07 February 2012

Developing a Theology of God

Excerpt of an email from a friend to me:
So my question for you is: are you saying that God wouldn't give a person the desire for something impossible? Or is nothing impossible because God wouldn't let you desire it if it were?

Or is that question irrelevant because you're only talking about desires "implanted" in people by God? If so, then what's the difference between that desire and any other, if we're all products of his creation?

These questions are, it should go without saying, great ones.  They cut right to the heart of what it means to be a believer in God.  Indeed, these questions are all the more important for a Christian, and a Catholic no less, because they point to the nub of all theology: the mediation of God's revelation.  Of course, for Catholics, this mediation is found in complete fullness in the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Before answering these questions, one may recall the old Scholastic exercise: Could God make a square circle?  The conflict is summed thusly: God can do anything; but, the question then runs, could God do what is against the nature of things (that God has made)?  The answer, it seems, is "no."  At the same time, what is missing from this debate is a bit of intellectual honesty.  For in all reality, how can we know the nature of things better than the Creator?

So, with that bit of epistemic honesty noted and applied, we may continue.

My response to the above questions would run something like this:
The Spirit of God would not call us to be something impossible in a final, irrevocable way.  Such a calling would be capricious and uncharitable, dooming a creation of this same God to constant existential misery.  Yet, at the same time, it cannot be said that that which we believe ourselves called may not, at some or most or close to all times, appear to be impossible.  
Especially helpful in this matter is that the old Thomistic adage that "grace builds upon nature."  If we are to understand grace as the gratuitous self-giving of God's self in his only Son, and the experiences gained therein, we can see this gratuitous giving as building upon what we already are.  More simply, Christ helps us to become something that otherwise we would not be.  This is what makes the Christian different from his or her fellow co-religionists.  Because this thing called grace builds upon our nature, each individual human is an unrepeatable act of God, wherein his or her life and subsequent salvation is, in fact, also unique and unrepeatable. 
Because of this, one might correctly allow that God might permit unrealistic desires into one's consciousness for any number of reasons, provided that in the final accounting such desires do not do permanent harm to one's soul.  Yet at the same time, one might also allow that God uses these same desires to bring us closer to him.  
In summary, we find that God would not call us to something ultimately existentially destructive because it would be against his nature.  At the same time, God builds our own desires and appetites so that we may ultimately reach our salvation in him.  Thus, all good and holy desires comes from God, yet one must allow for some desires that seem not to be from God as being from him and some desires that seem to be from God as originating from other sources.
Inadequate, I know.  But it's the old college try.


PJA said...

I think I'm following you here.... would, then, some, a number of, most of, etc. the desires that appear (to our human perception) "existentially destructive" come from the Evil One? Is his spirit capable of moving us existentially? See, where I'm finding myself hung up is on the precision you are applying--that is, you are not speaking of mediocre, banal or every-day desires, temptations and the like, correct? You are speaking of the purely and ultimately existential, of man's telos, correct? And you are asking whether or not God can call us to something impossible in this way--"a final, irrevocable way." Thus, my question is this: is any spirit other than that of the Creator's capable of moving or influencing man existentially? If we feel called--terribly-to something impossible on a fundamental, existential level--well can that calling come from any Spirit other than the one who gave us that existence? Is there any other spirit or existence that can impress upon us besides the One who is in fact Existence itself, the Creator?

[And I apologize for being all questions above! I really liked your response here. It also addressed my question on the last post. Thanks Matt.]

Jesuit said...

Thanks for another thoughtful post! I tend to agree with PJA. Your post seems to indicate that God is the only source of desires and that all of our desires are, at least, permitted by God if not caused by God. According to Ignatian spirituality this is not the case. Our desires emerge from a complex interaction of the free self, the good spirit, and the evil spirit. The promise that God will give us the desires of our heart follows on the imperative that we delight ourselves in God (Ps 37). There are certainly disordered desires and incompletely discerned desires that plague us all the time. These desires might not be fulfilled, and possibly should not be fulfilled. For instance, a man might have a mighty and holy desire to marry a certain woman, but unless the desire is reciprocated the reality will not, and should not, be fulfilled. Another example, a man might have a strong and holy desire to become a priest, but he cannot discern this on his own. Like marriage, the decision of a man to be a priest is a common discernment between him and the Church. Since it is not in his power to make himself a priest, he can only discern his side of the equation. The desire to be a priest can emerge from many places, but the discernment to be a priest is a process guided by the holy spirit acting in the realm of possibility and community. Desires have to be discerned if they are to be translated into action or attended with expectation. The existential angst that emerges from disordered, incomplete, and difficult to discern desires is a natural part of the finitude of our human existence, and accepting that fact might be part of our true freedom. New spiritual growth comes when we abandon the project of perfect control and utter self-transcendence and delight in God with a simple kind of joy that can purify and rightly order our desires. We can only trust that our desires flow from God when we are confident that we are delighting in God--the absolute horizon who orients and grants eternal perspective to our desires.

Jesuit said...

p.s. circles and squares are not natural kinds. You don't find them in nature, you find things that approximate the perfect rational construct. So the word "make" undoes the sentence "Can God make a square circle?" God (and any clever person) can "make" an object that has both the properties of a circle and a square. As soon as you introduce being you introduce dimensionality that violates the pure properties of both circle and square. That ambiguity can be exploited to make the properties of both exist simultaneously. The rational constructs are versatile in their application to real objects (e.g. how is the object even defined?)

If you are asking if God can "think" of a square circle, then I have no idea. My guess... probably... and when God explained it to us we would say, "Oh! Cool!"