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The Divine Attributes Retreat
The Attributes of God
The Knowledge and Wisdom of God
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
We know both by reason and faith that God is a living Being. We also know that he is a pure spirit. In that sense, because God is a spiritual being like us whom he made, he has an intellect and a will. Our focus in this meditation is first of all on the knowledge of God: what God knows in his intellect or mind but also on the wisdom of God. And between the two is this difference. The knowledge of God is what the mind of God, in our terrible human language, contains, what the intellect of God comprehends. The wisdom of God is how God, using his mind, puts his knowledge into practice. You might then say that the knowledge of God is the what and the wisdom of God is the how. The reason we make this distinction is that God is not only infinite in his knowledge but, which makes a heavier demand on our faith, he is also infinite in his wisdom. Both the divine attributes are therefore the object of our present meditation.
First we shall look at the knowledge of God. Given the immensity of the subject we shall confine ourselves here to making a series of statements about God's knowledge, statements that are part of our Catholic faith which as believers we are expected to believe. We will spend more time in trying to understand better what we believe when we believe in the knowledge of God, but we shall find time also for how our faith in the knowledge of God is to influence and improve our own spiritual lives. First, then, a series of statements, each with a brief commentary.
The knowledge of God is infinite. This statement of faith follows logically on the fact that God is infinite. Since the knowledge of God is identical with the nature of God, for our purpose we distinguish; but we realize there is no real difference in God between who God is and what God knows. Since God is infinite in nature his knowledge is correspondingly infinite too. In plain English there is no ignorance in God.
The knowledge of God is actual. What do we mean? We mean that God from all eternity had infinite knowledge. God never had to acquire what he knows. God will never increase in the knowledge of what he knows. That is quite a statement! God will never lose whatever knowledge he has. In other words the knowledge of God is actual with the activity of the divine nature.
The knowledge of God is comprehensive, comprehensive in every possible sense in which these weak human vocables can be used by us. And the more we reflect on God the more we should be overwhelmed by the contrast between our drop of knowledge compared to the ocean of the knowledge of God. Whatever God knows, he knows completely. Even as we use words like completely or comprehensively, we have some idea of what we mean. Who God is, what the knowledge of God is, is beyond the fondest and wildest dreams of our necessarily finite minds.
The knowledge of God does not depend on creatures. All the knowledge that God has, which is infinite, does not depend on his creatures. All that God knows he knows from his knowledge of himself. Almost every statement that I make here I know from years of teaching the theology De Dec Uno et Trino: On God One and Triune. My theological training took seven years. And we just begin to begin to scratch the surface on what we mean by each one of these statements - now, that the knowledge of God does not depend on creatures. Everything that God knows he knows because he knows himself. On these premises God does not need creatures to adore him. You might say this stands to reason. Unless God knew from all eternity there wouldn't be any creatures.
The principal object of God's knowledge: what does God mainly know? Himself. And he had this knowledge of himself perfectly from all eternity. And the moment we use the preposition from it sounds like a beginning. God never began to begin to know himself, he always did. We believe that the knowledge of God for himself which God had from all eternity is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.
What else, humanly speaking, does God know besides knowing himself? Needless to say, God knows the whole world outside of himself which he made. God knows all the possibilities in the world. He knows not only the world which he made; he knows all the possible worlds that he who is God might have made.
God knows all the past, present and future. And when we say past, present and future we are necessarily using the only words we've got, because for us the moment we say anything there has been a past, and we know there will be a future. But for God everything which has been, everything which now is and everything which will be God sees, he knows in that everlasting present which is the knowledge of God.
God also knows what we call the free future acts of his rational creatures. God knows what choices we will make. We should meditate on God's knowledge; it is very sobering, it is also very inspiring. God never forgets, he simply knows what is happening in the present. God misses nothing, he sees everything. And being a pure spirit himself, what he most certainly sees is the activity of our own spiritual nature, of our thoughts which we can take so casually, of our desires that we can pass with a shrug. God, therefore sees, foresees not only the future in general but within that future all the choices that all human beings will make in time and into all eternity. In eternity there will be one limitation for us: we will not be able to choose to commit sin.
God foresees the free choices we will make. God also knows all the free choices we could make and we might have made had we all the myriad, countless possibilities into which God might have placed us. In other words the mother and father that we actually have, could our mother have married someone else? Could our father have married someone else? This is just one spectrum line. This fourth category of God's knowledge the Church calls the knowledge of the futuribles.
What are some of the implications of our faith in this mind-bogging article of what we believe: the knowledge of God? We should periodically reflect on what we are here meditating on and become more aware of the fact that God knows perfectly what we are thinking and what we are desiring. How solicitous we should be, and how blind we can be to realizing that God knows what is going on in my mind better than I do myself. The principal duty of our free will is to control our minds. Our principal responsibility as human beings with that freedom for which we are so proud, our principal responsibility is to master our faults. Human faults are mastered when what we think conforms to what God wants to have us think about. Don't tell me that our minds are promiscuous. You had better watch your thoughts. Everything in our life on earth: the peace and such happiness as we can attain in this valley of tears, all of these depend on our being masters of our minds. And indeed our eternity depends on how well and how wisely we have used our wills to tell one thought: "You may come in;" to tell another thought: "You stay out!" And nobody has any illusion about this being child's play. It is not easy; but God tells us it must be done.
In so far as we are aware of God's knowing what's on our minds and in our desires, we should make every effort to find out what God wants us to think, what God wants us to desire. In other words, a large part of our spiritual life is to discover what kind of thoughts God wants me to have, what kind of desires God wants me to possess. It is fundamentally with our thoughts and our desires that we serve the God who made us. How important it is to know what God wants me to think and what he wants me to will. Does it make any difference what I read? If I read one book I am going to have one kind of thoughts; read another book I'll have other kinds of thoughts. I must plan my life so that my thoughts and desires will be conformed to the mind and will of God.
God's providence is exercised from his perfect knowledge of all the factors in our lives, and not only the present factors, and surely the past factors, but all the future factors and all the futurible factors. God, having infinite knowledge, knows best what we need, what we should do, and how we are to act. How incredibly indifferent human beings can be to finding out what God's providence is in their life. There are no problems in life; there are acts of divine providence. Had I chosen my situation apart from God, I'd have made a different decision, or I wouldn't be where I am, or I wouldn't be what I am. But here I am. God knows all the factors in every circumstance in our lives. The most important thing we need to know in life is what is God's providence telling me every moment of my day. The only mistake we can make is to think that God owes us a divine revelation: some writing in the sky or a mystical locution or the apparition of an angel. God's providence based on his infinite knowledge speaks to us in the circumstances in which he has placed us.
In our prayers let's make sure that we do not inform God about anything. In our prayers we do not inform God about what we need. God wants us to acknowledge our need of his help. In other words, the most fundamental reason for our praying is that we might admit before God we need his light, we need his help; it is not because he needs to be informed by us.
What is the main grace that we need from God? We need to know what God wants us to do; we need to know why God wants us to do it; and we finally need to know how we are to fulfill his divine will. We need to draw on the reservoir of the divine knowledge on which we are meditating. We need to ask him: "Lord, you know - given what I know about your knowledge - you know perfectly what I should do. Tell me, Lord. You know why I should do it. Enlighten me, Lord, otherwise I will want to do what I think is your will, but I won't be strongly motivated to do it. Lord, I am so speculative; inform me down to the smallest detail of how you want me to do your will. Because you know everything, you know what I need."
The wisdom of God. No less than the knowledge of God, so his wisdom - how God puts his knowledge into practice - is infinite. Faith tells us both the knowledge and the wisdom of God are infinite.
What is the evidence of God's profound, breathtaking knowledge in creation? We could spend hours detailing the wonders of the created world, everything from the tiniest particle of matter to the stellar regions - the stars, which scientists tell us are millions of light years away from us and thousands of light years in diameter. The more we study what God made the more overwhelmed we are by how wisely God has put his knowledge into practice. We are living in that era of human history - nothing like it ever before in the history of man -we are living in that era when the human mind has come to penetrate the secrets of God's world. Libraries are bulging; someone had to invent microfilm, there is just too much knowledge to store in books. Man tried to keep in step with the giant strides of an all-wise God.
And this wisdom, revealed to the world that God has created, is not only the wisdom in the world of matter: the profound wisdom that God has conferred on his rational creatures. The sciences of human psychology tell us things we never knew about our urges and instincts and drives, of the human mind in its activity. And we are just beginning to begin to learn. And the more we learn the more overwhelmed we are by the wisdom of the God who made both the material world that we see and the world of spirit that we know exits but cannot touch, taste or feel.
Needless to say, as with the divine knowledge so especially with the divine wisdom there are implications for our spiritual life. Although we commonly speak of four levels of prayer: of adoration, of gratitude, of begging God for mercy, and of asking for what we need, among these the highest form of prayer, the most pleasing to God and the prayer that we shall be engaging in for all eternity is the prayer of adoration. How great Thou art, O Lord, how great Thou art! It is the most fundamental spiritual consequence of our reflecting on the profound wisdom of God revealed in the world that he made.
The wisdom of God must not only be admired by our adoration, it must also be defended by the constant temptation of the human mind to question the wisdom of God. It takes no genius to know that the world is filled with suffering, sickness and pain; injustice on a massive scale; genocide such as the world has ever known; more martyrs for Christ in the twentieth century than in all the nineteen centuries since Christ's ascension put together; sin, abominable crime piled on abominable crime. In Dachau there were piles of human scalps ten to fifteen feet high. All of this. And beneath all of it is the malice of man to man. The hatred, the cruelty. In my five years as chaplain at a State mental institution I discovered that most of the people had been institutionalized because of the cruelty of those whom they loved. No less than the human body can take so much and it breaks down and dies, so the human spirit can take just so much before it collapses and died.
We must ever defend God's wisdom in the face of this massive evil of which human history has kept such a tragic record. If anywhere, surely here, we need the resources of our faith to defend the wisdom of God.
If we are going to defend the divine wisdom in the face of all that we are talking about, we must first realize that human beings have a free will. And how free that will is; so free it can actually say no to God. God allows sin.
Besides realizing that man has a free will, and while defending God's infinite goodness; he is not the author of evil, he is not the cause of sin; we must believe that this all-good God has a profoundly wise purpose in allowing sin and suffering which is a consequence of sin. What does faith tell us of some of the reasons that God himself tells us that he has in allowing so much evil in the world? The single most fundamental reason is that somehow through the evil, on account of the evil, occasioned by the evil, God will draw greater good then would have taken place had evil not been allowed.
The most dramatic revelation on God's wisdom in allowing sin is of course Peter. Christ made sure that both genders were represented in the gospels - a Mary Magdalene and a Simon Peter. Both, we don't comprehend, we believe, both tell us God's wisdom is profound and can be defended not only in spite of but, we dare say, because of the suffering, the pain and the evil in the world. And there is the heroism of so many people because they want to overcome the evil in the world; there is the charity in millions of consecrated the souls, giving themselves totally to God in order that they might by their prayers and sacrifices obtain from God the grace that those estranged from God so desperately need.
My all-wise God, I believe that you know all things, past, present and future. I believe that your wisdom governs the universe and that nothing in the world, nothing in my life is ever apart from your wise knowledge. Keep me from ever doubting your wisdom. Help me to know what you want me to know, so that living by faith now I will possess you in heaven by seeing you, the all-wise, almighty God for all eternity.
Transcription of the retreat given in December, 1988
Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica
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