[from a 2013 journal entry. Read only if you want some mind stretching this morning :)]
To be receptive to the highest truth, and to live therein, a man must needs be without before and after, untrammelled by all his acts or by any images he ever perceived, empty and free, receiving the divine gift in the eternal Now, and bearing it back unhindered in the light of the same with praise and thanksgiving in our Lord Jesus Christ (Mesiter Eckhart, German sermon 6).
My children and I often have bedtime chats about the big questions of life, which is both a delight and a challenge. It’s a delight because their fascination with the meaning of life reawakens my fascination. And the fact that they want to talk about this with their father, even as teens? Holding on to that one. But it’s also a challenge because their questions, which are so basic, force me to articulate truths which cannot be “gotten behind” because they are so fundamental; the ground on which faith and reason walk. Like the principle of non-contradiction (which means that contradictory statements cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time) certain truths just have to be accepted as givens, forming the basis for any conversation governed by the rules of logic. Like existence. That we exist is a given, a needed presupposition without which any rational discourse is impossible. If we assume we live in The Matrix, we can proceed no further.
One of the “basic” questions my son Nicholas has posed to me again and again since he was six years old is the meaning of divine eternity. How is it possible, or even conceivable, that God is without beginning, without origin? He once articulated it this way: “If God knows everything, has infinite knowledge, if he also has no beginning where did he get all his information from in the first place? What was there to know if there was nothing other than God? But I guess even saying ‘was’ in the past tense already misses the point of eternal, right? Okay, let’s stop. It hurts my head!”
Nick had asked this often enough to keep this puzzle in the forefront of my thinking and prayer. It’s served as a powerful stimulus for theological wonder! In fact, I often pray now over Aquinas’ description of God as actus purus essendi, “the pure act of being” or as ipsum esse subsistens, “self-subsistent Being” – both of which mean that God is (to speak awkwardly) self-caused, the source and reason for his own existence.
The other day [November 2013] Nick asked a particular question I had never thought of, at least in the way he asked it:
Dad, okay, I get that God has no beginning. I get the idea. That God’s the reason for his own existence. But this is what I still don’t get: Why does God exist? I mean, what’s his reason for existing at all? And why is he love and not, like, raw power or something else? And if he’s really infinitely free, did he choose to exist as a Trinity or did he have no choice?
I think I passed out.
After saying, “I think that may be the most mind-bending theological question I have ever heard,” I said, “We’ve just reached the boundaries of thought in theology.” I shared with him the theological strategy of apophasis, or “unsaying.” Apophatic theology affirms that everything we say about an infinite God requires, as soon as we “say” something is true about God, that we have to immediately “unsay” it. Because everything we can say is drawn from our experience of this finite world. To be apophatic is to acknowledge that God is always more unlike than like what we have said about him. We might say, “God is good, but he is good in a way that infinitely transcends our experience of goodness. There is likeness, but always greater unlikeness because he is infinite.”
It’s one way to think of what God means when he says, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live” (Ex. 33:20). When we compare our categories of thought (our analogies) with the reality of who God is in himself, which is fully revealed in the vision of his face, those categories fall away. As St John of the Cross says, when the intellect enters into union with God, our language passes from prose to poetry to stammering to a silent gaze.
Jesus’ parables give lots of likenesses. God is a Father, but not in a way we have experienced fatherhood — which is why his parables, like the prodigal son, shatter all kinds of socio-cultural conventions, leaving his hearers thinking, “What kind of father acts like that?” Exactly.
In fact, you might say that Jesus’ entire life, death and resurrection is the supreme analogy of God because Jesus is God made man, Infinity made finite, Word made words. And the fact that the crucifixion of God (!) is the most perfect and complete revelation of God makes it also the perfect apophatic symbol! God’s supreme moment of revealing himself is also the supreme moment of paradox, of disappearing. Theology built on the ruins of God on Golgotha shocks both intellect and imagination into a sustained state of awe.
For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:22-24).
Aquinas says it this way, “We cannot know what God is, but rather what He is not, as we have no means for considering how God is, but rather how He is not.” God is not simply one being among other beings, i.e. the peak of a hierarchy of complexity, like moving from an amoeba to a man to God. Rather, there’s an infinite gap between an uncreated God and creation, between limitless and limited, between the eternal Word and temporal words.
Theology, which is our way of thinking linguistically about God with God (i.e. Jesus), always stands on the brink of collapse. This makes theology the most fascinating, exhilerating, thilling human intellectual endeavor possible. Theology is a quest that never comes to a point of rest, but challenges the mind to incessantly stretch out toward the infinite. Made in God’s image, the human mind is capax Dei, “capable of God,” which means that the mind (through faith in this life, vision in the next) will never cease to grow in its reaching out toward the infinite and ingesting it whole. Even in heaven the sounding of divine depths will never cease.
This makes the author of the book of Revelation the most honest of theologians:
When I saw [the risen Jesus], I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand upon me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (1:17-18).
“So it’s a mystery?” my son continued. “But isn’t that just a cop out, like saying, ‘I don’t know?'” “No, not really,” I replied,
Mystery is theology’s way of recognizing its limits. Confessing that God always exceeds our capacity to know, like a waterfall. And our knowledge of God is ultimately a gift of faith. But let’s clarify what faith means. How do you know who I am in my deepest self or what I think? You know it only if I choose to reveal it to you freely. When I offer you the gift of making my secrets known to you, I’m offering you the gift of faith. Once you accept my offer and receive what I have to reveal, and come to know me, then you have faith. Faith is not just blind belief, it’s the manner in which we accept another person’s free self-gift, self-revelation. In offering the gift, they say to me: I trust you enough to offer this. In receiving the gift, I say to them: I trust you enough to receive this as truth. Once they offer that gift, and we receive that gift, faith leads to knowledge and to communion. To love.
Poor guy, he’d glazed over by now. But I continued,
Okay, so the “Why does God exist” question is the last in the series of all your whys. It seems to me you can’t go any deeper than that. Honestly, I can think of only one good answer: Praise. Praise says to God, “Thank you for being God! For being Trinity! For being just and good and merciful! For existing at all!” I don’t think we can ever answer “why God exists.” Only God, who is his own origin, can answer it.
And maybe, as I think of it, his answer would be “I AM, without a why.” Like all the best things in life. If you asked me why I want to sit and talk with you late at night, I might have specific answers. But in the end, it’s because I love you, which, in the end, is without a why. And praise is all about doing things — singing, admiring, lauding — “without a why.”
This must be the reason the word “Alleluia” is everywhere in the Bible. Hallelu-yah. It means, “Praise Yah,” and Yah is short for Yahweh, which means in Hebrew something like “the One who causes to be.” Or as the Greek translation of the Hebrew has it, “ego eimi ho on,” which translates roughly into the English, “I am the one who is.” Ho on = the to-be. Praise you God for being I AM, radiant beauty, sheer love, without a why.
I’d never thought of any of that last part before our conversation that day. I will never forget it.
There’s a medieval Persian poet, Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, who said, “Sell your cleverness and purchase bewilderment. Then you will know the true God.” Praise is the mind and heart’s song of bewilderment before transcendent mystery. Praise gives us licence to recklessly adore what is both absolutely true and utterly incomprehensible.
After I made that last point, my son said: “Okay, Dad, no more. That’s too deep.”
It was after midnight. Time to sing an Alleluia. Then to bed.
The child has become the father of the man. Thank you, son, for rekindling in me wonder. As you have taught me to praise Him tonight, may I teach you to love Him more tomorrow. Amen.