The Face of God
This was written on Friday, July 6th, 2007. I had originally written it for myself, but I think it probably belongs here.
Two days ago, I spent the evening contemplating the connection between the soul and God. The thought process began that afternoon while I was running at the gym. While listening to an audio-lecture^1^ about Saint Augustine on my iPod, the author brought up the Platonists’ concept of the inner world and began comparing it to John Locke’s philosophies, and finally discussing Augustine’s conclusions on the subject. The lecture really stuck with me and led me to some long overdue decisions.
The single greatest barrier between me and Catholicism has been Jesus; his validity, his divinity, and his relation to God. That is to say, I have had a very hard time believing in the doctrine of the Trinity, and while it has not kept me away from the Church per se, is has kept me from making a permanent commitment in the manner to which I feel called.
Without believing firmly that Christ is the path to salvation, indeed, without believing that Christ is himself God in every essence of being, it would have been hypocrisy to commit myself to a life of that teaching. Even more-so, it would have driven a wedge of lies into a place already tender with doubt. So for the past few years, I have avoided the commit-of Christ, I wanted it very much. I prayed as often as I could for God to steal away the doubts in my mind, to solidify my faith. In the end, each night I was assailed by my uncertainty and disappointment.
The problem I had with faith was that of rationality. Despite everything I have read^2^ and everything I’ve been taught, I still find it difficult to respect the numinous irrationality of God. My search has been with the empiricism of mysticism and the rationality of logic; and while my greatest triumphs of faith have always come from those moments when I, in my creature-consciousness, feel my place juxtaposed against my creator to be proclaiming my unworthiness with greater truth that can be known to mankind, after the fleeting moment of hierophany fades, I breathe deeply and again make the false attempts to puzzle out the unspeakable mysteries with inadequate tools.
It was most certainly a gift of God’s grace that led me down the path that day in the gym. The lecture was able to put some things into perspective that had long been out of place in my mind, and this reasoning led me down that same path of logic, but this time it led me with the open heart and compassion necessary to understand and believe. Here is the path:
John Locke envisioned our mind as a dark room in which we sit alone. There are no windows or doors in this room, at least not that can be used to look outside. Instead, there is a small lens that lets light trickle in and form a picture on the opposite wall. In this camera obscura, literally “dark chamber,” we interact only with this image reflected on the wall. We do not see the true object, only a reflection.
This argument reminded me at once of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in which our entire world seemed to be nothing but shadows dancing on the wall, while in reality^3^ (or in the ideal reality, I should say) the world was filled with real creatures who were walking in front of a fire and casting those long shadows. The Platonists built upon that allegory in their further discussions of the inner self. The ideal world is like a giant crystal sphere, they thought, holding in it all the perfection of Truth. Our minds are tiny faces on the surface of this sphere, perpetually looking outward from it.
Augustine knew the Platonist teachings very well and worked hard at integrating these philosophies with the beliefs of the Church in his day. He saw this sphere as an obvious symbol of God, but it was incomplete. The ideal world is not God, but rather like the heavens that surround him. God is, after-all, indivisible, he is One. And so Augustine saw the picture a little more clearly than those who came before him. In this newer metaphor, God is the single point from which all of the sphere is derived. He is inconceivable, immeasurable, and unique. Around him he is surrounded by the world of the ideal or perfected bodies^4^. On the surface of the sphere are tiny individual spheres. These are the spheres of our souls. In each of these is a small window that glances back into the greater sacred, but we are isolated from it, floating on the surface. This was the key for me to understanding why Christ came to us, why God would not just enter the physical world as God the Father, and why we had a need for the Holy Spirit.
The first question I asked myself when I heard Augustine’s idea of these metaphorical sacred spheres was why can’t we gain access to God by studying those windows in each of our souls? Just as some people believe, couldn’t we gain access to heaven by acting right and looking inward? But that question overlooked a very basic problem, or perhaps a more basic question that needed to be asked. Why aren’t we in that inner sphere already? What has kept us on the surface? That answer, as Augustine found it, was sin.
When the first man sinned in the garden^5^, he sinned for all mankind. He broke the special bond that had connected us with all of the perfect things next to God. He ruined the possibility that we could lead a perfect life. And in doing so, he justifiably damned us all to leave God’s presence. Why, then, did Jesus Christ come and die for our sins? That answer now seems quite self-explanatory. And what tools were granted to us that we could avoid the pitfalls of being human? The grace of God is in each of us, asking a simple two-fold task. Love God with all your heart, and Love your neighbor as you love yourself.
It is that love and compassion that truly makes us a part of Christ’s Body, the Church. It is that Body that is forgiven its sin and has a chance of salvation. All of the logic of it seems very clear to me in using that analogy, but on its own it is still empty of the emotional quality of faith. However, as I meditated over the image of the sphere of God, our souls dancing on its surface, of Jesus–whose essence always was in that great, eternal sphere–being born into our profane little world to forgive a lost people and offer them the chance to come home, of God’s mercy and His presence, that is when I finally felt at peace. I was no longer meditating over those things in doubt or theory. They were a part of me like the air I breathe, as surely true as anything can be.
I prayed to God that my doubts would be taken away and replaced by faith. Two days ago, God answered my prayers.
- The audio-lecture I refer to is by Professor Philip Carey.
- In particular, Das Heilige (The Idea of the Holy) by Rudolf Otto, and The Sacred and the Profane by Mircae Eliade, which are referenced here.
- It should be clarified that the ideal world might not be that single step back from the cave wall, but perhaps an infinite number of such revelations. The concept is the same, in any case, that there is a perfected reality, though it may not exist in our physical world. Professor Philip Carey makes an excellent allusion to it in his metaphor of the Pythagorean triangle.
- The term “bodies” is inaccurate as the things in this sphere do not have an only “physical” body.
- This as well may be a metaphorical story that is suggestive of man’s development from unconscious creature to self-awareness, when the we first became capable of pride-the original sin. It is, in that context, a sin that is shared by all people and entwined in the very essence of what it is to be human.