Faith & Thought

A Blessing for Focusing On the Mystery of God

By Father Robert Lauder

Teaching philosophy for most of my adult life has been a bless- ing and a grace in many ways that I never anticipated when I began teaching. There are several reasons why I consider my role as a teacher of philosophy a blessing. One is that I spend a great deal of time reflecting on the most important mysteries: an activity which many people rarely have the opportunity to do. In every course I teach, I study with the students the mystery of truth, the mystery of freedom, the mystery of death, the mystery of love. All of these mysteries are awesome and wonderful. There is one course I teach at St. John’s University that has been a special blessing because it focuses on the mystery of God. I recall that when I was invit- ed to teach the course many years ago, my department chairperson presented the invitation to me as though I would be doing him a favor by agreeing to teach the course. He may not have noticed that I jumped at the opportunity.

When I prepared the course, I decided to divide the material into three sections: the first section would be devoted to traditional proofs for God, such as those of Saints Anselm and Thomas Aquinas; the second section would deal with well known atheists such as Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean Paul Sartre; the third section would be some con- temporary arguments for the mean- ing and mystery of God. What has surprised me after many years of teaching the course is how much I have learned about God from the atheists. As I began to teach the course, I never suspected that this would happen.

In a wonderful book entitled “The Drama of Atheist Humanism” (New York: New American Library, 1963, translated by E. Riley), the theologian Henri Delubac, S. J. argues that the nineteenth century atheists were actually anti-theists. They were militant in their rejection of God because they thought that the view of God they were attacking was of a God who prevented human beings from growing and developing. I have come to believe that the atheists were correct in rejecting the idea of God that they attacked because that God in some ways was anti-human. The God the atheists rejected should have been rejected. It was not the Judeo-Christian God in whom I believe.

Atheists such as Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche and Sartre have been strong influences in western culture. I have no idea how many unchurched people have been directly influenced by reading such philosophers. Even if they have not read them, eventually influential ideas trickle down. For example, I have found many people who may have never heard of Sartre but who have accepted the view of freedom and morality which he taught.

When I am tempted to be discouraged at the large numbers of unchurched, I find the thoughts of theologian Karl Rahner very helpful. In his excellent little book, What Are They Saying about Unbelief ? (New York: Paulist Press, 1995, pp. 84, $6.95) Michael Paul Gallagher, S.J. comments on some of Rahner’s views about God and the human person

“… people for Rahner are much more than their expressed self-understandings, and this has a special application in the case of atheists and unbelievers. In his view it is a fundamental truth about human life that God is present within people’s depth experiences. It is equally an essential truth for him that that God is mystery and hence not to be equated with any object or captured in any human concept. God’s presence as silent mystery guides each person into trusting their longing to love and be loved, and so it is through reflecting on such key moments when a person reaches out beyond egoism that one can glimpse this invitation and action of God. (pp.30-31)…

“… Thus a person may be unable to name or recognize God on the level of truth but nevertheless can actually be responding to God. Existence as lived is more important for Rahner than any of its interpretations. To ponder this level of self-experience is to appreciate and identify what is deepest in human nature — a capacity to choose to live in truth and in goodness and a desire to live that way. A recognition of these fundamentals of human experience can also be a crucial step toward faith, toward recognizing the mysterious presence of God at the core of human existence …”(p.32).

Reflecting on Rahner’s words, I recall Pope Francis’ statement: “I am absolutely certain that God is part of everyone’s life.” Because Pope Francis is absolutely certain, I am absolutely certain. I wonder if any papal statement has ever influenced me as much and as deeply as this statement of Pope Francis. The statement is rooted in Christian faith and Christian hope.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.