I AM Who Am: God is greater than anything we can imagine

Even when Thomas Aquinas was young, he was known often to ask, “who is God?” As he grew into one of the Church’s greatest theologians, he realized that it was much easier to explain who God is not. This might be a good place to begin today as well.

God is not just a more powerful being within the universe. He is not like Zeus, a human-like being with superpowers, bossing and bullying other creatures around. He is not an old man in the clouds that just looks in remotely to the world from afar. He is not a big teddy bear that doesn’t care what we do and can be taken advantage of. He is also not a flying spaghetti monster (whatever that is), some irrational being that we believe in to make ourselves feel better. In his divine nature, he cannot be seen, or touched; he cannot be put under a microscope or located anywhere. He is not within the universe, even though he holds it all in being and is everywhere. He himself is not a being at all. He does not have life, because he is life. He is BEING itself. 

God, in himself, cannot even be named, as this would put a limit on him. God showed how radically different he is from our expectations or from other gods when Moses asked what he should call him: 

Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:13-14).  

This refusal to be named, showing that God is not a being like all the other things we know, teaches us that no name could capture who he is. God does not have life; he is life. He simply IS! God is the only necessary one that depends on no other for his existence. He is the uncaused cause. No other creature has to exist, and everything that does exist depends upon him for its existence. 

St. Anselm described the all-surpassing nature of God pretty accurately, speaking of him as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” There is nothing more that God could be. He is the fullness of every good, and we could not even conceive of anything greater than him. He cannot change because in him, there is no before or after, nothing greater or less, no potential for growth. He is not limited in any way. He does not have a body (apart from the Incarnation in Jesus Christ) and no emotions, as they arise from the body. He does not get angry, tired, sick, or old like we do. We cannot even say that he “has” things, like wisdom or power, because he simply is goodness, truth, love, wisdom, and beauty.

The amazing grace of knowing God through Jesus goes beyond a theoretical knowledge. The Cross, more than anything else, manifests the reality that God is love and has given everything for us.”

And yet, the God beyond all comprehension, who cannot be seen or even named, has been made visible, has become man: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). The great I AM beyond all naming has taken a name — Jesus, the savior. God fulfills the desire of our hearts by allowing us to look upon him, a seeing that brought death in the Old Testament. “You cannot see my face,” God says to Moses, for “no man can see me and live” (Ex 33:20). The revelation of God in Jesus fulfils our greatest expectation: “May the Lord cause His face shed its light upon you” (Num 6:25). In Jesus’ face, we see the face of God: “Whoever sees me sees the Father” (Jn 14:9).

Jesus makes his divine identity clear, pointing to the reality that he is the one without beginning or end and beyond all change: “Before Abraham was, I AM,” “I AM the bread of life,” and “I AM the light of the world” (Jn 8:58, 6:35, 8:12). Jesus makes eternity present in time, dwindles his infinity into food for us to eat, and sheds light on the true meaning of life. The amazing grace of knowing God through Jesus goes beyond a theoretical knowledge. The Cross, more than anything else, manifests the reality that God is love and has given everything for us. Jesus took our nature and all of our suffering and sin along with it in order to redeem it in his love. Jesus opens up God’s infinite life to us — inviting us to share in his own sonship as adopted sons and daughters of the Father.

To know God, we must break the idols of our own false conceptions about him. Rather than remaking him in our image, we have to listen to how he reveals himself. God might be beyond our comprehension — we can’t lift our minds up high enough to reach him — but we can know him through humility. In coming to know him, we also discover the goodness of our own lives. God did not need to create us. He was complete and perfectly happy in himself, but he wanted to share his happiness with us. 

We can be tempted to doubt God’s goodness when we suffer, but even in those moments, we see that God stooped down to us and drew our suffering to himself on the Cross. It is good to depend on him and to accept our own littleness before him so that we can accept the gift he wants to give us of his own infinite life. We are less alive the more we move away from him and try to be the source of our own good and to define the meaning of our own lives. Like Eve found out in the Garden, this doesn’t work and proves self-destructive. Accepting God’s truth and love, however, makes us truly free and helps us to become more fully alive by sharing in the life of the great I AM. 

COMING UP: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”