There’s a tension in Christian communities between what to write off as a paradox, and what to try and explain or understand. Take, for instance, the relationship between natural theology and divine revelation. In its simplest form, natural theology says that the world around us declares the presence and nature of God – that God in the world is in some sense unmissable, unmistakable. Divine revelation, on the other hand, says that God reveals Himself to us, that we can’t reach Him or understand Him except through His lowering Himself down to our level. There’s a tension there. If natural theology is about a self-evident, obvious God, how does that relate to divine revelation? We can throw our allegiance exclusively behind one idea or the other, or we can try and integrate them on a deeper level. For example, we might say that God reveals Himself to us through the natural world – that natural theology is part of God’s divine self-revelation. It’s not that we think about the world and go oh, God probably exists – He actively reaches into our brains through the world around us, using it as the mechanism to communicate His own being. Often, that joining maneuver creates deeper issues. If God gives Himself to us in the natural world, actively and directly, then why don’t some people see it? Is God’s self-revelation not working? If God is truly offering Himself to us through the natural world, it shouldn’t be possible to resist or ignore Him – should it?
And you can continue bolting on additional bits of argumentation and theorizing, Howl’s Moving Castle-style, or you can shrug your shoulders and write it off as a paradox – God gives Himself to us through the natural world, and yet we can also ignore Him. We talked about this approach the other week, with the burrito thing – sometimes it’s valid to just give up on trying to make sense of it. And there’s a bigger conversation here about what we do with all of these contradictory or difficult bits of theology. Is the problem that we’re not good at thinking, or does the subject just not make sense? With all of these approaches and theories and ideas – is that diversity a failure of clear thinking, or a genuine feature of the divine? In Chapter 4 of The Discovery of God (‘The Knowledge of God’), Catholic theologian Henri de Lubac reflects on these multiple dimensions of God:
“God of the intelligence and God of the consciousness – God of supernatural revelation and God of reason – God of nature and God of history – God of being and God of value – God of reflection and God of prayer – God of the philosopher and God of the mystic – God of the soul and God of the universe – God of social tradition and God of solitary meditation… so many opposites and one unity!”
He suggests that these multiple pathways or approaches aren’t necessarily meant to be resolved down to one true path. The divine is complicated, and each approach has its own form of validity:
“None of the avenues which lead to you is closed, and I have no right to forbid the use of any one of them. There are many voices and many paths, but the same thing is indicated by them, and the same thing sought.”
That’s not to say that de Lubac is announcing open-season on spirituality – he’s not saying that every vague spiritual notion has the exact same value. He’s still a Catholic, and would have no trouble making exclusive claims on behalf of the Catholic faith. There’s actually an interesting little tautology at the start of that extract – none of the avenues which lead to you [God] is closed. The implication is that there are, perhaps, other avenues, but that they lead away from God. It’s not that all roads lead to Rome – it’s that the roads that do lead to Rome are all open. It’s an emphasis on the legitimate differences between Christian methodologies, and an insistence that on some level, they cannot be integrated into each other. The way of the Christian mystic is different to the way of the Christian philosopher. They aren’t reducible to the same thing (“between each of them an abyss”), and yet they both point towards the same object. The closest point of reference might be how fire emits both heat and light. You can look at the light, and you can feel the heat, and both of those are elements of the fire, but you can’t reduce one to the other. You can’t turn looking into feeling. They’re different approaches.
This insistence on the abyss between methods raises questions about what it means to do theology. What do our doctrines and beliefs amount to? How should we think about other traditions or ways of seeing? How should we think about our own? Some of these questions are reflected in de Lubac’s approach to The Discovery of God, which is built out as a series of fragments. It’s not designed as one singular long-form argument – it’s a series of short, discontinuous entries that touch on different ideas or approaches. Some entries are just big blocks of quoted text from other writers – which I think honestly reflects the way that many people construct their faith. If we are meant to accept these different ways of discovering God as mutually incomprehensible – maybe even outright paradoxical – then we can’t really be systematic. We have to accept the non-systems, the scraps and fragments – we have to treat the discovery of God as a series of sounders launched into the infinite.