Renewing Families through Intercession
One Can Know God by the natural light of Human Reason
In our last catechesis, we said that faith is conditioned by revelation and that revelation comes before faith. We therefore will have to try to clarify the notion and verify the reality of revelation (following the Constitution Dei Verbum of the Second Vatican Council). However, before this, we wish to concentrate on the subject of faith, that is, on the person who says "I believe," thus responding to God who "in his goodness and wisdom" has willed to "reveal himself to man."
Even before a person utters "I believe," he already has some concept of God that he has acquired by the effort of his intellect. Treating of divine revelation, the Constitution Dei Verbum recalls this fact in the following words: "As a sacred Synod has affirmed, 'God, the beginning and end of all things, can be known with certainty from created reality by the light of human reason'" (cf. Rom 1:20) (DV 6).
Vatican II is here recalling the doctrine fully presented by the preceding Council, Vatican I. It is in keeping with the whole doctrinal tradition of the Church, which is rooted in Sacred Scripture, in both the Old and the New Testaments.
1. Recognized through what he has made
A classic text on the subject of the possibility of knowing God - his existence, first of all - from created things is found in St. Paul's Letter to the Romans: "Whatever can be known about God is clear to them: he himself made it so. Since the creation of the world, invisible realities, God's eternal power and divinity, have become visible, recognized through the things he has made. Therefore they are inexcusable" (Rom 1:19-21). The Apostle has in mind here people who "in this perversity of theirs hinder the truth" (Rom 1:18). Sin draws them away from giving glory due to God, whom every person is able to know. He is able to know God's existence and even, to a certain extent, his essence, his perfections and his attributes. The invisible God becomes in a certain way "recognized through the things he has made."
In the Old Testament, the Book of Wisdom proclaims the same doctrine as the Apostle. It speaks about the possibility of arriving at a knowledge of the existence of God from created things. This teaching is found in a somewhat lengthy passage which we would do well to read in its entirety:
"For all those were by nature foolish who were in ignorance of God, and who from the good things seen did not succeed in knowing him who is, and from studying the works did not discern the artisan.
"But either fire, or wind, or the swift air, or the circuit of the stars, or the mighty water, or the luminaries of heaven, the governors of the world, they considered gods. Now if out of joy in their beauty they thought them gods, let them know how far more excellent is the Lord than these; for the original source of beauty fashioned them.
"Or if they were struck by their might and energy, let them from these things realize how much more powerful is he who made them.
"For from the greatness and the beauty of created things their original author, by analogy, is seen.
"But yet, for these the blame is less; for they indeed have gone astray perhaps, though they seek God and wish to find him.
"For they search busily among his works, but are distracted by what they see, because the things seen are fair. But again, not even these are pardonable. For if they so far succeeded in their knowledge that they could speculate about the world, how did they not more quickly find its Lord?" (Wis 13:1-9).
2. No explanation without First Principle
We find the main thought of this passage also in St. Paul's Letter to the Romans (1:18-21). God can be known through creation - the visible world constitutes for the human intellect the basis for affirming the existence of the invisible Creator. The passage from the Book of Wisdom is fuller. The inspired author argues with the paganism of his time, which attributed divine glory to some creatures. At the same time, he offers us some elements for reflection and judgment that can be valid for every era, including our own. He speaks of the enormous effort expended to learn about the visible universe. He speaks also of those who "seek God and wish to find him." He asks why human wisdom, which enables man to "speculate about the world," does not come to know its Lord. The author of the Book of Wisdom - as St. Paul did - sees some blame in this. But we will have to return to this theme separately.
For now, let us too ask: how is it possible that the immense progress in the knowledge of the universe (the macrocosm and the microcosm), its laws and its happenings, its structures and its energies, does not lead everyone to recognize the First Principle, without whom the world cannot be explained? We will have to examine the difficulties which many people today stumble into. Yet we joyfully note that even today, many true scientists find precisely in scientific knowledge a stimulus to believe, or at least to bow before the mystery.
3. Man's intellect
Following Tradition, which has its roots in Sacred Scripture of the Old and New Testaments, the Church, in the nineteenth century during the First Vatican Council, recalled and confirmed the doctrine on the possibility with which the human intellect is endowed to know God through creation. In our century, the Second Vatican Council recalled this doctrine anew in the context of the Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum). This takes on great importance.
Divine revelation is indeed at the basis of faith, of man's "I believe." At the same time, the passages of Sacred Scripture in which this revelation is found, teach us that man is capable of knowing God by reason alone. He is capable of a certain "knowledge" about God, even though it is indirect and not immediate. Therefore, alongside the "I believe" we find a certain "I know." This "I know" concerns the existence of God and even, to a certain extent, his essence. This intellectual knowledge of God is systematically treated by a science called "natural theology," which is of a philosophical nature and springs from metaphysics, that is, the philosophy of being. It focuses on the knowledge of God as the First Cause, and also as the Last End of the universe. These questions, as well as the vast philosophical discussion connected with them, cannot be examined within the limits of a brief instruction on the truths of faith. Neither do we intend to take up here in a detailed way those "ways" that guide the human mind in the search for God (the "Quinque viae" [five ways] of St. Thomas Aquinas). For this catechesis of ours, it is sufficient to keep in mind that the sources of Christianity speak of the possibility of a rational knowledge of God. Therefore, according to the Church, all our thinking about God, based on faith, also has a "rational" and "intellective" character. Even atheism lies within the sphere of a certain reference to the concept of God. If it denies the existence of God, it must also know whose existence it is denying.
It is clear that knowledge through faith differs from purely rational knowledge. Nevertheless God would not have been able to reveal himself to the human race if it were not already naturally capable of knowing something true about God. Therefore, alongside and in addition to an "I know," which is proper to man's intellect, there is an "I believe," proper to the Christian. With faith the believer has access, even if obscurely, to the mystery of the intimate life of God who reveals himself.
General Audience March 20, 1985