Sometimes our world can seem a pretty ugly place. Sure, wars, brutality and other such devastations are immediately obvious, but even things like spiders and storms can make terrifying this place we have no choice but to call home.
At times God can appear so near, and those moments often conveniently align with the events in our lives we deem acceptable; God is, as we say, so good. But then something bad happens, no matter what the scale, and all of sudden the God who was so near is now so distant, and heaven seems closed off to our cries.
Our theologies can go wonky here in several directions, each in response to the same situations.
On the one hand, we anthropomorphize the crap of the divine, attributing to deity the emotional pathos or catharsis we crave in response to our pain. Desperately seeking a God who is compassionate and love, we can spout nonsense about how God’s heart is broken by our pain or our hurt, as if God is emotionally fragile and only moved to act if things get dire enough. Is it too much to ask that at times God gets a bit weepy?
On the other hand, we can effectively abstract God from the universe entirely, hiding him behind layers of second causes until the only divine act is to set creation spinning into motion. In our desire to vindicate the ways of the Almighty we can end up giving him very few ways at all, fearful to admit of God’s action anything that might actually get his hands dirty. We may even resort to giving God the benefit of ignorance, as if he really didn’t know what was going to happen, coming at events as the come like the rest of us.
It is perhaps not too surprising that both tendencies reflect a perhaps not too obvious turn: in trying to talk about God, they ultimately talk only about us.
In the classical philosophical and theological tradition of Christianity, one of God’s perfections is his infinity. Given that God is ontologically simple (i.e., not composed of parts), any perfection of God is finally identical with his being. For God, to exist is the same as to be infinite.
A consequence of the perfection of infinity is that any other predicate of divine perfection will be ultimately identified with and identical to this infinity, insofar as all of God’s attributes are one since the God is one in being. Knowledge, for example, is a perfection in God, and as a consequence his knowledge is infinite; all that is possible to know is known by God. The same is true for power, love, etc.
One disastrous mistake to make in the process of thinking about God, however, is to imagine that the things which God possesses somehow stand outside of him as they do for us. For example, I may know a curtain amount of things, but that knowledge is to some extent external to myself. One can easily draw a distinction between me and the knowledge I possess.
God, however, does not simply possess more knowledge than anyone (or everyone) else as if I have 20 units of knowledge and God has 20,000,000. For God to be is the same as the perfection of knowledge.
This entails something fairly incredible: If God is the perfection of knowledge, then that knowledge, to truly be perfect, must embrace anything infinite as well. We often quote the proverb ‘know thyself’ as a form of motivation toward self-knowledge, but for God the act is already-always complete; he completely fathoms his own existence, simply because his to-be-ness is his to-be. As Aquinas says, “God understands Himself through Himself”:
Since therefore God has nothing in Him of potentiality, but is pure act, His intellect and its object are altogether the same; so that He neither is without the intelligible species, as is the case with our intellect when it understands potentially; nor does the intelligible species differ from the substance of the divine intellect, as it differs in our intellect when it understands actually; but the intelligible species itself is the divine intellect itself, and thus God understands Himself through Himself.[1. ST, I, 14, 2]
But the corollary is equally profound: since God is infinite, there is nothing to be known outside of Himself. Thus God does not merely possess knowledge of Himself but mysteriously just is knowledge of Himself.
All other beings that are not God- which is actually everything besides God- can thus never be known apart from its own fundamental grounding in God as the source of every being’s being and the knowledge thereof. Because of the ontological distinction between Creation and Creator we are often tempted to conceptualize God as standing next to creation, two interposed opposites that have trouble touching. But the truth goes much deeper than this.
Since God is the source of all being, every being has an intrinsic and irrevocable orientation towards its maker. There is no being that can stand outside of God, but each being rather participates to some degree in the perfections of God. Nothing but God could contain his own fullness, and so we each have a different measure of participation in the perfection of our own being.
Richard of St. Victor describes this differentiation in being in this manner:
He is present in some [beings] because he allows them to participate in his power—and not in his life! He is present in others because he allows them to participate in his life—yet not in his wisdom! Thus, [God], who is uniform per se and cannot change, is tight-fisted in his generosity towards some beings, whilst he opens his hand more generously towards others, and towards yet others [is] even more generous.[2. De Trinitate, Book 2]
Each being could be amazing in many ways, resplendent in glory, powerful, etc., but still could not contain the totality of God in any way. For example, while we might receive God’s charity-love to the fullness of our capacity, there would always be more which could be given, simply because God is charity-love:
We might imagine each being in creation as a different sized glass and God’s charity-love as the ocean. Each glass can hold a certain amount of water, some significantly more than others. But even the largest glass could not hold the entire ocean, and as the waves crashed upon it each would be filled and yet overwhelmed and unable to contain the entirety of charity-love.[3. Watson, Love is Overflowing, p. 90]
The sheer gratuitous nature of our existence means this: we are not the ultimate referent of our existence, but rather God is. Stated another way: everything is ultimately about God.
God’s knowledge of everything that is cannot therefore be limited in any way, for there is not the tiniest aspect of anything that exists which can be outside of the Being from when it is derived. It is true to say that God is in everything, but it is equally the case that everything is in God. An artist who crafts a work of art brings its colors and lines into reality; there is no part of art which does not bear the artist’s hand. One could no more imagine the artwork apart from its maker than one could imagine the world apart from God.
God thus knows creation not as an object that stands off apart from him, but rather knows creation through Himself. Thus, as Aquinas states:
God sees Himself in Himself, because He sees Himself through His essence; and He sees other things not in themselves, but in Himself; inasmuch as His essence contains the similitude of things other than Himself.[4. ST, 1, 14, 5]
Each of our lives is a testament to God since God is the source of our very existence. There is not a moment which passes in which our being is not sustained by his power. The somewhat heady definitions of God’s infinity and his perfect knowledge boil down to making a universe that is fired by the love of God, in which he thoroughly soaks every part more intimately than each thing’s own being, for He is deeper than their being as the cause and source of that very being:
Like the highest of the angels, the humble blade of grass bears this resemblance to God. The world of St. Thomas is one where it is a marvelous thing to be born. It is a scared world, one impregnated to its very fibre with the intimate presence of a God whose supreme actuality preserves it in its own actual existence.[5. Etinne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, p. 101]
The final point of all this is that point of it all is God, and not us. In our sin we tend to make the universe’s reference point our own subjectivity, but we miss the revolution provided by own own limited existence.
Our wonky theologies begin to fall apart when we come face to face with the awesome wonder of the infinite, when the ever expanding ocean of love stretches out into the distance ad we can see no further, beckoning the longing heart to step a foot in.
Weeping Gods become pitiful caricatures, for God is the source of all the love, and the very fact of the universe’s existence practically screams that truth. There can be no exhausting of God’s love, nor do we have any reason to suspect he withholds. The better question may be if we are open enough to contain any more.
Nor can God be thought of as distant and aloof, for he is nearer to us than we are to ourselves. Richard of St. Victor reminds of the unfathomable nearness of God:
If he is powerful everywhere, he is also present everywhere in his power. If he is everywhere in his power he is also everywhere in his essence, since power and essence in him are identical. Furthermore, if he is everywhere in his essence, this means that [God is present] both where there is space and where there is no space. Therefore, he will be in every place, just as he will be outside every place. He will be above everything and underneath everything. He will be both inside and outside everything.[6. De Trinitate, Book 2]
All of this means that everything is about God; a very freeing realization, for it frees us from the constant struggle to make everything about ourselves. The misery we feel in the face of struggle or pain is less about the struggle and the pain and more about our own disappointed loves, the realization that we have not yet sucked all of the universe into our gravitational pull. The yawning maw of self-orientation longs for infinity, but it can only do so in an aborted attempt to grab it from the one for whom it is his nature to be.
The less time we try making ourselves like God, the more time God can make us like him.
It is, after all, really about him.