How can We Know God?
Knowing God is understandably a major problem for creatures like ourselves. We are the bottom rung of rational creatures, heavily linked to our physicality that narrows the extension of our minds. Nearly all of our knowledge is derived through our sensory systems, yet God is not subject to sensory inspection. What color is God? Does God smell of citrus or hickory wood smoke? How does God’s skin feel, furry or scaly or feathery? None of these questions make any sense to us, because we know that God is a spirit, a wholly immaterial being. Yet our primary mode of knowledge is sensory, rooted in physicality. So, how can creatures like ourselves possibly know God?
Since God created the world and clearly created the world for us—demonstrated, for example, by the fact that the world is chock full of beauty that only human beings appear to recognize—we should be grateful to our Creator.
Well, because we possess rationality, we have the ability to search out the causes of things. As we apply our minds to the origin of the world, we can recognize that something must have caused all other things, something that is not itself caused. We realize, then, that God must exist and he must exist independently of all other things. To exist independently is to depend on nothing else, to be not contingently but necessarily existing. Unlike all other things, God contains existence within himself rather than receiving it from something else. As such God’s existence is infinite, entailing our traditional conception of God as our omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent Creator. It further follows that since God created the world and clearly created the world for us—demonstrated, for example, by the fact that the world is chock full of beauty that only human beings appear to recognize—we should be grateful to our Creator. Thus, the first mode whereby we relate to God is thanksgiving.
So, based on our status as rational creatures, we can understand both somewhat of who God is and also what sort of response that knowledge should engender. This thanksgiving to God for his creation thus establishes a reciprocal relationship between God and human beings. For God loves his creation. And when he created free creatures like the angels and human beings, persons like himself, he created within them the need to connect to him. That connection begins, then, with thanksgiving, our first mode of knowing and loving God.
In spite of the fact that God was right there with Adam, Adam was alone and lonely. Why? Because human beings were made for one another!
Still, this is all pretty remote so far, so how can we further know and love God? Well, God created patterns of his own nature within our human orders. Since God’s own nature is a trinity of reciprocally and eternally loving persons in one divine substance, God created all persons for the love of other persons. Thus, both angels and human beings need to love other persons for their completeness. Within the human order this began with the creation of family. When God creates Adam in the Genesis story, he says alone of all his creation that the man is not good. But God does not immediately fix the problem. Instead, he waits for the man to discover his need too. So, God takes the man out to name the animals. As Adam names them, he begins to notice that all the animals come in pairs, male and female. He further notices that this pairing creates a delightful unity between the creatures. He further notices that like the male animals, he too has male genitalia. But unlike all the animal pairs, Adam realizes that he has no mate. In spite of the fact that God was right there with Adam, Adam was alone and lonely. Why? Because human beings were made for one another, made to need one another, made to love one another. God then created Eve for Adam to complete him, saying, “‘Let us make man in our image.’ In the image of God made he them, male and female made he them.” For God is likewise a plurality of persons, an “us” as the Genesis text indicates with the plural pronouns applied to God. So, God made us in his image as a duality of reciprocally loving persons in one marital unity. Once that marriage bears the fruit of children, the number of persons increases into the substance that we commonly call family. Thus, family is the first estate that God created for humans to inhabit, built to complete human nature, yes, but also to indicate to human beings who God is. For God is eternally Father to the eternal Son, and all other familial structures within both the animal and human orders are images of and participations in the eternal familial order within the divine nature. What’s more, when we properly love our spouses, we learn what it means to deeply love another human person, as love becomes the character of who we are. When we love our offspring, we again learn love, as parenting stretches us and challenges us. This marital and parental love enriches and forms up our human character, maturing us into people for whom each human faculty is now bettered. We call this bettering, these robust loving habits of life, the virtues. These virtues move us toward happiness in our lives, but they also fit us for the love of God, because family is pedagogue to prepare us for the love of God. Thus, family not only teaches us who God is but modifies, adapts, and completes us as a reciprocal response to God as our Father.
But God didn’t stop there, for he wanted to extend our conceptions of familial relationships based on blood to an expansion of human brotherhood that we now call the state. We feel connections to our fellow countrymen that we do not feel toward foreigners. We enjoy foreigners and are curious about their lives and ways, but when you are abroad and meet fellow Americans, you are immediately taken with wanting to meet them—even if you’d pass them by in the States without a second thought! Country, patria, the homeland creates bonds of love and unity between fellow citizens. When natural disasters happen on the other side of the United States, we feel a bond with those reeling from the disaster. We are motivated to help, donating blood or money to the Red Cross, using our specialized skills in electricity or medicine or firefighting or logistics (among many other skills) to jump in and help. We don’t stop to check if the people we are helping are members of our political party. We don’t stop to check if they share our religious views. We don’t check on their relative wealth level. We don’t care. They are our fellow citizens and that patriotic bond trumps all the other categories that so often spoil our appreciation of citizenship. The state when working properly is thus the second estate built upon the pattern of the trinity as a multiplicity of persons in one unified substance of reciprocal love that we call citizenship. Being neighbor-loving citizens, obeying our laws, and participating in our political orders at the town, state, and federal levels offers us great insight into who God is politically. For in spite of our having dumped King George III and switched to a republic, God is our King. Monarchy is the nature of the ultimate political order. When Jesus returns to set up his kingdom, he will be fully revealed as the “king of kings.” So, in spite of our American nervousness about monarchical excesses, a true and noble king who cares for and loves his people thus establishes another reciprocal love that teaches us about God and who he is. Our love for country and our fellow countrymen prepares us for the love of the ultimate king when we finally meet him face to face and bow the knee.
We are thus perfected and made fit for the divine martial bed and our divine lover by loving one another within the Church. Our loves here prepare us for his love there.
But God still wasn’t done, for he wished to extend this notion of brotherhood further than both blood and border, for God wishes us all to become members of his family, adopted as sons, and co-heirs with the eternal Son. So, God instituted the third estate, the Church, again patterned after the Holy Trinity as a multiplicity of reciprocally loving persons in one substance that we call the Body of Christ. For the first time in human history, God created a fully transnational order of human beings, talented and gifted differently to function organically as members of his body, headed by his Son. Thus, we find ourselves drawn to fellow Christians in distant lands when we hear of their need and distresses. We feel ourselves members of something momentous, not just our local parish, not just our diocese, but of the Church, a unity of persons that extends even beyond the bounds of mortality into the next worlds of purgation and intercessory sainthood. Our participation in the Church teaches us a wealth of new information about God and his ultimate plans for human nature insofar as the Church is likewise the Bride of Christ. Thus, God plans in the beatific vision not just the total completeness of each person individually, but our corporate or joint completeness insofar as we all have different talents and reflect in unique ways the divine image. God longs for an intimate, spousal knowledge of us both individually and corporately, reflected in the sacramental nature of marriage, the image now taken up within the Church to direct us to respond to God’s marital offer with hope and eagerness and perseverance, just as St. Paul explains in Romans 8. We are thus perfected and made fit for the divine martial bed and our divine lover by loving one another within the Church. Our loves here prepare us for his love there. But this should not surprise us, because the second commandment that we love our neighbors as ourselves was always intended as a tutorial on our eventual love for the God who is love. All mortal loves are ultimately preparation for that immortal and infinite love with God. Thus, our loving participation in each of the three estates—family, state, and Church—both instruct and virtuously prepare and fit us for the love of God. Through them, we better know God.
But still God wasn’t done, for in additional to the natural orders of the family and the state, and the supernatural order of the Church, God established his sacraments as his means of distributing divine grace and love to his people. These sacraments parallel our natural human lives, establishing a kind of spiritual life cycle that functions analogously to the natural life cycle. So, just as we are born into this world by water, so we are born into the kingdom of God through the sacrament of baptism, linking the cleansing water to the cleansing of sins and the establishment of new life. Just as we are born into various political constitutions and acquire citizenship thereby, so are we marked by the Holy Spirit as belonging to God as members of his political and familial order through the sacrament of confirmation. Just as we eat food and drink wine for sustenance and delight, so do we drink the cup and eat the bread of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist, our spiritual food of thanksgiving. Just as we need to bathe and clean the dirt from our physical bodies, so, too, do we need to cleanse our lives of our sins in the sacrament of reconciliation. Just as we need medical practitioners to offer us healing from many diverse ills of the body and mind, so, too, do we need the spiritual support that attends our healing through the sacrament of holy oils. Just as we need leadership in many functions within the human sphere, so, too, do we need spiritual leaders who care for and administer God’s grace to his people, the sacrament of ordination. And finally, just as we are built for marital love, so we do indeed need marital love, not only as a natural completion but as foretaste and preparation for the divine love that all mortal marriages bespeak. In each sacrament God offers us both knowledge of himself and a reciprocal response of faith, hope, and love that once again prepares us for the love of God.
Jesus lived with us, ate our food, drank our wine, suffered our injuries, worked our jobs, laughed and cried with us, because he was one of us.
So, can we know God? Definitely, in a myriad of ways that God established for creatures like ourselves, composed of both matter and spirit. Each of the three estates and all seven of our sacraments are divinely established images that require both matter and spirit for their fulfillment. This is in keeping with the kinds of nature human beings have, so that by means of composite unities of both matter and spirit we can fittingly relate to God. But even more so, through the Incarnation we have the most potent and revealing matter/spirit combination when the eternal Son assumed human nature to be born of the Virgin Mary. In this act of revelation of himself, we human beings have come most fully to know who God is. Jesus blew the goal posts off their hinges on any previous expectations of what we could know about who God is. Jesus lived with us, ate our food, drank our wine, suffered our injuries, worked our jobs, laughed and cried with us, because he was one of us. He also taught us who God is and what God’s love is through his constant teaching. And he showed us what love for family, friends, and even enemies really mean through his relationships with his mother, his disciples and close friends, and even those who condemned him. Thus is Jesus called not just the Son of God, but also the Son of Man, for his is the ultimate link between God and man. And through the Eucharist, we take that link into ourselves each week.
Our humanity is our bond with God, since God made man in the image of God in the first place, entered into his creation as man in the second place, and ascended into heaven as man in the third place. He promised to return in the same manner, as man. Why? Because Jesus longs to know each of us in the same face to face personal manner that he knew Mary and Martha, Peter and John, and his dear Mother. But to prepare us for that direct interpersonal contact with our Lord, God established human modes and sacraments for us, instruments of both knowledge and moral change to fit us to be his bride. So, can we know God? Absolutely.