We live in a big world. We’ve known that for a long time, and have been impressed.
“How great are your works, LORD! How profound your designs!”
But impressive as what we see is, God is greater: almighty, infinite, eternal. Ineffable, beyond what can be expressed in words. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 202, 206–209)
That’s pretty much what God told Moses in the ‘burning bush’ interview:
“‘But,’ said Moses to God, ‘if I go to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” what do I tell them?’
“God replied to Moses: I am who I am. Then he added: This is what you will tell the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you.”
Moses said “but” three times before their talk was over. I’ve talked about him before, and other prophets. Mary also asked a question: a sensible one. I get the impression that her reaction was calmer than theirs. (December 18, 2016; December 4, 2016)
We’re pretty hot stuff, too. It’s in our nature. Maybe that doesn’t seem ‘humble.’ But like I’ve said, humility isn’t being delusional. It’s acknowledging reality, and giving credit where credit is due. (March 31, 2017; July 31, 2016)
Dominion: And Frightening Responsibility
It’s been a while since I heard folks preaching the wretched insignificance of humans. Not that I go around looking for that sort of thing.
I hope they meant well. Maybe their intent was correcting the ‘lords of creation’ attitude popular during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
We’re still cleaning up the mess that left.
On the other hand, the Industrial Revolution wasn’t all bad news. I certainly don’t miss the frequent famines and plagues of ‘simpler times.’ (August 11, 2017; July 21, 2017)
Or maybe the ‘we’re worthless’ stuff was at least partly a reaction to seeing the implications of what we are:
“What is man that you are mindful of him, and a son of man that you care for him?
“Yet you have made him little less than a god, crowned him with glory and honor.”
“Little less than a god” isn’t “God,” but I think it’s a reasonable description of humanity’s nature.
Like it or not, we have “dominion” over this world. But we don’t own the place. We’re more like stewards: responsible for its maintenance. (Genesis 1:28, 2:15; Catechism, 216, 373)
Part of our job is making reasoned use of its resources, for ourselves and future generations, and keeping our home in good working order. (Catechism, 2402–2406, 2415)
Hubris isn’t, I think, a sensible reaction to seeing what we are: and the responsibilities that come with our nature.
Considering the ‘talents’ parable in Matthew 15:14–30 and what our Lord said about expectations in Luke 12:48, it’s a bit scary. (November 18, 2016)
Using Our Brains
We cannot understand God. Not fully. If we thoroughly understand something or someone, it’s not God. (Catechism, 230)
But learning more about God is a good idea. Ignorance is not a virtue. That’s why we’re told to read the Bible. Frequently. (Catechism, 101–133)
And we’re supposed to be curious about this wonder-filled universe. (July 29, 2016; October 28, 2016)
No matter where we look, we’ll find truth and beauty. They’re expressed in words and in the visible world: “the rational expression of the knowledge;” “the order and harmony of the cosmos,” “the greatness and beauty of created things.” (Catechism, 32, 41, 74, 2500)
I’ve run into folks who seem diffident about knowing or thinking ‘too much.’ I figure that if my faith gets shaky when I start thinking about it, there’s something wrong with my faith. Or the way I’m thinking. (August 13, 2017)
If that happens, I shouldn’t stop thinking. It may take work, and time, but truth wins. Eventually. If I let it. (July 23, 2017; June 2, 2017; May 7, 2017)
“…faith must be there first, if one wishes to see God in Creation.”
(Brother Guy Consolmagno, Vatican Observatory, in a Zenit interview (May 2017))
“…Even if the difficulty is after all not cleared up and the discrepancy seems to remain, the contest must not be abandoned; truth cannot contradict truth….”
(“Providentissimus Deus,” Pope Leo XIII (November 18, 1893)
Pursuing truth and beauty will lead us to God. If we’re doing it right. (Catechism, 27, 31–35, 74)
That’s one reason I write about the truth and beauty I see.
Like I said, ‘little less than a god’ isn’t God. Not even close.
We’re not infinitely powerful, for one thing.
Philosophers, theologians, and mathematicians tweak infinity’s meaning various ways for their studies. But it still means ‘boundless’ or ‘immeasurable.’ More or less.
“Infinity” isn’t a particularly useful concept for most everyday tasks, except for some engineers and scientists. Also mathematicians. Nobody’s going to pick up an infinite number of items at the grocery, or cut infinitely thin cheese slices.
Early versions of calculus didn’t all deal with infinity. That started catching on around the 1600s. Calculus, the sort engineers use, deals with infinite numbers these days. Engineers started using a lot more math, including calculus, in the 1700s.
I was going somewhere with this. Let’s see. Moses, God, Psalms, human nature, truth and beauty, calculus. Right.
Thomas Paine was an engineer, among other things.
I don’t know how much infinity went into his calculations for the first Wearmouth Bridge.
He’d gotten interested in the French Revolution by the time it was built. I’ll get back to that.
A 20th-century writer said that Paine “…half-understood the concept of infinity and the infinite plurality of possible other galaxies, but he could not leave hold of the idea that this made the terrestrial much more unique….”1
That might help explain why Paine thought that if an “infinite” number of planets exist, God doesn’t.
A remarkable number of folks, religious and otherwise, still think that reality and religion don’t mix. I don’t share that view. (April 14, 2017; March 31, 2017; September 16, 2016)
We cannot completely understand God.
But we can remind ourselves that wherever we look, whatever we know, God is greater than what we can see and understand.
“Terrible and awesome are you, stronger than the ancient mountains.”
“He sits enthroned above the vault of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; He stretches out the heavens like a veil, spreads them out like a tent to dwell in.”
“Raise your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth below; Though the heavens grow thin like smoke, the earth wears out like a garment and its inhabitants die like flies, My salvation shall remain forever and my justice shall never be dismayed.”
“Indeed, before you the whole universe is like a grain from a balance,
or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.”
That was true when some of us thought the universe was no more than a few thousand years old. It’s true today.
And it will be true when we’ve found answers to most of today’s scientific riddles. Those answers will most likely uncover whole categories of new questions. (March 26, 2017; January 29, 2017; December 9, 2016)
Judgment Day and ‘Need to Know’
In a way, I can’t die. Not permanently.
But at some point my soul and and my body will be separated, and I’ll be dead: physically. (Catechism, 991, 997)
Then I get the performance review we call the particular judgment, and decide whether I’d rather say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to God’s offer. (Catechism, 1021–1022, 1023–1029, 1033–1037, 1042–1050)
If I have any sense at all, I’ll say ‘yes.’ But ‘no’ is an option. (April 23, 2017; March 5, 2017; November 11, 2016)
I’ll be rejoined to my body, a permanent one, in time for the Final Judgment: along with everyone else. (Catechism, 1031, 1042–1050, 1059)
I like understanding things, but I don’t know how resurrection works. Not on a nuts-and-bolts operational level. It’s something I can’t understand. (Catechism, 997–1004)
I’ll accept that details are irrelevant to doing my job, which is fine by me. I’ve got enough to do as it is. More about that after I talk about Paine and the French Revolution.
My resurrected body is the one I’ll have at the Final Judgment. I’ll be there, along with everyone else. (Catechism, 1031, 1042–1050, 1059)
That will happen — when it happens. From what our Lord said in Matthew 24:36–44, 25:13, and Mark 13:32–33, I gather that knowledge of the Final Judgment’s timetable is available on a ‘need to know’ basis.
Jesus didn’t need to know, so I sure don’t.
That hasn’t kept folks from trying to second-guess God the Father, which strikes me as an exercise in futility.
At best. (August 13, 2017; April 9, 2017; August 7, 2016)
My guess is that when it happens, nobody’s going to wonder if it’s another false alarm..
“Then the sky was divided like a torn scroll curling up, and every mountain and island was moved from its place.”
“After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.”
I hope that I’ll be in that “great multitude,” and will see you there: or later, in God’s new universe.
About those quotes, I take the Bible very seriously: which does not mean that I expect it to reflect a contemporary Western viewpoint.
My Bible’s introduction to Revelation says that it’s full of “unfamiliar and extravagant symbolism, which at best appears unusual to the modern reader. … symbolic descriptions are not to be taken as literal descriptions….”
That works for me.
If I take God seriously, I’ll want to do more than sit around thinking beautiful thoughts. That brings me back to Thomas Paine, the French Revolution, and acting like love matters.
Paine and Interesting Times
(From “La Guillotine en 1793,” Hector Fleischmann (1908); via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Brissot and other Girondins losing their heads, 1793.)
Many Americans know Thomas Paine as the author of pamphlets that helped popularize the 1776 revolution. “Common Sense” is the most famous one.
I mentioned his engineering career earlier. By the time his bridge was being built, he had avoided death by hanging, and was experiencing prison life. There’s a bit of a story behind that.
He visited France in 1790, and started publishing his “Rights of Man” in 1791.
The French Revolution was in progress, which Paine saw as a wonderful idea.
Paine’s “Rights” was a defense of the French Revolution against Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France” pamphlet.
Paine’s book was a big hit in English coffee houses. Folks who liked the status quo were also impressed, but not the same way.
Paine was accused of seditious libel and would probably have been hung if he’d stayed in England.
He’d gone back to France by that time. He got honorary French citizenship, and was arrested for supporting the ‘wrong’ political party: the Girondins.
Some Girondins escaped. At least 22 were executed. That only took 36 minutes, since the French government had streamlined their version of justice. Paine was merely imprisoned.
1793 was a big year in French history.
The Cult of Reason got traction then. Its state-sponsored toga parties probably aren’t as famous as the Reign of Terror.
Meanwhile, Paine was not enjoying his stay in a French prison.
He thought Robespierre and George Washington were conspiring to keep him there. I’m not sure what Washington’s motive was supposed to be.
The idea isn’t as goofy as it might seem, since Paine had expected Washington to get him out. That didn’t happen.
Paine didn’t lose his head, was released, and moved to the United States. He died in New York City’s Greenwich Village.
Those were interesting times. (November 6, 2016)
Today’s world is interesting, too, although I like to think that we’ve learned a bit in the two and a quarter centuries since Paine’s run-in with revolutionary ideals.
I’m not ‘political’ in the sense of feeling that everyone I don’t like is a Nazi, or claiming that ‘they’ are in league with Satan.
I’m pretty sure that most folks have a great deal more sense than dedicated readers of Chick pamphlets and environmentalism’s wackier supporters.
My views are ‘political’ to the extent that some are “conservative.” Some are “liberal” — and they’re all too definite for me to qualify as “moderate.”
I’m ‘none of the above,’ since I am a Catholic: and don’t see the Church’s principles well-reflected in any party’s platform. (January 22, 2017)
I get labeled “conservative” more often that I earn the “liberal” tag: possibly because America’s establishment isn’t what it used to be. On the whole, I see that as a good thing.
I indulge in nostalgia occasionally, but my memory is far too good for me to yearn for some imagined Golden Age. (June 18, 2017; February 5, 2017; October 2, 2016)
Again, I’m not political. But I’m not indifferent or apathetic. Even if I hadn’t kept some of the hopes I developed in the 1960s, I’d be trying to make a difference.
Contributing “…to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom…” is part of being a Catholic, or should be. (Catechism, 1915, 2239)
We don’t live in a perfect world — putting it mildly — so I can’t suggest that keeping the status quo makes sense.
I sure don’t want a return to the ‘good old days.’ That leaves one direction: forward.
We Can Do Better
I don’t expect us to approximate St. John Paul II’s “civilization of love” any time soon.
But I am sure that we can work toward it.
For me, that starts with trying to act as if loving God, and my neighbors, matters. And seeing everyone as my neighbor. (Matthew 5:43–44, 22:36–40; Mark 12:28–31; Luke 6:31 10:25–27, 29–37; Catechism, 1789)
Happily, building a better world isn’t just up to me. But I’m expected to help.
That includes showing respect for humanity’s “transcendent dignity” and working for justice — “as far as possible.” (Catechism, 1915, 1929–1933, 2820)
“As far as possible” isn’t very far, in my case. But I can keep suggesting that making this world a better place is a good idea:
- “‘The Federation of the World’”
(May 28, 2017)
- “Acting Like Truth Matters”
(May 21, 2017)
- “Natural Law, Our Rules”
(February 5, 2017 )
- “Who is My Neighbor?”
(February 1, 2017)
- “Authority, Superstition, Progress”
(October 30, 2016 )
1 Paine, infinity, and all that:
- “Thomas Paine’s ‘Rights of Man'”
Christopher Hitchens, p. 133 (2008); via Google Books