Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Of Mice, Men, and Hindus

Suppose you didn’t know what a human was and that you had to approximate your idea of man by your knowledge of lesser beings. We could start with a chimpanzee because it is the smartest animal. But that wouldn’t be enough, so we would need to supplement our knowledge with attributes of other creatures. Yes man is smart like the chimpanzee, (much smarter in fact), but he is also industrious like the ant. He is artistic like the bowerbird, a resourceful hunter like the lion, and social like the wolf.

Now the way we learn about God, through creation, is something like this. Because he was made in God’s image, man is the closest thing we know. But as knowledge of the chimpanzee falls short of knowing man, so knowledge of man falls far short of knowing God. The difference in the latter example is of course infinite and not strictly comparable. By knowing a chimpanzee you are much closer to knowing man than you are to knowing God by knowing a man.

To learn what God is like, we use a synthesis of all knowledge. Though man is the smartest and closest to God, knowing him alone is not nearly enough. God is the source and perfection of all goodness that exists in every creature. When we observe the efficient industry of the ant, we know that God is infinitely efficient and industrious. When we see the tender care of a mother with child, we know that God is infinitely tender and caring. “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” The ferocity of a lion is only a shadow of God’s wrath.

This is also true of theology, I believe. I am a Thomist because I believe that Thomism is the best of the theological schools. But even though St. Thomas was a master at synthesis, knowing Thomism is not enough to approximate the truth. After all, foreknowing the result of St. Thomas’s vision, God judged it more profitable to mankind that St. Thomas should call his writings “straw” than that he should finish his masterpiece.

Knowing Thomism is to knowing truth what knowing man is to knowing God. Just as the best reflection of God’s perfection must be used as the exemplar for knowing God, so the best doctor of the Church should be used as an exemplar for knowing true theology. If you think that man is the only creature that should be used to learn about God, then you fail to appreciate certain attributes. Likewise, if Thomism is the only theology you study, you miss out on important aspects.

Non-Western theology is certainly part of that necessary synthesis. Pope John Paul II declared that the Church must breathe with her “two lungs,” that is, with the Western and Eastern traditions.

Though man is by far the closest to God, a gorilla is stronger and better represents God’s strength in that limited way. A dog expresses loyalty better than a man, and certain other animals excel in sensory powers beyond man’s capability. The sun better represents God’s life giving light, and the oak tree better represents His steadfastness. Likewise, in spite of their theological mistakes, non-Catholics do emphasize certain truths that lack such emphasis in Catholicism. Even other faiths have some things to teach us. We do not deny that man is uniquely created in God’s image by noting that the lamb best reflects a particular attribute of God. Likewise, we do not deny that the fullness of God’s revelation uniquely subsists in the Catholic Church by noting that other faiths better reflect certain attributes of God’s truth.

Catholicity is bigger than both Latin Christianity, and Eastern Orthodoxy. When Catholicism swallowed paganism whole, she spit out the erroneous seeds and perfected the truth that was already present in classical philosophy. When and if Catholicism were to swallow the Eastern religions like Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, Catholicism would be the better for it. The Eastern mystic religions have truths that Catholicism has not yet perfected.

Again, this does not deny the unique truth of Catholicism. Christ founded the Church just as He created Adam. But towards His perfect end, He saw fit to create lesser creatures, each having a limited measure of truth. Some of these creatures, e.g. sewer rats, do not appear to exemplify much of anything helpful towards apprehending God’s nature. Likewise, there are plenty of shameful cults, heresies, and religions that have little or nothing to teach us. Yet all things are within God’s providence. The lion was not an accident, and neither was Hinduism.

Allow me to summarize. St. Thomas said that the human intellect cannot exhaust the essence of a single fly. And while the Catholic Church is God’s fullest, most visible, and most direct divine revelation, en route to understanding God lies understanding the field mouse.

Neither St. Thomas, nor any writer, nor man’s best effort at synthesizing the whole of theology will suffice for man’s knowledge of the full truth. But short of prophetic knowledge, this synthesis of man’s best work, each facet given its proper weight according to prudence and wisdom, is the pinnacle of man’s natural attempt to know the fullness of truth. Likewise, man’s best attempt at knowing God contains a rational synthesis of all that exists.