So far we have covered the beginning of the Creed, and we have covered the words: “I believe in God.” The next concept is the Father Almighty. And Monsignor Knox uses this to take a look at the problem of suffering. People struggle with the fact that a loving God who is Almighty doesn’t seem to fit with the suffering that we see in the world today. The objection is that either God is not loving or he is not Almighty, if he were then these things wouldn’t happen to good people.
Monsignor Knox suggests that when we have these types of reactions, we are being driven more by the feelings of the heart than the reasonings of the brain. He uses the example of when we lose a loved one. In our grief, we ask could God have prevented this from happening? And if he couldn’t then he’s not almighty God. And if he could but he didn’t, then he is certainly not my loving father.
That’s the nature of our emotional response to suffering. So Monsignor Knox clarifies what we mean when we say that God is Almighty. And what we mean is that he is Almighty in the sense that no limits can be imposed on him by anything outside of him. In our earlier discussion about how he is the first cause, we concluded that unless we are going to accept the absurdity of endless causes, there must be an uncaused case, which we understand is God, the First Mover. From that starting point, we understand that nothing can happen unless in some sense God wills it. So he is not powerless to prevent human suffering. And because God is a god of order, he will not do anything that is against reason. That’s the principle of noncontradiction that we discussed last week. For example, God couldn’t create two equal sized things and it also be true that one of them was larger than the other. So that limit is imposed by God himself on himself: that he doesn’t create illogical absurdities. And part of why that makes sense is because God is truth. And it is untrue that two things can be equal sized and yet one is larger than the other. That’s the kind of illogical absurdity that God limits himself from participating in.
Monsignor Knox looks at the term “father” and says that it comes chiefly from the teaching of Jesus, who said: “your father who is in heaven” and other similar phrases frequently in the Gospels. God is our father in the sense that he knows us intimately. We read in the scriptures that “your father who sees what is done in secret” for example. Our Father takes an interest in every detail of his creation as Jesus shows when he talks about how a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without the father’s will.
And the father’s care for his creation is not dependent on whether or not his creation cares for him. We read statements such as “he makes the sun to rise on the evil and the good” and that “he sends his rain on the just and the unjust.” His sense of fatherly care is brought home certainly when Jesus makes the point by saying that what kind of father would give a stone to his son when the son asks for bread, how much more will your heavenly father give gifts to those who ask for them.
Now the modern image of father is a bit different from the ancient image of father. In the ancient world, a father had tremendous power over his family and his authority was such that in certain circumstances he had the right to take his children’s lives. That kind of authority shocks us today. Today, in contrast, kids kind of think that Daddy’s job to spend his life getting them treats and other good things, to entertain them when they’re little, and then to do other things to earn their affection as they grow older.
Monsignor Knox is of course, as an ordained Catholic priest, a bachelor. So he thinks this providing treats aspect of being a father is a bit overdone. He points out that this type of fathering produces a spoiled child, and if we don’t like spoiled milk why would we like spoiled children? In contrast to that kind of father, our heavenly father is training us. He’s giving us absolutely what we need, which may not be everything we asked for, because he wants us to mature and not end up being selfish and conceited and lazy. Remember when we talked about the vice of sloth, it mostly meant for St. Thomas Aquinas a spiritual laziness, a willingness to give God a half-hearted response. God does not want that kind of response. God is turning us into the kind of people that he wants us to be. And Monsignor Knox says if he didn’t do that, then he wouldn’t really be our true father would he?
Monsignor Knox reminds the girls at the school of original sin and the Fall, which hopefully is stuff you remember from our long examination of those things. When our father gave us free will, one consequence of that was it gave us the freedom to interfere with somebody else’s life. So a lot of the suffering that we see is suffering imposed upon one human being by another human being. And God cannot give us the freedom to hurt one another without giving us at the same time the opportunity to be hurt. This again is one of those examples where God is a god of logic and order, which means that all the various possible outcomes of exercising freedom must exist. If free will is to be truly free, it must be free to choose God’s way or the other way. As Monsignor Knox puts it, he lets us do harm to one another, because if he didn’t, the gift of Free Will would become meaningless.
Now that doesn’t address the kind of suffering where an earthquake destroys a perfectly fine town, and the monsignor concedes that point. Remember from our discussion of Catholic thinking that there are multiple causes of a thing? One cause is the “final” cause, which is the purpose or end of the thing. In the case of natural disasters like earthquakes, we need to look not at the efficient cause, the agent who caused the thing, but instead at the final cause, the reason why it exists. He argues that suffering can be good for us because it is a discipline that we need; it helps us turn into the kind of people God wants us to be. And what does he want? He wants us to be detached from earthly things, and it would be hard for us to be like that if we always got our own way. He wants us to learn patience, and how should we learn patience if we never had anything we had to endure? He wants us to trust him completely, and the very condition of such trust as that is that we won’t know and we don’t need to know why he treats us as he does. He wants us to be humble, and how would we cultivate humility, if our plans always went right.
Monsignor Knox then says something which is a bit difficult : suffering is a debt which we owe to God in satisfaction for our sins, as the punishment for our sins. Since God made us not only as human beings but also moral beings, then we have not only a free will but we are responsible for the choices that we make. And if those choices are bad then we have to atone for it. And this leads him to the concept of purgatory. As Monsignor Knox puts it, we have to settle our score with God, before we get to Heaven by undergoing suffering while we’re alive, or in purgatory after we’re dead.
He argues that a loving father would say to his child that because you are my child I am not going to treat you as a dumb animal to be pushed around unwillingly by this and that. We were made in God’s image with intellect and will, and he gave us free will to choose him or not. He made donkeys with instinct but not intellect, and he gave us dominion of donkeys and all the other non-human parts of his creation.
Monsignor Knox thinks that our loving father in Heaven says to us, “My desire is that your will be made one with mine; and in order that this may happen, your will must accept from me the punishment your sins have deserved. When you and I Meet in Heaven all the roughness will be made smooth and there will be no distance between you and me. As a punished sinner, you will fit in naturally in an order of things where my will is perfectly obeyed.”
This is the problem of suffering. As we mature in our Christian faith, we must get to the point where we want to suffer because we want to be like Christ. And if we think about it, that’s one of the reasons why our lady is such a great model. Her life was not easy was it? She suffered with her son his entire life, especially at the end as he hung on the cross. Mary stayed with Jesus; she was not only his mother, she was his best disciple.
We are in the season of Lent, and so many of us are participating in the pious tradition of the Stations of the Cross. That is sometimes called by its Latin title, Via Dolorosa, or the Way of Sorrows, or the Way of Suffering. Think of all the suffering depicted in that prayer walk. This was the way that Christ modeled for us, and Jesus is the Son of God. Our Heavenly Father wants us to be like his Son, who suffered on the way to the Cross. Out of his love for us, and his desire for us to become more like his Son, the Father Almighty sends us opportunities to suffer.
Embracing suffering is really where our Christian faith gets challenged and finally perfected. The less we complain about suffering, the closer we are to Christ. The quicker we respond to suffering with, “As the Master desires” or “it’s for my purification” the closer we are to Christ. Our Christian walk is ultimately a Via Dolorosa, but a Way of Suffering that is filled with Joy because we finally understand the final cause of suffering: to get us to Heaven and be with our Almighty Father.
Maker of Heaven and Earth
The next phrase is: Maker of heaven and Earth. And Monsignor Knox reminds the girls that God was utterly self-sufficient and had no need of making anything. The Trinity reveals the communion of love that is God. And so while God is one, he is three persons and therefore he is never alone. He certainly didn’t need us. He was complete. So why did he make heaven and Earth? That’s the question. And one attractive theory offered by theologians is this: God is good, and it is the nature of goodness to diffuse itself – to spread itself out – into overflow. So perhaps God uses creation as a kind of reservoir for the overflow of his inexhaustible love.
And Monsignor Knox makes sure we distinguish between creating as what God does, and what we do when we say we create something. He points out that building a rabbit hutch isn’t creating anything, it’s merely rearranging things that already existed. The closest we can come to creating, he argues, is when we write a poem. Anyone who has ever tried to write a poem and writes one that’s any good has the sense that something has come into existence and that the world of literature is a little bit better than it was before that poem came into existence. That’s about as close as Humanity can come to God’s creativity.
The next bit is what do we mean when we say that he is maker of heaven and Earth? Monsignor Knox argues that we don’t just mean the stars in the sky. He reminds us that when we look at an iceberg we are only seeing a very small part of the fullness of that iceberg. And in the same way, with all of our scientific technology and ability to explore the universe, we are only seeing just a tiny little bit of what God has created. Science can’t see the angels, but God has revealed to us that they exist. And Monsignor Knox argues that it seems logical that if God made embodied animals without spirits like bunny rabbits, and he made embodied animals that do have spirits like human beings, then it’s perfectly logical that he might have made beings that have spirits but no bodies. And that is what angels are. So, angels do not defy the logic behind science even if physical science cannot detect them. Just because our microscopes cannot see angels does not mean they do not exist.
Monsignor Knox reminds us that God made Heaven and Earth for us. The creatures that God made exist to remind us of him and to make us think how much greater the maker must be then the things he has made. So when we think of some immensely powerful force such as a tidal wave or a tornado, at some point in our thinking about them, we should know that they are nothing compared to the power of God. Knox says that creatures exist so that we can make a right and wise use of them. He’s getting at the moment in Scripture when God gave Adam and Eve dominion over the creation. We have a standard of care for everything else that God has made. And he’s getting at the virtue of temperance, that we should learn to mortify ourselves and discipline our appetites instead of being selfish about the things that God has made. Because at the end of the day, the things that God has made will not truly satisfy us. Only God will truly satisfy us, for we were for him.