I’ve been telling everyone I know that I think one of the absolute best theology books available to anyone is the Catechism of the Catholic Church. <<< You can click on that link and get it for .99 cents on Amazon Kindle. I’ve been reading it for the past few weeks as part of a mid-week RCIA class. Seriously, everyone should own it and read it!  This evening I was reading back over chapter one entitled, Man’s Capacity for God in which there is a sub-section entitled, How can we speak about God? It’s a great question, and the catechism has some important insights here. The two paragraphs below got me thinking tonight about how we use theological language, and I thought I’d share some of my own reflections and interactions with the catechism here.

42 God transcends all creatures. We must therefore continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, image-bound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God—“the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable”—with our human representations. Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God. (212, 300; 370)

43 Admittedly, in speaking about God like this, our language is using human modes of expression; nevertheless it really does attain to God Himself, though unable to express Him in his infinite simplicity. Likewise, we must recall that “between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying an even greater dissimilitude”; and that “concerning God, we cannot grasp what He is, but only what He is not, and how other beings stand in relation to Him.”18 (206) [1]

But this is not Christian theology’s “stopping place”

Before I say anything more, I want to say that I don’t disagree with anything written above, and the catechism will say much more about how God communicates Himself to humanity as it unfolds. In simple terms, though, this is not theology’s “stopping place.” If it were, then we would not be left with much more than what has been called “negative theology” (in which we can only say what God is not like).  When stopping here on our theological journey (which we may be tempted to do), theology cannot help but devolve into philosophical abstractions (i.e., God is immutable, ineffable, etc.). And these are also negative abstractions for they only communicate what God cannot be or do, and not who He is and how He acts in relationship to His own creation.

Thankfully, this is not Christian theology’s (or the catechism’s) stopping place. In Sacred Scripture God is spoken of (by Himself and by His people) in positive terms, though often through analogy, metaphor, and simile (i.e. “I am your rock,” or “I am your shield,” or “I am your shepherd,” etc.). Ultimately, though, Christian theology is not best expressed in negations, abstractions, or metaphors.

Christian Theology: Dialectical or Analogical?

To say it in a more technical way, Christian theology is not best communicated through a dialectical approach in which we successfully do theology by looking for and listing all the ways in which we are not like God and God is not like us. Though God alone is God, God is not alone, and if the God revealed in the pages of the Bible is anything like God at all, then we know that he is not incapable of relationship to his creation. Christian theology, instead, is best communicated analogically, in which (taking a cue from the self-disclosing relational God Himself) we speak about God in the ways in which He has positively revealed Himself through ana-logia (that is, speaking positively about correspondence, such as all of the ways, for instance, in which X may be spoken about in proportion to Y).

God’s Final Word

This all leads to one place because in Christian theology God does fully and finally speak about himself in a way that enables us to do so beyond precise theological terminology. The pinnacle of any theology that may properly be called “Christian” must be the incarnation of the Son of God in the person of Jesus Christ. Christian theology is ultimately and fully embodied and expressed (spoken!) toward humanity through the virginal conception, gestation, birth, sinless life, atoning death on the cross, burial, and bodily resurrection in the world of time, space, and matter, and ascension into heaven of Jesus Christ. God Himself speaks His final and full Word to us in the incarnation of Jesus, who is the exact representation of God in human flesh (cf. Heb. 1:3, Col. 2:9). In Christ Jesus, we do see in very human terms the dialectical (e.g., “go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” Lk. 5:8, or “you thought that I was altogether like you” Ps. 50:21), but more importantly with respect to God’s ultimate intentions for us, the analogical (e.g., “that they might be conformed to the image of his Son” Rom. 8:29, or “when Christ appears we shall be like Him…” 1 Jn. 3:2).

Incarnation, then, is the filling-up-to-the-full of God’s speech to humanity. He speaks to us as us and with us (Mat. 1:23). He does not remain hidden in the dialectical, the abstract, or the negative asking us to contemplate Him from afar with dry and detached lists of terminology about what he is not like. He does not fully speak to us by telling us what He is not, or even what He is like, though these are ways in which God and His people had previously spoken (cf. Heb. 1:1-2). Instead, He, fully embodied, presents Himself in the world as The Incarnate Word and does not conclude with “I am not…” but rather, “I am” (John 8:58).

Christian theology ultimately speaks in the affirmative. It declares, through embodiment, who God really is, and what God is really like.

And guess what… the catechism agrees! I know, spoiler alert — but fast-forward to paragraph 108 where you will read…

Still, the Christian faith is not a “religion of the book.” Christianity is the religion of the “Word” of God, a word which is “not a written and mute word, but the Word which is incarnate and living.” If the Scriptures are not to remain a dead letter, Christ, the eternal Word of the living God, must, through the Holy Spirit, “open [our] minds to understand the Scriptures.” [2]

That is in the catechism people! It’s wonderful! Buy it. Read it, for it, along with anything else that speaks truthfully about God, will point to the Truth about God, who is the God-Man, Jesus.


References

[1] Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 17.

[2] Ibid., pg. 31

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