By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
It could be that I am thinking more about what we will experience in the afterlife now that I am over 70, but — you will have to take my word for this — it is something I have batted around in my mind since my early teens. I accept fully Jesus’ promise of an eternal reward for those who believe in Him and follow His word, in a place he described on the cross as “Paradise” to the Good Thief. (I accept as well His warning of an eternal punishment for those who reject Him and live evil lives.) But ever since some Dominican nun informed me in elementary school that it is not a place where we float around on clouds playing harps, I have had a hard time picturing what it will be like.
I can picture the risen Jesus and the Blessed Mother existing somewhere in bodily form; exactly where, I do not know. But what about the saints? And our deceased loved ones? Their bodies are not with them, and will not be with them until the Last Judgment. They are spirits. How can they hear our prayers of petition? They have no ears. How can they be aware of our plight in our earthly existence? They have no eyes. How can the saints and our loved ones be aware of their own identities as individual persons? Their brains are in their earthly graves.
Please do not misread me: I am not questioning the Church’s teaching about the worth of prayers for our deceased loved ones, or to the saints seeking their intervention in our lives. It is just that I have difficulty picturing how it all takes place.
If you think I am about to tell you I have had a revelation and now know the answer, sorry. I believe in Heaven because Jesus told us it exists. But I would come up empty if a Hollywood producer assigned me the task of devising a script and a set that accurately portray it.
That is why I always read the “near-death” stories when they appear in the papers. I am looking for a clue. But those stories never satisfy me. I am not saying they are false, only that they do not give me the sort of information that I am looking for. The tales of a white light and deceased loved ones calling us forward always strike me as images that our brains might conjure up during the last stages our lives, even if we are in a state the medical profession describes as clinically dead.
But my problem goes beyond picturing Heaven. God the Father is in the same category. When I was a boy — having learned that we were made in God’s “image and likeness” — I pictured God the Father as something like Michelangelo’s majestic old man on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but in an invisible state, a state He could come in and out of like a Hollywood ghost.
But that is not what we mean when we call God a “spirit.” A spirit has no body. That realization struck me with just recently when I read an essay making the point that when we get to Heaven, we will not “see” God. (I wish I could recall exactly where I read this, but I can’t. My Google search has not helped. I do remember that it was written by someone loyal to the Magisterium, not by some liberal flamethrower.) The author’s point was that the Beatific Vision does not mean seeing God the Father in bodily form, or something analogous. This strikes me as a theologically sound proposition. We will see Jesus. We will see Mary. We will see our deceased loved ones after the Last Judgment, if we and they have been saved. But not God the Father. We will know Him, encounter Him in some way. But not see some glorified version of Michelangelo’s old man. Again: God is a spirit.
That’s why theologians who attempt to give us an understanding of the nature of God end up using terms such as “the ground of our being,” the “Geist,” the “ens in re,” and the “transforming energy behind man’s quest for the good.” These theologians may mean well, at least some of them. They may be engaged in an effort to depict God the Father in a manner that will be acceptable to those who would want no part of worshiping an image of something comparable to Hollywood’s depiction of Zeus. But, for me, they all end up, intentionally or not, depicting God not as a conscious being, not as a person, but as a concept, as an abstraction, as an expression of mankind’s quest for a just society, not as the Loving Father described by Jesus. Or even worse, as nothing different from the depiction of the 19th-century German atheist Ludwig von Feuerbach’s, who described God as mankind’s highest aspirations projected onto an imaginary being.
In fact, I would argue that even Fr. Robert Barron, the author and narrator of the wonderful book and DVD Catholicism and a solid and dedicated servant of the Church, does not help in this regard. Not that he has described God the Father in an inaccurate or unorthodox way. Thomas Aquinas would nod in agreement to what Barron had to say in a recent column. But I would have a hard time praying to the God Barron describes: “God is not a supreme item within the universe or alongside of it; rather, God is the sheer ocean of being from whose fullness the universe in its entirety exists….God is not a being within the natural order. Instead, He is the reason why there is that nexus of conditioned causes that we call nature — at all.” I know, I know: Barron is not promoting pantheism, but I can see why someone would interpret his words in that way.
That’s why I say, “Thank God for Christmas.” Because of Christmas we don’t have to form on our own, with unaided human reason, through philosophical rumination, a clear grasp of what God the Father “looks like” to worship God. We have Jesus. The Word was made Flesh, and dwelt amongst us. Jesus is God, as well as man. Our God is the God who taught us of the Good Samaritan and the Good Shepherd; the God who knew the difference between the prayers of the Pharisee and those of the tax collector; the God who saved the woman about to be stoned for her sins, with the warning, “He amongst you who is without sin, cast the first stone.” Our God is the God who promised the Good Thief on the cross that he — he personally, not just as part of a perfected human community in something like Teilhard de Chardin’s “divine milieu” — would be “with me this day in Paradise.”
Our God, the God who came to us on Christmas, is the God who loved little children and promised the millstone to those who would corrupt them. Our God promised forgiveness to sinners and called upon us to love one another as the Father in Heaven loves us. Fathers can love. Most humans have a hard time picturing how the “ground of our being” can love. We have more to work with. We have Jesus, because of Christmas. Jesus is a person who loves us, a person we can please, a person we can displease.
The old Christmas carols were on the mark. There has been a new and glorious morn, one which brings tidings of comfort and joy, a reason for the weary world to rejoice, a new creation. Old things have passed away; all things have become new. Christ the savior is born and through Him we know the loving Father in Heaven. The theologians’ alternate depiction of God — as the “ground of our being” and the “nexus of conditioned causes” — does not provide us a clearer picture than what Jesus gave us, just one more polysyllabic and dull.