THE DIVINE ESSENCE
What God is in His divine nature or essence is known to us partly from created things, but more clearly from His revelation of Himself.
St. Paul tells us that, “The invisible things of God from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made” (Rom. i. 20). Creation is a sort of mirror that reflects the divine perfections; thus from the beauty of things created we can infer the greater beauty of Him Who created them (Wisd. xiii. 1). So again from the order that prevails in the visible world we can conclude that He Who made it is a Being of surpassing wisdom, and from its vastness we learn the power of Him Who upholds and supports it. Yet the knowledge thus obtained is always imperfect and obscure. From a beautiful picture we do not learn much about the character of the painter. In creatures we see God only as through a glass and in a dark manner (1 Cor. xiii. 12). The heathens, before the coming of Christ, were sunk in the grossest vices, and this darkened their intellect and rendered them still less able to arrive at a knowledge of God from His works (Wisd. ix. 16). In order to en lighten this ignorance God revealed Himself to men, speaking to them by the mouth of the patriarchs and prophets, and above all by the mouth of His Son, Jesus Christ (Heb. i. 1, 2). It was Christ Who gave to men the clearest manifestation of the nature of God; all the rest spoke somewhat obscurely, for none of them had seen God face to face.
Even since God’s revelation of Himself, man is not capable of a thorough or complete knowledge of the nature of God; the reason of this is that God is infinite, and man is only finite.
Just as we cannot inclose a boundless ocean in a little vessel, so we cannot take in the infinite majesty of God with our finite understanding. “Behold, God is great, exceeding our knowledge” (Job xxxviii. 26). “The things that are of God no man knoweth, but the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. ii. 11). We can neither express in words nor conceive in thought what God really is. When the sage Simonides was asked by Hiero, King of Syracuse, what God is, he took first one, then two days to consider the question; then he requested four days more; then eight; and finally said to the king that the longer he thought about the matter, the more obscure did it become to him. It is easier to say what God is not than what He is. He who attempts to fathom the majesty of God becomes profane. It is told of Icarus in the old mythology, that he fastened wings to his sides with wax, and attempted to fly up to heaven; but when he came too near the sun, it melted the wax and he fell into the sea and perished. So it is with those who seek to fathom the nature of God; He casts them down into the sea of doubt and unbelief. He who gazes upon the sun becomes dazzled; so is it with those who seek to penetrate into the nature of God. Even the angels veil their faces before God (Ezech. i. 23). The most perfect of them cannot comprehend His majesty. They are like a man who looks upon the sea from some high point; he sees the sea, but he does not see the whole of it. How can we expect to reach heights which even the angels cannot attain to?
We can only give an imperfect and incomplete explanation of the nature of God, viz.:
1. God is a self-existent Being, infinite in His perfections, glory, and beatitude, the Creator and Ruler of the whole world.
When Moses asked almighty God His name, on the occasion of His appearing in the burning bush, God answered, “I am Who am” (Exod. iii. 14) i.e., “I exist of Myself, I derive My being from Myself.” All other beings derive their existence from God, and there fore in comparison of Him are as nothing. Hence David says, “My substance is as nothing before Thee” (Ps. xxxviii. 6). God also possesses the highest perfection. We see how some beings upon the earth are more perfect than others. Some things have only existence with out life, as stones and metals; others have life, but without sensation, as trees and plants; others have sensation and movement as well, as birds and beasts; man has a spiritual life, with intellect and free will. Above man there are countless numbers of pure spirits, each with a special perfection of its own, and each increasing in virtue as it ascends towards the throne of God. But they can never arrive at infinite perfection, since the most perfect among them can always attain to some higher excellence. Hence we must believe in a Being of infinite perfection, from Whom all other beings derive their virtues, Who possesses in Himself, and Who is infinitely exalted beyond, all existing or possible perfections that can be found in all other beings than Himself. Nothing greater than God can either exist or even be thought of. God is also infinite in glory and beauty. For if on the earth there exist so many beautiful things, how far greater must be the beauty and glory of God, since it is He Who gave them all their beauty. He could not have given it unless He already possessed it. He is like the boundless ocean, and the beauty of all created things is like a series of drops taken from the ocean. God is also infinite in His supreme happiness or beatitude. He lives in endless and infinite joy; no creature can interfere with the perfection of His happiness. None can either increase or diminish it (1 Tim. vi. 15). As the sun needs no light from other bodies, because it is itself the light, so God needs nothing from others, because He is Himself in possession of all good. We can only give Him what we have already received from Him. God is the Creator of the whole world, of heaven, earth, and sea. He is also the King and Lord of all, and has made all things outside of Himself subject to certain fixed laws. The earth is subject to fixed laws. It goes round the sun in three hundred and sixty-five and a quarter days, and revolves on its own axis in twenty-four hours. All the heavenly bodies move according to fixed laws, so that we can foretell eclipses of the sun and moon, etc.; there* are laws which regulate all the material things on the face of the earth. Plants, trees, and animals have their growth and development governed by stated laws. The actions of reasonable beings are also governed by laws, which, however, by reason of their free will, they are able to disobey. The penalties for transgression are laid down by almighty God. God is the King of kings, the eternal King (Tob. xiii. 6). The majesty of the greatest of earthly kings is but a feeble and faint reflection of the majesty of God. Hence we are bound to obey Him, because He is our King and He will have all subject to Him, either willingly in this life, or against their will to their eternal misery.
2. We cannot see God, because He is a spirit, i.e., a being without body, immortal, possessed of intellect and free will.
Our Lord says: “God is a spirit, and they that adore Him must adore Him in spirit and in truth” (John iv. 24). It is because God is a spirit that the Jews were strictly forbidden to make any image of Him (Exod. xx. 4). God cannot be seen by man; there is a veil between us and God. We cannot see the stars during the day, but only when darkness comes on. So we cannot see God during the day of our life on earth, but only when the darkness of death comes over us. In this life God is a hidden God (Is. xlv. 15). He inhabits the in accessible light (1 Tim. vi. 16).
Yet God has often assumed visible forms.
Thus He appeared to Abraham as a traveller, at the baptism of Our Lord under the form of a dove, and in the shape of tongues of fire at Pentecost. But the external form under which God appeared was not God Himself. In the same way we often read of the eyes, ears, etc., of God; but this is only to impress upon us the fact that God sees us, hears us, etc.
3. There is one God, and one only.
The most perfect being in the world must be only one. The tallest tree in the wood is but one. To say that there are more Gods than one is like saying that there can be more than one soul in a human body, or more than one captain on a ship. Even the pagan Greeks and Romans honored one god as supreme among the rest. The plurality of gods probably arose from the plurality of the forces of nature (such as thunder, lightning, fire, etc.), which filled the beholders with fear, and caused them to adore these forces as gods. Or it may have arisen from the deification of heroes, or from the power of the evil spirits which, having attracted notice, caused them to be worshipped as gods.