Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Essence of God

This past Saturday I was blessed to attend two talks by the prominent Catholic theologian Dr. Scott Hahn, professor at the Franciscan University of Steubenville and well-known convert to Catholicism.

I'd like to share with you my notes from these two talks, as I have some friends who were unable to attend in person...and because it helps me process what he presented when I review my notes once again!

So just to reiterate: I am simply reiterating!  The below theological insights belong exclusively to the gifted Dr. Hahn; I am merely passing them along for your benefit!

Dr. Hahn's talk focused on the very nature of God.  What is the essence of God?  Who is God?  How do you even begin to define or explain God's nature?

The answer is the highest of all the mysteries of faith: the mystery of the Trinity--one God in three divine persons.  The Trinity is a mystery that goes beyond human logic and reason. However, it is not opposed to logic and reason.

Consider the natural world.  There are natural mysteries.  Take, for example, light.  What is light?  What is the essence or nature of light?  It's a mystery!

So as there are natural mysteries, so there are supernatural mysteries--the greatest of these being the mystery of the Trinity.

Blessed Pope John Paul II told the faithful that we must discover God for who He is.  Instead of always asking God for things (something I need to work on!), we should be praying: God, help me to know you!

The dogma of the Blessed Trinity sheds some light on this and helps us understand a little clearer who God is.  

Because God is one in three, we know that the essence of God is not solitude.  

Given that, what could we say is the very essence of God?  Any guesses?

Dr. Hahn's response: family.  The essence of God, of the Holy Trinity, is family.

God has fatherhood.  God has sonship.  And God has the central part of the family, which is interpersonal love--so much so, in fact, that it is the third divine person of the Trinity: the Holy Spirit.

God is a family.  God is definitional family.

All earthly families, by contrast, are shadows or figures of the true, perfect family that is God.  Chris, Mary, and I are like a family; God is a family.

"But wait," some might protest.  Fatherhood is earthly and finite.  Same with sonship.  Isn't it blasphemous to attribute to God these human titles and relationships?

Well, consider this, Dr. Hahn encourages.  God is omniscient, or all-knowing.  We humans know, too, just not perfectly.  God is omnipotent, or all-powerful.  God delegates some of this power, to a much lesser extent, to us humans.  God is also omnibenevolent, or all-loving.  We love, just not perfectly.  So, working analogously, God's fatherhood is perfect and we humans share in this fatherhood, though imperfectly.

It's amazing to think how radical and extreme a change Jesus launched in world religion when He called God, "Abba" or, "Daddy."  And yet, God is the perfect Father.  He is "our Father."

Dr. Hahn then related an experience he had while at Mass one Sunday morning.  There was a religious sister who began Mass (right there you know there's trouble brewing) by praying the Sign of the Cross.  However, instead of praying in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, she said, "In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier."

Well, these titles are okay.  They are accurate.  But these names describe what God does, not who God is.  The purpose of Mass is to worship God and we worship Him for who He is--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The word "Father" is more than just a noun; it is a verb.  The Father is eternally generating.  The Son is eternally begotten and is forever returning everything back that the Father has bestowed upon Him.  The Son images the Father by returning the same gift of life and love given to Him--the gift of life and love, which is the Holy Spirit.

Dr. Hahn then spent some time reflecting on those names that describe what God does: Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.

Let's take "Creator" first.  In Genesis 1:26 God says, "Let us make man in our image."  (Note the plural use of "us" and "our"!)  And how was it that God made man in "our image?"  As male and female.

Remember: God is not solitude.  So when He made man in the image and likeness of God, He made man as a family--as man and woman, husband and wife.

The primordial image of God is this marital convenant.  Just as God is one in three, in marriage two become one.  And that one flesh union of husband and wife brings forth a third person, a child, who is the incarnation of their marital love.  

It's amazing to consider that the essence of God as family unveils the mystery of marital love.  This one line was perhaps what struck me most during Dr. Hahn's talk: "There is nothing I can do with my body that makes me more like God than by renewing the covenant of marital love."  

In other words, every time husband and wife join together as one flesh, they are doing with their bodies the act that makes them most like God.  

And if that's true, if the sexual act is the act that makes husband and wife most like God, then it's clear how holy and sacred that physical action truly is.  By extension, we can sadly state in all honesty that this holy act is frequently desecrated in our culture and society.

So what about "Redeemer?"

Dr. Hahn made a striking contrast that illuminated a frequent misunderstanding about Christ's redemption (one, I must admit, I have fallen to as well).  He stated that Christ didn't just "buy us back."  It was something more than just broken laws and forgiving the sin committed from those transgressions.

Here are two short examples revealing the difference, excellently narrated by Dr. Hahn.

Let's say we have a prisoner in jail.  He is suffering from a severe illness, sentenced to a life-term, and is millions of dollars in debt.  One day the mayor of town approaches him and says that he is pardoned of his crime and is set free.  

This is good, of course, but doesn't change the fact that the gentleman is still sick and is hardly free due to his crippling debt.  The man is technically forgiven and he is released from prison, but this isn't necessarily the best-case scenario for him.

On the other hand, let's say the mayor comes to the prisoner with this announcement: the man is pardoned of his crime and when he leaves the prison, there will be a doctor waiting for him who has a healing remedy that will cure his illness.  Furthermore, the mayor has paid all his outstanding debts.  Lastly, there will be a limo awaiting the prisoner, which will transport him to the mayor's own house where the prisoner will now live, as the mayor has adopted him as his very son.

Jesus indeed paid our debt, a debt He did not owe.  But He did more than this: He gave us a spirit of love to heal us and to bring us home.  He made us part of His family.  We weren't merely brought out of hell, the eternal prison; we were brought home.

Finally, the Sanctifier.  How does the Holy Spirit sanctify, or make holy?  Through the Catholic Church.  To be apart from the Church is to apart from the family of God.  

This family is most evident at Mass.  Every time we gather for Mass as a family, heaven comes to earth.  The Holy Spirit unites us as one in the Eucharist, which is a share in Christ's own sonship.  Through Baptism and receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, we become adopted sons and daughters of the Father.

When we call a priest "father," we are reminded that fatherhood isn't--at its core--earthly.  Fatherhood is spiritual, is heavenly.  The priests who give their life in service to the Church are truly "breadwinners": they give us the supersubstantial bread that is the Eucharist.

Dr. Hahn concluded his talk on the Trinity by relating an experience with one of his newborn children and how, one night while rocking his son, he was overwhelmed with the love he had for this child of his.  

It's a feeling to which, if you are a parent, I'm sure you can relate.  I, too, remember nursing and rocking Mary and being astounded by the depth and power of love I had for this child, who was so powerless and so needy.

Analogously, that's what we are in the arms of our Father.  The love that we can have, as parents for our children, is just a mere shadow of the love the perfect Father has for His children.  

It's humbling and astounding.  And it's the kind of thought that makes a prayer rise out from one's soul: "God, help me to know who you are."

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