Any honest person has to laugh at him- or herself when making any attempt to speak about Almighty God.
How can we little piles of mucus and lard speak of Him? How can we even presume to use the word “Him” about Him?
God transcends us, transcends our minds and our puny words. He transcends the entire universe. He transcends everything we can even remotely conceive; He transcends it all by an infinite degree of magnitude. After all, God is infinite. And if we think we know what infinite means, we are even bigger idiots than we look like.
The words “magnitude,” or “universe,” or “transcends:” these are cheap plastic tiddly-winks, in this context. Do we little molehill-scamperers dare to say something about Almighty God? And imagine that our mumblings connect with The Reality? Please. Honest human beings smile at the foolish presumption of any such enterprise.
St. Thomas unswervingly endured this unknowability of his subject matter. Aquinas merits the title theologian–as opposed to ecclesiastical politician–precisely because he brought to every question he ever considered this fundamental insight: We cannot know God in Himself, except by believing in the One we do not know.
“God” is a word. “God” is not God. Our minds abound with ideas. None of them are God. Beautiful things fill the world, beautiful things that God has fathered, or grandfathered through us. None of these beauties are God.
We ourselves, small as we are, are in fact utter marvels. Our minds encompass vast spiritual realities. We understand things easily–things that all other bodily creatures regard as sublime mysteries. (Like where the dog food comes from.)
But none of the things we understand are God. Our capacious minds are not God. Not even remotely close to God. Everything that we understand lies at an infinite distance from God.
St. Thomas kept this fact in mind. Always. Somehow he managed never to get distracted from it, even by his own intelligence (an intelligence which, from our point-of-view, is quasi-divine.)
St. Thomas certainly would have lived a life of near-total silence, quietly marveling at the incomprehensible grandeur of God, were it not for this: The God we cannot know by our own devices, has, by His own devices, made Himself known to us somewhat.
Our Christian act of faith is not simply in “God,” after all. We believe in the Father of Jesus, and Jesus, and the Spirit of Jesus. We believe that Jesus, certainly human, is also God. We believe that God made Himself one of us, so that we could, in our own way, know Him. And hope in Him, follow Him, love Him. And ultimately reach Him.
So, laugh as we might at the presumption of uttering human blather about Almighty God, we cannot simply say: “Words are useless when it comes to connecting with God.” No. That is not true.
To the contrary, we have nothing more precious than words, when it comes to connecting with God. (And with each other, too.) In Christ, God connected Himself with us Personally, and He spoke to us, using our puny words. We can, and we must, try to understand.
(This is why St. Thomas spent his life reading and writing, as opposed to quietly contemplating.)
And if we hope to understand what God Himself has said, then, for God’s sake, let’s clarify what we mean when we say words about Him. We owe Him that much, at least. Not to lather up our words about Him with our usual high quotient of b.s.
When I first started out as a Catholic thirty years ago, I admired a few priests especially. Two of those that I admired most made no secret of their disdain for St. Thomas’ writing. It’s tedious, they said.
St. Augustine’s sermons certainly pack more punch, and have more jokes in them. Plato’s dialogues have much more art and elegance than St. Thomas’ plodding quaestiones. Even Aristotle’s books move forward at a brisker pace.
There’s no denying it: St. Thomas preoccupies himself in his writing with the kind of deference to received authority that makes our independent, American souls rebel. We like controversies, but St. Thomas avoids them; or he seeks to resolve them, by making fine distinctions. Indeed, he makes controversy-settling distinctions with the kind of dexterity that would amaze us, if it weren’t so damn boring. Sifting out creek water for signs of gold deposits in the nearby hillside caves: that makes for an exciting party by comparison.
The Summa is boring. No argument there. The question, though, is this:
What do you wind up with, after all the endless panning of theological creek water that St. Thomas does in his writings? Or, to use a couple other metaphors: What do you have in your wheelbarrow, after you have plowed through Thomas’ fussing over how St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom must both be right, even though they said things that appear contradictory at first glance? Or where exactly do you stand, after you have strolled across the Areopagus where St. Thomas considers pagan, Jewish, Greek Christian, and Muslim philosophers–all of whom make some serious sense, when they discuss Almighty God?
What do you have, and where do you find yourself, when you finish?
You find yourself in a country of peace and happiness: the land where your words about God are actually true. You have a theological vocabulary that you can use with confidence. Because the centrifuge of St. Thomas’ sublime mind has removed every ounce of nonsense which we humans generally use to lubricate our palaver.
For nineteen years, I had the ecclesiastical authority to preach. I received it the day I was ordained a transitional deacon, May 19, 2001. I lost the authority the day my bishop unjustly suspended me from ministry, May 6, 2020.
I preached for those two decades with fear and trembling before God, to be sure. But by the same token, I loved doing it. I found great peace, and profound happiness, doing it.
I spoke about the unknowable God to fellow homo sapiens. No doubt, I lathered my homilies with a fair amount of b.s., coming from my own inadequacy as a bearer of evangelical tidings. For that much, I am sorry and beg pardon of the Lord and my listeners. But I think I had peace preaching because: I had, and continue to have, confidence that I use a sound theological vocabulary.
My sermons were at least “based,” then, as they say on TikTok. Based on decades of daily reading the quaestiones of boring old St. Thomas Aquinas.