By Father Kenneth Baker, SJ
Up until now we have been talking about our natural knowledge of God. For the Catholic there is also another way to know God; it is called our supernatural knowledge of God. In this type of knowing the human mind is elevated by the grace of God to a new dimension so that it knows by divine faith. The source of the mind’s knowledge is God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. What is known or the object of this knowledge is the triune God himself, just as he is. Through the supernatural gift of faith we know mysteries hidden in God from all eternity and we know them with infallible certitude based on the authority of God himself.
The life of grace in this world is a preliminary stage and a preparation for the glory and happiness God has in store for us in the next life. Christian, supernatural faith on earth is in orientation to the immediate vision of God in heaven. In a certain sense, faith is a kind of anticipation of the vision of God in the world to come.
Knowledge acquired by faith, of course, remains imperfect, because the basic truths of faith, such as the Trinity — three Persons in one God, are beyond the comprehension of human reason. In this regard we might reflect on those words of St. Paul: “We walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7); and, “Now we are seeing a dim reflection in a mirror; but then we shall be seeing face to face” (1 Cor 13:12).
If our knowledge of God in this life suffers from a lack of clarity, what can we say about the saints in heaven right now, such as St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Teresa, St. Elizabeth Seton and all the rest? Are they any better off than we are? The Church teaches infallibly that the blessed in heaven possess an immediate intuitive knowledge of the divine essence, that is, of God as he is in himself. God shows himself to them nakedly, clearly and openly; they do not know him indirectly through reflections or images, but immediately as he is in himself. Describing that future state, St. John says, “We shall be like to him because we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn 3:2).
In describing this mystery Church documents and theologians often use the words “immediate vision” of God. God of course, since he is absolute Spirit and infinitely removed from matter, cannot be seen with the eyes of the body, either in this life or with the eyes of the glorified body after the resurrection. The words “vision” and “light” refer to understanding or seeing with the mind. Literally, they do not “see” God the way we look at a sunset or a beautiful painting; it is more like grasping with the mind, as when we understand that 2 plus 2 equals 4.
It is important to stress that the immediate vision of God in heaven exceeds the natural power of cognition of the human soul and is therefore supernatural. This is a truth of faith that was solemnly proclaimed by the Council of Vienne in the year 1312. God is infinite; man is finite. In the beatific vision God shows himself to man in an embrace of love. Love by its very nature must be free; it cannot be demanded. The immediate vision of God is a gift that absolutely transcends the natural power of every created intellect, man and angel, and therefore it is wholly supernatural. The Bible says the same thing. In 1 Tim 6:16 we read that God lives “in inaccessible light no man has seen him and no man is able to see him.” At the end of his prologue St. John says: “No one has ever seen God; it is the only Son, who is nearest to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (I:18).
The reason for man’s inability to see God immediately is the weakness of his intellect. We can know things only according to the power of our mind. Anything that exists on a higher level than our mind is out of reach, so to speak. Since God is infinite and we are finite, he is out of reach. We find something similar in certain animals who are superior to man in one area. Thus, elephants are stronger than we are, dogs hear much better, eagles see farther and so forth. In order to see God, therefore, the mind must be elevated to the realm of God.
That elevation takes place in this life through divine grace and in the next life through what is called “the light of glory.” The light of glory is necessary for man in order to attain to the immediate vision of God. St. Thomas Aquinas says that it consists in a lasting, supernatural perfecting (=habit) of the human power of cognition through which it is inwardly strengthened for the vital act of the immediate vision of God. The expression “light of glory,” which first appears in the writings of St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas, is based on the interpretation of Psalm 35:9: “Yes, with you is the fountain of life, by your light we see the light.”
Do the saints in heaven fully understand God or comprehend him? Both the Bible and Church documents repeat that God is incomprehensible to the created intellect, even after the light of glory has been granted to it by the grace of God. Since God is infinite being, his knowability is inexhaustible. This means that the saints in heaven can always know more about God for all eternity and still there will always remain more to know. It is rather simple: the finite mind cannot comprehend infinite being. The finite spirit, which is man, can understand the infinite essence of God in a finite manner only. We can sum up the above by saying: The blessed in heaven know the infinite God, but they do not know him infinitely.
Next Week: What’s in a Name? “The purpose of a name is to signify what a thing is.”