Reflection on the Catholic Catechism: Seeking God in Human Experience
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When we look at human experience, we find that human nature desires what the natural world cannot give. However, this apparent contradiction is not telling us that our nature or desires are misleading us. It is telling us that our nature is to desire the supernatural.
KNOXVILLE, TN (Catholic Online) - When we begin to search for God, we quickly find that there are two ways of coming to know God in creation. The first way is through the physical world, and the second way is through the human person. In this article, I will reflect on the search for God through the human person.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "The human person: with his openness to truth and beauty, his sense of moral goodness, his freedom and the voice of his conscience, with his longings for the infinite and for happiness, man questions himself about God's existence. In all this he discerns signs of his spiritual soul. The soul, the 'seed of eternity we bear in ourselves, irreducible to the merely material,' can have its origin only in God" (CCC 33).
This paragraph is so rich that it will be the entire focus of this article. However, even then, I will only be able to hint at its richness. It references the Vatican II document Gaudium et spes. (The following quotations are taken from the translation on the Vatican website.)
Gaudium et spes says that we are a unity of body and soul. And through man's "bodily composition he gathers to himself the elements of the material world; thus they reach their crown through him, and through him raise their voice in free praise of the Creator" (GS 14).
Human beings are greater than the material world. Persons are more than the mere elements of nature or nameless numbers in the collective of humanity. By virtue of their interior qualities, all persons, at every stage of their lives from conception to their natural end, are greater than the sum of material things.
We can discover that we are more than the sum of material things by looking inward. God, the depth of reality, and our proper destiny can be found in the human heart. When we search our heart and discover in ourselves a spiritual and immortal soul, we are not being "mocked by a fantasy born only of physical or social influences. "Rather, we are "laying hold of the proper truth" (GS 14).
We discern truth with our intellect. In a certain respect, then, our intellect signifies that we surpass the world of material things. This is possible because our intellect dimly reflects the mind of God. Our intellectual nature finds its perfection in wisdom. Wisdom "attracts the mind of man to a quest and a love for what is true and good. Steeped in wisdom, man passes through visible realities to those which are unseen" (GS 15).
The Catechism makes this connection from a slightly different angle. It says, "Truth in words, the rational expression of the knowledge of created and uncreated reality, is necessary to man, who is endowed with intellect" (CCC 2500). But the Catechism does not stop there; it reveals other connections. Our intellect enables us to discern order and harmony in the created world, and we often experience this order and harmony as truth and beauty. Thus, the Catechism calls truth beautiful. It also refers to spiritual and moral beauty.
Truth, beauty, and goodness are interconnected. So it is not difficult to see that moral goodness, conscience, freedom, and our longing for happiness and the infinite are also interconnected and can help us come to know God in creation. Again, I refer to Gaudium et spes.
In the depth of our conscience, we detect a law which is not of our making and which we are compelled to obey. It calls us to love the good and avoid evil. It is a law written by God and placed by Him in the heart of every person. It is so central to our humanity and our destiny that our dignity depends on our obedience to it. "Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor" (GS 16).
However, our obedience to this law only has meaning if we are free to choose the good. "For its part, authentic freedom is an exceptional sign of the divine image within man. For God has willed that man remain 'under the control of his own decisions,' so that he can seek his Creator spontaneously, and come freely to utter and blissful perfection through loyalty to Him. Hence man's dignity demands that he act according to a knowing and free choice that is personally motivated and prompted from within, not under blind internal impulse nor by mere external pressure" (GS 17).
But our freedom has been damaged by sin. As a result, our understanding of freedom has become distorted, and we often use our freedom for perverse and destructive ends. What's more, death has entered the world through sin. The destructive nature of death is the bane of humanity, but it also sheds light on our humanity.
"It is in the face of death that the riddle a human existence grows most acute. Not only is man tormented by pain and by the advancing deterioration of his body, but even more so by a dread of perpetual extinction. He rightly follows the intuition of his heart when he abhors and repudiates the utter ruin and total disappearance of his own person. He rebels against death because he bears in himself an eternal seed which cannot be reduced to sheer matter. All the endeavors of technology cannot calm his anxiety; for prolongation is unable to satisfy that desire for higher life which is inescapably lodged in his breast" (GS 18).
We long for eternal life and happiness. We feel this longing deep within our being. Yet, some people would have us believe that these longings, which reflect the deepest desires of the human heart, cannot be trusted. They tell us that such desires are merely wishful thinking or our collective unconscious. I disagree. I believe specific realities exist that will satisfy the aching hunger caused by these desires.
The Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft sums up this belief in his book, Heaven, The Heart's Deepest Longing.
Dr. Kreeft writes, "Thus the proposition 'every natural, innate desire has a real object' is understood to be true because we understand what a natural desire is and what nature is. Nature is meaningful, teleological, full of design and purpose. It is ecological, arranging a fit between organism and environment, between desire and satisfaction, between appetite and food. 'Nature makes nothing in vain'" (Heaven 228).
When we take a close look at human experience, we find that human nature desires what nature cannot give us, that "our nature contradicts nature," as Dr. Kreeft puts it. However, this apparent contradiction is not telling us that our nature and desires are misleading us. It is telling us that our nature is to desire that which is supernatural, that we are created by God for God.
Michael Terheyden was born into a Catholic family, but that is not why he is a Catholic. He is a Catholic because he believes that truth is real, that it is beautiful and good, and that the fullness of truth is in the Catholic Church. He is greatly blessed to share his faith and his life with his beautiful wife, Dorothy. They have four grown children and three grandchildren.
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