The word “God” exists

Probably the mot important thing going on in my life which I have never written about here is my decision as an adult to convert to Catholicism. There is way more to this than a single blogpost, but I thought I’d start writing more seriously about my journey, for friends who I don’t see that often, as well as for folks whose backgrounds are like mine– lefty, punk rock, a product of Scandanavian Protestant family tradition, raised in a secular/Christian-hegemonic, appetitive, pyramided culture, groping for an authentic spirituality.

The title up there comes from German theologian Karl Rahner’s Foundations of Christian Faith, one of about five books that made it possible for me to decide to convert. The book is unbelievably dense; the translation is careful and business-like but with the bad habit of (seeming to) render Rahner’s monstrous German periodic sentences exactly into English. The chapter on God, “Man in the Presence of Absolute Mystery,” begins with a reflection on the word itself that I return to when friends ask me why on earth I would join an institution like the Catholic Church. (Please note that any misstatements or horrible dumbings-down of Rahner’s thought here are my responsibility alone.)

The word “God” exists. This, as a fact of our language, is worth thinking about. Unlike other ways of conceptualizing the divine– Lord, the Great Spirit, holy of holys, Adonai, Siva, the womb of love– “God” has no descriptive or metaphoric content: it points to nothing in the world. We might in an act or sign momentarily glimpse the action of another abstraction we believe in, such as truth or love, but the word “God” cannot be pointed to in instances. It simply stands (in distinction to even such abstractions as truth or love) as a sort of question about reality: it is everything beyond what we can identify, point to, strive toward, or name. The word “God” is rather the is-there-such-a-thing in whose presence, or upon whose ground, we do our pointing-to and striving. But as such, the question asked by the word “God” (says Rahner) points toward what is unique about humans.

So what is unique about humans?

Natural science has eaten the lunch of just about any earlier claim to human uniqueness: people are not unique among animals in acting compassionately, in showing grief, in communicating complex thoughts through sound. But what seems to be unique about humans, speculates Rahner, is our ability to reflect on the entirety of our lives and speculate what may lie beyond our limits: the limits imposed  by the conditioning experience and political history, and the limits of our powers of understanding. Our ability to reflect on our lives as a whole– how are my intimate relationships just shadows cast by my conflict with my parents? would I be happier if I exercised more often? would I be a bad person if I stole these leggings? why are some people happier in bare simplicity across the world than I am in my material comfort here? can I share without hope of recompense even though I’ve been taught life is war?— and then make a choice, is, for Rahner, the definition of human freedom. Freedom is the spiritual environment in which we decide and then take responsibility for that decision, not the mere fact of deciding to steal those leggings.

So: humans, in reflecting on the conditioning of their dark, hard, bitter, or irreconcilable histories or circumstances, can step beyond and transcend this conditioning. We can choose, in freedom, to be more or better than our apparent limits would allow us. God can be thought of (in Rahner’s phrase) as the term, or endpoint, of this or any possible transcendence, the absolute unknowable horizon-line past what can be conceived of in our frail and wandering little hearts. This makes “God,” for Rahner, an inextricable part of what is human about humans, definitional even in the psyche of someone who names and then denies the existence of this term of transcendence. To (probably mis)quote from memory: “Without the question represented by ‘God,’ we would cease to be anything but clever animals.”

The first “natural revelation” of God to a human– the first gift of the Spirit— lies in our being able to yearn for transcendence, regret or reflect on our past, formulate a question or longing about our lives as a whole. Rahner is a meticulous, unlyrical writer, temperamentally cautious, but some of his writing on this subject feels like it takes flight, as when he writes that the Spirit is “everything in the world that is constantly new and fresh, free and vital, unexpected and mighty, at once tender and strong… The Spirit can be perceived wherever people refuse by the grace of God to conform to legalistic mediocrity.” (Had this quote drawn back to my attention by Fanny Howe.) This yearning, and the self-renewal it allows, is a condition of our humanity that’s a sheer gratuitous gift. And this gift (for Rahner) is the first indication that God wants to be known– worshipped, contemplated in silence, honored by faith hope or love– by us fortunate apes.

So. This is one way of talking about God. It was the way that started me reading, writing, talking, trying to pray, and talking some more on the path that’s led to me being where I am now, enrolled in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults at St. Mary’s, learning words like thurible and ambry and memorizing prayers I’d already half-soaked-up in childhood. Bearing in mind how absurdly difficult it is to speak authentically about belief, I would love to talk to you all more about it. Look for more posts soon.

6 Comments

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6 responses to “The word “God” exists

  1. maurice from #301

    Interesting, Jay. I’m curious to know what it is about Catholicism that appeals to your desire for authenticity in your spirituality.

    • Thanks for your comment, Maurice. For me, an authentic spirituality meant reconciling with the tradition I came from, which is Christian. Finding what I valued in Christianity, examining how it shapes the culture I’m a part of (for good and ill), identifying as someone whose spiritual ‘native language’ is Christian and looking for Christian language for the values that matter most to me: contemplation, work in support of human dignity and self-determination, freedom, responsibility, mercy, and a way to understand the sheer randomness of life/grace. I’ve felt a call toward spirituality for years, but after years of lazily surfing through books on, e.g., Zen without committing to a practice or tradition, I felt that joining a faith community was a way to hold myself acccountable to actually living differently. I also don’t believe my years as a passionately atheist/existentialist punk rocker were a wrong path, either: an earlier step on an ongoing journey, more like.

      Were you brought up in a religious tradition? Or an avowedly atheist one? Or something in between?

  2. maurice from #301

    So, more authentic in terms of self: your practice of Christianity within the tradition of the Catholic church. I inferred (mistakenly?) from your writing that there is something unique about the Catholic faith that facilitates your commitment to live differently. Is this so, and are you attracted to the tradition and community the Church provides, the doctrine/theology, or both?

    I thought you might be referring to the relative authenticity of various Christian denominations/sects vis a vis the New Testament or some similar measure. Some, in my opinion, are objectively more authentic in this regard than others. But that’s a separate conversation.

    I was brought up in a predominantly Anabaptist tradition but am no longer a Believer.

    • Hi Maurice— In part, I got lucky with my particular church— St. Mary’s is wonderful, a welcoming, multi-racial and social-justice-oriented community. In part, I love the theology of Thomas Aquinas and my guy Karl Rahner. In part, lots of my heroes are Catholics: Fanny Howe, Paul Farmer, Sara Grant RCSJ, Dorothy Day, and (the venerable but still-alive) Gustavo Gutierrez. Each have embraced Catholic Social Teaching seriously– in some cases enough to earn censure from the church— and Sara Grant, especially, has a fervent commitment to interfaith dialogue. The hope is not that the world fill with Catholics, but that more people have a transforming relationship with whatever they find at the heart and ground of life. What feeds you spiritually, however you define the idea?

  3. I adore the transparency of your reflections, Jay!
    Reading Rahner’s words regarding the “refus(al)…to conform” as an iteration of Spirit made me wonder whether Bakunin’s ideas of rebellion in ‘God and the State’ aren’t reconcilable with those of Rahner’s. I have found Bakunin’s ideas rather useful, but haven’t committed (or even come that close) to adopting his language; I know I’ll soon find some Rahner to read in an effort to continue this exploration.

    I’m presuming you can weigh in on this, Jay, since (I believe) Bakunin is a figurehead of sorts on your blog…thoughts?

    Missing you,
    matt

    • Hey Mattcalf, thank you for the comment! Yes, good old Bakunin, my first anarchist intellectual crush! It’s undeniable that the Catholic Church (churches in most places in most times) has an overwhelming interest in serving the state and reinforcing received wisdom about who should be in charge and why; fortunately, the teacher on whom the institution is based was (among other things) a self-taught revolutionary peasant who believed in communal living, voluntary simplicity, non-violence, and resistance to worldly power, so that weedy little blossom keeps popping up in the Christian tradition. If I were to redo my masthead, I’d probably now replace Bakunin with Kropotkin or Dorothy Day, folks who find greater affirmation in (what you might call) radically self-giving neighborliness than in poetically fiery destruction.

      Do you know Gustavo Gutierrez? He is the Peruvian priest who founded Liberation Theology, and just now came out with a new book in collaboration with the wonderful Paul Farmer, called “In the Company of the Poor.” Liberation theology, as Gutierrez defines it, is simply an attempt to answer the question, “How can we say ‘God loves you’ to an oppressed person?”– a person cheated of their labor, security, dignity, autonomy, and even life? For Gutierrez, sharing God’s message of love must begin in identifying certain social circumstances as “structural sin.” It is a sin to maintain a world where many have their spirits degraded for the benefits of a few. Therefore, a lifetime commitment to serving the oppressed, as well as simple refusal to participate in maintaining this unequal world, are the first two steps toward honoring God’s will for each individual. “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” An anti-statist idea if I’ve ever heard one.

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