5. How can we speak about God?
(Catechism 39-43, 48-49)
By taking as our starting point the perfections of man and of the other creatures which are a reflection, albeit a limited one, of the infinite perfection of God, we are able to speak about God with all people. We must, however, continually purify our language insofar as it is image-bound and imperfect, realizing that we can never fully express the infinite mystery of God.
This morning, before my only-off-site-school-attending child left with her mother, she asked me a series of questions about animals and plants and, specifically, the carnivorous variety. She said a boy had told her of a plant called a flytrap that ate flies. She wondered why they were. What can you say to the ontological musings of a 7-year-old? When she reaches past facts and material knowledge to grab at causes and purposes, what do you say? I first explained, as best as I could, the science - what the plant gained by eating flies and how it went about its business; then I tackled the Why with a question of my own: Is the world more or less interesting because of the Venus flytrap? And what does this plant teach us about God? It teaches us more than we can know probably, but certainly it shows that he is creative and expresses joy in creating. Certainly it tells us that he is a lover of dappled things. Just as a work of art, a poem or an aria, reflects its creator, so does creation, the natural order, reflect its Creator. Which brings us back to man's capacity for God: We need oceans and mountains and galaxies that we might understand something about depth and breadth and height. It is difficult to know something other than what is. And what we are able to know builds on what we already know. We would be, to some degree, diminished without flytraps.
Of course, beside our ability to know stands our limitations of knowing. Our understanding can only fail to comprehend the One whom the universe cannot contain, He Who Is (as icons have wrapped around the head of Christ). So while we do our best to compass the revelation of God, we must not err by saying too much. For God is also Other, stretching out into and beyond the incomprehensible.
On the other hand, our finiteness does not mean that we can know nothing, that we can only be uncertain, or that our doctrinal formulations/understandings have gotten it wrong. The Church teaches what the Church knows and cannot teach what she does not know. Therefore while our language is imperfect, the truths or realities it communicates doesn't change, though our understanding of those realities may grow. And while our understanding of the deposit of faith that has been delivered to us by Christ through the apostles may grow or mature, the tree conforms to the seed. The acorn does not produce a raccoon.
Let me finish with one of my favorite poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and his praise for "Pied Beauty":
Glory be to God for dappled things -
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced - fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: