The foundation of the Catholic faith is the belief in God. Yet it seems belief in God presupposes knowledge. One cannot believe in something one is entirely ignorant of. This fact leads to the purpose of this paper, how can one come to know God?
To address this question, I will discuss how human beings come to the knowledge of something and whether it is possible to have knowledge of God.
Epistemology is a term used predominantly to refer to a subset within philosophy that concerns itself with the study of the nature and limitations of human knowledge.
Without getting into some of the issues associated with acquiring knowledge, it suffices to identify two ways in which human beings come to know a thing. The first, and the more common, is through the senses. Much of what we learn relies on obtaining information, which requires using the senses. This type of knowledge falls within what is called a posteriori knowledge, knowledge predicated upon experience.
The second way in which one comes to know something is called a priori knowledge. It is knowledge that is independent of experience. Generally, this falls within matters of mathematics, tautologies, and self-evident logical propositions. I would add to that divine revelation.
Having provided a brief sketch of the nature of epistemology, we can proceed to the question of how one comes to know God.
Knowledge Of God
In accord with the Bible, Catholicism asserts that human beings were intended to have an intimate relationship with God. This relationship is manifested in the Garden of Eden. Then came the Fall, and man’s relationship and knowledge of God were sundered.
So, how can a finite and temporal creature, damaged by sin, come to possess knowledge of an infinite, eternal, and holy God? Thomas Aquinas suggests two ways that human beings can come to know (albeit in a limited way) God. “There is a twofold mode of truth in what we profess about God. Some truths about God exceed all the ability of human reason. Such is the truth that God is triune. But there are some truths that natural reason also is able to reach. Such are the truth that God exists, that he is one, and the like. In fact, such truths about God have been proved demonstratively by the philosophers, guided by the light of natural reason.” (Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Contra Gentiles. University of Notre Dame Press, 1975).
I will discuss Aquinas’ second mode of knowing God first. This mode falls within what is known as natural theology.
Natural theology refers to human beings’ innate capacity to reason about God’s existence and nature. That is to say that “Man’s faculties make him capable of coming to a knowledge of the existence of a personal God. But for man to be able to enter into real intimacy with him, God willed both to reveal himself to man and to give him the grace of being able to welcome this revelation in faith. The proofs of God’s existence, however, can predispose one to faith and help one to see that faith is not opposed to reason.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 35).
There is evidence of natural theology throughout the Bible. The Psalmist puts it this way, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the firmament proclaims the works of his hands.” (Psalm 19:2).
Saint Paul appears to follow this view, “Ever since the creation of the world, his [God] invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made.” (Romans 1:20).
Human reasoning under the umbrella of natural theology generally is of the a posteriori variety. One can observe nature, see order and beauty in it, and reason to the cause of this order and beauty. Or one can review the scientific data and conclude that the universe is not eternal and reason that that which is not eternal does not exist necessarily, and that which does not exist necessarily requires a cause.
One of the advantages of natural theology, from the perspective of apologetics or evangelization, is that natural theology begins with human reason. That is, natural theology posits that one can come to some knowledge of the existence and nature of God using logic. Strictly speaking, the arguments for God from a natural theology perspective are independent of faith.
Moreover, the scientific method is predicated upon the order implied in natural theology. Only because there is order and predictability in the universe can we engage in the scientific endeavor.
The second mode (to keep Aquinas’ term) that we can come to have knowledge of God is extrinsic and rather dramatic. It is to that way that I turn next.
It is telling that the words revelation and apocalypse have very similar etymologies. Revelation is a translation of the Greek word apokalypsis, which means the removal of a veil so that something can be seen. Both words refer to a revealing or uncovering of the transcendent in the created world. Put in a different way; revelation can be seen as God breaking into our world.
Where natural theology can be viewed as human beings’ search for God, divine revelation can be understood as God’s search for human beings.
Owing to its nature, the truths divulged by divine revelation are beyond human reason. From God speaking to Moses in the burning bush to Saul falling from his horse, one can argue that Scripture is the story of God seeking human beings.
From the Catholic perspective, however, there is no greater example of this – indeed, there can be none greater – than the revelation provided in the person of Jesus Christ. It is in Christ that God “breaks” into our world; that God becomes one of us and, in so doing, saves us from ourselves.
Despite our insistent howling to the contrary, human beings are religious animals. We naturally seek God, and when we fail in this endeavor, we make our own gods (money, pleasure, power). As is to be expected, however, these gods of our own design fail to bring us what we ultimately seek. We are left with Augustine’s insight, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”