By DON FIER
Last week, we looked at why the revelation of God’s name is such an important aspect of salvation history and our life of faith. We also considered a topic on which countless reflections have been penned by spiritual writers and theologians over the centuries: who we are in comparison to God. In contrast to the splendor of God, man is nothing; yet, in the mystery of His love, we possess great dignity and are of inestimable worth in His eyes. The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) contains an excellent summary of what we spoke of:
“In revealing His name, God makes known the riches contained in the ineffable mystery of His Being. He alone is from everlasting to everlasting. He is the One Who transcends the world and history. It is He Who made Heaven and earth. He is the faithful God, always close to His people, in order to save them. He is the highest holiness, ‘rich in mercy’ (Eph. 2:4), always ready to forgive. He is the One Who is spiritual, transcendent, omnipotent, eternal, personal, and perfect. He is truth and love” (Compendium, n. 40).
The concluding statement in the Compendium’s summary is the topic we will take up in this week’s installment — that God is Truth and God is Love. This is a conclusion that follows directly from an assertion made earlier in this series, namely, that the attributes of God are part of His very Being. In other words, it is more theologically accurate to say that God is Truth and that God is Love than to say that God possesses truth and God possesses love, or to say that God always tells the truth and God always loves. As the Catechism tells us, “These two terms [truth and love] express summarily the riches of the divine name. In all His works God displays, not only His kindness, goodness, grace, and steadfast love, but also His trustworthiness, constancy, faithfulness, and truth” (CCC, n. 214). God is what He displays.
Throughout Sacred Scripture, through the instrumentality of the sacred writers, it is God Himself who revealed that He is Truth and Love. The Old Testament psalmist tells us, “the sum of [God’s] word is truth” (Psalm 119:160) and “give thanks to [God’s] name for [His] steadfast love and [His] faithfulness” (Psalm 138:2). St. John teaches us in the New Testament that “God is light [truth] and in Him is no darkness” (1 John 1:5) and that “he who does not love does not know God; for God is love” (1 John 4:8). The Beloved Apostle goes on to say that “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4:16).
Let us take a closer look at what is meant by the first of these terms: truth. In his Modern Catholic Dictionary (MCD), Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, defines truth as “conformity of mind and reality” (p. 549). We might add to that definition, “as it is perceived by God,” since we may not accurately perceive or understand reality at times due to our limited, finite intellect that is further inhibited by a fallen human nature. However, the same does not apply to Almighty God. He is omniscient — He knows all things exhaustively and cannot deceive nor be deceived.
Furthermore, truth is objective and cannot change. This undeniable fact comes directly from a point discussed in last week’s column regarding the most basic difference between God and man: God is immutable or unchangeable. It logically and reasonably follows that since God is Truth, truth cannot change. Contrary to what contemporary society seems to believe, truth is not subject to Gallup polls, opinion surveys, cultural shifts, or circumstances.
This is a doctrine of our faith that is misunderstood in today’s relativistic world where subjective opinion seems to often trump objective facts in the decisions and actions of much of society. Pope John Paul II wrote a magnificent encyclical entitled Veritatis Splendor (VS), or The Splendor of the Truth, to address this false current of thought. The late Holy Father posits that the most frequently debated issue in modern times is human freedom (cf., VS, n. 31). He goes on to say that the most challenged aspect of human freedom in our day is “the right to religious freedom and to respect for conscience on its journey toward the truth” (ibid.). However, serious error has crept in: Human freedom has been divorced from dependence on God. The subjective and incorrectly formed conscience has become for many the arbiter or ruler in moral matters, apart from the mind and will of God.
Genuine freedom is the freedom mankind has to choose to do God’s will (cf., VS, n. 34). It is dependent on truth, and since God is Truth, it is dependent on using one’s free will to direct the mind to search out and discover the will of God. Instead, man all too often exchanges “the truth about God for a lie” (Romans 1:25) with the predictable outcome of unhappiness, unrest, and so much hopelessness. For it is Jesus Christ who is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6); He is “the true light that enlightens every man” (John 1:9). It is only by following the Son of God, who is one with the Father, that one attains true freedom: “If you continue in my word…you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32).
To close this section on how God is Truth, I quote the words of Fr. Hardon. “Since truth is conformity of mind with reality, God is Truth three times over: (1) He is Truth because whatever He has made or done conforms with the mind of God; (2) He is Truth because whatever God knows conforms with reality; and (3) He is Truth because whatever He says conforms to the mind of God. On all three levels, Jesus Christ is the Truth because He is God Incarnate” (The Faith, p. 43).
To Will The Good
Now we turn to the second term that summarily expresses the riches of the divine name: God is Love. What exactly do we mean by love? In the English language, love is used to convey many different meanings, some of which are far from its true Christian meaning. The American Heritage Dictionary defines love as (a) a deep, tender, ineffable feeling of affection and solicitude toward a person…; (b) a feeling of intense desire and attraction toward a person…; (c) an intense emotional attachment, as for a pet or treasured object; and (d) a strong predilection or enthusiasm.
In our culture, love is often associated with sex and romance. Contrast that with Fr. Hardon’s definition of love: “To will the good [for] someone” (MCD, p. 325).
Fr. Hardon goes on to explain that there are two kinds of love: the love of concupiscence or self-interested love (loving another for one’s own sake as something useful or pleasant), and the love of benevolence (the selfless love of another for that person’s own sake).
It is this second type of love that is manifested in Almighty God, for “in the course of its history, Israel was able to discover that God had only one reason to reveal Himself to them, a single motive for choosing them from among all peoples as His special possession: His sheer gratuitous love” (CCC, n. 218). And in the fullness of time, God extended to man His most precious gift: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 4:16). As the Catechism teaches us, “God’s love is ‘everlasting’” (n. 220), “God’s very being is love” (n. 221), and “God Himself is an eternal exchange of love” (n. 221).
In his first encyclical, entitled Deus Caritas Est (DCE) or God Is Love, Pope Benedict XVI has as his purpose “to speak of the love which God lavishes upon us and which we in turn must share with others” (DCE, n. 1). He masterfully shows how love, in the context of its true Christian meaning, is integral in God’s very Being; and how it is linked to the two great commandments, reminding us that we can love our neighbor only because we have first been loved by God. A careful, meditative reading of Deus Caritas Est is highly recommended; it will provide the thoughtful reader with deep insights into the mystery of how God is Love.
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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is doing research for writing a definitive biography of Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)