Foundations of the Faith Part 2: God Revealed

This is the second of a 12-part series that will cover core teachings of the Catholic faith. Once a month from January through December, this space will focus on exploring a specific aspect of the Church’s teaching. To read and share this and the previous part of the series, visit osv.com/foundations.

Next month’s topic: Scripture and Tradition

In his 1999 letter to artists, St. John Paul II wrote: “Works of art speak of their authors.” One might say the same about God and his work of art: creation. All one has to do is look at the world and the people in it, and one can sense that everything proclaims, “I am wonderfully made” (Ps 139:14).

The Church has taught consistently for more than 2,000 years that God reveals himself through the book of nature, including human beings. Moreover, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that God’s revelation is communicated gradually. God prepares mankind “to welcome by stages the supernatural revelation that is to culminate in the person and mission of the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ” (CCC, No. 53). In order to appreciate God’s full revelation in Jesus, one needs to appreciate the stages of revelation that lead to him. The stages can be distinguished through the advents of creation, human beings and the Jewish people.

Revelation through creation

St. Paul, in the Letter to the Romans, speaks of the first stage of revelation to those who try to suppress the truth of God’s existence: “For what can be known about God is evident to them, because God made it evident to them. Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made” (1:19-20).

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God reveals himself through all of his creation, including the beauty of nature and the goodness of other people. Shutterstock

The argument has raged ever since. While the Church states matter-of-factly that by “natural reason man can know God with certainty, on the basis of his works” (CCC, No. 50), self-described atheists posit God’s nonexistence by appealing to the natural order as well. One of the more popular explanations is the speculation that matter has always existed, and at one point, beyond all probability, some of the matter combined in such a way that made life possible. Still, the question of how matter came into existence remains.

Aquinas' Five Proofs
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jorisvo / Shutterstock, Inc.
St. Thomas Aquinas is famous for what has been called his five “proofs” of God’s existence. But St. Thomas did not present his words as scientific proof in the present sense of the term. Rather, Aquinas was providing logical arguments that point to the existence of God. The basic conclusion of each is that God is the Uncaused Cause or First Mover. It’s also important to keep in mind that Aquinas’ five “proofs” in the “Summa Theologiae” were one part of a grander theological effort. The five “proofs” are:

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who later became Pope Benedict XVI) tried to bring the sides together with a philosophical approach that could be accepted by both believer and nonbeliever. The argument goes like this: Everything that exists ipso facto participates in being. Human beings know that they are not the cause of their own being. They also know that many things made by human hands were first thought and then made out of existing matter. But where did the matter come from? Cardinal Ratzinger said thought precedes matter. Therefore, some being must have thought matter into existence. Christians (among others) call that being God.

Ratzinger’s argument is not a proof in the sense of a scientific proof, but it is a reasonable response to the notion that matter always existed (which, by the way, cannot be proven either). What Ratzinger does want to provide is an entry point for someone who is searching for God. If a person is able to “see” God through creation, he or she may eventually come to faith.

Another approach to exploring God revealed through creation is, appropriately, not logical argument but art and poetry. The Irish Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89) sought to articulate the wonder of God present in the beauty of creation in his poem “God’s Grandeur”:

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell; the soil
Is bare now, not can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, spring —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”

Revelation through humans

A second “stage” in God’s revelation of himself involves the existence of human beings, who are a part of creation but unique among creatures. The big difference is that man and woman, unlike matter, can ask themselves, “How did I get here?” They know intuitively that their lives and the lives of their ancestors point to some beginning: An endless series of parents and grandparents and so on is not reasonable. Again, something or someone — outside of creation — must have started everything.

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Because human beings are created in the image of God, they can't erase their connection to him. Jorn Pilon/Shutterstock.com

The Church teaches that human beings have a kind of deep memory of having been created by God. Gaudium et Spes, Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, states that from “the very circumstance of his origin man is already invited to converse with God” (No. 19), and the Catechism teaches that God invited the first humans “to intimate communion with himself and clothed them with resplendent grace and justice” (No. 54). This deep memory is the very source for humanity’s search for meaning and for believers’ desire to be reunited with God. But if an individual’s existence speaks of God’s existence, then why are there some people who do not believe?

The answer is that something went wrong — the Church calls it the first sin, when humanity turned from their creator in a fruitless effort to become gods themselves. The irony is that because human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, they cannot completely obliterate their connection to him even though they can (and do) make the effort.

Nevertheless, most people continue to grope for ultimate meaning and the source of their being. St. Paul encountered such people when he visited Athens, where he sat with and listened to those gathered at the Areopagus. They were searching for the origin of the universe and even posited multiple gods as the source. Paul compliments their intuition and introduces them to God through Jesus Christ. Some of them scoffed, and some “became believers” (Acts 17:16-34).

Paul’s experience in Athens demonstrates an important limitation to keep in mind about the revelation of God through creation, whether it be physical nature or human: it can bring one to the recognition of a divine being, but it does not necessarily end in knowledge of the God of Judaism and Christianity. To know God personally requires hearing about him from his chosen instruments.

Revelation through Christ

The gathering of the Jewish people into one nation is a third “stage” in God’s revelation of himself. After the first sin had alienated humanity from God, God at the opportune time established a relationship with the people of Israel, and they introduced the world to what that relationship means. To summarize greatly the content of the Old Testament, the world comes to know through the Jewish prophets, patriarchs and people that God is not only the creator but also a loving father: “The Lord, the Lord, a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love and fidelity, continuing his love for a thousand generations …” (Ex 34:6-7). God’s children, moreover, include not only the Jewish people, but all people, as God’s word to Abraham makes clear: “for I am making you the father of a multitude of nations” (Gn 17:5).

disciples
Jesus with his disciples. Renata Sedmakova/Shutterstock.com

To make the offer of universal salvation unequivocal, God extends his revelation from creation and the Jewish people to one man, Jesus Christ. Through Jesus, the revelation of God reaches its fullness, because Jesus demonstrates through his life, death and resurrection that he is God in the flesh, both truly human and divine.

Jesus gives access to God in a way that builds upon, but far surpasses, the other stages of revelation: “By revealing himself God wishes to make [men and women] capable of responding to him, and of knowing him and of loving him far beyond their own natural capacity” (CCC, No. 52).

The Good News that Jesus came to share with us is that God loves humanity so much that he is willing not only to create the world and charge it with his beauty — including humanity — but also in the face of sin to redeem the world through Jesus and to sustain it through the Holy Spirit. St. John sums it up well: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (Jn 3:16-17).

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Jesus Christ is the ultimate revelation of God, in whom God participates in creation. jorisvo / Shutterstock, Inc.

The implications of the Good News are impossible to exhaust. It’s not enough to say that human beings can be forgiven through Jesus, and once they have repented, they can live by the grace of the Holy Spirit until they pass into life with God after death. The amazing truth is that God in Jesus has entered the world: God has participated in his creation, even going so far as to become a man. And he does so precisely to invite humanity to participate in the divine being, so as not to be subject to the wages of sin (Rom 6:23).

Since Jesus is both human and divine, he can suffer and die like us, but he is not bound to death like us. When he unites his nature to ours, he orders all things toward eternal life. Even bread and wine become sacraments of redemption. We come “to the Father, through Christ, the Word made flesh, in the Holy Spirit, and thus become sharers in the divine nature” (CCC, No. 51).

God’s revelation as it unfolded in time and in different stages brought forth the fullness of his love, incarnated in Jesus. We are invited to share in God’s love by immersing ourselves in Christ, which begins by hearing his word and then keeping it (Lk 11:28). Jesus has provided the means through the sacraments and promises to abide with us through his Holy Spirit. As we unite ourselves to him, we not only discover the source of everything but also find the person God intended us to be. The key is to abide in God’s revelation, for the Lord has made known his loving plan to bring all mankind to him.

What about evolution?

One question raised by the teaching of God revealed in all of creation is how scientific theories related to evolution and the origins of human life fit in with Catholic doctrine.

One of the most thorough treatments of this question by a pope is found in a 1996 message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences by Pope St. John Paul II. Here is an excerpt from his message:

'He is the Beginning'
The famous verses in Colossians (1:15-20), which may have been an early Christian hymn, proclaim that Jesus is the agent not only of creation but also of redemption. Jesus holds together the universe and the Church. He is, indeed, the fullness of God’s revelation:

“In his encyclical Humani Generis (1950), my predecessor Pius XII has already affirmed that there is no conflict between evolution and the doctrine of the faith regarding man and his vocation, provided that we do not lose sight of certain fixed points. ...

“And to tell the truth, rather than speaking about the theory of evolution, it is more accurate to speak of the theories of evolution. The use of the plural is required here—in part because of the diversity of explanations regarding the mechanism of evolution, and in part because of the diversity of philosophies involved. There are materialist and reductionist theories, as well as spiritualist theories. Here the final judgment is within the competence of philosophy and, beyond that, of theology.

Pope St. John Paul II on the Revelation of Christ
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Pope St. John Paul II
“Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it. This, as has already been said, is why Christ the Redeemer ‘fully reveals man to himself.’ If we may use the expression, this is the human dimension of the mystery of the Redemption. In this dimension man finds again the greatness, dignity and value that belong to his humanity. In the mystery of the Redemption man becomes newly ‘expressed’ and, in a way, is newly created. He is newly created! ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ The man who wishes to understand himself thoroughly — and not just in accordance with immediate, partial, often superficial, and even illusory standards and measures of his being — he must with his unrest, uncertainty and even his weakness and sinfulness, with his life and death, draw near to Christ. He must, so to speak, enter into him with all his own self, he must ‘appropriate’ and assimilate the whole of the reality of the Incarnation and Redemption in order to find himself. If this profound process takes place within him, he then bears fruit not only of adoration of God but also of deep wonder at himself. How precious must man be in the eyes of the Creator, if he ‘gained so great a Redeemer,’ and if God ‘gave his only Son’ in order that man ‘should not perish but have eternal life.’”

“The magisterium of the Church takes a direct interest in the question of evolution, because it touches on the conception of man, whom Revelation tells us is created in the image and likeness of God. The conciliar constitution Gaudium et Spes has given us a magnificent exposition of this doctrine, which is one of the essential elements of Christian thought. The Council recalled that ‘man is the only creature on earth that God wanted for its own sake.’ In other words, the human person cannot be subordinated as a means to an end, or as an instrument of either the species or the society; he has a value of his own. He is a person. By this intelligence and his will, he is capable of entering into relationship, of communion, of solidarity, of the gift of himself to others like himself. St. Thomas observed that man’s resemblance to God resides especially in his speculative intellect, because his relationship with the object of his knowledge is like God’s relationship with his creation. But even beyond that, man is called to enter into a loving relationship with God himself, a relationship which will find its full expression at the end of time, in eternity. Within the mystery of the risen Christ the full grandeur of this vocation is revealed to us. It is by virtue of his eternal soul that the whole person, including his body, possesses such great dignity. Pius XII underlined the essential point: if the origin of the human body comes through living matter which existed previously, the spiritual soul is created directly by God.

“As a result, the theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. They are therefore unable to serve as the basis for the dignity of the human person.”

David Werning writes from Virginia.

Nihil Obstat: Msgr. Michael Heintz, Censor Librorum