Michael McCauley
Image

The Hubble Telescope recently peered as deep into space as humans have ever looked. Officials of the Space Telescope Science Institute traced light that has been speeding toward the space we now occupy for 13 billion years, to within a stone’s throw of the beginning of the universe. In order to penetrate to this distance Hubble had to narrow its view to a field that astronomers likened to our looking at the sky through an eight-foot soda straw. The opening on the eye-side is small enough, but projected eight feet out, it narrows to little more than a pinhole. In this minute field of view, a speck of the whole dome of the sky, Hubble saw 10,000 galaxies like our own vast Milky Way.

From a human point of view the enormity of these dimensions of time and space is bewildering, almost absurd. Five hundred years ago we postured ourselves at the center of the universe; now we cling precariously to a remote speck of cosmic dust. Our life-dominant sun is one mediocre star among the myriad that, by the late Carl Sagan’s estimate, outnumber the grains of sand on all the beaches of the world.

Dooley’s Insight

I read to students in an introduction to philosophy course a newspaper article describing this achievement by the Hubble telescope, thinking that it might provide insight into the mysticism of the Tao. One of our readings, by Lao-Tzu, traditionally identified as the founder of the Chinese philosophy of Taoism, had the students befuddled. Describing the mysterious Tao through a series of paradoxes, Lao-Tzu calls it the Nameless: the Name that can be named is not the eternal Name. It is the mystery of mysteries, but also the door of all spiritual awareness and the mother of the universe. It appears empty, but its fullness is inexhaustible, like a bottomless bowl. It is soundless, invisible, intangible. How wondrous it is, exclaims Lao-Tzu; it existed before heaven and earth and even before God!

This is too much for some students. They roll their eyes in exasperation. The Tao doesn’t fit easily into Western categories. But one student suddenly has an insightDooley, a shadowy figure with one name who slides in and out of class to his own clock and oblivious of all assignments: When we give God a name, when we call Him God,’ we shrink him. With that, Dooley disappears for good; but he has left me with the word I have been looking for. We cannot think about the Ultimate Source of the cosmos without the shrinking effect of human thought and language.

The unfathomable times and distances of the cosmos can be answered in the end only with paradox and silence. Standing in front of it, you will not discover its beginning; standing behind it, you will not discover its end. Only standing within its ongoing creative action, says the Tao, will you feel its obliterating embrace.

Master Chang comes to class to give a scholar-practitioner’s perspective on the Tao. He arrives with a retinue of wife, translator, books, articles he has written and a Power Point presentation full of Chinese characters. He looks out over a field of curious but skeptical eyes shaded by baseball caps and framed by cut-off tops, low-rise jeans and T- shirts. He tells us that the Tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao. Language is human, he explains, and we are trying to get at something that is beyond the human. How could words be adequate?

The Second Commandment

The Tao fits well with the Second Commandment. The Jewish people, who gave us the Second Commandment, were in such awe of I Am Who Am (God’s self-revelation to Moses in Ex. 3:14) that, as John L. McKenzie, S.J., points out in his Dictionary of the Bible, At some early date the Jews began to abstain from the pronunciation of the name Yahweh in the belief that it was too sacred for utterance. The Catholic Encyclopedia is even more emphatic: Out of profound reverence to God, the name YHWH (pronounced Yahweh’), which occurs in the Hebrew text of the OT, was never said.

Modern Jewish theologians are also wary of squeezing the Ultimate Source into human clothes. For Martin Buber, to conceive of God is to abolish his divinity. We can say only that the Godhead is that undefinable X, the essential mystery, the unknowable, the paradox of paradoxes. Buber would look benevolently on the self-proclaimed atheists in our class. For they are not rejecting the living God, only the concepts of God that have been foisted on them.

Following the Jewish tradition, James Hatley of Salisbury State University uses only the designation G-d in his commentary on the writings of Emmanuel Levinas, as in the search for a transcendent G-d. The recurring hyphen is a reminder of the inadequacy of philosophizing, even as we are compelled to carry on with it.

The Divine Immensity

In his recent book, Deeper Than Darwin, the Georgetown University theologian John Haught reflects in depth on the effect of modern scientific discoveries, like that of the Hubble, on our understanding of the Ultimate Reality. He finds in them not a threat to faith but a new source of revelation about the religious meaning of the Inexhaustible, the Infinite, the Immense, the Enormous, the Extravagant. Before the shock of cosmic discoveries, the size of God had become too middling to command the response of genuine worship.... The newly discovered immensity of time and space appears now to swallow up our narrowly human images of God. He quotes a not-quite-believing scientific writer for whom contemplating the vastness of the cosmos is a sensual experience, like Gregorian chant, luring him deeper into the deep mystery.

Haught distinguishes between the apophatic, or silent, approach and the kataphatic, or symbolic, approach to reaching out for the Absolute Reality. The creation story in the Book of Genesis, one of the most controversial readings we treat in class, is an example of the symbolic approach, I tell students. With great effort I try to convey this interpretation, to the discomfort of the fundamentalists and the skepticism of the materialists. When I have finished, a student in the front row looks up sympathetically and says: Boy, I bet you’re glad that’s over with.

Silence the Truest Statement

Joseph Pieper, in The Silence of St. Thomas, reveals how Aquinas, reasoning profoundly to the point where reason fails, ultimately embraces the apophatic approach. Because we are not capable of knowing what God is but only what God is not, he says in the Summa, we cannot contemplate how God is but only how God is not. This is the ultimate in human knowledge of God: to know that we do not know him. After a mystical experience at the end of his life, Thomas laid down his fruitful pen in the middle of a treatise: Reginald, I can write no more, he said to his friend. All that I have hitherto written seems to me nothing but straw.

This ultimate response of muteness leads to the insight of centering prayer. Sitting quietly in the early morning pause before the grinding noises of the day begin, one withdraws, Buddha-like, into a cocoon of nothingness. We close our eyes to what is going on around us and within us, says the Trappist monk Thomas Keating. When you become aware of thoughts, return ever-so-gently to the sacred word. Thoughts’ is an umbrella term for every perception, including sense perceptions, feelings, images, memories, reflections and commentaries.... He leads us by means of sacred experiences to the experience of emptiness. Anything that we perceive of God can only be a radiance of His presence and not God as He is Himself.

On the last day of class the students are attentive, even reflective, when I tell them what I learned this semester: Silence is the truest statement we can make about the Ultimate Source. To conceive is to shrink; to speak is to falsify.

Michael McCauley teaches philosophy at the College of Southern Maryland.

Comments

Rev. Gino Dalpiaz | 11/18/2004 - 11:26am
After reading Michael McCauley's masterful Oct. 18 article, "The Deep Mystery of God," I came away sad, because in, in effect, I was told that "In this life, I was condemned to not knowing God." Martin Buber calls God "the unknowable, the "undefinable X." He is in found in darkness and in utter silence. Scholars call this dark night "apophatic." McCauley quotes Joseph Pieper, author of The Silence of St. Thomas, as saying that in his Summa St. Thomas taught "we cannot contemplate how God is but only how God is not. This is the ultimate knowledge of God: to know that we do not know him."

I don't think the situation is so "apophatic" that God is unknowable to his sons and daughters. Wasn't it Pascal who said that there is the God of the philosophers and the God revealed to us by Jesus Christ? In Jesus the Father has revealed himself.

In St. John's Gospel we read: "Philip said to him, ‘Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.' Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, Show us the Father?'" (Jn 14:8-9)

In the Letter to the Hebrews we read: "In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets. In these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe, who is the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being, and who sustains all things by his mighty word."(Heb.1:1-3).

I'm sorry, Martin Buber, Joseph Pieper, Michael McCauley, St. Thomas Aquinas, et al. In Jesus of Nazareth I personally do know God, and I know him quite well.

Rev. Gino Dalpiaz

Svato Schutzner | 10/17/2004 - 6:22pm
It was a joy to this aged failed theologian with an obsolete STL, once apostate, to read the "Deep Mystery of God": so I am not the only Catholic that feels we pronounce the sacred name too easily.

There is of course a clear tension between the need to communicate the Faith and the apophatic insight. Or, in one's own mind/heart how to reconcile the "God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" with the "God of philosophers and scientists". Pascal seems to have felt that one must choose; I hope he was wrong. When I was somewhere on the way back from agnosticism, my wife helped me by observing that the Unlimited Intelligence can of course adjust to a nomadic tribe's, or our own, limited mental capacity. This answer satisfies the thinking part of my brain; in the deeper layers of the mind it still remains a problem (feels like two different directories in my computer). I think that if we want to transmit (as it is our duty to do) the Good News to future generations, this must be very seriously worked on.

N.B. It might be of interest that the Chinese character for the eternal Word that was made flesh and put up his tent among us is the Tao character (in Pinyin, Dao with grave accent over the a).

Angela Perry | 10/9/2004 - 12:11pm
Prof. McCauley brings to light an irony of the "Age of Science and Technology" - the lack of wonder and awe on the part of our youth for the immensity and complexity of our Universe. I know, I am a high school, Freshman theology teacher.

Of course I realize that Brittany Spears and Homecoming are uppermost in the minds and hearts of my students and that the center of the Universe is their local, familiar part of the world. On the other hand, these young people do service hours and hold numerous fund-raisers for strangers - they are not selfish or lazy. They are unimpressed with Creation.

Before I lead them into the practice of contemplative prayer, for which there is a hunger and great interest, I try to inculcate a sense of the sacred by awakening them to the majestic scientific evidence now available. Middle school science classes might be informing but are certainly not inspiring our youth while Confirmation preparation classes do not appear to be preparing the soil into which the gifts of the Holy Spirit can be planted.

It is only with a sense of wonder and awe at God's creation that we can begin to sense the limitless mystery that has revealed itself through that creation. My hope is that we will all come to appreciate how much grander must the Creator be than what we have experienced thus far!

Thomas L. Sheridan, S.J. | 10/21/2004 - 10:36am
Many thanks to Michael McCauley for “The Deep Mystery of God.” We need constantly to be reminded of the extent to which our concepts “shrink” God. Too often we hear God spoken of as simply a Being among beings, however transcendent. And into what follies that leads us: intolerance, even wars of religion. Speak of God we must, but ever with the greatest caution. I was reminded of Karl Rahner’s statement that “all theology is in fact simply an attempt to build a way which loses itself in the mystery of God, where there is no way, but who nevertheless lets Himself be found.”
Tad Dunne | 10/15/2004 - 8:15am
Thanks to Michael McCauley’s “The Deep Mystery of God” (10/18), for leaving us with humble awe over the immensity of the universe, the impenetrability of divine intentions, and the privilege granted us just to be, here, in our tiny cosmic neighborhood. The number of cosmic neighborhoods like our Milky Way, is both astounding and disturbing. He notes that Hubble counts an astounding 10,000 galaxies in an area of sky defined by the hole in a straw eight feet away. But this raises a disturbing theological question: Is there anything in revelation and church dogma that says the Incarnate Word came only here? Or might there be someone other loving beings affirm as God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God?
Rev. Gino Dalpiaz | 11/18/2004 - 11:26am
After reading Michael McCauley's masterful Oct. 18 article, "The Deep Mystery of God," I came away sad, because in, in effect, I was told that "In this life, I was condemned to not knowing God." Martin Buber calls God "the unknowable, the "undefinable X." He is in found in darkness and in utter silence. Scholars call this dark night "apophatic." McCauley quotes Joseph Pieper, author of The Silence of St. Thomas, as saying that in his Summa St. Thomas taught "we cannot contemplate how God is but only how God is not. This is the ultimate knowledge of God: to know that we do not know him."

I don't think the situation is so "apophatic" that God is unknowable to his sons and daughters. Wasn't it Pascal who said that there is the God of the philosophers and the God revealed to us by Jesus Christ? In Jesus the Father has revealed himself.

In St. John's Gospel we read: "Philip said to him, ‘Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.' Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, Show us the Father?'" (Jn 14:8-9)

In the Letter to the Hebrews we read: "In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets. In these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe, who is the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being, and who sustains all things by his mighty word."(Heb.1:1-3).

I'm sorry, Martin Buber, Joseph Pieper, Michael McCauley, St. Thomas Aquinas, et al. In Jesus of Nazareth I personally do know God, and I know him quite well.

Rev. Gino Dalpiaz

Svato Schutzner | 10/17/2004 - 6:22pm
It was a joy to this aged failed theologian with an obsolete STL, once apostate, to read the "Deep Mystery of God": so I am not the only Catholic that feels we pronounce the sacred name too easily.

There is of course a clear tension between the need to communicate the Faith and the apophatic insight. Or, in one's own mind/heart how to reconcile the "God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" with the "God of philosophers and scientists". Pascal seems to have felt that one must choose; I hope he was wrong. When I was somewhere on the way back from agnosticism, my wife helped me by observing that the Unlimited Intelligence can of course adjust to a nomadic tribe's, or our own, limited mental capacity. This answer satisfies the thinking part of my brain; in the deeper layers of the mind it still remains a problem (feels like two different directories in my computer). I think that if we want to transmit (as it is our duty to do) the Good News to future generations, this must be very seriously worked on.

N.B. It might be of interest that the Chinese character for the eternal Word that was made flesh and put up his tent among us is the Tao character (in Pinyin, Dao with grave accent over the a).

Angela Perry | 10/9/2004 - 12:11pm
Prof. McCauley brings to light an irony of the "Age of Science and Technology" - the lack of wonder and awe on the part of our youth for the immensity and complexity of our Universe. I know, I am a high school, Freshman theology teacher.

Of course I realize that Brittany Spears and Homecoming are uppermost in the minds and hearts of my students and that the center of the Universe is their local, familiar part of the world. On the other hand, these young people do service hours and hold numerous fund-raisers for strangers - they are not selfish or lazy. They are unimpressed with Creation.

Before I lead them into the practice of contemplative prayer, for which there is a hunger and great interest, I try to inculcate a sense of the sacred by awakening them to the majestic scientific evidence now available. Middle school science classes might be informing but are certainly not inspiring our youth while Confirmation preparation classes do not appear to be preparing the soil into which the gifts of the Holy Spirit can be planted.

It is only with a sense of wonder and awe at God's creation that we can begin to sense the limitless mystery that has revealed itself through that creation. My hope is that we will all come to appreciate how much grander must the Creator be than what we have experienced thus far!

Thomas L. Sheridan, S.J. | 10/21/2004 - 10:36am
Many thanks to Michael McCauley for “The Deep Mystery of God.” We need constantly to be reminded of the extent to which our concepts “shrink” God. Too often we hear God spoken of as simply a Being among beings, however transcendent. And into what follies that leads us: intolerance, even wars of religion. Speak of God we must, but ever with the greatest caution. I was reminded of Karl Rahner’s statement that “all theology is in fact simply an attempt to build a way which loses itself in the mystery of God, where there is no way, but who nevertheless lets Himself be found.”
Tad Dunne | 10/15/2004 - 8:15am
Thanks to Michael McCauley’s “The Deep Mystery of God” (10/18), for leaving us with humble awe over the immensity of the universe, the impenetrability of divine intentions, and the privilege granted us just to be, here, in our tiny cosmic neighborhood. The number of cosmic neighborhoods like our Milky Way, is both astounding and disturbing. He notes that Hubble counts an astounding 10,000 galaxies in an area of sky defined by the hole in a straw eight feet away. But this raises a disturbing theological question: Is there anything in revelation and church dogma that says the Incarnate Word came only here? Or might there be someone other loving beings affirm as God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God?