Monday, February 24, 2014

Look to the End

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb… Lead me along the path of everlasting life (from Psalm 139:13).

To praise and thank God for our being as we should, we have to “look to the end.” We need to consider, not only the depth and breadth of what we are, and the height of the One who made us, but also the length of what we are called and created to do.

Every structure, to be one, has to be designed for something, to do something. It has to have an “end,” a purpose. Everything we “name” as a being, we define by its end: by what it is designed, structured, shaped to do.

It is the end that determines a “nature.” A “spade” is a tool for digging. If we leave out digging, we can’t define it as a spade. We don’t understand human life on earth unless we know what we are meant to achieve by acting. So we ask God to guide us toward our end: “Lead me along the path of everlasting life.”

We are asking for wisdom.

 “Wisdom” is “the habit of seeing all things in the light of their ultimate end.” To live intelligently on earth is to direct everything we do and desire, choose and use, to the end for which we exist. The motto of the wise is, Respice finem, “Look to the end.”

That is the difference between technology and philosophy, between “physics” and “metaphysics.” Technology asks only how things work. Philosophy (philo sophia, “love of wisdom”) asks what things are.

To answer that question, we have to ask what they are for. It is the “end” that identifies a nature. To know things as “beings,” we have to identify the four “ingredients” which metaphysics calls the “four causes” of beings: material, formal, efficient and final cause. It is the “final cause” that determines the structure or “form” that gives a being its identity.

The “final cause” or “end” that determines a nature is always a particular way of operating or functioning. So to really understand our nature as human beings, we need to know how God designed us to act. (By grace, of course, which is the favor of sharing in God’s own divine life, we are empowered to live and act “supernaturally” on the level of God. This does not change our “end” or “nature,” because the operations of knowing and choosing are “analogously” the same – whether natural or supernatural – both in creatures and in God).[1]

In  “Step One” of The Mind’s Ascent to God, Bellarmine explains the dimensions of our being:

Height: If I seek my maker, I find God alone.
Depth: If I seek the material from which he made me I find absolutely nothing. From this I conclude that whatever is in me comes from God and belongs wholly to God.
Breadth: If I ask about my nature, I find I am the image of God.
Length: If I ask about my end, I find it is knowing and loving God himself, who is my supreme and total good.
Therefore I will recognize that I have a great bond with and need for God, as he alone is my creator, my maker, my father, my exemplar, my happiness, my all.
And if I understand this, what else will I do but seek him ardently, think of him, yearn for him, desire to see and embrace him?

I will praise and thank God for calling me out of nothingness and keeping me in existence. I will be “humble” – that is, “peaceful with the truth” that of myself I am nothing – but will have total confidence in God who both wills and fills my life.

Saint Robert ends Step One with an exhortation of pure logic, which echoes the “Principle and Foundation” of the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits:

If you would be wise, recognize that you were created for God’s glory and your own eternal salvation [which is knowing and loving God forever]: that this is your end, the center of your soul, the treasure of your heart. I you reach this end, you will be happy. If you fall short of it, you will be miserable.
Judge therefore that your true good is that which leads to your end. True evil is that which makes you fall short of it. Wealth and poverty, abundance and shortage, health and sickness, honor and dishonor, life and death are not of themselves to be sought or avoided by a person who is wise. If they lead to God’s glory and your eternal happiness, they are good and desirable. If they hinder that, they are evil and must be avoided.

All this follows from knowing we are created in God’s image. But we also know by Christian revelation that by grace we are reborn as a “new creation,” having “become Christ” in Baptism.  We know that our bodies are “a temple of the Holy Spirit within us, and that we are not our own,” having “presented our bodies as a living sacrifice to God” to continue the life and mission of Jesus on earth. Therefore we will strive, in every waking moment, to “glorify God in our bodies” (1Corinthians 6:19; Romans 12:1).

In practice, a good way to keep aware of this is to pray the WIT prayer before everything we do: all day, every day: “Lord, you are giving me my body. I give it back to you. Do this with me; do this in me; do this through me.” We can add: “Let me think with your thoughts, speak with your words, and act as your body on earth.”

This will keep us aware that we live to “glorify God in our bodies.”

[1] There is a mountain of controversy about the distinction between “nature” and “grace.” Most of it is based on a failure to apply the “analogy of being” to the objects of intellectual and volitional operation, and to distinguish between “end” and “destiny.”

Friday, February 14, 2014

It Was You

We continue the "Ascent of the Mind to God by reflecting on how great, how “high,” is the one who formed our inward parts; who knit us together in our mother’s womb.

If something has an intelligible structure that we are not just reading into it, then someone or something – an “efficient cause” – had to give it that shape so it could act. To “per-form” is to act “through a form.” When we call a spade a spade, we are saying someone shaped this thing to be a tool. If no one did, we might use it as a spade, but we don’t say it is one. The same is true when we recognize the intelligibility of our own being: “It was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together…”

Bellamine invites us to ask about the “height” of the Being who could have done this:

You are not created out of any material, but out of absolutely nothing. Only almighty God can make something of nothing. When he chose to do it, he alone, without assistant or helper, created you by his own hands, which are his intellect and will.
In addition, the union of the soul with the body, which is the main part of the making of human nature, could be achieved by nobody except a craftsman of infinite power. By what skill except God’s could spirit be joined to flesh by such a close bond that they make up one substance? Body has no similarity with spirit. There is no comparison between them. Therefore he “who alone does great wonders” made your human nature (Psalm 136:4).
Truly, then, the Spirit of God speaks through Moses: “Is not he your father, who made you and created you?” And Jesus, the Wisdom of God, said, “Call no one on earth your father, for you have one Father – the one in heaven” (Deuteronomy 32:6; Matthew 23:9).

Actually, God only becomes our real Father when he shares his own divine life with us through the rebirth of Baptism. Until then he is just our Creator. But because he cares for us like a father, Saint Robert exhorts us:

Consider now, my soul. God is the maker of your body and your soul. Like a father he carries and nourishes you. Whatever you are, you are his. Whatever you have, you have it from him. Whatever you hope for, you hope for from him.
Why, then, do you not give thanks and praise for such a great parent? Why do you not love him with your whole heart? Why do you not prefer him to all earthly things? Why do you let vain desires become your master?
Lift up your eyes to him. Fear not what any enemy on earth may do to you, since you have an almighty Father in heaven.
O my soul, consider what it means that the almighty and eternal God does not turn his eyes away from you. That he loves you, protects you, directs you and nurtures you as if you were his great treasure. Then you will put all your trust in him. You will respect him as Lord, love him as Father, and there will be no passing good or evil, however great, that will be able to pull you away from his love.

God didn’t just create us. He is creating us right now. It is not possible for God to just “put something out there” and forget about it. If he did, we would immediately cease to exist. So God our Creator is giving us existence right now. In an ongoing act of creation.

That says he still thinks we are worth keeping in existence.

To those who say, “The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me,” God answers through Isaiah: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Yes, they may forget, but I will not forget you” (Isaiah 49:15).

Because, if he did, we would not be here. We would simply cease to exist.

Just as God never stops giving us being, we should never stop praising and thanking him for it.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. It was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb

We give you thanks for your great glory!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Looking Through the Wide Lens

We praise and thank God for our being by understanding it and expressing that understanding in praise.

First we have to open our minds.

Our culture is characterized by the absence of a truly rational philosophy. There are many speculative systems that offer a lens through which to view the reality of this world, but none is generally accepted as intellectually inescapable. The current “philosophies” taught are just invented, plausible structures that claim at most to “fit” what we see and experience. Within these systems, “intellectual certitude” is considered an oxymoron. And the general reaction of those few who are exposed to them is, “If one of them works for you, use it! Just don’t say it is true for everybody.”

This is “relativism,” which Josef Ratzinger, the German intellectual who became Pope Benedict XVI, identified as the “central problem for faith today” because it constitutes a “resignation [abdication] before the immensity of the truth.”

Relativism is narrowness. Ratzinger defines it as a “self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically verifiable.” The modern rejection of rational philosophy has led us to accept in practice two principles: First, that nothing is rationally or intellectually certain except that which is established scientifically. And second, that  “the only the kind of certainty that can be considered scientific is that resulting from the interplay of mathematical and empirical elements.”[1]

This means that all we can do “scientifically” — according to the relativists — is take sense data— stuff we can see, touch, feel, weigh and measure — and use mathematical principles to figure out how things work. This lets us predict what results we will get if we make certain changes. But we don’t consider the results “scientifically proven” until we actually see them happen — and can measure them. So our actual certitude is based ultimately on sense-knowledge, what we can see and measure. “Seeing is believing.” Everything else is just “speculation.”

As a result “the human sciences, such as history, psychology, sociology and philosophy [must] attempt to conform themselves to this canon of scientificity.” Anything that does not conform to the rule is declared
anathema and sent to the stake as heretically unscientific or reduced to the ranks of unproven, uncertain opinion. That is relativism.

This restricts the breadth of intellectual activity. “By its very nature this method excludes the question of God [and therefore of any ultimate source, purpose, value or explanation for the universe], making it appear an unscientific or pre-scientific question. Consequently, we are faced with a reduction of the radius of science and reason, one which needs to be questioned.” We can realize the “new possibilities open to humanity,” Ratzinger says, “only if… we overcome the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically verifiable, and if we once more disclose its vast horizons.”[2]

In other words, broaden our minds.

If we do, we can recognize the “breadth” and second “ingredient of being,” which is structure or “form.”

What does it take to “call a spade a spade?” First we have to see that, given its shape and parts, it would “make sense” to say this thing we are looking at was designed for digging. But that is not enough. We also have to judge that someone actually intended it for this. When we call a spade a spade, we are saying someone actually made this thing to be a tool. If no one did, we might use it as a spade, but we don’t say it is one.

To reduce inquiry to usefulness is technology. Technology only studies how things work; it does not ask what they are. To do that is to go “beyond physics” – into metaphysics. The study of being.

Being a ”philosopher” involves our whole self, both intellect and will. We can perceive with our minds that something might be a spade, but we do not really know it is a spade until we call it one. And that is a free choice.

That doesn’t make it less certain. The judgment might be the only rational choice offered, but we
can still refuse to make it. Relativists do, insisting that structure, or “intentional design” is just something our minds “read into” chance conglomerations of matter. That is their free choice. And it is a narrow one. Saint Paul holds them responsible for making it:

The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against the wickedness of those who… suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.
Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse. For though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.
Claiming to be wise, they became fools (Romans 1:18).

The truth is, we don’t truly “know” a being until we echo God’s creative word, “Let it be,” by re-uttering it in our minds: “It is.” To call a spade a spade we have to put both our intellect and our will on the line by taking the responsibility of judging that it was intentionally formed to be one. Ultimately, knowledge, like creation, is an act of free choice. In it we experience our likeness to God.

Bellarmine draws the practical conclusion:

Humans are the image of God because of their spirit, endowed with reason and freedom. If the image has understanding, it will hope for nothing more than always to gaze at its exemplar and through imitation become as similar to it as it can.
Lift up your mind, my soul, to your exemplar: God, who is infinite beauty. All your perfection lies in imitating him: all your usefulness, honor, joy, rest, and all your good. And his beauty consists in wisdom and holiness.
That spirit is most beautiful whose mind glows with the light of wisdom and whose will is strong wth the fullness of perfect justice. The Scriptures designate both these goods by the name “holiness.” God says, “Be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy.” Jesus says, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Leviticus 11:44; Matthew 5:48).

We know the beauty of our own being when we “name” it in an act of free choice. “You formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

We experience that beauty when we live as we were designed to live, beginning with admiration and praise.

[1] “Empirical” knowledge is defined in the World English Dictionary (© 1999 Microsoft Corporation), as knowledge “derived from experience, particularly from sensory observation, rather than from the application of logic.” It comes down to what we can see, hear, touch, taste and smell. It is basically the level of knowledge we have in common with the animals. Technology applies logic and mathematics to sense-knowledge, but the results are not considered conclusive until we can verify them with our senses. Ultimately, “what you see is all you get.”
[2] See “Relativism: The Central Problem for Faith Today.” a talk given by Cardinal Ratzinger during a meeting with the presidents of the Doctrinal Commissions of the Bishops’ Conference of Latin America in Guadalajara, Mexico, May, 1996.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

We Ascend to God by Going Down

How do we praise and thank God for our being?

First, by understanding it: recognizing our being for what it is and appreciating it. Then by expressing that in praise

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb… Lead me along the path of everlasting life (from Psalm 139:13).

There are four “ingredients” we have to identify in order to know ourselves (or anything else on earth) as a “being.” In metaphysics they are called the “four causes” of being. But the word is deceptive, implying that any one of them could exist by itself, which is a contradiction, since all four are required for a being to exist. (We are not talking about the Being of God here). A better word for them is “principles,” meaning “that which explains something else.” Their technical names are “material, formal, efficient and final cause.”

What follows is perfectly obvious to anyone who “calls a spade a spade.”

The first “ingredient” is “matter.” Stuff. Humans have bodies, are made of something. We “call a spade a spade” when we can see it, touch it, pick it up. When there is something “out there.”

Humans can only make things out of something (matter) that already exists. When God makes something out of nothing, causing the matter itself to exist, we call that “creation.” Ultimately, everything on earth, including ourselves, comes from nothing and is only kept from reverting to nothingness by God’s ongoing act of creation. God says, “Let it beeee…” and we exist as long as God holds the note. “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

This is the fundamental reason for humility. Bellarmine says there is nothing in humans they can boast about, as if they had not received it from God. If a cedar chest could speak, it could say to the woodworker, “I owe my shape to you, but not my material. What I have of myself is more precious than what I received from you.” But no one could say this to God the Creator. Humans have nothing from themselves, and in themselves are absolutely nothing. St. Paul wrote: “If those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (Galatians 6:3; 1Corinthians 4:7).

We can’t imagine “nothingness,” but it is worth thinking about. If I hold my hand in front of my face, I should be aware that it has no more existence in itself than an image projected on a movie screen. If someone turns off the projector, it doesn’t just disappear or go somewhere else; it simply ceases to exist. Returns to nothingness. That is what would happen to us if God stopped saying “Beee…

Saint Robert concludes:

Therefore, my soul, if you are wise, always take the last place. Do not steal the glory of God. Go down into you own nothingness – that alone is yours – and the whole world will not be able to lift you up to pride.
And because this precious virtue of true humility had already disappeared from the world and could not be found either in the books of the philosophers or in the cultures of countries, the Teacher of humility came down from heaven. And though he was by nature God, equal to the Father, “he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7).
And he said to the human race, “Learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29).

To go deep is to go down. If we go deeply into our being, the bottom line is nothingness. This is the truth of our being. We can find peace in recognizing that

“Humility” is “to be peaceful with the truth.” If we are peaceful with the truth of our nothingness, we will find rest for our souls.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

"For Your Great Glory"

 How do we praise and thank God?

The Gloria says, “We thank you for your great glory.” What is the “glory” of God?

God’s glory is his greatness and goodness made manifest. We “glorify” God when we make obvious in ourselves or proclaim to others his Being, Truth, Goodness and Love. God is glorified in us (John 15:8, 17:10). And we glorify him when we praise him.

To praise we must appreciate. And to appreciate we must praise. Experience is only complete in expression. So what is the first step toward being able to “thank God for his great glory”?

Saint Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621, the first Jesuit Cardinal) explains in The Mind’s Ascent to God that we should use the “Ladder of Created Things.” There are fifteen steps. We won’t give them all![1]

Bellarmine first explains it is not contradictory to say that “God is not far from anyone of us, since in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27), but that nevertheless we are distant from him. God sees us, is in constant contact with us, holding us in being, and thinks about us continually. But we cannot see God, touch him, or hug him with affection. Worse, we cannot even think about him easily if we are all wrapped up in created things.

The solution is to unwrap the good things God has created and find him revealed in them. But for this we ourselves have to be unwrapped – detached, freed from the smothering embrace of those things that are holding us instead of being held, blocking our vision instead of opening insights into God. When our heart is free, our eyes can see.

Our “heart” is a combination of mind and will. To love is to know and choose. So, like a good Jesuit, Saint Robert suggests we begin by thinking. About ourselves.

Begin with the hand in front of your face. What explains it?

Evolution might explain how it got there, but nothing you see explains why it is there. Its “what it is” does not explain its “that it is.” So what is giving your hand existence?

This is the classic question about the “first cause.” Which came first, the chicken or the egg? The answer is “Neither, because there is nothing in either that could make it exist.” The first cause has to be something that needs nothing before itself; something that, if we could see it, we would see that it cannot not be. Something whose “what it is” explains its “that it is.” It is not the first in a series; it is something different from everything in the series. Something that doesn’t need a cause because there is no real difference between its “essence” (what it is) and its “existence” (that it is).

We cannot even imagine such a being, because an image requires a silhouette, a shape determined by boundaries. So do human thoughts. Our minds are made to understand particular beings, not Being Itself. Our thoughts are still-shots. Everything we know is framed; made clear and distinct by its structure, its boundaries, that “determine” (from terminus) its dimensions, its qualities, its “determining characteristics.” To “de-fine” something is to identify its fines or limits. We only know what something is by excluding what it isn’t.

But Being-as-Such has no framework, no structure. It is “in-finite,” without fines that “finish” or stop its existence at some point by restricting its dimensions. Its “determining characteristic” is to have no determining – that is “terminating” – characteristics. It is All that is, because its Being is to be Being Itself.

God is the Source of all being, but he has no source. His “what he is” is identical to his “that he is.” As God said, defining himself to Moses, “I AM WHO AM. Say to the children of Israel: HE WHO IS, has sent me to you” (Exodus 3:14).

That tells us everything and nothing. It tells us that God is, but unimaginable. So we get to know him by thinking about things we can understand, the things he has made. What they are has to come from God, so he must be what they are, only better. What God is giving them, God must have himself, only in greater measure. The Latin head-breaker for this is propter quod unumquodque et illud magis. If you can translate that, give yourself a star!

To be precise, God is not “better” or “greater,” as one in a series. God is hors de série, above and beyond all comparisons. When we use the same word to describe creatures and God we mean they are “analogously” the same. They are same enough to justify using the same word, but too different for the word to have exactly the same meaning in both. We just have to keep this in mind.

So if we want to “thank God for his great glory,” we have to see how his wisdom, goodness and love are revealed in the things and people he has made. The best way to get to know God is to get to know ourselves. Not just superficially, but in depth.

This is more than knowing how we function. We know that through biology and psychology, through chemistry and physics. We go “beyond physics” and technology – the study of how things work – when we go into “metaphysics,” the study of what things are. Metaphysics is the study of being.

To know God personally – as he is in himself – instead of just” professionally, as “Architect of the Universe,” we have to compare our being with his Being, what we are in ourselves with what God is in himself.

This starts us up the “Ladder of Created Things” to begin our Mind’s Ascent to God.

Stay tuned for our next thrilling episode of praising and thanking God for his great glory.

[1] Republished by Paulist Press, 1989. In quoting, I have freely rearranged texts and paraphrased.