Picturing God

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Christ Pantocrator.jpg

Our minds are naturally oriented to the physical universe.

It is an axiom of Thomistic-Aristotelianism that "all human knowledge begins in the senses."

Summa, I, Q.1, art.9
Now it is natural to man to attain to intellectual truths through sensible objects, because all our knowledge originates from sense. Hence in Holy Writ, spiritual truths are fittingly taught under the likeness of material things.

What is good for our prayer is bad for our theology.

In prayer, we must picture God as a living person. For us, that means ascribing human features to Him, especially a face, which is the most revealing part of our bodies. Of course, when we are praying to Jesus, there is no theological problem posed by this necessity--Jesus is a true human being, and He has a definite human face and a completely human body. The problem arises when we are thinking of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit in their eternal relationships.

Although we project the features of people onto the Divine Persons in our prayer--and it is right to do so!--we must not take that projection as a guide to thinking rightly about who God is. God is pure Spirit. The Divine Persons do not possess human bodies. The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God, but there is only one God, and that God is pure Spirit.

Engendered relationships

As pure Spirit, the Divine persons have neither a male nor a female body. We are like God, but God is not like us.

Nevertheless, we can see in the Godhead the principles of masculinity and femininity that are reflected in male and female human beings.

I have spelled this out with diagrams in my reflections on the Filioque clause of the Nicene Creed.

Using an extremely simple distinction between masculine and feminine--it is masculine to give and feminine to receive--we can recognize how appropriate it is to speak of the First Person of the Trinity as "Father." The Father gives to the Son and the Spirit, but does not receive His identity from them. The Father is the only person in the whole realm of personal being who has no Father; all other persons are from Him.

The Son is feminine with respect to the Father, because He receives His identity from the Father. All that the Father is and has is given to the Son, without limit.

The Son is masculine in giving the Spirit His special identity as the Spirit of the Father and of the Son. The Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (which is what "filioque" means). The Spirit is the Spirit of the Father and of the Son, so it is right to think of the Spirit as "He."

In the eternal Divine relationships, the Spirit is as purely feminine as the Father is purely masculine. He receives His Person from the Father and from the Son.

Nevertheless, Jesus taught us to call the Spirit "He." The Spirit operates in us as "the Lord and giver of life" (Nicene Creed). Jesus spoke of the Spirit as "He," and so should we, even though we can recognize the Spirit as the feminine principle within the Trinity.

The Father is not a man, even though it is right for us to picture the Father that way in our prayers.

The Spirit is not a woman, even though it may be helpful to ponder His femininity with respect to the Father and the Son.

Men are not purely masculine beings as the Father is. There is a feminine dimension to the human male--and a masculine dimension to the human female. Like the Son, we are all receptive of our being and identity from the Father. Like the Son, we all give of ourselves to others in love.

Beatific Vision

Except, perhaps, for those given extraordinary mystical graces, we do not now see God as we will see Him in eternity. "We live by faith, not by sight." We know that it is our destiny to see God "face to face" (poetic imagery), but we do not know how to picture billions and billions of angels and saints, each intimately involved in the life of the Trinity, each aware of all the other creatures of God, and each enjoying the same cause of their bliss. Our picture-thinking breaks down rapidly, and we need to cling to the certitudes taught by the Church to guide our reflections aright.

We cannot draw adequate pictures of the Beatific Vision. If we construct a huge amphitheater in our minds, containing all the angels and saints in it, then God appears at center stage, far away from us, and separated from us by all of the other people in the theater. That kind of picture distorts the truth that each one of us will be caught up in the eternal Triune relationships as if we ourselves were part of the Trinity. If we focus too intently on this essential personal immersion in the life of the Trinity, we lose sight of the personal participation of all of God's other sons and daughters.

The general rule is that we must use imagery just as much as it helps us to realize the truths of the faith but we must abstain from the use of imagery just as much as it distorts our understanding of the divine realities that Jesus has revealed to us. (This is a variation of St. Ignatius' rule of tantum quantum--"Use creatures as much as they help us to attain God, but refrain from using creatures as much as they keep us away from God.")

God Has No Need of Us

Praise of God's self-sufficient happiness can make God look like the ultimate narcissist.

God acts as if He needs our love. He courts us. He pays attention to us.

Our picturing of the doctrine of God's self-sufficiency may weaken our grasp of the truth that He is love, and that He loves us with His whole heart, His whole mind, and all his strength. Yes, we're nobodies. We're nothing without Him. But He loves us.

One truth must not be isolated and elevated in such a way that it annihilates the other truth.

God's Knowledge Robs Us of Freedom

We know that God is outside of time.

We know that He is all-knowing.

From our perspective, we know that God knows all of our future choices.

We wrongly picture this as imprisonment, as if God's knowledge of what we freely choose prevents us from choosing freely.

God gives us freedom.

God is the guarantor of our freedom.

He waits to see what we will choose.

He allows our choices to influence His actions.

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