When the "God beyond all names (and metaphors)" becomes personal…

In my previous blog regarding the use of the terms “metaphor”, “symbolism”, “model” etc., Anon (who comments here quite regularly) commented that “Aquinas’s treatment of metaphor and analogy and their role in talk about God is as pertinent today as the day it was written”. That may well be so. I am not a scholastic. To tell the truth, as a Lutheran (ex-Lutheran?), I have deep suspicions of the scholastic method. My reading of Tracey Rowland’s “Ratzinger’s Faith” has only made me more aware of how scholastic (or neo-scholastic) theology has led the Church up a garden path on more than one occasion in history.

I have, for instance, often been told by Aristotelian/Thomistic types that God is beyond suffering. Poppycock. The God who is “beyond suffering” may be a perfectly satisfying philosophical “model” of God, but it bears little resemblance to the Biblical God of the Old and New Testaments.

I was struck by the way in which Pope Benedict took this usual picture of the God who is “infinitely beyond us” and brought the whole discourse down-to-earth (so to speak) in his Christmas address. Note how far the God he describes is beyond the God of the Philosophers. Note how personal such a God gets. When one has a “personal faith” at this level – based on the knowledge of God that comes from personal experience and trust – it is very hard to fall into the trap of modernistic liberal gnosticism.

The folk such as Fr Dresser have such a problem with the idea of God becoming a man because they are stuck more with a neo-scholastic idea of God than the real God who reveals himself in the Scriptures – the God who actually becomes man, the God who actually suffers, the God who is NOT “beyond all names”, but who actually has a human name: Jesus.

Anyway, here is the first paragraph of the Pope’s Christmas Eve Homily:

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

“Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down upon the heavens and the earth?” This is what Israel sings in one of the Psalms (113 [112], 5ff.), praising God’s grandeur as well as his loving closeness to humanity. God dwells on high, yet he stoops down to us… God is infinitely great, and far, far above us. This is our first experience of him. The distance seems infinite. The Creator of the universe, the one who guides all things, is very far from us: or so he seems at the beginning. But then comes the surprising realization: The One who has no equal, who “is seated on high”, looks down upon us. He stoops down. He sees us, and he sees me. God’s looking down is much more than simply seeing from above. God’s looking is active. The fact that he sees me, that he looks at me, transforms me and the world around me. The Psalm tells us this in the following verse: “He raises the poor from the dust…” In looking down, he raises me up, he takes me gently by the hand and helps me – me! – to rise from depths towards the heights. “God stoops down”. This is a prophetic word. That night in Bethlehem, it took on a completely new meaning. God’s stooping down became real in a way previously inconceivable. He stoops down – he himself comes down as a child to the lowly stable, the symbol of all humanity’s neediness and forsakenness. God truly comes down. He becomes a child and puts himself in the state of complete dependence typical of a newborn child. The Creator who holds all things in his hands, on whom we all depend, makes himself small and in need of human love. God is in the stable. In the Old Testament the Temple was considered almost as God’s footstool; the sacred ark was the place in which he was mysteriously present in the midst of men and women. Above the temple, hidden, stood the cloud of God’s glory. Now it stands above the stable. God is in the cloud of the poverty of a homeless child: an impenetrable cloud, and yet – a cloud of glory! How, indeed, could his love for humanity, his solicitude for us, have appeared greater and more pure? The cloud of hiddenness, the cloud of the poverty of a child totally in need of love, is at the same time the cloud of glory. For nothing can be more sublime, nothing greater than the love which thus stoops down, descends, becomes dependent. The glory of the true God becomes visible when the eyes of our hearts are opened before the stable of Bethlehem.

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17 Responses to When the "God beyond all names (and metaphors)" becomes personal…

  1. Cardinal Pole says:

    “The God who is “beyond suffering” may be a perfectly satisfying philosophical “model” of God …”

    That God is impassible in His Divinity is, I’m pretty sure, a truth of the Faith.

    “When one has a “personal faith” at this level – based on the knowledge of God that comes from personal experience and trust – it is very hard to fall into the trap of modernistic liberal gnosticism.”

    What a stunning non sequitur. If one has an ‘experience-based faith’ then one has already succumbed to Modernism. I will stick to a ‘personal faith’ at the ‘level’ of the Oath against Modernism:

    “the true assent of the intellect to the truth received extrinsically ex auditu, whereby we believe that what has been said, attested, and revealed by the personal God, our Creator and Lord, to be true on account of the authority of God the highest truth.”

    I would strongly advise you and your readers, Mr. Schütz, to avoid rash investigations into the more abstruse truths of the Faith. Stick to social doctrine. How is your reading of the documents of Bl. Pius IX, Leo XIII and Pius XI going, by the way?

  2. Tom says:

    Hrmm, Cardinal Pole, isn’t it impossible to have Faith without it being based on trust? That is to say, while I am young and ready and willing to believe whatever it is that my Father might tell me is true, then yes that is enough for me. But as I grow older, I become suspicious, there exists in me a rebellion against God; how can I ever experience a quelling of this very real, very historical rebellion, without there being some experience of God’s Love and Mercy? That is to say, how can I have a meeting with Christ?

    Surely that is how we would distinguish between ‘belief’, and ‘faith’ in the general use of the word. I may believe that Mount Everest is the highest mountain in the world because my friend (x) told me so. However I may have faith that (x) is correct because every time I have challenged him I have discovered that he was indeed correct, that is to say, my faith is based on something more than someone being taken at their word. This might be faith with a little ‘f’.

    Faith on the other hand represents this concrete reality of my life – I have sinned. What I have seen, historically, is that God has not left me alone in my sin; rather, as the Pope said, he has stooped down to me, and raised me from the pit of darkness. God has acted in my life, and helped to know him. The reality of this is it allows me to have Faith that God really is the Father of me, and the one who Loves my life and wants me to Love him.

    However, David, I would be curious how you think we can harm God. I’m fairly sure that his infinity makes that impossible.

  3. Schütz says:

    Dear Cardinal,

    I am not unsurprised that you and Joshua should have been the first to take issue with me on this matter – it was, in fact, entirely expected.

    I must also point out that my entry in this blog was not perhaps the best thought through – I don’t know about Matthias’ Guinness, but a little red wine can affect one’s ability to make a convincing argument!

    But I do take issue with your advice that “you and your readers, Mr. Schütz, to avoid rash investigations into the more abstruse truths of the Faith” and “stick to social doctrine”. While deeply respecting your own experience as a theologian, I need to point out that mine is not non-existent. I am probably much more competant to discuss “the more abstruse truths of the Faith” than I am to discuss the social doctrine of the Church.

    For that matter, I would say that I even more qualified to comment on the biblical aspects of the Faith, and, with the Holy Father, I share a conviction that theologians and biblical scholars have severely suffered from a lack of dialogue. The study of the scriptures helps to anchor the reflections of the theologian, and vice versa.

    Now, let us take your assertion that “that God is impassible in his divinity is…a truth of the Faith”.

    The difficulty with this statement is that it is perfectly accurate for the Aristotelian view of God, but perfectly inaccurate for the Christian view of God.

    You know well that Aristotle’s “unmoved Mover” is not the Christian Trinity. Once we start to speak of “passibility” in relation to the doctrine of the Trinity, we end up with a very different understanding of the relationship between God and suffering.

    I might, at this point, refer the reader to a perfectly sensible essay on the matter by Fr Thomas G. Weinandy in First Things called (simpy enough) “Does god Suffer?”, in which he defends that teaching “that God is impassible in his Divinity”. That is good primary background reading to this discussion.

    But I want to bring the whole question back to “what God are we talking about here?” Are we talking about the God of philosophy or the God of Christian Scripture, Revelation and Experience?

    The God of Philosophy cannot become a man. That’s simple enough. God is, by nature, “im-incarnational”. Ask anyone from our Muslim Brothers and Sisters to Fr Dresser and they will all tell you exactly the same thing.

    But our God did. Scholasticism worked this matter into its Christian philosophy very neatly, but nontheless it should be acknowledged that such a notion would have been roundly rejected as heretical had it not been put before our very eyes in the babe of Bethlehem.

    Now Christian theology does distinguish its meaning that when it says “God became man” it does not mean that either the Father or the Holy Spirit became man. Only the second person of the Trinity became man (it is heresy to say anything else).

    Now by analogy, this business of suffering is hardly any different to this business of incarnating. Philosophically, God can’t do it. In reality – in the face of the experience we have of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ – we know that he did. So our Christian philosophy must make room for it.

    Note that I fully concur that it is heresy to say that either the Father or the Holy Spirit suffered. But it is very true to say that the Second Person of the Holy Trinity (God the Son) suffered, and, I believe, it is not true simply to say that he suffered in his humanity and NOT in his divinity. Patripassionism is a heresy because Filiipassionism is a truth of the faith.

    Thus, our Catholic Catechism does not give us a list of “attributes” of God. (in fact, it notes that the Creeds give only one such attribute – omnipotence cf. p. 268). Nowhere in the Catechism is the impassibility of God asserted – as perhaps one might expect if it is “a truth of the Faith” rather than an acknowledged “truth of philosophical tradition”.

    Rather there is this passage:

    CCC 426 “At the heart of catechesis we find, in essence, a Person, the Person of Jesus of Nazareth, the only Son from the Father…who suffered and died for us and who now, after rising, is living with us forever” [JPII, CATECHESI TRADENDAE 5].

    At the very beginning of his very first encyclical, Pope Benedict assures us that “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

    That is what I meant by a “personal faith”, which arises out of a “personal experience” – the experience of which I speak is this “encounter” with Christ.

    Far be it from me to deny in any way the authority of the Church in matters of faith, and our responsibility as Christians to give assent to the teachings of the Church on the basis of that authority. I would be the very first person to say that one ought always to put this teaching authority of the Church ahead of any “personal revelation” or enthusiastic “experiential” spirituality.

    But with the Holy Father, I must assert that without this personal encounter with Christ, we cannot truly speak of “Christian faith”.

  4. Hardman Window says:

    Here be dragons, Mr Schutz! Too many German altar-pieces of the suffering Saviour and not enough metaphysics, I fear.

  5. Schütz says:

    While I was preparing that rather long answer (gosh it does look much longer than it did in the combox!) Tom piped in with his statement and question.

    Essentially, Tom, you are describing the difference between the “fides quae” (= “faith THAT”) and the “fides qua” (= “faith IN”). The former is intellectual assent, the latter is filial trust. “The Faith” is the former – and consists of dogmas that must be believed on authority. But the relational faith on which Christian life is built is the “Faith IN” of the baptismal creed.

    As for how we can harm God? Have we not already demonstrated this? We successfully whipped him, stripped him, nailed him to a cross, killed him and buried him. On top of that, we heaped all the guilt of our sin upon him. Unless this was all play acting on God’s part, our theology has to take account of the fact that God (the Second Person of the Trinity) suffered in this event – and that he suffered at our hands.

    None of that is to deny that none of this would have been possible if God had not already “stooped low” enough in the miracle of the incarnation to allow this to happen.

  6. Schütz says:

    Ah, you have inspired me, HW to make an addition to this blog entry! (I acknowledge that you are probably right about the influences upon my spirituality!).

    Mind you, when I finally stand before my judge in heaven I would much rather be accused of basing my theology upon said altar pieces than upon metaphysical speculations!

  7. Hardman Window says:

    Its not so terribly hard. There are not three Gods but only one. If the Father and the Holy Spirit cannot suffer, neither can the Son in his divinity. But he can and did in his humanity, which is united with his divinity. This does not lessen the reality of his suffering, nor lessen its salvific value because it is “only” human: rather, because of the union of his human nature with the divine, it elevates and gives it salvific value. Otherwise there would be no need of the Incarnation. But there are not two Sons, but only one. Its not as if we’re talking about a different person. The great thing Pope Benedict does in his writings is reawaken that sense of wonder at the divine love that causes God to reveal His face to us in Jesus.

  8. Schütz says:

    I know that this is the usual way in which we deal with this “problem”, HW, and I know that this is where the whole Chalcedonian formula comes into it, but (and I think we have been down this road before on this blogsite) the human Christ IS the Divine Christ (I am not mixing his humanity and divinity here). It was not simply Christ’s humanity which was nailed to the Cross, but the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. The Heart and Hands of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity was pierced. The Second Person of the Holy Trinity suffered and DIED.

    Oh, sorry, God can’t die either. Any more than he can become a man and suffer.

  9. Joshua says:


    We thought you’d gotten over all your previous confusion on this point, and now you insist on muddling it all up again!

    BTW, Why your above comment to the effect that this post will draw me out of the woodwork? If you want to bat against the First XI you’d better get into training! ;-)

    Of course “One of the Trinity suffered for us” – dogma.

    But this is the communicatio idiomatum here, and I’m sure you’ll recall that Luther had a lot to say about getting it right.

    God suffered on the Cross – but in His sacred humanity, which was nailed, pierced, buffeted, mocked, scourged, spat upon, rent and torn: according to His Divinity, He with the Father and the Holy Ghost was sustaining all things in existence, permitting all these outrages that we might be saved and see the excess of the Divine Love for us. Yes, God in Christ was reconciling us to Himself.

    It’s silly to say other than metaphorically that God in His Divinity suffers – suffers what, He’s Perfect Act! God took on our flesh that He might in our nature suffer, and since the Person having now forever our nature did so, that Person really suffered and died for us, in His human nature that alone was capable of suffering.

    What of the frequent references in Scripture to God being angry, jealous, loving, hating, repenting, changing His mind, etc.?

    Well, any reasonable person can tell that God doesn’t really change His mind or repent or get angry in our human manner – “My thoughts are not your thoughts” – but rather these are vivid representations in human language of God’s essential oneness of purpose, viz, to love all that He has made that is good by the very fact that He made it, to hate all sin that causes angels and men to fall away from union with Him, and to so love despite this that He devised from all eternity to enter into His Creation and redeem it, so as to conquer sin and reunite all to Himself in the most marvellous manner.

    I could go on but I think this will suffice.

  10. Schütz says:

    Yes, we don’t really want to get into all that stuff about the two natures of Christ again, do we? Been there, done that.

    For the record, I do recognise that the “frequent references in Scripture to God being angry, jealous, loving, hating, repenting, changing His mind, etc.” were all metaphors, but “incarnation” and “suffering” are not metaphors.

    More importantly, you keep asserting that “God is perfect act” – but as far as I know this is a philosophical assertion, and not a doctrine of the Faith. The problem I have with this is again a problem of talking about the philosophical “god” and not the Holy Trinity. For eg. I don’t quite understand how “pure act” can be a Personal Being.

  11. Schütz says:

    And for another thing (once again betraying my not-very-latent Lutheranism) there is nothing in Scriptures about God being “perfect act”. Certainly the Hebrews could never have spoken of the God of Israel in such a way.

  12. Hardman Window says:

    Oh well if it isn’t actually in Scripture….

  13. Joshua says:

    God is utterly perfect, as all men know (else He would not be God); God is omnipotent, almighty, as all men know; to be all-powerful means that He is utterly in charge and subject to no thing (note that here I am not talking of a God Who could be capricious, for God to be God He must ipso facto be utterly good, etc.).

    Now, to be all-powerful and not able to be put under constraint by any creature is precisely to be Perfect Act – for God is always active, never passive: what is it to be active? It is to be the initiator in every circumstance. What is it to be passive? To ‘suffer’ something (not in the sentimental sense necessarily), that is, to have something done to one.

    I feel confident that the God of the Scriptures is fairly obviously always active and Almighty.

    Of course, Scripture speaks of God our Lord weeping over sinful Israel, etc. – but this doesn’t mean the Ancient of Days (complete with white beard) sits on some cloud feeling glum, complete with hangdog expression!

    God cares for His Creation with boundless love, and in human terms one aspect of caring is to be concerned for and worried over the one cared for: so we speak of God in this way, while acknowledging that what we say of God is expressed in our human terms, while God is so far above us that what we say of Him, while true, is only a very limited expression of the Divine Majesty.

    Does this help?

    And doesn’t Luther speak somewhere of the difference between God as known to us through Revelation, and the hiddenness of God as known and knowable only to Himself?

    Remember, philosophy is at base just common sense, carefully thought out. Obviously we can speak marvellous truths about God, while just as obviously He is mysterious and the totality of His infinite marvels are beyond us.

  14. Schütz says:

    Luther did speak of the hidden and revealed God – Deus Absconditus and Deus Revelatus – but his point was (and I do not entirely hold to this view, although it has had a profound effect at stages of my theological development) that the God of the Philosophers was the Deus Absconditus and the God of Scripture was the Deus Revelatus.

    I understand what you mean when you say God is “pure act” in the way you explain it – but that is not ALL God is. It is precisely the strength of Luther’s idea that the God we know from philosophy is not all that can be known about God, and what is revealed to us by God of himself – especially (again as Luther said) in Christ – is far more than could be known by philosophy. I think this concurs with Catholic theology also.

    When I read what you wrote about the God who is “always active and Almighty”, I immediately thought to myself: Is this not what the Incarnation was all about? What, in fact, the Holy Father was getting at in his homily? The God who is so far above us, “always active and Almighty”, actually became passive and weak in the babe at Bethlehem? And on the Cross? Is this not the heart of Christianity?

    In showing himself to us in Christ, the God of the Scriptures choses to reveal himself to us in a way that is Most Weak (rather than Almighty) and Most Passive (rather than active). This too, paradoxically, Luther called the “Hidden God” – but it was a different kind of “hiddenness”, the God who hides himself – not in the “cloud of unknowing”, but in the flesh of the baby and of the dead man on the Cross. This is the “hidden God” who of course continues to reveal himself in hiddenness in the Eucharist.

    It is, to a very large extent, this aspect of Lutheran spirituality which remains with me today as a Catholic. It is, you could say, a spirituality which is more Franciscan than Dominican. But is not, for that reason, any less authentically Catholic.

  15. Joshua says:

    Yes, exactly.

    Our God took on human flesh to thus reveal Himself (in our nature, but in a nature that is united to the Person of the Eternal Word and is thus truly His) in lowliness and humbleness to us, who would otherwise have been cowed and overawed by the splendour of His Divine Majesty – indeed, even the merest glimpse of such at the Transfiguration overwhelmed the three apostles there present.

    I make bold to say that whatever perfection there be in hiddenness and passivity, this, too, would be present in God in a most perfect, exemplary manner, not at all contradicting His supreme glory and almightiness, just as His mercy and justice are one in Him, since in Him all perfections meet together – this sounds paradoxical but I think you get what I’m trying to say!

    I think I get some of your points now, too…

    For instance, certainly philosophy could never have guessed at the Trinity or the Incarnation.

    I too like the idea of Deus absconditus præsensque (God hidden and yet present), of Deus tremendus et fascinans (God making-us-to-tremble and yet also captivating)…

  16. Chris Burgwald says:

    David, a comment OT from the thread going here, but related to the OP:

    Don’t lump all of scholasticism together… you already indicated that you don’t with the parenthetical reference to neo-scholasticism, which pleased me, given that they are by no means equivalent. And I’m sure you are aware as well of the great variety of medieval scholasticisms as well, differentiated in any number of ways. Thomas wasn’t Ockham (thank goodness!). Nor were the “greats” more indebted to philosophy than Scripture (I’m thinking in particular of Thomas and Bonaventure).

    Feel free to inveigh against the late/decadent scholastics, though… I’m convinced that Joseph Lortz was right when he said that the Catholicism which Luther rejected was not authentic Catholicism.

  17. Schütz says:

    Chris: Yes, I am aware of this. I don’t in any way want to pour disdain on Thomas A. for eg. And as I noted, there is not only Scholasticism and neo-Scholasticism, but even in high scholasticism there were the different schools of nominalism or realism. The Scholastic method, like most methods, has very great benefits but also great dangers and is easily perverted if a lively personal faith born out of an encounter with Christ is not included as an essential ingredient in the mix.

    Josh: You and I now understand one another. The fact that you could say “that whatever perfection there be in hiddenness and passivity, this, too, would be present in God in a most perfect, exemplary manner, not at all contradicting His supreme glory and almightiness” shows we have come to agreement at the end of our dialogue. For this is exactly what St Paul wrote about God saying “My power is made perfect in weakness”.

    The paradox must be upheld: The Suffering of God is nothing other than a work of his Perfect Activity. The Weakness of God is a manifestation of his Almighty Power.

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