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Our Natural Knowledge of God

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

We said we would have certain master themes found in the scriptures and revealing to us the spiritual life, as the Holy Spirit, the source of the spiritual life, inspired the authors of the scriptures.

As we approach these master themes, we should immediately recognize that the two Testaments of sacred scripture are not only the Old and New Testaments chronologically, they also differ doctrinally. Certainly, there is an essential unity between these two testaments for the obvious reason that it was the same Holy Spirit who inspired Genesis at the beginning of the Old Testament and on to the Bible inspired the Apocalypse closing the new. But, though it is the same Spirit who inspired both Testaments, the Testaments differ immensely.

There is a difference, surely, between God revealing Himself through human beings and God speaking to us in person. St. Paul could not have been clearer. I quote from his letter to the Hebrews “At various times in the past and in various ways God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets, but in our own time, the last days, He has spoken to us through His Son. The Son that He has appointed to inherit everything and through whom He made everything there is.” This is still by way of introduction.

In our reflections on the principle spiritual themes of the Bible we will regularly distinguish in each conference between what the Old Testament and what the New Testament says about each successive theme. But let us keep in mind that the New Testament is new. It develops and amplifies, it confirms and clarifies, it enlarges and specifies what the Old Testament reveals about God, about us, and about our responsibility to Him. This is not unimportant to state as we begin this retreat, many reasons why we should clearly distinguish between the Old and New Testament. We better. Why? Because we will understand the spiritual life only if we recognize that the New Testament goes far beyond what the Old Testament reveals.

We Christians are expected to believe in mysteries that were simply not revealed until Christ came into the world and we as followers of Christ are required to practice virtue that was never so demanding, even if you please, of the patriarchs of old. We who read and hear and listen to day after day from the Old Testament and from the New let us make sure that we know that our spirituality is Christian spirituality based on the New Testament, otherwise (and what an important adversative adverb), otherwise we are liable to settle for practicing unchristian or pre-Christian spirituality. Not so. The God whom we are trying to follow is the God who became man, and as man revealed by word of mouth and by the more powerful word of example, what loving God, which is the spiritual life for us, really means. That was the introduction to our first theme.

Our first theme in the retreat is the knowledge of God. There will be two conferences on our knowledge of God: the present one on our natural knowledge of God, and the following conference on our revealed knowledge of God. And as we begin our first conference let us make sure we do not underestimate the importance of knowing the true God. It was Christ Himself who declared, “Remember this,” speaking to His Father, “this is eternal life that they may know, (hear the verb); that they may know you the one true God and the only begotten Son whom you have sent into the world.”

Knowledge is the granite foundation of the spiritual life. Fundamental therefore to everything the Bible teaches us is the conviction that we can know God, know Him in this life and know Him in the life to come. In fact, without knowing God with our minds we could not, it would not only be difficult or inadequate, it would be impossible to love God with our wills and therefore to serve God with our whole being.

Now what does the Bible say about our natural knowledge of God? Given the widespread agnosticism and even atheism in our day, and not just in godless communist countries, in our own United States, widespread agnosticism and atheism, given this fact, there is more than passing value in seeing what the Scriptures teach about our ability to know God, know Him even apart from supernatural revelation which is our first conference. “It is in fact a defined article of the Catholic faith which teaches that it is heresy to deny that the one true God, our Creator and Lord cannot be known with certainty in the light of human reason by those things which have been made.” That last statement was a direct quotation from a definition of the First Vatican Council.

What does the Old Testament tell us about men’s capacity to know God even apart from God revealing Himself? In the Old Testament, as I am sure you know, some of the books were written outside of Palestine among the Jews, as we say, of the dispersion, or a more sophisticated word, Diaspora. Among these Jews in pre-Christian times outside of Palestine was the revealed book of Wisdom, which sadly is missing in the Jewish bible and missing in the Protestant bible. Sad. Being in regular contact with non-Christian pagans, often highly intellectual, the dispersed Israelites living some thousands of miles away from the Promised Land. Jewish coins have been found from the sixth century B.C in the northern tip of Scotland and southern tip of Africa. The Jews were there as part of the dispersed chosen people of God, but being in such intimate and massive contact with unbelievers otherwise, that in Palestine, where they of course form the vast majority, the Holy Spirit reveals in the book of Wisdom about man’s capacity to know Him, the one true God, even by the light of reason.

In context, the inspired author of the book of Wisdom is telling His own people that the pagans among whom they are living are guilty for not worshipping the one true God. And what the book of Wisdom told the Jews in their day, the same book is telling us in our day that even those who have not been touched by God’s supernatural revelation are guilty, hear the word, guilty, if they do not honor and worship the one true God. It was these five verses, the first five of the fourteenth chapter of the book of Wisdom that some twenty-five years ago inspired me to learn and then teach about the non-Christian religions. In other words, even pagans are guilty, (terrifying statements), if they do not know or worship the one true God. I quote from the inspired author.

“For all men who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature; and they were unable from the good things that are seen to know him who exists, nor did they recognize the craftsman while paying heed to his works; but they supposed that either fire or wind or swift air, or the circle of the stars, or turbulent water, or the luminaries of heaven were the gods that rule the world. If through delight in the beauty of these things men assumed them to be gods, let them know how much better than these is their Lord, for the author of beauty created them. And if men were amazed at their power and working, let them perceive from them how much more powerful is he who formed them. For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.” The book of Wisdom.

The inspired author therefore tells us that pagans, by definition, who fail to recognize the true God, but worship creatures instead, are guilty. Dear God that is a terrifying statement. But we go on. Not only are the teaming millions who do not worship the one true God, on the inspired testimony of the Bible guilty, but the Scriptures go on to explain why they have not come to recognize the one true God. The reason, the Holy Spirit tells us in the Bible is, listen, it is immorality. People make gods of creatures because they rationalize their evil deeds. Unbelief is the fruit of immorality. We need the Holy Spirit to tell us that. That is why St. Paul, building on the book of Wisdom, tells us in the clearest terms why there are pagans, idolaters in the world. St. Paul had to warn the Christians of his day not to be taken in by the idolatry so widespread all around them. And let us make sure that Paul is speaking to us, that the Romans of our day equally are guilty for failing to acknowledge the one true God. And the underlying reason for their refusal to acknowledge the true God is their massive immorality.

St. Paul therefore, and you notice we are going to follow this logic throughout the retreat; St. Paul went beyond the Old Testament. He repeated what the book of Wisdom says, that God can be recognized by the light of reason from the marvels of creation that He produced. But Paul says more, he also explains why. That he reads from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans first chapter, the eighteenth to the twenty-first and the twenty-sixth to the twenty-eighth verses. The anger of God is revealed from heaven against all the impiety and depravity of men who keep truth imprisoned in their wickedness. Keep those two words on your mind for life. Keeping truth imprisoned. Imprisoned truth and wickedness.

Wickedness in the will blinds the intellect from seeing the truth. For what can be known about God is perfectly plain to them since God Himself has made it plain. Ever since God created the world His everlasting power and deity, however invisible, have been there for the mind to see in the things He has made. That is why such people are without excuse. They knew God and yet refused to honor Him as God or to thank Him. Instead they made nonsense out of logic and their empty minds were darkened.

The more they call themselves philosophers the more stupid they grew, until they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for a worthless imitation, for the image of mortal men, of Burns, Cortropez and Reptals. That is why God left them to their filthy enjoyment and the practices with which they dishonor their own bodies. Once they have given up divine truth for a lie and have worshiped and served creatures instead of the Creator, that is why God has abandoned them to degrading passions. Why their women have turned from natural intercourse to unnatural practices and why their men folk have given up natural intercourse to be consumed with passions for each other. Men doing shameless things with men and getting the appropriate reward for their perversion.”

St. Paul. My friends, we better hear these words. What St. Paul is telling us is profound but terrifyingly practical. Not recognizing the one true God. God, Paul tells us, will bring those idolaters to commit the most shameless crimes. Pride of intellect leads to immorality in body and, conversely, un-chastity always blinds the intellect. When Christ in the beatitudes declared, “Happy are the pure of heart for they shall see God”, He was saying far more than most people realize. Chastity of body is an absolute condition for light of mind. Unchastity blinds the intellect from seeing God even in the works of nature. The passage we have just read where St. Paul describes the homosexuality so rife in the first century is a condemnation of that widespread crime in our day. And may God forgive me if I say one syllable more then he wants me to. And the worst in today’s world are unchaste priests and religious. God blinds the unchaste and un-chastity always blinds the intellect. The Romans therefore of the modern who revel in their unnatural lust are bearing the fruit of their disregard of God and then their disregard of God just sinks them deeper into the quagmire of unbelief. In other words God cannot be ignored with impunity, by anyone, Christian or un-Christian. Intellectual pride which rejects God always makes a person the slave of his passions. I close.

Dear Jesus, how you emphasize the need for your followers to practice chastity according to their state of life, chaste wedlock, chaste singlehood, chaste widowhood, chaste consecrated chastity. Teach all of us, dear Jesus, how closely related is our chastity to seeing you clearly, deeply, lovingly in this life as the condition for seeing you in the beatific vision in the life to come. No matter how hard it may be, dear Lord, give us the strength to be chaste because you told us and we believe you, only the chaste will see God here and in the heavens to which we aspire. Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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