Updated: Oct 20, 2022
In Need of Revelation
Written By Fr Aidan Nichols. Click here for his Biography.
The search for God, pursued with the help of human reason, has not been fruitless in the course of history (see St Moluag’s Coracle, ‘Thoughts on the Catechism, 3. The Human Capacity for God). Yet the Catechism, naturally – or supernaturally – enough, does not propose to stop there. While warning against any depreciation of the reasoned approach to God’s existence (Catholics are not fideists for whom reason is irrelevant to faith), the Catechism’s authors are swift to acknowledge the handicaps from which a God-ward journey that is purely rational in character inevitably suffers. True, the attempt must be made – for how can we be expected to make sense of a supernatural appeal from God unless we have the natural equipment to entertain the moral certainty that he exists? This is not an imposition of Catholic philosophers on the Bible. The affirmation of the Book of Genesis that men are made ‘in the image of God’ – the primary axiom of Christian anthropology – licenses, or so the Catechism claims, the rational approach (Paragraph 36). The Fathers of the Church, at any rate, understand the image-doctrine as a statement about the fundamental capacity of humans to apprehend the divine. So the linkage between image-hood and rational apologetics is not without justification. But in the wake of the Fall, our minds are not as attuned to God as once they were. The laws of thought are unaffected by original sin, but the way fallen human beings make use of them are not. It is easy enough to take refuge in a host of considerations that serve to keep God well away from our comfort-zone (Paragraph 37). Thus even with regard to matters that, in principle, come well within the range of our natural capacities, the distortions – and contortions – of human minds in act can easily leave not just individuals but entire societies in a fog of error, even about the most basic metaphysical and moral truths (Paragraph 38).
This is the first ground – first, that is, in terms of its overall exposition – on which the Catechism stakes out its claim that we positively need revelation. The truths included within God’s self revelation in Scripture (as read in Tradition) enable us to catch up with what we should have noticed but may well actually have missed.
But that is not the primary ground – primary, that is, in terms of salvational importance – on which the Catechism presses on its readers the claims of the supernatural revelation. The supernatural (more-than-natural) revelation given by God in history, as distinct from the natural revelation God makes of himself in the creation (in nature itself), is the only source we have for a grasp of our own supernatural destiny – the destiny that is deification. Shooting ahead somewhat in the Catechism’s text: the human goal now (since the introduction of the supernatural order) is nothing less than ‘becoming sharers in the divine nature’ (51), for God ‘wishes to make [men] capable of responding to him, and of loving him, far beyond their nature capacity’ (52).
Though I have, in this way, jumped over a section of text so as to bring the salvifically primary purpose of the historic revelation into closer contact with the Catechism’s own pedagogically primary statement of why we need revelation in the first place, the Catechism itself is careful not to ignore an important transitional topic, to which I must, therefore, turn.
Before my sudden spurt we had reached Paragraph 38. The succeeding paragraphs, 39 to 43, are concerned with the tricky subject of language. Though we sometimes describe God as ‘ineffable’ – literally, ‘unspeakable’, we do not mean to be taken entirely literally in so doing (Paragraph 39), even if the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, cited in Paragraph 42, might seem to advise us differently. We do not think we are reduced to gesturing quizzically in God’s direction in the way that Zen masters, by their riddles, claim to arouse insight into a spiritual domain. The creation itself – God’s self-disclosure in nature – gives us, the Catechism holds, an entire linguistic repertoire for speaking about him. That is not surprising since the world around us is a world into which God has put himself as its creative Source (Paragraph 40) .
Admittedly, the character of the divine Cause cannot be read off altogether straightforwardly from the effects of his creative activity. Not everything in existence – at any level of being – can simply be regarded as a pictogram of the Creator, justifying our using its name so as to name its divine Source. As Chesterton once remarked, if a whale were to be described as the (visual) image of God we should have to call the art-theory concerned a highly Impressionistic one. But what we can validly take from the creation as a vocabulary for the Uncreated are the ‘perfections’ that we find – fragmentarily and in diverse ways – scattered throughout nature, including (even) in whales. For some of those perfections – the Catechism (Paragraph 41) names ‘truth, goodness, and beauty’ – are inherently open-ended qualities: qualities of a kind where it doesn’t make sense to enclose them within limits. It would not be correct to say of truth, goodness, or beauty, that these are by definition essentially finite qualities, whereas it would be correct to say that of ‘whaleness’ or ‘humanity’. So we are definitely not speechless before the mystery of God.
In practice, however, in language about God, we weave such perfection-words, more or less deftly, into the wider fabric of our speech (or writing). So the Catechism urges us continually to purify the language of the tribe (Paragraph 42). Gross failures to do so betray God’s ‘transcendence’ of the world – the way in which he is infinitely greater than his own work (Paragraph 43). And here it is no use appealing to God’s (contrasting yet corresponding) ‘immanence’ in the world – the way he leaves his enduring mark on it through his creatures’ resemblance to him (Paragraph 41). For the fact is, that while we are metaphysically certain that the perfections found in finite being also – and primordially – apply to God, when we ask about the manner or mode in which they do so – about what infinite perfection is like - we are metaphysically all at sea (Paragraph 42). Still, our use of perfection-language genuinely attains God – names him properly, not just metaphorically – and that is the really important thing (Paragraph 43).
Following Paragraph 43, Paragraphs 44 to 49 differ from anything we have seen up till now. That is not through any startling divergence in content. Quite the opposite, in fact. They are intended as a summary of everything that has come before under the heading of ‘Man’s Capacity for God’. The reason I call them ‘different’ concerns a difference of literary genre, which is indicated in the Catholic Truth Society edition by two means: the new paragraphs are in italic script and the part of the page they occupy is washed with pale blue. Evidently, at some point someone realized that the sheer length of the Catechism was going to prove problematic for some users. The solution eventually found for this (in 2005) was to promulgate a précis of the entire text, the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church – also available from the Catholic Truth Society, in one of their characteristically fine graphic productions, as well as (like the Catechism itself) online, at the Vatican website. These summary passages will recur at a variety of points in the Catechism’s course. In future I shall take them for granted by passing over them in silence. On the present occasion, however, I will tell you that they bring us to Paragraph 49.
Following ‘Man’s Capacity for God’ (Paragraphs 27 to 49) we have ‘God Comes to Meet Man’ (Paragraph 50 to 141), of which I already provided a glimpse by fast-forwarding to the all-important topic of deification, the chief purpose of God’s self-revelation in history. When we say ‘I believe in God’ as the Author of the natural order, we are making a statement in metaphysics, thanks to our reasoning ability. When, by contrast, we say ‘I believe in God’ as the Author of the supernatural order – the order that takes its specifying goal from deification – we are making a statement in specifically Christian doctrine, thanks to our receiving the gift of faith.
As we have seen, articulating a metaphysical account of God by deploying the ‘pure perfections’ as a basis for speaking properly of him is not without difficulties (we do not know the mode in which to apply to the divine nature the perfection-language we use). But our problems increase exponentially when the subject-matter is our being caught up into the divine life itself (which must mean the life of the Holy Trinity, since their ceaseless exchange of love, once the Son has been generated and Holy Ghost has been ‘spirited’, is the only life They know). That is why the apostle Paul will speak of the (supernatural) plan of God for us as ‘the Mystery’ – the quintessential mystery the Church proclaims, which she will never fully fathom in this Age, not even by her greatest mystics, theologians, and saints.
Hence the importance of what the Catechism, indebted here to the second century Greek Father St Irenaeus, describes as the careful pedagogy by which God ‘accustomed’ human beings to the stylistic qualities of the divine message. It is a message that will be laid out in stages in the course of salvation history until it can reach its apogee in Jesus Christ, who as the very Word of the Father, consubstantial with the Father, necessarily constitutes, by his becoming man, the fullness of the revelatory process, the revelatory events.