It is an unfortunate and terrifying catechesis that presents God as a being whose happiness is indifferent to my existence.
Over the course of my career as a Catholic apologist, I have frequently lamented the fact that the Catholic Faith has often been poorly taught. Sometimes this poverty of catechesis is easily illustrated, as when unsanctioned “catechisms” teach actual heresy such as Jansenism or Pelagianism. But there is a more subtle problem: catechisms and doctrinal formation programs can be so myopically focused on one aspect of doctrine that they lose sight of others. An overemphasis on one doctrinal aspect, while not technically incorrect, can have shattering repercussions on a person’s concept of God.
Tragically, the way in which catechetics expresses God’s happiness and love sometimes falls into this category. Specifically, the concept is advanced that God—whose happiness is perfect without me—is essentially indifferent as to whether I exist.
Is that the case?
Before we begin to investigate questions about God’s love and happiness, a disclaimer of sorts is necessary.
Analogies and God
So often, when we speak of God and heavenly things, we use analogy. The reasons we do so are obvious: analogies help us understand similarities between things (“A is like B”). Problem is, analogies can be aggravatingly imperfect, because when we attempt to address certain questions, our minds almost reflexively impose comparisons on things that are difficult to compare. For instance, in order to gain an understanding of infinity, we intuitively start by thinking about time. But while time and infinity are not exactly opposites, they are remarkably unsimilar.
Nothing is more difficult to analogize than God and his attributes. For instance: How is God’s eternity similar to my birthday? How is God’s omniscience similar to my limited knowledge? How is God’s love similar to my love? There may be some distant similarity, but when you start making such comparisons, they begin to sound ridiculous. This is one of the reasons that theology is such a difficult science, and why theologians often turn to poetics for explanation.
In the realm of theology—a science that not only deserves but demands precision—it can be a fool’s errand to mix ingredients like time and infinity, potency and act, and foreknowledge and chronology, but it can be nevertheless necessary to fold poetry into prose to illustrate theological realities. Similarly, in the philosopher’s search for truth and beauty, it does not betray Aristotle to employ the methods of Plato; quite the contrary, poetry can clarify what is often blurred in prose—a point confirmed by Boethius, who felt the need to write the “Consolation of Philosophy” in both.
With those disclaimers out of the way, let’s return to our initial question.
God’s perfect happiness and omniscience
God is not a contingent being—that is, he does not rely on anything for his existence or for his happiness. He is perfect and perfectly happy; nothing I can do can take away his happiness. To deny that fact is to deny the nature of God.
An understanding of God’s love for me does not end with this observation; rather, it begins here. Because alongside God’s perfect happiness occurs God’s omniscience. And when we look at these attributes together, we can see things more clearly.
We can look at it this way. God has always known that I would be born. If God is—as Pope Francis suggests—a “God of surprises,” it is never God who is surprised; it is us. I might have been a surprise to my parents, but I was not a surprise to God. My formation in the womb physically actualized a reality that had been a reality in the mind of God for eternity. God’s omniscience included me.
But it goes beyond the knowledge that I would be born; it is that God has always loved me. As the great Saint Alphonsus Liguori writes,
“God has loved us from all eternity. ‘Children of men,’ says the Lord, ‘remember that I first loved you. You had not yet been born, the world itself did not exist, and even then I loved you.’” —Saint Alphonsus Liguori
The idea of John Clark has existed in the perfectly happy mind of God for eternity. And this, dear reader, is something that you and I share. C. S. Lewis once wrote about the “weight of glory.” That’s it. That’s the weight. That’s the overwhelming glory of being perfectly loved by God for all eternity. Lewis writes,
“To please God… to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness… to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a son—it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is.” —C.S. Lewis
Ingredients in the divine happiness
When I think of this idea, I think of my family, because that is the closest analogy I have. Back in 2008, I had a total of eight children on earth. I love my children and they make me happy. If you asked me then, I would have said that I was a very fulfilled and happy man. But just a year later, we had a ninth child, Mary Katherine. As soon as God graced us with this wonderful child, I could never again imagine life without her.
But God never had to imagine life without her. God has always known that she would be born. God has loved Mary Katherine Clark for all eternity; and what’s more, Mary Katherine constitutes an “ingredient in the divine happiness.”
The wonder of it all is that God loves you, too: yesterday, today, tomorrow, in places and planes both timely and timeless. Our challenge is to accept His grace and love Him back with a poor but sincere reciprocation of the perfect love that God has always had for each one of us.
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