The Knock

I’m reading Thomas Aquinas right now for my degree.  He was a 13th century theologian and Dominican friar, and he remains one of the most influential thinkers in Church history.  Of the thousands of pages he wrote, he is probably best known for his “Five Ways,” or five proofs for the existence of God.  These are on my mind this Advent.
 
The Five Ways are easy to find online, if you’re interested.[1]  The Five Ways are (mostly) formally similar, by which I mean that each as a similar basic concept at work in it.  The gist is this: we observe in the natural world that things depend on other things for their goodness, motion, innate and accrued characteristics, and the like, and that less perfect things tend to depend on more perfect things.  Given that an infinite chain of dependence doesn’t make sense, it follows that there is Something that serves as the existential linchpin for the rest of the created universe.  There must be an “Unmoved Mover” or “Uncaused Cause” or “Necessary Being.”  You may have heard these phrases before; this is the conceptual neighborhood we’re in.
 
To give a sort of hodge-podge example, we might observe that sunflowers grow tall and turn their bright yellow faces towards the sunlight.  From this we might observe that the sun itself causes the growth of sunflowers and their propensity to look sunward.  Sunflowers are less perfect than the sun: sunflowers grow irregularly sometimes; they wilt; they might be prone to sickness, etc.  The sun, however, moves with perfect regularity and reliability; the only real change it under goes is its location as it turns through the heavens.  
 
There’s a kind of fittingness to this relationship: the less perfect sunflower depends upon the more perfect the sun.[2]  After these observations, we might very well ask, “Given that a sunflower’s growth and inclinations depend upon the sun, on what does the sun itself depend for its heavenly motion and its perpetual shining?”  And so on.
 
Thomas says that God is the name we give to Whatever It Is at the very beginning (and end) of these creaturely relationships of dependence.  There is an Un-Created-Creator on which all we creatures depend for our existence and creaturely goodness.
 
At this point, you may be saying, “Okay, that’s interesting I guess, but all this talk about causes and unmoved movers and stuff doesn’t really sound like the God we pray to on Sundays.  What about God’s love, compassion, and justice?  Where is all that?  What about Jesus?”
 
You’d be right to make these objections; none of this philosophical stuff is intended to be the meat and potatoes of religious practice.  Thomas doesn’t intend it as such (though his detractors often caricature him this way).  There’s a key moment right after Thomas finishes his Five Ways that lets us know this.  Thomas effectively says, “Okay, so we’ve demonstrated that there is some existential linchpin out there, and that we call that God, but we still have no idea what God is like.”[3]  In other words, we can use our minds to observe that there must be some Uncaused Cause out there, but our minds could never really say much about what (let alone Who) that Cause is like.
 
To put it differently, Thomas’ Five Ways not only use observations about the created world to demonstrate the existence of an Uncaused Cause, but they also demonstrate that this mysterious Cause isn’t part of the created universe.  Therefore, it is not open to our rational investigation in any usual way.  Whatever this Cause is, we can’t expect it to be like, or to behave like, the causes we see in nature.  It is subject only to its own laws.  It’s not an object in the universe, but is beyond. 
 
Thus, right after demonstrating that there is some Unmoved Something holding the chain of creaturely dependence together, and that we call this something God, Thomas then makes the startling observation that we can’ know what this God is like, but only what this God is not like.[4]  This God does not exist in the way the sunflower does.  Even the sun is an unfitting comparison.
 
The sheer strangeness and mystery of this God-beyond-thinking is on my mind.  It’s as though Thomas is saying that we creatures are all in a room together with the door closed.  There is a knock on the door, and we hear it.  The sound of the knocking is in the room with us, but the One Who Knocks is not.  The door is closed, and while we can hear the knock, we can’t say what the Knocking One is like—whether they are tall or short, whether woman or man, whether or not they are a shepherd or wearing roller skates. 
 
Thomas’ Five Ways are his noticing the sound of the knock, and concluding that Someone must therefore be on the other side of the door.  But he is careful to say that, on our own rational power, we cannot know anything about what that Someone is like—so long, that is, as the door remains closed.  Should this Someone open the door and step into the room, well, that would reveal to us a great deal which we could not otherwise know.
 
All this is on my mind this Advent, especially this year.  We say each year that Advent is a season of preparation, expectation, and waiting on the Messiah.  And our behavior changes accordingly.
 
There is a Christmas tree in the living room, for example, with presents under it.  From this we might conclude that whoever lives in this house has family or friends with whom they expect to exchange gifts; this is the cause of the tree and gifts.  We might further conclude that they love each other.  And we might further observe that these creaturely actions of festive tree-decorating and affectionate gift-giving depend on a particular point in the calendar which human communities have been observing for centuries.  So not only do these folks love each other now, but they are part of a much older historical community for whom this particular point in the calendar is important.  And from this, in turn, we might arrive at something like the Church and the life of a man named Jesus.
 
This is so much knocking on the door.  Clearly, Someone is waiting to come in.  If we are wise, however, we will admit that for much of our lives, we have known very little about who this Knocking One is.  We know a great deal more about gifts and decorated fir trees. We might even know a great deal more about Church History.  (Or Thomas Aquinas, as the case may be.)
 
I don’t say that pejoratively; I like gifts and Christmas trees alongside everybody else (and I like Thomas Aquinas alongside a subset of far fewer people)!  But we need to take our cues from Thomas: the signs we see in the world tell us that Someone is knocking, but they don’t tell us what that Someone is like.  We have to wait on them to open the door in order to know that.  When the door opens, One will enter who is not bound by the kinds of cause-and-effect which we see in the world around us.  Instead,
 
the sun will be darkened,
   and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
   and the powers in the heavens will be shaken
(Mark 13:24-25)
 
It’s always a bit jarring to read these Advent scriptures during the time of tinsel and Amazon sales.  The gifts and the cookies and the trees always come alongside John the Baptist’s proclaiming the repentance of sins and Isaiah’s reminder that “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.  The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass [and only] the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:6-8).  Fa la la la la, la-la, la la.
 
What I am realizing this year is that, not only do I know very little about the Knocking One, but I’ve never even been particularly good at listening to the Knock.  The uncomfortable truth is that for Christians, these prophetic texts are part of the Knock.  It’s just that usually, we hear them as a kind of interruption: quit that knocking out there, Whoever you are, we’ve got to get these cards in the mail and beat the rush at Target!
 
But this year is different.  Everything in creation’s room is in disarray.  It’s lonely.  We’re anxious.  We’re having to let go of our dependence on more perfect things like in-person community and the fullness of worship, and instead we are dependent for our physical safety on less perfect things like isolation and masks and Facebook and being outside in the cold.  This year, when God knocks on the door of the universe, maybe we hear the voice of the prophets and think, oh thank God, we’re going mad in here.  We’ll repent, turn to the Lord—whatever it takes, just get in here already!
 
This has been true for me, and I know it has been true for many of you, too.  Marriages have fractured; some have fractured and begun to heal.  Relationships to alcohol have been re-evaluated or ended completely.  The griefs we have for so long refused have finally been grieved.  Jobs have been lost and gained; still others have been revealed as hollow.  Rest has come now that we’ve reckoned with the fact that our own strength and productivity were the very things wearing us down.  In the absence of the usual levels of activity around us, we are realizing that we’ve always been asleep to our own desires.  Or waiting on someone else to handle the important things for us.
 
Our souls are older now.
 
Many of us this year have faced the hard truth that nothing in creation that we ever sought or sought to avoid has ever been enough, not even sunflowers and Christmas trees.  Even more perfect things, like friends and family, we habitually load with burdens of desire and expectation which they were never meant to bear.  The conflicts we avoid, the necessary actions we merely think about instead of following through on—these are not gone just because we’ve stuck our noses in the corner.  Their continued presence haunts and does not absolve.
 
These dissatisfactions and struggles, the interminable silence and terrible inertias of soul, the damaging dependencies we never saw coming—all these are unsettling, but they are also part of the Knock.  These are the effects in a broken creation of the truth that God has made us for Himself and that we will find happiness in no other.  We are natural creatures with supernatural longings.
 
So much has been stripped from us this year that, oddly enough, we are more aware of this than ever before.  This would seem to fly in the face of the evidence.  Our spiritual lamps are trimmed and shining, and we are ready for the bridegroom, despite the darkness we feel around us.  Our souls are wearing their very best wedding clothes, despite the literal bathrobes and sweatpants in which we spend so much time these days.  The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart God will not despise (Ps. 51:18).
 
Remember: the Knock suggests that there is a God at the door, but it does not tell us what God will be like when we meet Him.  Put differently, your sense of yourself, the evidence you marshal in support of your own shame or inefficacy, it cannot and does not determine how God will greet you.  The Who of God is not determined by our usual conclusions and evidence.  In a bit more Thomistic mode, the Knocking One is not bound by the creaturely chains of dependence, of the usual modes of cause and effect.  Darkness is not dark to Him; the night is as bright as the day (Ps. 139:12). 
 
The reality is that many of us are more ready for the door to open than ever we have been.  So fear not when the stars seem to fall from your heavens, or when the sun and moon cease to give their light.  Fear not when you melt down in your closet so that the kids don’t hear your crying.  Fear not when your only accomplishment today was brushing your teeth, or when you remember that you never made it that far yesterday.  Fear not for loved ones whose decisions you cannot make, nor for your own decisions you cannot undo.
 
When the door opens at last, perhaps we will find that nothing is lost, but only changed.  We repent, though we scarcely know how.  With anticipation, with fear and trembling, even with hope.
 
Hark, a Knock upon the door.  The approach of One we do not know.
 
God’s Peace,
 
 
Fr. Daniel+
 
[1] The primary text is early in Thomas’ massive Summa Theologiae, which is divided up into parts, questions, and articles.  The Five Ways are found in the first part, question two, article three.  A common way of seeing this noted would be “Ia q. 2 a. 3,” or “Prima pars, q. 2, a. 3” or something similar.  Now that you know this, you’ll be extra fun at parties!
[2] No offense to sunflowers here, but for Thomas, a sunflower’s greater changeableness would make it less perfect than a heavenly body like the sun.
[3] Thomas’ exact words: “When the existence of a thing has been ascertained there remains the further question of the manner of its existence, in order that we may know its essence. Now, because we cannot know what God is, but rather what He is not, we have no means for considering how God is, but rather how He is not.”  See the introduction to question three of the first part of the Summa Theologiae.
[4] See note above.