On “Whose God Is God?”

The problem is not with God. The problem is already located in the classical Garden in Genesis, the question of man preferring his own world to that more noble world that God has destined him for, and in which, being the kind of being he is, alone his happiness can lie.

 

For me, I have more respect for the “savage” who worships a wooden idol than for the “civilized” person who only bows before himself. (Rémi Brague, On the God of the Christians (and on one or two others)) 1

The primary thing, which is presupposed by theology, is a body of traditional pronouncements which are believed to have been revealed, not to have come into being through human interpretation of reality, but, as Plato puts it, to “have come down from a divine source.” (Josef Pieper, The End of Time) 2

To ask for a (new) particular revelation is to ask God to have his Son incarnate and die once again. To ask more from God would be to ask for what he had already done. To ask for something else would be to ask for the same thing once again. (Rémi Brague, On the God of the Christians (and on one or two others)) 3

In the secular mind today, all religions and their gods, if they have any, are usually bunched together. One religion may not exactly be as good as another. Yet, from a “scientific” or political point of view, all are pretty bad and often dangerous. The coercive power of the state is needed to control them, to keep them in their own “sphere” and out of the public eye. “Freedom of religion” means the liberty to do what the state, not God, permits. On the international level, moreover, we find proposals inspired by the tradition of Hobbes that see world peace to be a product of the civil control of religion and thought. These latter are understood to be the prime causes of civil disorder itself, along with death, the worst of evils. We should thus have a “world council of religion,” preferably under the United Nations, in which all religious will be required to participate, whatever their peculiar theology.

In such a body, all religions would be registered. Clergy, aside from their inner religious certification, would also require civil licenses. The religions would be required to agree not to disturb the public order, not to proselytize, or claim any privileges. All services of charity, health, and education would be run and financed by the civil authorities. Inside its temple, a given religion or sect could hold any doctrine it wanted, provided it did not clash with the public order, or disturb other believers or nonbelievers. Any public disagreement of a religion with state norms would be considered “hate-language.” When logically spelled out, however, this formulation is not really freedom of religion, but control of it, by the state or world body.

But aside from this political background, the religions themselves, influenced directly or indirectly by the liberalism of modern times, under the rubric of ecumenical dialogue, have sought to determine how much they have in common. Their differences are then downplayed so that we have little sense of their intrinsic differences or their significance. The differences in doctrine or practice that once caused “religious wars” are now considered to be trivial and of little significance. Who cares about Filioque or “justification by faith” alone? Henry IV might have said that his reign is worth a Mass, but few care to find out just what the Mass is, or whether it is necessary at all. In the natural order, the proper way to worship God, if there is one, has produced many different embodiments. No one will believe that God provided us with a proper way to worship him.

One of the unintended offshoots of this ecumenical movement has been the popular “feeling” that, deep down, the differences among the religions do not count for much. Only what they have in common is important. Only these similar teachings and rites constitute the religious “common good.” All religions, it is said, from the outside, believe in the same gods; none of whom means much. The various religions just go about pious things a little differently. Chesterton, to be sure, had remarked that religions are pretty much alike in their externals, rite, and dress, but that they are vastly different in what is held to be true. It is this latter sense, what a religion holds to be true, that is what makes all the difference. Actions flow from, and are explained by, what is understood to be true. If one religion is radically different from both the state, claiming control of the public order, and from other religions differing from it, this would serve, if true, both to limit the state, and to correct, complete, or replace other religions.

Within Christianity itself, however, one recurrent line of thought has always maintained that Christianity should not be classified as a “religion.” A religion refers to what man can know about the gods using only man’s own experience and natural powers. Christianity claimed to be something that was given to man, and left there for it to explain what it means in more detail. This explanation is what theology is really about. This is why Christianity cannot begin with something that men thought up. This is also why its opponents over the centuries always seek to reduce it to a “natural” religion whose peculiar excesses and claims are contradictory.

Theology has to do with reason, properly speaking, but its stimulus, its intellectual workings, ponder the meaning of what is handed down as coming from God. Reason thus may find that some claimed “revelation” may indeed be unintelligible. Some things clearly are irrational, but others are not. The central truths of Christianity were precisely not able to be figured out by human reason, even though they were not considered contrary to it. Indeed, by thinking through the implications of what was revealed in word or deed, Christianity held that philosophy itself became more philosophical.

The occasion for these remarks is the recent English translation of Rémi Brague’s On the God of the Christians (and on one or two others). Brague has long been interested by the differences among the religions, particularly Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Brague is a French philosopher who sees no legitimacy in leaving out whatever we might learn from revelation in our dealing with all that is. 4 Following in the tradition of Christian philosophy, Brague sees that coming to terms with what is found in revelation about God is also a stimulus that enables us to philosophize better. Such philosophizing expands and corrects the truths that reason seeks to know. There is nothing arbitrary about this approach. Even if we could not accept the truth that “God is love,” the central Christian affirmation, we would still have to explain “why not?” And we could not do this without entering into the profound reflections about what it is that Brague provides for us in this profound book.

But I want to begin these reflections by restating the thesis of Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth. Benedict’s three-volume work is one of theology, philosophy, history, exegesis, logic, politics, art, and even medicine. Its central thesis is this: After examining all the evidence that has been presented over the centuries about Jesus of Nazarethclassical, medieval, and modernthe only fair judgment is that Jesus did exist in the time and place that he is said to have existed. Further, he is who he said he was. This fact is the only reasonable conclusion that can be drawn from thoroughly examined evidence. Benedict has no particular problem with anyone who might reject this conclusion. Indeed, he welcomes such objections. He only wants to know “On what evidence?” and to be free to examine the evidence presented. It is also this well-grounded affirmationthat Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Second Person of a Trinitarian life in the Godheadthat grounds the premises of Brague’s book. He shows how this understanding of God can be maintained as true and not irrational. It is in this understanding that Christianity is distinct from “one or two other” religions, as his title implies, that forms the basic thrust of this book.

Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are said to be the three “revealed” religions. They apparently are alike in that all three are based on a book, are followers of Abraham, and are monotheistic. In analyzing these assumptions, Brague finds that substantial differences exist among these religions. In none of the things in which they are said to be alike are they really the same. In this light, Brague wants to spell out just how different Christianity, in particular, is from Islam and Judaism. The latter two are the only other religions that claim a revealed origin. In the process, he expounds the basic differences and similarities among the three religions. This presentation of the differences among the three religions leads Brague to his central thesis: Just what is it that makes Christianity different? Obviously, the Koran knows of both the Old and New Testaments, while the Old Testament is accepted by Christians as the revealed basis of its own uniqueness. Judaism claims only the Hebrew Bible and the history of Israel.

Brague does not like the phrase “the Christian God” as if God were somehow a private possession of a certain multitude of people. Rather, as the title of the book indicates, he talks of the “God of the Christians,” the one that Christians worship and seek to understand. This approach leads him to a careful discussion about how we know anything, especially God. He wants to know what is meant by the “one” God. Brague then presents an analysis of the Trinity, of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, in their sameness and differences. He insightfully entitles his later chapters—“The God Who Has Said Everything,” “The God Who Asks Nothing of Us,” and the “God Who Forgives Sins.” These provocative and original approaches, however, leave us with but one God and three Persons, neither a pure monolithic monotheism nor a polytheism. Almost every objection to Christianity from Islam or Judaism can be reduced to one or other of these two claims.

The theologian who is of especial interest to Brague is, surprisingly, John of the Cross, whom Brague credits for his (John’s) insights into understanding modern thought, and how it differs from the Christian God. Brague writes, for example: “Nietzsche was right. The disagreement between him and Christianity bears upon the nature of eternal life, of the meaning of its eternity. The meaning of life is nothing other than life, but eternal life. God does not ask or demand anything of us. He awaits us to accept what he gives us, that we would let him operate in us the gift of this eternal life.” 5 This passage, be it noted, contains the central theme of Benedict XVI’s Spe Salvi. 6 It also reflects the thesis of David Walsh’s Modern Philosophical Revolution, that modern thought really is an effort to solve Christian issues by rejecting the Christian explanation of them. 7 In constantly reaching incoherence, modern thought tends to turn us again back to the Christian thinking about the highest things as a better explanation than the ones proposed as alternatives to them.

Brague is of particular interest in dealing with Islam. It is the last of the three “revealed” religions, but the mode and nature of its presumed revelation are very odd. While it is the youngest of the three religions, it strives to make itself the oldest. It does this by postulating that the Koran existed from eternity so that originally all people who were created were Muslims. If one is not Muslin, it is because some religion or family corrupted him. This theory lies behind the Koran’s view of war. Islam is only trying to restore men to what they were created to be, but are unjustly deprived of their true and natural religion. Since neither the Old nor the New Testaments mentions Mohammed, however, another theory postulates that the original Jewish and Christian Scriptures were corrupted. All references to Mohammed in the original Scriptures were removed. This is a preposterous theory, of course, but it seems to be the only way to justify the claims of the Koran to its failure to mention the coming of Mohammed, the last and definitive prophet.

The relation of Allah to creation is such that all is subject to him. Allah must be conceived as someone who is not bound by his own laws. Unlike the God of the Christians, the principle of contradiction does not bind Allah. This absolute liberty is necessary to explain the many contradictions that appear in the Koran’s text, which has never itself been subject to much formal criticism. The Koran specifically denies the two basic Christian ideas about God, that God is Trinity and that one of the Persons became man at a certain time. The best the Koran will say of Christ is that he is a prophet, that is, not God. The reason it must do this is because Allah is never conceived to be a Father. Brague’s analysis of the difference between paternity and virility is quite useful here. It explains why Muslims have such a time with Christ as a Son of God who is divine. The Koran conceives Allah as masculine (virile), so that if there is a son, there must be a female. Hence, the denial of Trinity and Incarnation is the logical result of an understanding of the unity of God that denies an interior life to the Godhead, and identifies fatherhood with virility, something Christian theology does not do. The identification of the Son with the Word shifts our attention from begetting to intellection.

Brague says that the Koran is a book that made a religion; the New Testament is a book that followed a religion; and that the Old Testament was more a library than a book. For the Muslim, the Koran came directly from Allah. Mohammed, in a sense, had nothing to do with its text except to receive it as it was in Allah. Hence, it was not inspired, but was itself the word of Allah in Arabic. The Jew and the Christian both hold the Old Testament to be inspired. To be a Jew means that one does not see any plan of salvation in the Old Testament that would lead to Christ as the incarnate redeemer. The Jew and the Muslim are alike in that both deny the Trinity and the Incarnation.

What then does it mean to “know” God? Brague immediately points out that the Socratic tradition of “know thyself” is at play here, the paradox of to “know that we do not know.” But this is not a skepticism. We know the levels of being in different ways. And since everything that is on its “being” side reaches to the Creator, we cannot know everything about everything lest we be already gods. When it comes to personal and rational beings, we cannot know them unless they want to be known. We know them in speech, in communication. Hence, in the case both of God and of other rational beings, knowing includes a fundamental element of freedom. This truth has great weight with Brague. When God does reveal himself in the Word made flesh, he does not hold something back. The Son and the Father are one. Even in the case of sins, when they are repented and acknowledged, they are forgiven. But they cannot be forgiven unless they are freely pronounced and repented, in which case, the sinner finds that God has just been waiting for his doing something that even God cannot force him to do. He is free not to deal with God, at least at his personal level.

Brague takes the notion that God is “mysterious” with some reserve. Too often, this word makes it seem that we need occult powers, or that God rejects our efforts to know him, or that we need not include our reason in our efforts to know him. We can approach the understanding of God from another angle. “Mystery is a daily experience, one that could almost be called normal. Each day we encounter mysterious beings, unfathomable creatures whose depths we will never plumb completely. Every person, because he is free, represents this mystery. No one has ever heard it said that someone else has completely come to know even those he knows best.” 8 But, the fact that we do not know everything does not mean that we know nothing. In the case of God, as Brague adds, “God is hidden because he is only accessible to faith.” We do not know God in the way we know other things, no less than we know those we love solely by scientific means. We cannot know persons that way. But we can know them. “Faith is not a gift of God in general, but a gift of God to man. That is, it is a gift that is addressed to man as man, in his properly human dimensions, not what belongs to him as merely organic or sensitive. … The faith is a gift in the measure that it is proposed to that alone which makes man what—or who—he is: liberty.” 9 Christ told the apostles that he had told them all the things the Father told him.

The major part of this book is devoted to the Trinity, to the one God in three persons. To show how it is feasible and noncontradictory that, within the one God, we find a diversity of persons is a major theological and metaphysical task. What is at stake here, no doubt, is the intrinsic consistency of reason and revelation. The Muslim explanations of Allah have such serious misunderstandings as to be rationally incoherent. This incoherence is recognized in some sense by Islamic thinkers themselves. This problem explains the need for a voluntarist metaphysics in which Allah can will one side of a contradiction, then the other, and still demand complete obedience. The Jewish understanding differs from that of the Christians largely in its interpretation of who Christ was. Granted the premise that the Hebrew Bible does not lead to the revelation of the Word as from the Father, Jewish thought must establish an alternate understanding of the purpose of revelation whereby Yahweh’s plans, found in the Old Testament, are carried out without a Christ, or “Word,” from within the Godhead.

What is unique about Christianity, then, is the inner coherence of its understanding of God, and his revelation to man—as seen in both the Old and New Testaments—as one coherent revelation. “The question I am posing here,” Brague writes, “is not to know, in general, what to do when everything is said. It needs to be put more precisely: what to do when it is God who has said everything he has to say.” 10 This theme that God has indeed said, from the Beginning Word in Creation and to the Word made flesh, is what makes this book of such interest and importance. God is often accused of not telling us what he wants, or what we need to know about him. But, we can only make this objection if we fail to examine what has, in fact, been said in revelation in its completeness. We have been told everything we need to know.

As Brague said in the citation at the beginning of this essay, if we demanded more, God could only repeat what he has told us. He could only repeat the drama of the Incarnation and Passion. But that would be useless. If they would not listen the first time, they will not listen to a repetition. The problem is not with God. The problem is already located in the classical Garden in Genesis, the question of man preferring his own world to that more noble world that God has destined him for, and in which, being the kind of being he is, alone his happiness can lie. The problem of pride is the central theme of all refusal to accept revelation, nowhere more than in the “brilliant errors” of modern thought that have sought an alternative to the one provided in revelation.

“The classical formulation is a transparent allusion to the idea of ‘rational worship’ (logike latreia) expressed in Rom 12:1, that is, of a relationship to God that does not involve material sacrificial victims, but which is located, and entirely involves, the reason and liberty of man who thus enters into contact with God. … God does not work for himself. Creation is not an investment from which he awaits, or expects, a return. What glorifies God is nothing other than the very life he gives to his creation, among others, to man.” 11 The dynamics of gift and giving thus underlie the whole of revelation. Not only is the world created in justice, as Plato strove to show, but in mercy and love—the central theme of the New Testament. The whole context of man is now located in issues of “reason and the liberty of man,” as Brague brilliantly put it. All disorders in the world come from the hearts of the clerical and intellectual dons. The external sufferings, and the external goods alike, are ultimately found here. This is why pride, and the refusal of intellect to see the “rational worship” that is proposed as the proper context of return to, and worship of, the Father, through the Son, and in the Spirit, has such lethal consequences.

In conclusion, let me recall again the amusing remark of Brague I cited at the beginning of this essay. He has more “respect” for the savage with his wooden idol than he does for the modern mind, which, in the end, has decided to worship “only itself.” It is remarkable that this “self-worship,” either of man individually or collectively, has presented itself in modern thought as the primary alternative to the God who is love, a love that saves both the individual and all that is good. The case for the God of the Christians is a powerful one. Brague has not just described how the God of Christians is different from the God that Muslims and Jews worship, but he has shown, as Benedict XVI did in the “Regensburg Lecture,” how this God of the Christians relates to that classical philosophy directed to all that is.

We often end with arguments that conclude to God’s existence. This is no mean intellectual feat in itself. With Brague, we end with a persuasive and intellectually coherent demonstration of how this existence appears within the Godhead, and its relation to our being, and our salvation. Brague does not claim to do this as if he thought it all up himself. He begins with what revelation tells us. He knows of Aquinas and John of the Cross, among many others. It is with these that he can think philosophically of the things revealed, and their relation to what we can know. One suspects that we have here hints of what “eternal life” is about. So “whose God is God?” Unless the question is brought up in the careful way that Brague brought it up, we will not realize that possibly there is an answer to this question.

  1. Rémi Brague, On the God of the Christians (and on one or two others), (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2013), 48.
  2. Josef Pieper, The End of Time (New York: Pantheon, 1954), 30.
  3. Brague, ibid, 97.
  4. See Brague, The Law of God (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008); The Legend of the Middle Ages (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).
  5. Ibid, 138.
  6. See James V. Schall, The Modern Age (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2011).
  7. David Walsh, The Modern Philosophical Revolution (New York: Cambridge, 2008).
  8. Ibid, 19.
  9. Ibid, 131.
  10. Ibid, 106.
  11. Ibid, 137.
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avatar About Fr. James V. Schall, SJ

Fr. James Schall, S.J., is professor emeritus of political science at Georgetown University, now retired and in residence at Sacred Heart Jesuit Center, Los Gatos, California. He is the author of many monographs, and, perhaps, the leading essayist writing in English today. He has been one of HPR’s most prolific authors.

Comments

  1. avatar J.T.Lebherz says:

    Wow!! Wonderful and profound thoughts to ponder two days before one of the Catholic Church’s holiest of days…Christmas. There is certainly nothing that I can add. Thank you Father Schall.

  2. avatar Denis Mac Carthy says:

    Great article, enjoyed reading it. Has given me much to reflect on. Greetings from Ireland.

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