16 Aug Reflections on God and Man
Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am’. Jesus’ words here are a revelation of His transcendence as God. But they are also a revelation of His transcendence as man. They are in fact a revelation of a single transcendence: they open to us the Son of the Father in Whose Incarnation every man is conceived and sheltered and called to share. Jesus is the one God, but He is also - or rather, He is therefore - the one Man.
For if a man can be God, that man will not just be a special man, but in fact will be the only man. For what is man? Man is the image and likeness of the Eternal Son. Man is the creature who, in the Son, receives himself from the Father as the Father’s self-expression. In the man who is God, therefore, all that man is, the whole that he receives and expresses, will be perfectly realized, for the Father’s selfexpression as man will, in Him, be at one with His selfexpression as Son. The man who is God will be the only man, because in truth man is man only when he is, or is in, the Son of God.
To think otherwise is already and inescapably to move in the direction of atheism. It commits us to trying to think of man as something other than the one who receives himself from the Father as an expression of the Father; it is therefore to try to think man without God, man on his own terms, free-standing, intelligible in himself. Philosophy, and human ingenuity in general, have not fared well in trying to think man in this way, because no such man in fact exists. And just as no such man exists, so the god corresponding to him fails to exist. Hence on this path we tend inevitably towards atheism, even if we do so in the form of religion, endeavouring to put God back into the picture as the one with whom man, intelligible in himself, has nonetheless to come to terms. For the one whom we would then call God, the one who confronts an already intelligible man, would not be God - for God cannot be alongside or supplementary to anything, He cannot be a further reality or meaning in addition to what is already real and meaningful. If we try to think of Him like that, then He has already ceased to be God and has become instead an idol - a local divinity, decorating whatever conception of ourselves we are already committed to. This is to disbelieve in God, even in the act of affirming Him. Such an affirmation accomplishes a precise inversion of the truth: it means we think of God as receiving Himself from us and as an expression of ourselves. And this amounts to saying that God can be God only when He is man.
It is this idolatry which seems to underlie the words of those who challenge Jesus in St John’s Gospel. They already know who they are - they are sons of Abraham - and their whole world is embedded in this uninterrogated conception of themselves. God, for them, appears only as the one who ratifies who they already are. And this means that they are not of God, as Jesus tells them; rather, God is of them - the transcendental validation of their already accomplished identity. This is not God, however, but an idol. Of God, Jesus tells them, you say that He is [yours]. But you have not known Him.
Nor have they known even themselves, precisely because they think they do. Jesus tells them that [your] father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad. Abraham, of whom they claim themselves to be sons, knew himself only in the Incarnate Son to come, knew himself as a man only in the one man, the only man, apart from Whom no man is even a man. Abraham, if they were truly his sons, would show them the One in Whom alone they could know themselves, the very One Whom they reject.
For man is man only when he is, or is in, God’s Son. But there is a way of thinking - in fact, in the confrontation with modernity, often a Christian way of thinking - that can be scandalized by this truth. We can perhaps hear the same scandal in St John’s Gospel. Now we know that you have a demon, they tell Jesus. Abraham died, as did the prophets, and you say ‘if anyone keeps my words he will never see death’. Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you claim to be? In that final question, we can hear the vulgarity of a threatened elite: who do you think you are? But what are they reacting against? It is perhaps the disclosure, or the claim, that God and man can be newly intimate. Abraham and the prophets mediated God to man, but they also kept God at a distance - a reassuring distance, perhaps, even a necessary one, if a certain hierarchical pattern of life and the power structures that sustain it are to be maintained. Moreover there seems to be something significant in the insistence that Abraham and the prophets are all dead. The death even of the mediators means that all mediation is now remote, in essence irretrievable, and can only be remembered and handed on traditionally, rather than experienced anew here and now. Being in this way mere clients or subjects of an originating past also enforces distance, together with the traditionalism, and the management of it by its elite custodians, which dependence upon distant origins renders indispensable.
Can we generalize this perspective? Suppose someone were to insist that man is man and God is God, and that everything depends upon maintaining a definitive separation between them. The decline of the West, he might argue, stems from forgetting this separation, indeed in trying to surpass it. The erasure of hierarchy, the decay of authority, the dissipation of social and moral order in an escalating anarchy of individual freedom and self expression, not to mention the sentimentalization of Christianity, some speak even of its feminization, as the price of its ability to survive at all - in short, the loss of a sense of the transcendence of God and of how that transcendence is reflected in culture, the extinction of worship as the fundamental religious disposition and of deference as its social embodiment: all of this, someone might claim, stems from the diabolical liberation of man’s aspiration to be God. Man has sought to confiscate Divine prerogatives, and until we reconcile ourselves to the peaceful and pious inhabitation of the place assigned to us in the cosmic hierarchy, the catastrophe all around us will continue to unfold. As the culmination of this narrative, we might be told not so much of the idolatry of God but of the idolatry of man, and that everything depends upon the truth that man cannot become God.
Which is true: man cannot confiscate what belongs to the Divine. But the answer to this attempted confiscation is not to insist on absolute separation - at least, this isn’t the Christian answer, not if it insists only upon separation. For the separation upon which Christianity insists is the condition of possibility for an unprecedented, in fact strictly inconceivable, intimacy. Man cannot confiscate God, but God has always already confiscated man: for man receives himself from God as God’s self expression, and beyond this man has no reality or meaning whatsoever. This is the truth disclosed in the Incarnation, in the man who is God, whom we must call the only man, not because He attests to a proper separation of man from God, but on the contrary because of the union in Him by which the separation has been, inconceivably, traversed. The man Jesus - the only man is the One in Whom man and God manifest themselves simultaneously and indivisibly. Truly, truly, I say to you; before Abraham was, I am. In these words, Christ speaks to men not only as God, but He speaks to them also as a man or rather, as the man - Ecce Homo - in Whom alone men can become what they are.
If, on the other hand, separation, not union, is our last word, then we merely end up varying the idolatry from which we were in flight. For absolute separation is unliveable, and every worldview which insists exclusively on the transcendence of God in practice depends upon a dense and intricate apparatus of mediation, deploying cultural and political structures which, it is claimed, reflect and secure the transcendent origin. But no cultural and political structure can adequately embody Divine transcendence, and so every structure that claims to do so plays out in fact as ideology, and ideology is just another idolatry. Only the Incarnate Son, crucified and risen, embodies the mystery of God in the mystery of man, in an unlimited and therefore uncontainable way which surpasses every attempt we might make to translate it, not excluding even the Church which is His Body. Neither medieval docility towards cosmic hierarchy, nor Enlightenment repudiation of it, answers to the truth of the Incarnation. Only the imitatio Christi, discipleship in the way of the Cross, can do that, in which we become men in the One Man, sons in the Son.
By Fr Philip Cleevely, Cong. Orat.