We Are the Image of God, Except When that Requires Effort on Our Part
At an Easter Vigil Mass (RC), I was a lector—5th reading. That reading is from the book of the prophet Isaiah and includes these lines:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts. [IS 55:8-9]
It’s easy to misinterpret these words, reading into them warnings of a barrier between us and God which can’t be surmounted—despite the ongoing refrain: We are the images of God. In fact, much of the Christian support for human rights, including the rights of the unborn or the mentally disabled or others with little or no power to defend themselves, comes from this belief. I’m going to recommend a different meaning for those words of Isaiah, a meaning which preserves the idea we are images of God in some substantial way—not just an ambiguous handwaving way.
In this age when Christian faith and Christian courage have weakened greatly, in this age when Christian minds have decayed still faster than Christian hearts and hands, these words are typically taken as a statement that understanding God is beyond our capabilities. The implication is that we should just relax, live with the advances which come from secularized intellectual activities in organizing complex organizations or or developing good and bad technology. The latter leads to the fear of some of us that, bereft of a Christian civilization—increasingly bereft of even Christian structure in our families and local societies, we are traveling with the increasingly secularized (not paganized!!) herd, a herd not heading toward the world where Christ’s friends share the life of God.
Modern Christians, like perhaps nearly all modern human beings of the West, have been taught they have a right to hold opinions on all matters subject to human opinions; they have not been taught a duty to learn something about an issue before forming an opinion or even before somehow constructing a viable understanding of that issue. A quick trip to the local library isn’t necessary for someone to determine that Iranians/Iraqis/whoever can’t think rationally in the way of us Americans and some Europeans; it’s knowledge that simply… Well, I think it’s an assumption drawn out of the way American leaders and entertainment/news figurines act towards and talk about these other peoples.
In fact, while Americans talk as if they can get a factual and intellectual grasp of anything capable of being grasped by any human mind, they bow to self-serving ruling elites and their servants which present themselves as being plausibly true authorities. To be sure, acceptance of someone or some group as true authorities is a human act, often self-serving or self-justifying. It’s easy enough for modern Westerners to accept an Einstein or his less famous successors, but quite disturbing to accept Darwin and his successors. More than a little bit of our self-understanding of our individual or ethnic or racial selves would be rendered vulnerable to disturbing changes if we were to honestly and courageously explore human origins and the resulting human nature. And even rational traditionalists have rightly feared the results of the truths Darwin pointed toward—if a bit off-target at times as was true even of great thinkers in harder-edged fields such as physics or mathematics; many modern human beings seem to have adopted a strategy of sorts which is something like: Human evolution is true but it doesn’t make any difference to us modern human beings who understand ourselves on the basis of such ideas as those in the Preamble to the United States Declaration of Independence. A bit vague and subject to twisting and some reshaping especially on the part of those who don’t see that such words, though not necessarily similar words claiming those rights as a matter of history and tradition, imply a very strong—and quite implausible—metaphysics and theology. Both that metaphysics and that theology are incompatible with Christianity.
Our claims for our human natures are quite grand indeed but only in ways that don’t require a response from us that demands time and energy and honest contemplation. We modern human beings in general truly don’t do well in giving credit to the human mind or even the divine mind because we’ve been taught by a very bad and ideologically corrupted educational system to despise intellectual effort and to avoid it where possible; thus it is that the most popular of great literature of past generations, such as the novels of Charles Dickens, become mere obstacle courses to struggle through before returning to easier forms of thought. Modern human beings love to watch televised documentaries about God’s world with all its richness and complexity, the strangeness of quantum—ghostly—things which aren’t here nor there and the bending of spacetime and shared biochemicals of man and worms and infinities greater than infinity and men being shaped out of apish creatures who were shaped out of monkey-like creatures who were shaped out of lemur-type creatures who were… And so on. Yet, we see all this richness and complexity as not really necessary—it’s optional stuff which is merely the setting for the important events such as the visions of seers and the acts of do-gooders in an increasingly man-centered religion which was once Christ-centered, however defectively so.
We learn God’s thoughts by studying His manifested thoughts. We learn God’s ways by studying His acts-of-being, both creating and shaping created being. (God’s ways are different from His thoughts only by way of creaturely perspective.)
I’ve claimed often and strongly that Aquinas was right, perhaps even modestly so, in his claims that the human mind is capable, in principle, of encapsulating any thing and all things in God’s creation, though an actual human mind is not truly capable of understanding fully so much as a gnat. We have to have faith and courage and move resolutely forward in exploring the acts-of-being of God in His freely accepted role as Creator of a particular Creation, which particularity constrains the Almighty, by His own free acceptance, in a modern understanding of the covenanted relationship of Creator towards all that He had created. God honors His own thoughts as manifested in Creation, a modern view which honors but greatly expands upon the ancient Semitic idea of a covenant which is a divine version of a human king offers to His subjects, with royal legal advisors hovering about. Nowadays, explorers of this world, tinkers and engineers as well as physicists and historians, have joined in, unconsciously in most cases, with old-fashioned lawyers in the struggle to forge new understandings of human communities and human history and technological possibilities and the sun and so on. Those understandings, which will total to an understanding of all of created being in a coherent civilization, are that modern equivalent of the covenants of the Bible.
In the first part of the first chapter of A More Exact Understanding of Human Being, I deal with an important part of this issue in a way that I might never improve upon. The chapter title is: Being Empirical with St Thomas Aquinas. The title of the first section of that chapter is: A General Approach Toward Proper Shaping of the Human Mind.
And here is the entirety of the text of that section (with some minor editing to allow for context):
A General Approach Toward Proper Shaping of the Human Mind
Because of the importance to my thought of some insights about metaphysical subjects by St Thomas Aquinas, I’m including a short chapter providing a short summary of those insights which are sometimes explicitly discussed elsewhere in this book but are always at the foundations of this way of thought.
Aquinas had a view of “the wisdom of this world” which greatly clarifies, or perhaps significantly modifies, the view expressed by St Paul in [his First Letter to the Corinthians]. In fact, the view of Aquinas is one I’ve struggled to communicate in my books and my Internet writings, though I’ve tried to expand and enrich that understanding to better consider the vast mountains of empirical knowledge which have accumulated since the 13th century. I think we should all contemplate the advice of St Thomas to learn humbly from Creation:
[J]ust as a disciple reaches an understanding of the teacher’s wisdom by the words he hears from him, so man can reach an understanding of God’s wisdom by examining the creatures [God] made… [From St Thomas Aquinas’ commentary on St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians.
Even our understanding of God’s purposes for Creation should be subject to testing against empirical knowledge. I’ll provide another quote from Aquinas:
[T]he wisdom which attains to God through the things of this world is not the wisdom of this world but the wisdom of God… [From St Thomas Aquinas’ commentary on St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians.]
In terms used by Aquinas and some other Scholastics: we know God through His effects in Creation. God has told us a few things about His necessary and transcendent being, but most of what we can know about God relates to His freely adopted role as Creator of this particular Creation. And we have to remember that even God’s words spoken to Moses or a few others were spoken in human languages and necessarily relied on concepts within the grasp of those the Almighty was speaking to. In the Summa Contra Gentiles, Aquinas had told us:
[T]he first philosophy [metaphysics] utilizes the teachings of all the sciences in order to realize its objectives. [page 35 of Summa Contra Gentiles as published by University of Notre Dame, 1975, translated by James F Anderson.]
Even theological systems are built upon metaphysical foundations. As such, they’re built from the knowledge of the metaphysician, knowledge that should include that of specific sciences such as physics and mathematics and biology and history and so forth. I’ll propose a definition of Wisdom which will be put in greater context in [a later chapter of A More Exact Understanding of Human Being with the title The Wisdom of the World and The Wisdom of God].
[Wisdom is an] understanding of Creation and its relationship to its Creator that takes into account the best available empirical knowledge but orients that knowledge as well as the knower’s personal experience toward the goals given by one’s understanding of the Creator’s revelations.
We should learn to respond to God’s Creation when forming our ways of thought, hence, when shaping our minds, rather than holding on to ways of thought which are magnificent antiques, once plausible as well as beautiful but no longer consistent with what is known about Creation. Yet, we should honor those antiques for what they are and for the role they played in allowing us to advance further in human knowledge of Creation and its Creator.