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God is not Abstract

Updated: Jan 12, 2023

Romano Guardini has greatly influenced many thinkers of the Church.  A young Pope Francis was so impressed by him that he once began a doctoral dissertation on him.  In the Encyclical Laudato Si, Guardini is cited many times.  Pope Benedict the XVI wrote the foreword to a reprint of Guardini’s The Lord.  He also honored him by writing a book named The Spirit of the Liturgy, in homage to Guardini’s own work of the same title. Both men saw Guardini’s approach to combating modern errors as especially relevant to the current time.

Guardini could see the struggles the Church had coming to grips with the issues of the modern world.  The philosophy and theology he had learned left him feeling empty and as if something were missing. Although they often demonstrated abstract truths, many times it wasn’t enough to convince the world of the truths of Christ. Guardini saw that far from being abstract, God was a personal being of love.  That remains the truth that needs to be proclaimed.

Guardini grew up in a typical Catholic family, but as he grew up, he found himself ill-equipped to deal with modernist atheistic and agnostic ideas he encountered at the University of Munich. Although he studied the philosophical and abstract ideas of God, he did not truly understand until he found Matthew 10:39, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” This verse profoundly changed how he understood the relationship of God, His Church, and every believer.

Guardini saw that modern people struggle to find meaning. “His anxiety is caused by lacking a place in reality, either symbolic or real” (The End of the Modern World 35). He is left without security and so comes to look for meaning in himself, instead of his creator. At best, God is re-conceived so as to not make any demands.

In the modern world, those who believe in God tend toward one of two errors: a god who is completely transcendent and unconcerned with the world or a god who is completely immanent inside the world.  On one side, we emphasis the power of God and lose his benevolence.  On the other side, God loses his omnipotence, but becomes less threatening to men. More than anything the modern world seeks comfort over truth.

The completely transcendent god is known as deism.  This is a god who creates the world and then abandons it or a platonic god who creates out of necessity.  This is a non-benevolent god.  A god who creates the world for its own reasons or an Aristotelian god who doesn’t create at all.  It is a cold and impersonal god. This “conception isolates him in celestial unapproachability” (The Lord 15).

The other god is a god that is present in everything.  This god is made up of all things.  It is not being, but is made up of all beings.  We are all god because god is in us. This is a god made in the image of men to suit the desires of men. This is a god that lacks omnipotence, for it is a god that is limited by the same limitations as all men. This “spiritual and intellectual poverty is accompanied by a colossal pride. Man is morbidly... arrogant. The nations are confused by pride... parties are blinded by self-seeking... Every social class deifies itself” (The Church and the Catholic 30).

Both of these ideas have made a fundamental mistake.  They conceive of god as an abstract concept or the abstract power of all men. The God of the universe cannot be constrained by His own creation. Even more importantly, He is a personal God.  He is a God who created the universe out of pure love.  This God loves creation into existence to share His glory with all of creation.  Only persons can love and the only real motivation can be love. “Before such an unheard of thought the intellect bogs down... but love does such things!” (The Lord 17).

God is not merely the absolute or the eternally immutable.  “He is the living one, the close one, the one forever drawing near in holy freedom.  He is the lover who not only operates but specifically acts in love” (The Lord 125).  Natural Theology or Philosophy is not sufficient to know God although it can help point us in the right direction when used properly.  He must reach down to us and it is from the depths of His love that He makes Himself known to us.  It is true that God is the absolute, but He cannot be limited to such terms.  Human reason can give us a hint of Him, but we can only know more of Him by uniting to Him in love.

Guardini strove to remind the world that God’s love and truth are personified in His son, Jesus Christ. The modern world has grown skeptical and the love of their heart has grown cold. They see the man and think, he is a good man.  He is a profound teacher.  But is he divine?  No, no more than any other man may be.

They see Siddartha Guatama (the Buddha) or they look to Socrates and think to themselves, ‘Ah, Jesus is like these.’  These men have also founded religions and philosophies; they are all paths up the mountain to God. Jesus does not leave us this option, however.

Jesus is not merely a wise man. He did not struggle to find eternal truth like Socrates. “Jesus, who was Truth, never sought it” (The Lord 417). Jesus and Socrates are hardly comparable at all. Jesus is the truth that Socrates sought to learn, even though Socrates never found the real object of his wisdom.

Jesus does not point away from himself as the Buddha did. Buddha says, do not look to me, look to my teaching. Jesus “is the Son of the living God, the incarnate Logos” (The Lord 419).  Buddha sought to explain the world, Jesus is the intelligibility of the world itself. Buddha wants to remove suffering by removing love, but Christ tells us to embrace our suffering so we may love more deeply!  How profoundly different are these two.

Jesus does not fit into any of these molds.  We cannot fit Christ into philosophy or psychology, “we only destroy the mystery and with it Christianity and our own salvation by attempting to see Jesus along the lines of a Buddha or a Socrates of any other great man” (The Lord 419). The essence of Christianity is a Person. God enters the world to love us. He cannot be reduced to a teacher for He is the only Truth by which salvation is possible.

“The Truth on which my salvation depends is a Fact, a concrete reality.  Christ and the Church are that truth” (The Church and the Catholic 24). We cannot ignore the real and historical person of Christ.  God enters history for us, embodied and tangible.  He established a Church so that we might know that He is the way, the truth, and the life.  “The truth of Christianity does not consist of abstract tenets and values, which are ‘attached to the Church’” (The Church and the Catholic 25). Merely human institutions do not demand complete adherence. Men may conform or not at their own discretion.  But Christ and His Church demand that we conform because our salvation relies on them.

The Church is a Spiritual reality, but she is also a concrete reality. Eternity enters time in the Church.  Men are part of the Church, but the Church is not made by men.  The Church is a unique institution because she is made up of men, but simultaneously surpasses the limitations of men. We are confronted with the historical reality that everything man touches is mixed with both good and bad.  So, men in their weakness wound the Church, but as the body of Christ she remains unblemished and makes evil men holy.  It is the greatest of tragedies that we attempt to remake the Church in our own image rather than conforming ourselves to Christ through His Church. “To be a Catholic, however, is to accept the Church as he is, together with her tragedy” (The Church and the Catholic 26).

Just as there is no god of the philosophers or a Christ who is only a human teacher, “there is no place for Church of aesthetes, an artificial construction of philosophers, or congregation of the millennium” (The Church and The Catholic 26).  The Church does not exist only to teach abstract dogmas (although she does, and they are important) nor for beauty (although she is, and inspires awe), but she exists so we might experience Christ through her, especially through the Liturgy and Sacraments.

There is a tendency in the modern age to reduce worship of God to a concert or a party, through which each person seeks an emotional high. It is more about the individual and the relationship of that individual to those around him. This is a profound mistake. “In the liturgy God is to be honored by the body of the faithful, and the latter is in its turn to derive sanctification from this act of worship” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, ch 1). We come together in community to focus vertically on God, not to see what we can get out of it.

“The liturgy is not celebrated by the individual, but by the body of the faithful... it reaches out beyond the bounds of space to embrace all the faithful on earth [and in heaven]” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, ch 2).  Each individual is incorporated into the body of Christ. In the Liturgy we renounce our independence and focus on our complete reliance on God and join together with each other to view a glimpse of the Heavenly banquet that God has prepared for us. “In the liturgy man is no longer concerned with himself; his gaze is directed towards God. In it man is not so much intended to edify himself as to contemplate God's majesty” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, ch 5).

Finally, in the modern age, there is a preference of the will over the truth. There is a great skepticism as to whether anything can even be known. The Church demonstrates the truth, “in the liturgy the Logos has been assigned its fitting precedence over the will... its apparent consummation entirely in the contemplation, adoration and glorification of Divine Truth” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, ch 6). The Church knows there is no tension between logos and ethos.  Ethos flows from logos, and the Liturgy demonstrates this by focusing our actions on the Truth, that has been personified in Jesus Christ.

In a modern reprinting of The Lord, Pope Benedict XVI wrote “Guardini... has helped more than one generation of Christians enter into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ.”  Guardini reminds the world that you cannot love ideas, only persons.  When you separate the truth from love, that truth is cold and sterile. Love without truth is confused and listless. Love and truth are perfectly united in the person of Jesus Christ, and He sets us free.  This is the good news that the entire world needs to hear.


Works Cited

Guardini, Romano. The Church and the Catholic. Translated by Ada Lane.  Veritatis Splendor Publications, 2012.

Guardini, Romano. The End of the Modern World. Translated by Elinor C Briefs. ISI Books, 1998.

Guardini, Romano. The Lord. Translated by Elinor C Briefs. Gateway Editions, 1996.

Guardini, Romani. The Spirit of the Liturgy. Translated by Ada Lane. Sheed & Ward Inc. Accessed 17 February 2020.



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