Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
As we head for Advent, which is the time of year in which we recall the events of supernatural revelation found in the Old Testament that lead up to the manifestion of Jesus Christ in the New, it seems to me that it might be salutary to take the month of November to likewise look at natural revelation, which paves the way for the supernatural revelation found in scripture and tradition. Here is how the Catechism sums things up:
Created in God's image and called to know and love him, the person who seeks God discovers certain ways of coming to know him. These are also called proofs for the existence of God, not in the sense of proofs in the natural sciences, but rather in the sense of "converging and convincing arguments," which allow us to attain certainty about the truth.
These "ways" of approaching God from creation have a twofold point of departure: the physical world and the human person.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 31
Some years ago my kids got a computer game called Myst. It is a very curious game. There are no instructions, no rules, and no commentary offered at the beginning of the game. You find yourself plunked down into a strange and unknown environment on a mysterious island. You do not know where you are and you do not know why you are there. As you look around, you discover various things that were put there before you by some unseen intelligence. There are rocks, trees, buildings, books, and many other things and they are invested with a mysterious, disjointed, and elusive significance. Push this button, and a map appears. But you don't know what the map portrays. Open that door, and there is a strange machine which hums and "works" at the flip of a switch but you have no idea what it does. You open various books, and the books tell fragments of stories, but you don't know what the stories are about. You go to various buildings and examine various pieces of furniture and different objects. You know what they are, you even know that they must mean something, but you don't know what that meaning might be.
As you keep playing, you begin to discover connections between the strange paraphernalia you stumble upon. You find a book showing a piano keyboard and giving instructions to play a certain sequence of notes. Then you discover just such a keyboard elsewhere on the island. So, of course, you play the notes to see what happens. (I won't tell you what happens because I don't want to spoil the game for you.)
As you can imagine, in such a mysterious world everything becomes charged with great significance. There's no telling what some seemingly trivial thing you run across might signify. You have the sense that you are always moving in the precincts of a great mystery. You become increasingly convinced that there is some master key that can make sense of the connections between things in this world. You begin to feel that the connections, though mysterious, are not random.
Curiously, revelation proceeds in a way similar to the game of Myst. We do not start out as adults with Bibles giving us a full set of instructions for the rules of the game, but as children with eyes, ears, noses, tongues, fingers, heads, and especially, hearts. And through these portals come the first streams of light by which the "the day shall dawn upon us from on high" (Luke 1:78). It was the same in the childhood of the world. The earliest civilizations did not have the benefit of a written revelation. God permitted most of humanity to muddle along for quite a while simply "feeling after him" as St. Paul said (Acts 17:27) on much the same basis as a non-Christian or a child today might do. He is not afraid to allow himself to be revealed in the childhood of the world (and to the childlike heart today) through what he has made. And so, we come to know about God first of all by looking around at stuff.
Some people are surprised to discover that the Bible itself teaches this. St. Paul tells us that God's primal revelation comes not through prophets nor holy writings nor mystical visions, but simply through the created things we see every day.
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. (Romans 1:19-20)
That is, God has made it possible to know that he exists, that he is almighty and that he is Creator of all things, not by "blind faith" but just by looking around at things with an unprejudiced heart. It is well to understand this, for such "pre-biblical" revelation sets the stage for biblical revelation. So let us consider it and note that the natural (as distinct from supernatural) evidence for God is presented to us every day in the form of two basic things: the physical world and the human person. Of which more next time.