Athanasius of Alexandria (299 – 373 AD), now a canonized saint in the Roman Catholic Church, wrote On the Incarnation (c. 335). In this book, Athanasius sets forth the Nicene doctrine of Incarnation in great detail. To do so though, he needs to talk of matters theological ranging from creation to resurrection.
St. A takes a very dim view of the course of human development since ‘the fall’:
“…From the beginning they were inventors of evil and called death and corruption down upon themselves; while later, turning to vice and exceeding all lawlessness, not stopping at one evil but contriving in time every new evil, they became insatiable in sinning.”
Yes, but tell us how you really feel…
Athanasius ascribes this moral debacle to a failure to know God:
“But human beings, again being foolish…so turned away from God…that they not only forgot the concept of God but also…fabricated idols for themselves…and honored beings which do not exist rather than God who is…”
“They were so impious that they even thereafter worshipped demons and called them gods…”
“…All ascribed the causes of their coming to be and being to the stars and to the heavenly bodies, taking thought for nothing more than the appearances.”
This astounds Athanasius, seeing that God has provided us with 3, and ultimately 4, ‘fool proof’ ways to know him.
First, through Christ, God made us “according to his own image and according to the likeness”. Regardless of exactly how you understand this, it clearly means that we can discover God through nothing other than penetrating self-analysis. To know yourself, really know, is to discover God, your pattern or template.
In a slightly earlier work, Against the Gentiles (AG), Athanasius wrote: “He (God) also fashioned the human being to be perceptive and understanding of reality through his similarity to himself (God), giving him also a conception and knowledge of his own eternity, so that preserving this identity he might never abandon his concept of God.”
“…Purity of soul is sufficient to behold, through itself, God as the Lord himself said, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.’”
In other words, we need look no farther than ourselves for knowledge of the Supreme Being. This must be great news for the ‘I’m spiritual but not religious’ crowd. In fact, however, that assertion itself is suspicious.
If ‘being spiritual’ includes ‘being introspective’ (per Athanasius), then the resulting self-knowledge would automatically entail a knowledge of God which in turn would engender respect for the liturgies that honor God (aka ‘religion’). Their offhanded dismissal of religion suggests that our ‘spiritual’ friends may not be quite as spiritual as they claim; but that is not for us to judge.
For my part, I have known a number of people who I recognize as ‘spiritual’ who chose to pursue their spirituality outside the context of any formal religion. To a person, however, their spirituality led them to a deep respect for the world’s religions and their liturgies.
Second, “if they cared not to recognize God through themselves, through the works of creation they might not be ignorant of the Creator”. God has left the key to his identity at the bottom of every human heart…and now, we learn, in the external world as well:
“So they could, lifting up their sight to the greatness of heaven and discerning the harmony of creation, know its ruler, the Word of the Father…so that through him all might know God.”
In his Introduction, C.S. Lewis quoted Athanasius’ earlier work, Against the Gentiles, “…Human beings could still have learned about God through their sense perception, for ‘he so ordered creation that although he cannot be seen by nature, yet he can be known by his works’.”
According to Nicene theology, “God, the Father almighty, (is) creator of heaven and earth and all things visible and invisible.” But it is through Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, that “all things were made”. Christ is the Word of God, the Logos. As such, he is ‘order’ per se and, as partner with the Father in creation, the Word of God imposes that order on creation.
Therefore, to recognize the orderly nature of the cosmos is to recognize the Word of God, the Logos. So attention to the created world will also reveal the existence and essence of God.
“Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made.” (Romans, 1:20)
Athanasius had in mind the awesome majesty of the physical world and the exquisite order of its processes. Today, we are somewhat less impressed by physical beauty and natural order than folks were in the 4th century. With the advent of science, we can now ‘explain’ what was previously considered a ‘mystery’.
Yet the perceived conflict between ‘wonder’ and ‘understanding’ is just the tragic result of the hijacking of science by positivism. Science, which should have blown the roof off of human imagination, instead has been press-ganged into serving the interests of folks with an explicitly anti-theistic agenda.
In fact, an understanding of the process of evolution or the workings of human reproduction should only amplify our wonder. Who can successfully suppress a grin when learning about Schrodinger’s Cat, Everett’s Many Worlds Interpretation or Bell’s Theorem (quantum entanglement) for the first time?
Knowing ‘how it is’ (science) should not diminish our wonder ‘that it is’ and has nothing to do with ‘why it is’ (philosophy/theology). Mechanism is not meaning!
For more than 2 millennia (500 BC – 1700 AD), science and theology thrived side-by-side, asking and answering different but complimentary questions. Pope Sylvester II (999 – 1003), was not only the leader of the Christian world; he was also thought to be the premier scientist of his time.
Third, genuine seekers can come to know God through the Law (Torah) and the Prophets, “…so that if they shrank from looking up to the heavens and knowing the creator, they might have instruction from those close by.”
The Book of Psalms opens with the words: “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in company with scoffers. Rather the law of the Lord is his joy; and on his law he meditates day and night.”
The role of the Prophet is to call sinners (or society generally) back to observance of the law.
“…The sacred and divinely inspired Scriptures are sufficient for the exposition of the truth…” (AG)
The Law of the Lord (‘written Torah’) is a projection of natural law (‘oral Torah’) onto human social order and behavior. The values of Beauty, Truth, Justice and Harmony that constitute the Torah are the same values we recognize in our study of the celestial bodies and the same values we discover at the bottom of our human hearts.
We are accustomed to think of human behavior as a function of subjective intent: good people will do good things. But there is plenty of evidence that the reverse can be true as well. Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, has an expression, “Fake it ‘til you make it.” If you have not yet internalized sobriety, practice it anyway and eventually you’ll find you do have a desire to stay sober after all.
The same is true with virtue. If you have not recognized God in your heart or in the firmament, you may still follow the law as laid out in the Torah. As you practice virtue, you may find that you have become virtuous; and when you are truly and deeply virtuous, you will encounter and know God for God is Good.
“…One wishing to comprehend the mind of the theologians (the four evangelists) must first wash and cleanse his soul by his manner of life, and approach the saints themselves by the imitation of their works, so that being with them in the conduct of a common life, he may understand also the things revealed to them…”
We are made in the image and likeness of God and therefore we can discover God’s essential nature at the core of our own nature. We are surrounded by a natural order that reflects God’s nature and we have the intellectual tools to explore that natural order. Finally, we been given the Law; living our lives in conformity with that Law can also lead us to a recognition of God’s essential nature.
Fourth, since all this has still proven not to be enough for some, God offers us a 4th way to know him – through the Incarnation of his Son.
If we cannot recognize God in our own nature, the image and likeness of the divine essence, and if we cannot recognize God in the order and majesty of his created cosmos, and if we cannot recognize God in the justice and righteousness of his law (Torah), perhaps we may recognize God in a fellow human being, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.
Christ is the image of the Father. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9) If we cannot see God in the image and likeness that is our essential nature, perhaps we will recognize the likeness of the Father in his Son.
Christ is the Word of God “through whom all things we made.” (Nicene Creed)
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.” (John 1:1-3)
If we cannot recognize God’s Word in his works, perhaps we will recognize the Word in human form.
Finally, if we cannot recognize God in the Torah, or even in the Great Commandment, perhaps we may recognize God in the Final Commandment, “Love one another as I love you.” (John 15:12)
“…He (the Son, God’s Word) is Wisdom-in-himself…Truth-in-himself, Righteousness-in-himself, Virtue-in-himself.”
Surely, we cannot fail to recognize this! Yet sadly, John tells us, “He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, but the world did not know him.” (John 1:10)
Athanasius’ On the Incarnation is a full semester course in Christian epistemology. How do we come to know things and, more specifically, how do we come to know God? First, we come to know God through introspection; second, we come to know God through our awareness of the external world; third we come to know God through the practice of his Law of love; and finally, we come to know God through our encounter with a specific human being, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, “the Word made flesh”.