The Mystery of Man Mirrors the Enigma of God

There are many ways we are images of God.

In two of his treatises, Augustine suggests that man even has a mysteriousness about him that reflects the ineffability of God:

First, in the Confessions, Augustine regards man as one of the greatest wonders of creation:

Great is this power of memory, exceeding great, O my God — an inner chamber large and boundless! Who has plumbed the depths thereof? Yet it is a power of mine, and appertains unto my nature; nor do I myself grasp all that I am. Therefore is the mind too narrow to contain itself. And where should that be which it does not contain of itself? Is it outside and not in itself? How is it, then, that it does not grasp itself? A great admiration rises upon me; astonishment seizes me. And men go forth to wonder at the heights of mountains, the huge waves of the sea, the broad flow of the rivers, the extent of the ocean, and the courses of the stars, and omit to wonder at themselves (Confessions, 10.8.15).

 

The wonder that is man is also a mystery—something hidden. Augustine hints at the truth in describing memory as “an inner chamber” that is “large and boundless.” He asks, “Who has plumbed the depths?” In his hiddenness, man also mirrors the mystery that is God. Augustine suggests this in his treatise, De Trinitate, in a discussion about how our memory reflects God the Father:

But there are more hidden depths in our memory, where we found this thing even when we thought about it for the first time, and where the innermost word is born that does not belong to any language—born as knowledge from knowledge and sight from sight, and understanding which is manifested in thought from understanding which was already lurking, but hidden, in memory (De Trinitate, 15.6).

Augustine’s suggestion is an intriguing one. It arises out of his thesis, building on St. Paul, that “the visible things are made known by the visible” (Romans 1:20). In other others, we can know God indirectly by looking at His creation. For Augustine, the created thing that tells us most about God is man. As Genesis says, we are made in His image. Even Paul says that we see God dimly in this life by looking into a mirror. (The phrase, “seeing through a glass darkly” in 1 Corinthians 13:12 is a really a reference to ancient mirrors. A more helpful but less poetic translation might be “seeing in a mirror dimly.”)

Of course, this does not mean we are our own gods—anymore than the image in the mirror is the same as the person in front of it. So, in De Trinitate, Augustine sets out to answer the question of how we are an image of God. How is God reflected in human nature?

Augustine goes to painstaking lengths to answer this question, eventually concluding that the trinity of our memory, understanding, and love mirrors the divine Trinity of the Father, Son, and Spirit.

What’s striking about the above quotations from the Confessions and De Trinitate is that Augustine is saying that even in our mysteriousness we are reflecting the truth of God’s hiddenness. Put another way: God is so mysterious that even one of the main ways He reveals Himself to us is itself a mystery. Ironically, one of His most profound revelations is done not by revealing things but instead by hiding something—the own depths of our nature.

This is both frustrating and encouraging. Frustrating because it reminds us of just how distant God can be from us. But also encouraging because God is still very near to us: He has chosen our very natures to be a form of disclosing Himself to us. We don’t have to climb the mountains or cross the oceans that Augustine spoke of to get close to God; we just have to look inward.

Augustine’s insight seems to be based on Scripture. Take Psalm 139:

You formed my inmost being;
you knit me in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, because I am wonderfully made;
wonderful are your works!
My very self you know.
My bones are not hidden from you,
When I was being made in secret,
fashioned in the depths of the earth (verses 13-15).

The author suggests that human nature is a thing “made in secret.” It’s fashioning happened in “the depths.” At the beginning of the psalm he says that God continues to know everything about us after our birth—our thoughts, the words we plan to speak, our plans for the future. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, far too lofty for me to reach” the psalmist says (verse 6). Our limited knowledge of ourselves is analogous to our limited knowledge of God.

But, if Augustine is right, then our limited knowledge, instead of closing God off to us, actually ends up leading to Him. If we want to ponder God’s depths, a first step may be to reflect on the mystery of human existence, the wonder of our minds, the eternal longings of our spirit and the complexities of the mind that continue to elude scientists and philosophers alike.

Fortunately, God, who is a God of abundance. In addition to providing us with our own personal means of seeing God indirectly, He has provided us with the supreme revelation, His final and complete disclosure of Himself to us in the Incarnation.

Put another way, in Christ we have been given a better mirror. As One who is full God and fully human Christ reveals both God and man to us. As the Second Vatican Council stated, Christ “fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et Spes, 22). Christ polishes the mirror so to speak, showing us how God should be reflected by man (see Romans 8:29 and Colossians 3:10). Thanks to the Incarnation, in this life, we still see in a glass darkly, but it is clearer and brighter than it otherwise would be.

Photo by Brandon Morales on Unsplash

Stephen Beale

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Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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