If we are honest with ourselves, it is a complaint that is often on our hearts: Jesus, if you exist, let me see you. We are creatures of the senses. We salivate with delight at the smell of fresh turkey roasting in the oven. Our being wants to burst with solemnity when we hear a beautiful piece of music. To be simply touched by someone we love stirs in us a veritable cornucopia of emotions, sentiments, thoughts, desires, etc. The first sip and scent of a full bodied St Bernardus Abt 12 will sometimes immediately give us a foretaste of heavenly realities with the faint voice of angelic chanting in the background. The senses are essential to being human, and we are right to emphasize their importance in our lives.
Yet they seem to be a hindrance to our life of faith. The Father is invisible. Jesus has ascended to the right hand of the Father. The Spirit is among us, but we do not see Him either. The angels themselves, too, are invisible since they are without bodies. All that we are told is real cannot be apprehended through our senses. Thus we believe faith is in some great unknown, we believe it is present to us, but we have never truly experienced it, we simply trust that this invisible and insensible reality is there and attempt to act on the probability that this reality actually exists. In the end, we customarily see that faith is in something unobservable and thus, thanks to the Kantian overtones of our contemporary world, irrational. Our hearts cry out to see God, but, deep down, we find Him to be absent, unobservable, and thus unreal. The desire to see, experience, hear, and encounter God seems to run up against our day to day experience and life. And we are more apt to trust our senses than some pie in the sky idea like God. So we go to Church, we say devotions, but, in the end, we don’t truly believe in the reality of God. Many of us, in the end, are practical atheists.
Yet, there is hope! If God is real, if we have a desire to see this reality, and, finally, if God created us, then it must mean that if He is real, there must be a way to see Him, for, if our understanding of God is true, then He the desire to see him must be given to us by Him to be truly fulfilled in our lives. How, then, do we overcome this modern view of faith as something in the invisible and, therefore, unreal? How is it that God is able to be seen and experienced if He is non-corporeal? The contemporary demand to see God is one that screams forth from the depths of our being, and thus must be answered in a convincing manner.
The first element that must be proposed – for it is the total basis for everything else we are to say on the matter – is the reality of God’s interaction with the world. When one studies the Old Testament, especially the Pentateuch, one is able to observe the sensible way God manifests Himself to the people of Israel. He is manifested through a pillar of fire, the wind, lightning and thunder, booming trumpets, etc. Even the word for God’s glory – kabod - has a sense that God is sensible: His glory has weight, measure, dimension, visibleness. The glory of God, the manifestness of God, the visibleness and sensibleness of God culminates when He sends His Son into the world. Jesus Christ is the Image and Face of the Father. He who sees Jesus sees the Father. We have seen His glory (cf: Jn 1:14). The first letter of John makes this abundantly clear: what we have seen, what we have touched, what we have witnessed, etc. There is an emphasis that God has manifested Himself fully to us in the Person of His Son, and that we know this through our sensible encounter with Him. In fact, all of Scripture is a witness to the historical fact that God has manifested Himself through the created realm and that, in fact, the created realm is made for God for when God comes, He does no act of violence over the world, but instead is the One in whom the whole natural realm is fulfilled. In short: creation is good and God uses it to encounter us, for we are creatures with soul and body and thus, in order to know the truth of things, we must observe it through the sensibleness of our bodies.
“This is all well and good, but that is in the past. My question still remains: how do I see God now? Why doesn’t He manifest Himself like He once did? Jesus may have been visible to his disciples, but if He exists, why doesn’t He make Himself present to us now?” Thus sayeth the objector. And it is a strong objection, one we all struggle to give an answer to, because, as we stated at the beginning, a part of us finds such a point to not only be valid, but true.
Having heard the objection and seeing the persuasiveness about it, it is time to begin (and we will continue to investigate this in a future post) our understanding of what faith is. In order for faith to be in something real and is the response of one’s whole being to a Person Who is real and alive in our lives, we must first shake off the Kantian lens by which we approach the world, for God can only be encountered when we first and foremost understand the sacramental structure of reality, a structure that, when we apply our minds to daily experience, we see to be true and correct.
The first act of developing a new optics, a new vision of the world, is to ask yourself the question: what happens when I see a thing. If I were to ask any contemporary person “what is a tree”, they would almost instinctively say that a tree is a wooded structure with leaves, bark, that grows vertically, etc. They would not be entirely wrong in such a description, for these are all aspects of a tree. But a tree need not be growing, it need not have leaves, etc. A descriptive view of the tree is insufficient. Furthermore, each aspect does not account for the totality of the tree itself. The tree is not its wood – despite the fact that woodiness is so very essential to a tree being a tree. Nor is the tree its branches, its leaves, its height, depth, weight, etc. When it comes down to it, we discover that descriptive definitions are good and true, but they are insufficient for accounting for the total reality of the thing. A tree is more than its branches, leaves, weight, height, etc. In the end, the sum is always greater than the total of its parts. Our experience affirms this and, when given sufficient thought, we know this to be true as well: the totality of the thing we call “tree” is greater than all its aspects combined.
The next question then arises: how do we define the nature of a thing? If it is not descriptive, then what means do we have for defining the nature of a tree when we are so asked to define it? This we shall answer in our next post in the following day or two. You may think me crazy for asking such blatantly philosophical questions; what has Athens to do with Jerusalem anyways? But these are very important for answering that desire of our heart to see Jesus. The method to my madness is simple: if God has taken on our humanity, He has also taken on the totality of creation to dwell in the infinite exchange of love that is Trinitarian life. Thus, in order to ascend to the heights of God’s life, we must start from the bottom wrung of the latter of divine ascent. We must ask these fundamental questions because it is only by answering them that we will see not only that the created realm is made for God Himself, but that the Catholic vision of things will open us up to really see God, to taste, touch, and hear Him. But this is only possible if we understand the fundamental way we relate to the world and that all things, ultimately, are signs and that we see the world in a mediated way. All this is important and, when properly unpacked, can help us answer the desirous cry of our heart: “I want to see Jesus!”.