What if you finally meet God, and God looks like your worst enemy?
A Reflection for the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sadly, someone who lacks an education does not know what is missing, how limited life is without it. In contrast, to be well educated is to recognize how little one knows. Most of us stand between these two states. In so many parts of life, we need to be led out of our little learning.
An education is not the accumulation of facts. Most of these come and go, even during one’s studies. Facts are too numerous and changing to capture once and for all. No, education is learning how to learn: how to recognize when one has insufficient information, how to discover and judge the sources of such and how to employ these in an effective way.
The dilemma of those with a little learning is that they fail to understand how disparate in sources, methodology and criteria of judgment that human learning has become. You really cannot YouTube your way into plumbing, much less medicine or theology. No disparagement of the web. Only a warning about mistaking a little learning for a lot.
Come life’s end, we will see God, but we will still not comprehend God. We will not “take God in,” as we say.
Contrary to the popular image of scholastic theology, St. Thomas Aquinas did not discover late in life that he could never grasp the mystery of God. He had already been taught this during his theological study. Almost a millennium earlier, St. Augustine had preached that, if you can understand it, it is not God (“Si comprehendis, non est Deus”) (Sermon 117).
Indeed, this notion that God lies beyond definition is the first fruit of Greek influence upon Christianity. It helped to topple all our concepts of God as nothing but idols. Very early in the Summa Theologiae, Thomas tells us that we can come to know that God is, but concerning what God is, we can only say what God is not (I.3). Reason can affirm God’s existence but tell us nothing about God’s essence, save those things that the Greeks recognized God could not be: limited, time-bound, material, multiple.
Even more astounding, Aquinas speaks of the beatific vision as something utterly satisfying yet inexhaustible. Come life’s end, we will see God, but we will still not comprehend God. We will not “take God in,” as we say. It will not be like Toto, pulling back a curtain to reveal the Wizard of Oz pulling levers. Such a comprehensible God could be reduced to a mental concept. Remember St. Augustine: “If you can understand it, it is not God.” That applies in the afterlife as well.
We will not see God and make a sound of acknowledgment such as “oh.” The sound will be more akin to one we might make in the frenzied delight of a roller coaster ride.
Put another way, we will not see God and make a sound of acknowledgment such as “oh.” The sound will be more akin to one we might make in the frenzied delight of a roller coaster ride.
Having administered to would-be theologians a healthy vaccination of what we call the via negativa, negative theology, let’s consider a truly terrifying scenario. Absurd even, you might want to insist.
Suppose you come into the presence of God—because the life you have lived makes you ready for this—only to discover that God looks like the person you most despised in your life. We might think that being “the one we most despise” is a steady occupation, but don’t we constantly update that poster?
So, let’s just say that God looks and acts and in every other way appears to be the person you loathe most just now in your life. What are you to make of this?
Suppose you come into the presence of God—because the life you have lived makes you ready for this—only to discover that God looks like the person you most despised in your life.
Sadly, that may indeed happen, and if it does, you will immediately, intuitively know this: You are going to be purified. (I employ the verb, which is more palatable to modern minds than the noun, purgatory.)
How is it that you will know both that you are saved and that you stand in need of purification? You will have essentially been open to the mystery that we call God, or life. You will have said “yes.” That is why you will be in the immediate presence of God. But you will not have opened yourself to the fullness of God, and therefore you will need to be readied by purification. Why is this? Because even the person you most despise is the creation of God, is loved by God and reflects some aspect of the fullness of God.
Of course, we would all want to say that we reject only the evil that we find in the other. And obviously evil is not of God. Good enough, but God still manages to love this person, to find delight in his or her visage. God, who is goodness itself, manages not only to coexist with but even to love those who do—and thus, to some extent, are—evil. God assails the sin, but God loves the sinner, as we say. Why can’t we? Again, the problem is that of a little learning. We see the negative in the other and become reluctant to learn of the good.
If we love our enemies, we will learn what God sees in them.
Though he had personally suffered from Saul’s sinful hatred of him, David would not assail the Lord’s anointed, the one whom God had chosen to be his leader.
The Lord will reward each man for his justice and faithfulness.
Today, though the Lord delivered you into my grasp,
I would not harm the Lord’s anointed (1 Sam 26:23).
Jesus tells us:
To you who hear I say,
love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you (Lk 6:27-28).
Loving our enemies is a command from God. Granted, we do not understand God, but we know that God exists, that God has revealed himself in Christ and that God speaks to us in the Scriptures, which the church proclaims to us.
Yet these words seem to us too paradoxical to pick up. So we treat them as an enigma, not something we are truly meant to do, only to ponder.
But our Lord’s injunction is not an enigma. He is leading us out of the little learning that we have of others. If we love our enemies, we will learn what God sees in them.
God is the enigma, as St. Thomas and our Catholic faith have always taught. The English verbs that we employ for the sound of ourselves being overwhelmed do not bear the beauty that should betoken the beatific vision. Nonetheless, coming into the presence of God, we will squeal, howl, screech, gasp, rasp, squawk and yelp with delight. If we have lived as God meant us to live, if we have loved others as God intended, then, with a little purification, that sound will never stop, even though God resembles so much of the world we once disdained.