our God.
  • Forth from his chamber goeth he,
  • That royal home of purity,
  • A giant in twofold substance one,
  • Rejoicing now his course to run.
  • The Virgin’s womb that glory gained,
  • Its virgin honor is still unstained.
  • The banners there of virtue glow;
  • God in his temple dwells below.
  • From God the Father he proceeds,
  • To God the Father back he speeds;
  • Runs out his course to death and hell,
  • Returns on God’s high throne to dwell.
  • O Equal to thy Father, thou!
  • Gird on thy fleshly mantle now;
  • The weakness of our mortal state
  • With deathless might invigorate.
  • Thy cradle here shall glitter bright,
  • And darkness breathe a newer light,
  • Where endless faith shall shine serene,
  • And twilight never intervene.
  • All laud, eternal Son, to thee
  • Whose advent sets thy people free,
  • Whom with the Father we adore,
  • And Holy Ghost, for evermore.

 This video gives you an idea of what the hymn tune for Veni Redemptor Gentium sounds like. The words in this version are slightly different but the hymn tune is perfect. Try not to dance as it is sung. You can find the melody for this hymn tune in the hymn tune index of most hymnals. This hymn tune is called “Puer Natus.” The words to this hymn however can be sung to any Long Meter (LM) hymn tune.

How about a Little Humility

When I was a little kid the science books said that the universe was in a steady state and had existed forever. There were some theories about the universe actually expanding but these were not accepted by most who declared the steady state universe to be a matter of “settled” science. Though evidence had been building through the 20th Century for an expanding universe (red shift etc.) and the “Big Bang” that started everything,  many ridiculed the Big Bang Theory with slogans like “Big Bust” and “Big Boom.” Discoveries in the mid sixties (e.g. background microwave radiation) shifted the debate and the Big Bang Theory won the day. But the fact is, in my own lifetime cosmology (How we understand the universe) has undergone a seismic shift. The science was not so settled after all.

When I was in High School the scientific world was all abuzz with climate change. But in the 1970s “climate change” referred to the fact that a new ice age was coming. It was held that man made pollution would so block the sun’s rays, that by the year 2000 the ice caps would be advancing and winters in the north would become increasingly frigid and summers shorter. The usual calamities were predicted: widespread hunger since growing seasons would shorten, extinctions etc. By the dreaded year, 2000,  many the same climatologists were predicting global warming and the same catastrophic consequences but now postponed to 2050 or beyond. These climatologists demand that we accept that their conclusions are “settled science.” Another seismic shift in my own lifetime and pardon me if I am a bit less certain than is demanded of me.

Science has brought us many blessings, but it would seem humility is not among those blessings. We do well to rediscover words like theory, possibility, assumption, premise, thesis, supposition and the like.

I am not attacking science here. True science is comfortable with the fact that, as evidence changes, so do theories. Likewise, our capacity to measure changes and generally gets better. This brings forth new data and shifts theories, sometimes in significant ways. This is part of the scientific method wherein data and evidence are accepted and interpreted in an on-going way so that theories grow and sometimes change.

But we are living in a world increasingly dominated by advocacy science. The “cause” too often eclipses the science.  Funding too has become a pernicious influence and whole scientific disciplines start to follow the money more than the data. “Popular” and politically savvy theories get funded, unpopular less politically correct ones do not. Popular media also influences science more than it should.  Some scientists get the interview, others do not and thus pop science often eclipses the truer and careful laboratory science.

Through it all, there are still wonderful scientists and great things happening in science. And the best of it is restoring a  lot of humility to the equation. Quantum theory is bewildering to be sure but it is showing the limits of our current understanding. Physics is bumping up against metaphysics, science is rubbing shoulders with philosophy, the material world seems to be pointing beyond itself.

This is not an essay in radical skepticism. There ARE many things we do know. But there are so many more that we do not know. We are not even sure how something as basic as gravity works. What we know amounts to a period at the end of a sentence in one book in the Library of Congress. And there are a LOT of books in the Library of Congress. Scripture says of the created world, Beyond these, many things lie hid; only a few of Gods’ works have we seen. (Sirach 43:34). It is humility that is necessary in the great pursuit of science.

In theology too humility is essential. Here,  as in science,  there are many things we know by faith and are certain about, things which God himself has revealed. But many other things are mysterious to us and we dare not ever think we have God or even the mystery of our own life fully figured out. God is “Other” and cannot be reduced to our thoughts or words. And thus we speak with clarity about what has certainly been revealed. But we also reverence the mystery of what is beyond our understanding with humility. To hand on what has been revealed intact and to insist upon it is not the arrogance that some claim. Rather it is the humility of accepting what God has revealed intact without selectively choosing what merely appeals to us. But even as we speak of what we surely know by God’s revelation, we are always humbly aware of what we do not know.

In the Book of Proverbs there is an important reminder: Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him. (Prov 26:12) 

By the way, double click on the picture above and you’ll get a better look at how beautiful it really is. It also illustrates how the huge mountains on this planet are tiny compared to the vast universe. So too our knowledge compared to what can be known.

Here is a good video that shows a consistent lack of humility in the many prognosticators of our day. It is a very cleverly done video.

What is Distinctive About the Biblical Revelation of God?

There is much talk today about how we, despite our theological differences are all really worshipping the same God. Is that true? We might like to think that under all this diversity is really a unity but the fact is that there are some pretty radical differences in the understanding of God. So radical that I do not think we can really affirm wishful slogans like the one above. There is only one true God but many have imagined other gods who are not God, surely not God as he reveals Himself in the Bible.

Another common problem today is to presume that the Biblical insights about God are not really unique but merely borrowed from other ancient cultures. Zeitgeist the movie makes this claim. But the truth is that the Biblical tradition, while having some similarities to other things ancient, departs radically from most ancient and modern philosophies. The Biblical Revelation really IS unique and transcends many Ancient and modern errors.

Here are two videos by Fr. Robert Barron that make these points well.