A previous article discussed that both Augustine and Descartes arrived at the concept of an existing God by first concluding that each of them, as an individual person, existed. Augustine proceeded from his proof that he existed, from his Si fallor, sum (If I am mistaken, I am), to the conclusion that God must exist. Similarly, Descartes proceeded from Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am),to the conclusion that God must exist. For Augustine, God provides the illuminating light of truth for all we experience; and for Descartes, God is the guarantor of the truth of what we clearly and distinctly perceive.
But each of these thinkers had in mind a God whose nature or essence could not be put into words, or was “ineffable;” a God about whom we could really say nothing other than “He is.”
For St. Augustine, God is “ineffable” and “unspeakable.” He said, “God transcends even the mind.” “Ineffable” means that something cannot be described or expressed in words. “Inexpressible” and “unutterable” convey some of the meaning of “ineffable.”
For Descartes, God’s “Divine Nature” is-
“immeasurable, incomprehensible, infinite.” Descartes says that “God’s greatness . . . is incomprehensible to us, although known to us” and “God is a cause whose power surpasses the limits of human understanding.”
St. Augustine and Descartes are not alone in trying to speak about the unspeakable.
The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom refers to God’s ineffability:
“It is proper and right to sing to You, bless You, praise You, thank You and worship You in all places of Your dominion; for You are God ineffable, beyond comprehension, invisible, beyond understanding, existing forever and always the same; You and Your only-begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit. “
St. Thomas Aquinas says that “‘by its immensity, the divine substance surpasses every form that our intellect reaches” and that “The first cause surpasses human understanding and speech”.
There is an entire area of theology devoted to this notion of the “ineffability” of God.
So where does that leave us – with this God whose essence we cannot know?
The Catechism Of The Catholic Church says this leaves us with a mystery:
“Even when he reveals himself, God remains a mystery beyond words: “If you understood him, it would not be God” (St. Augustine,“Even when he reveals himself, God remains a mystery beyond words: “If you understood him, it would not be God” (St. Augustine, Sermon 52, 6, 16: PL 38, 360 and Sermon 117, 3, 5: PL 38, 663).” (Catechism No. 230).
I Believe in Mystery
So one could choose, as many people do for whatever reason, to say “Well, if it is a mystery, then it is baloney, bollocks, meaningless. If it is a mystery, it does not exist.” Alternatively, we can realize that “mystery” and “reality” can be one and the same thing; and that this is why we stand up periodically in church and say, not “I know God,” but “I believe.” Much of what follows that “I believe” is a mystery.
What makes it possible for us, again and again, to say, and say publicly, “I believe” in the mysteries? And to go further and to not only say I believe the mysteries, but I embrace them and I love them? The answer is a gift from God.
For St. Augustine, this gift is faith. In explaining Holy Scripture, including Ephesians 2:8, he tells us that faith is a divine gift:
”For he himself [St. Paul] also says , ‘By grace are you saved through faith; and this is not of yourselves; but is the gift of God,’ that is to say, ‘And in saying ‘through faith’ even faith itself is not of yourselves, but is God’s gift.” (On The Predestination Of Saints, Chap. 12).
Section 160 of the Catechism entitled “The Freedom Of Faith” quotes Dignitatis Humanae: “The act of faith is of its very nature a free act.” The section goes further: “Faith is a personal act – the free response of the human person to the initiative of God who reveals Himself.”
A Gift of Faith
This gift, which we have all been given in baptism, is a theological virtue, a supernatural virtue, a “habit” for doing good that facilitates and makes it easy for us to say “I believe.” Think of faith as a top-of-the-line industrial-strength flashlight God gives you, complete with batteries, maybe even a solar charger.
It is your gift. You are free to do anything with it. You can put it in a cabinet and never turn it on. You can deny that it is a flashlight. You can throw it away. You can beat it against a tree and destroy it. You can also freely choose to turn it on and light the way for yourself and for others. In the dark you see nothing, but then you flip the switch on, the light shines, and you say “I see.”
Faith is like this. God gives it to you, a free gift, but he does not force you to act faithfully. God never compels you to flip the faith “switch” on. Powered with this gift, you can encounter mystery and, exercising your free will, say “I believe.” Implicit in your “I believe” is that you do not know and you do not understand (yet) what God is, nor do you understand the other mysteries to which you assent.
A Taste of Light
But do not expect Jesus to appear at your side next Sunday when you stand up and say “I believe” like He did for St. Thomas. What you will get is a hint of glory to come:
“Faith makes us taste in advance the light of the beatific vision, the goal of our journey here below. Then we shall see God “face to face”, “as he is”. So faith is already the beginning of eternal life: ‘When we contemplate the blessings of faith even now, as if gazing at a reflection in a mirror, it is as if we already possessed the wonderful things which our faith assures us we shall one day enjoy’” (Catechism Section 163, citing St. Basil, De Spiritu Sancto, 15).
Regarding this “taste of light,” St. Augustine and Descartes, two of the greatest thinkers in all human history, concluded, in real humility, that they could know God exists, but that they could not know God. For St. Augustine, faith was a gift that the recipient had to nurture so that the “taste of light,” a promise of things to come, would be fulfilled:
“But You, Beloved, who possess this Faith, or who have begun now newly to have it, let it be nourished and increase in you. For as things temporal have come, so long before foretold, so will things eternal also come, which are promised.” (Concerning Faith Of Things Not Seen, 11).
For Descartes, after faith’s first “taste if light,” once one came to know God and that one could not know His essence, the proper response was a “Thank You” to God:
“And I have no cause for complaint on the grounds that the power of understanding or the natural light which God gave me is no greater than it is; for it is in the nature of a finite intellect to lack understanding of many things, and it is in the nature of a created intellect to be finite. Indeed, I have reason to give thanks to him who has never owed me anything for the great bounty that he has shown me, rather than thinking myself deprived or robbed of any gifts he did not bestow! “ (Meditations On First Philosophy, Fourth Meditation).
Next Sunday’s “I believe” is a beginning, not an end. It may be some good ole Texas “Horse and Rabbit Stew,” equal parts of two horses – St. Augustine and Descartes – and one rabbit – you; but in publicly acknowledging what you do not comprehend, but what nevertheless you do believe, you will be in fine company when you “nourish and increase” God’s gift of faith, and tell Him “Thank You.”