God Transcends All

Author: Cardinal John Joseph Wright

A Message from Saint Thomas for our times

Cardinal John Joseph Wright

A homily delivered during Mass for the Feast of St. Thomas, on the 8th March, 1971, in the "Angelicum" by His Eminence Cardinal John Joseph Wright

"O Lord our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth! Thy glory is above the heavens... When I look at thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast established, what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou cost care for him? Yet thou hast made him little less than God, and cost crown him with glory and honour" (Ps. 8, 1-5). There are no words in Holy Scripture which proclaim with a greater eloquence the beauty of creation or the dignity of man in creation, than these which speak to us of the immensity of the sky and of the image of God in man.

These moving words express the infinite smallness of man faced with the immense splendour of the transcendent God, which extends above the skies and above the created universe. These same words lead us to discover the sign of the divine work in man, that man who has been made a little less than God—a <little> less, yes, but nevertheless <less>, and therefore under this aspect God is always transcendent, since the Creator always transcends <everything> he has created.

I should like to invite you to meditate on these verses of Holy Scripture and together with me to think about the message that St. Thomas—whose feast we are celebrating today—addressed to present day society. and so appropriate for our present day thinkers who over look or even deny God's transcendence.

Apart from the importance of the rare virtues of this glorious son of the Dominican Order, which fully justify the infallible judgement of the Church on the sanctity of St. Thomas, his greatness rests on the validity of his doctrine. This does not deny the contributions of other outstanding masters in the history of Christian thought, but it is able, more than any other, to solve the great and difficult problems which afflict the world of culture, and are the cause of crises in contemporary society.

Despite indubitable progress in philosophical and theological thought, and despite all old and new attempts to minimize or to deny its importance, Thomistic doctrine is clearly of providential relevance today.

As Cardinal Parente has wisely pointed out: "We do not interpret the vitality of Thomism by a mechanical repetition of his language and his formulae, nor do we claim to impose his ideological system and all its contents and structure on the modern conscience, just as nobody would want to keep to Dante's language together with his ideas and tastes. The vitality of these great men has to be maintained, in the same sense that certain of their intuitions and basic attitudes, certain principles and elements of their work, which bring out the unity and the continuity of human thought face to face with reality, have a universal character. This establishes their goals and also guides them towards the ulterior conquest of truth and goodness" (P. Parente, "Vitalita di S. Tommaso", in <Aquinas>, 1958, p. 183).

Practical atheism

My words are meant to be a homage to St. Thomas, and I am happy to point to the pressing need we have of him in the present historical circumstances in which we are witnessing a profound crisis in values which is involving the whole of human society. It is expressed in the progressive desacralization of the world and in the ever growing: materialism in man.

It is to this society, whose basic structure of family, school and state is being called into question, to this society which rejects the idea of God, country and family as values no longer current in the new social reality, it is to this society that the message of Thomism can and must be addressed, in order to bring men back to the rediscovery of those rational principles which not only take philosophy as the natural guide lines of society, but also make us understand that the world, and therefore especially man, has been created in order that he may participate in the life of God, in the love of God, and that he may recognize the Creator and his work.

It is needless to waste words in order to justify the statement, still often heard that never as in our days has atheism which was formerly limited to certain individuals and cultural currents, become a mass attitude and phenomenon, and seems to be asserting itself more and more as such.

But it is more difficult and complex to examine the genesis of contemporary atheism and the general irreligiousness of modern society, because here we are facing a multitude of confused causes which puzzle us when we try to discover that existential attitude which in one way or another, betrays absence of God in man's conscience.

By admitting as valid the distinction between practical atheism and theoretical atheism, positive and negative atheism, it is nevertheless possible to point out the most significant aspects which characterize the various origins and consequences of this phenomenon.

Practical atheism, that is to say, the atheism of those who live as if God did not exist, and arrange their lives without any consideration of the existence of any principle that transcends the values of the individual or the world, is related to loss of the sacral sense of life. From this largely derive the bewildering progress of technology and the hub-ub of industrial revolution which have led to the present "consumer society", in which the mechanical and technical state of mind has overturned the personalist and Christian vision of life. The fact is that, in order to survive, such a society must rely on superfluous

acquisitions created by the incessant urging of mass propaganda. It follows that "there are a great number of human beings in whom the awareness of the hierarchy of values has either been dimmed, or extinguished or turned upside down that is to say in these persons the values of the spirit are neglected or forgotten or denied. At the same time technical and scientific progress and material welfare are encouraged and propagated, often made pre-eminent and are even extolled as the only reason for life", as <Mater et Magistra> says.

Theoretical atheism

But such growing indifference to the needs of the spirit is the cause of man's progressive materialism and the growing distance between his life and all idea of Cod and of the sacral.

But theoretical atheism is no less widespread and serious. People either ignore God with an attitude of indifference (negative atheism) or deny him outright, doing their utmost to reject the bases of the proofs of his existence, of the necessity of religion and of every transcendental truth. But although the consequences of this form of atheism are the same, its inspiring motives vary.

Theoretical atheism derives in its various forms, from different cultural trends which for one reason or another ignore, deny or falsify the true concept of the relationship between God and the world, between grace and nature, or more generally, between transcendence and immanence.

Contemporary irreligiousness, be it in its contestation of the language of religion or in pantheistic statements, or outright denials of God, takes for its model systems which attach the attributes of God to one single reality. At present Marxism, scientific positivism and the dogmas of psychoanalysis seem to be the most directly responsible for the progressive drifting away from God.

However, these systems derive from more or less old trends whose principle lies in the affirmation of consciousness as having basic priority in respect to being. Rightly have authoritative Catholic philosophers seen in Descartes' <cogito> the first move of modern thought towards atheism. Besides the Cartesian <cogito> which is linked with gnoseological immanence, the process leading to negation of God includes Spinoza's "infinite substance" which introduced into modern thought the concept of the metaphysical immanence of reason.

Bound up with this Cartesian metaphysical dualism, which decidedly breaks the relationship between spirit and nature, between soul and body, are the two main trends in the principles of contemporary atheism, idealism and materialism.

But even more than with the principles of materialism, modern atheism in its origin and development is related to the principle of immanence, which is already present in the Cartesian philosophy of the <cogito>, and is inspired by idealism. It is by this means that the synthesis of the naturalistic and monistic principle of being and of the new concepts of productivity of consciousness are achieved. As a consequence all theology, or rather idealistic theologism, appears as immanentistic atheism. Although from Kant to Hegel God continues to be conceived as Absolute, the negation of transcendence become more and more marked, and radical atheism is asserted. Anglo-American empiricism, with its principle of experience also defends a form of immanence which resolves into immediate experience, and seeks to establish a relationship between the Absolute and the contingent. Exactly because of this immanence, which belongs to both terms, this relationship brings us to a God who is the Whole of the Real, understood as being finite.

Existentialism is also imbued with immanentism, and despite the apparent opening towards transcendence which marks the ambiguous position of Jaspers and Heidegger on the problem of God, atheism is triumphant in French existentialism (Sartre) .

Efforts to reconcile theism with pan. theism (Krause, Bergson, Le Roy, Varisco) have no other goal, for they do not safeguard God's transcendence.

What has been said so far suffices to prove that modern atheism is in close relationship with the affirmation and defence of immanence in the strict and exclusive sense. It has rightly been said: "We maintain that the principle of immanence is intrinsically atheistic and coincides with the radical assertion of atheism, in that the assertion of immanence in the order of being is, and cannot but be by virtue of the principle of contradiction, the denial of transcendence in the order of knowledge, which constitutes the first step towards theism in its basic meaning" (C. Fabro, <Introduzione all'ateismo moderno>, Rome, 1964, p. 922),

Natural knowledge of God

Atheism is therefore basically bound up with the defence of that concept of immanence which inspires much of modern philosophy. Not only this, but it seems to be clearly responsible for the deviations of certain contemporary theological writings which rest upon a philosophy without transcendence. (Take for example K. Barth's rejection of natural theology, the radical absence of the natural knowledge of God in Bultman and Altizer's "Theology of the death of God").

It is precisely in this sphere of contradictory and destructive ideas that Thomistic doctrine can and must be appealed to, as the one which more than any other is capable of offering adequate principles for definitive solution to so many problems, or rather to the problem of God which contains all problems and in which all find the key to their solution.

But the entire problem of our natural knowledge of God can be solved in the assertion of God's transcendence. To reject divine transcendence would mean to distort all religious thinking; it would mean reducing religion to an illusion, since it would not serve to raise man above the world and himself. On the contrary, it would make man fall back on himself, whereas theology, as far as one could speak of a theology, would be reduced to anthropology. When we admit the existence of an Absolute, it must be conceived as One who surpasses all and cannot be surpassed by anyone it must be recognized as that Being who has no common yardstick with created beings, and this means that God is transcendent.

But it is this very assertion which is rejected, and this refusal constitutes the basic feature of modern atheism; it is the truth that is being contested and rejected as being inconceivable by modern man.

According to some, to state that God is transcendent would imply a conception of God spiritually or metaphysically "out side of the world", "a God up there... up beyond the bright blue sky", "a majestic Old Man who lives in the sky". But such a God would clash with modern cosmological knowledge, and would be an obstacle rather than a help, an "idol to be knocked down", if we wish to give our Christianity any meaning.

We leave aside the fact that in the Old and the New Testament pictures of God "up there", "up in heaven" frequently occur, and that such expressions are direct symbols of the transcendence of God. Think for example of Psalm 8, 2: "O Lord our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth! Thy glory is above the heavens", or think of the words of Jesus: "When you pray say: 'Our Father who art in heaven'". Apart from these expressions which, as we said, in view of their source are justifiable, we must ask whether an expression of a God "up there, in the skies", should be rejected as inadequate or even harmful in the same way as the statement that God is transcendent.

Concept of transcendence

Our reply is immediate: absolutely not! The trouble is that "...certain believers have interpreted references to space too literally... For them 'divine height' meant a distance that could be more or less exactly measured, but in any case an oversimplified way of seeing the outside only of a distant God. Hence the embarrassment of ingenious believers on seeing that the blue sky has lost its inviolability, when the first Soviet astronaut exclaimed triumphantly: 'The heavens are empty, I have not met God where he was thought to be!' Believers, puzzled by Gagarin's professed atheism were undoubtedly accustomed to think of God as some great Object, up there, above the clouds in the sky" (1. Pirlot, "Come parlare di Dio alla luce della recente filosofia", in <Credere in Dio oggi?>, Perugia, 1969, p. 106).

Speaking as one of the simple faithful I must confess that I have never, not even as a child, thought of God in terms of North or South, up or down or, so to speak, in geographical, astronomical or spatial terms. Nor do I think that I ever knew others who thought about God in this way, although perhaps, in poetry, in popular preaching or in colloquial speech without any scientific or theological pretensions, we have spoken in this manner by way of analogy.

Those who show great perplexity in accepting traditional religious statements, or worse still, reject divine transcendence in favour of immanence, prove that their concept of transcendence is not sufficiently clear, or is altogether wanting.

In affirming the existence of a supreme Being, because of inadequate human knowledge, one uses metaphors and pictures, such as, "up above", "up in the skies", in order to express the concept of the absoluteness and the transcendence of God. The true believer knows that neither spatial distance, nor exteriority are intended, for he perceives that between this Being and the world there exists a strict relationship that binds and unites the world to God.

The difficulty in accepting the statement that God is transcendent lies in not having understood the concept of transcendence, or rather the relation transcendence-immanence which is the way for clarifying the relationship between God and man. Here St. Thomas is a master, and it is here that I find his message to the thinkers of our times.

On the basis of the principle of being, or of that "which possesses the act of existing", which is the first principle and cannot be included in any other, and is such that all other conceivable principles are necessarily included in it, St. Thomas conceives a sane metaphysical realism, and in it the problem of God the only true and ultimate problem, contains all the elements for the solution of the problem of the world and of man. This means that for St. Thomas, the world and man, by their very nature point back to an Absolute which alone is able to solve every problem. This is how the relation which binds the world with God is described, and how it is asserted that God is present in man, and lives and operates in him, neither in a disjunction that separates and sets them apart, nor in a conjunction which identifies the terms.

Reason leads to God

According to St. Thomas, reason leads us to understand that God is present in all things by his power, by his presence and by his essence. By his power inasmuch as all things are subject to his power; by his presence inasmuch as all things are open and naked to his eye; and finally by his essence inasmuch as he is present to all things as the cause of their being. But the statement that God as author of nature is present in created being should not lead to an identification with created beings. There exists a relation between God and his creatures which safeguards the distinction of the terms and avoids all pantheistic confusion, but also avoids the danger of transcendence understood as distance, which by setting the transcendent against what is transcended would upset the relation itself.

The discussion about the relation between God and creatures develops into a study of divine creative action, and its clarifying element is the principle of transcendence a concept which St. Thomas presents brilliantly.

Transcendence is based on creation, understood as an actual communication of being of which God is the source. To create means to communicate one's own being to creatures; creative action does not put a distance between the creature and its Creator, but brings it into a deep intimacy with the Creator who, by giving creatures being, binds them to himself and fills them with himself. "The Being of God", says St. Thomas, includes by its own virtue all that exists, under whatever form and in whatever manner, because everything exists only through sharing in his being" (I <Peri Hermeneias>, lect. XIV). But because of the fact that he infinitely surpasses them, he transcends them. And God transcends every single being not because he is opposed to them according to some antagonistic dialectic, but inasmuch as he contains in himself all their inner riches in an infinitely superior manner. The acceptance of divine transcendence does not in fact mean to place a distance between God and the world, but to recognize his supreme closeness. As a matter of fact, the basis of transcendence is not opposition, but the immanence of the transcended in the transcendent. Without immanence God would be a stranger to the world and would neither be infinite nor perfect. In the same way without transcendence God would be identical with the world and would appear imperfect, potential and in a process of becoming.

To say that God is transcendent is equivalent to saying that God is so immanent, that the world is so full of Cod that he overflows it. But this immanence is a continual communication of being, a continual communication of love. Again St. Thomas says: "Id unde omnia Deo uniuntur, scilicet eius bonitas quam omnia imitantur, est maximum et intimum Deo: cum ipse sit sue bonitas... Est igitur in Deo amor non solum verus sed etiam perfectissimus et potentissimus" (<Contra Gentes>, 1, c. 91, n. 758).

The divine presence

In this light of God's transcendence-immanence in the world, cosmic reality and above all man, the masterpiece of creation, acquire a marvellous significance and value. The dignity of the human being is exalted and not depreciated by virtue of that very divine presence which gives value to liberty.

From this brief and fragmentary outline we can conclude that a careful examination of the concept of transcendence is not only no obstacle, or danger to Christianity, but would serve to resolve the crisis between God and created reality between God and man, between body and spirit, between grace and nature.

To the people of today, those of the so-called "consumer society", who seem irremediably headed for a materialism which deprives them of every interest in the supreme values of life, a materialism which depersonalizes them and brings them unrest and anxiety, which ends if not in hatred, certainly in that contestation which is the drama of our society, to these men we wish to present anew the philosophy of St. Thomas as the doctrine capable of solving radically all the most disquieting problems which disturb consciences and threaten the culture, the progress and the peace of modern society.