The Wisdom of God

Hitherto we have been considering the attributes relative to God's being itself: such as His simplicity, eternity, incomprehensibility. We must now treat of those relating to the Divine operations.

God, the self-subsisting Being, is by definition immaterial and therefore intelligent. The two great attributes of His intellect are wisdom and providence.

On the other hand, free will is an absolute perfection resulting from intellect. The act of the Divine will is love, and its two great virtues are justice and mercy. As for the external works of God, they have their source in omnipotence.
And so by degrees what may be called the spiritual features of God stand out more clearly. Just as with us, wisdom and prudence are found in the intellect, and in the will are found justice and the other virtues regarding our neighbor, so also in God's intellect are wisdom and providence, and in His will are justice and mercy. These are the Divine virtues, as it were, but with this difference, that obviously in God there can be no virtue regarding one who is superior to Him.

First of all we shall speak of the Divine wisdom. All that revelation and theology tell us about it, illumines their teaching on providence.

What are we to understand by wisdom?

Before we can attribute wisdom to God, we must know the meaning of the word, or what people usually understand by it. This will help us further to distinguish between two very different kinds of wisdom: the wisdom: of the world and the wisdom of God. That they know what wisdom is, is the boastful claim of all, even the skeptic, who would have it consist in universal doubt.

That wisdom is a comprehensive view embracing all things, everyone is agreed. But after that, what divergences there are! We may view things from above, believing that they all proceed from a holy love, or at least are permitted by it, and that all things converge upon one supreme good. Or we may view things from below, considering them the result of a material, blind fatality without any ultimate purpose. Another divergence is that there is a wisdom characterized by a false optimism, shutting its eyes to the existence of evil, and there is a pessimistic, depressing wisdom that sees no good in anything.

St. Paul often speaks of the wisdom of this world, which, he says, is stupidity or foolishness in the eyes of God (1 Cor. 3:19). Its peculiarity is that it views all things from below, estimating the whole of human life by the earthly pleasures it brings, or by the material interests to be safeguarded, or again by the satisfaction our ambition and pride may derive from it.

To adopt this attitude in our estimation of things, is to make of self the center of all things, unwittingly to adore self. Practically it amounts to a denial of God and a looking upon others as, so to speak, non-existent.

 If the worldling feels himself incapable of playing such a part, he takes as his standard of judgment the opinion of the world, and sometimes becomes its very slave that he may obtain its favors. In the opinion of the world wisdom in the conduct of life usually consists not in the golden mean between two extreme vices, but in an easy-going mediocrity lying midway between the true good and an excessive crudeness or perversity in evildoing. In the eyes of the world Christian perfection is as much an excess in one direction as downright wickedness is in the other. We must avoid extremes in everything, we are told. And so the mediocre comes to be called good, whereas it is nothing but an unstable, confused state lying between the good and the bad. People forget the meaning of the school marks given to children on their reports: very good, good, fair, mediocre, bad, very bad. The difference between the mediocre and the good is lost sight of, the one is confused with the other; instead of rising higher, a man will remain permanently halfway. Hence the word charity is sometimes applied to a reprehensible toleration of the worst evils. Calling itself tolerance and prudent moderation, this "wisdom of the flesh" is equally indulgent to vice and indifferent to virtue.

It is particularly severe toward anything of a higher standard and thus seems to rebuke it. Sometimes it even hates heroic virtue, which is holiness. We have an instance of this in the age of persecutions, which continued even under Marcus Aurelius. This emperor, though wise according to this world's standards, was never able to perceive the sublimity of Christianity, in spite of the blood of so many Martyrs.

As St. Paul says, this self-complacent wisdom is simply "foolishness with God" (1 Cor. 3:19). Because of its self-complacency it goes so far as to base all its estimations concerning even the most sublime things, even salvation, upon what is sheer mediocrity and emptiness. It completely overturns the scales of values and well deserves to be called stupidity.

It is clear, therefore, that true wisdom views things from a higher standpoint, considering them as dependent on God their supreme cause and directed to God their last end; whereas stupidity, the opposite of wisdom, is the outlook of the fool, who considers all things from the lowest standpoint, reducing them to the basest possible level, a material, blind fatality or the transitory pleasures of this present life. It was this that made our Lord say: "What doth it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul?" And St. Paul says: "If any man among you seem to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written: I will catch the wise in their own craftiness. And again: The Lord knoweth the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain. Let no man therefore glory in men" (1 Cor. 3:18-21).

In contrast to this let us see what the wisdom of God is, considering it first in itself and then in relation to ourselves.

The Divine wisdom in itself

In itself the Divine wisdom is the knowledge God has of Himself and of all things, in so far as He is their supreme cause and last end: the Divine knowledge of all things through their highest causes.

In other words, it is an uncreated luminous knowledge, penetrating God's entire being and from these heights extending eternally in all its purity and without contamination of any kind to everything possible as well as to everything that is or has been or will be, however lowly, however evil, and all this in a single glance and from the loftiest standpoint conceivable.
Let us pause to consider each of these terms and so obtain a glimpse of the wonders they seek to express.

a) Divine wisdom is an uncreated luminous knowledge. The Book of Wisdom tells us: "She is more beautiful than the sun ... being compared with the light, she is found before it. For after this cometh night, but no evil can overcome wisdom. ... She is a certain pure emanation of the glory of the almighty God: and therefore no defiled thing cometh into her. For she is the brightness of eternal light" (Wis. 7:25, 26, 29).

b) This uncreated luminous knowledge penetrates God's entire being. To His intelligence there is nothing in Him that is hidden, obscure, mysterious. We, on the other hand, are a mystery to ourselves, by reason of the thousand and one more or less unconscious movements of our sensibility influencing our judgments and our will; by reason, too, of the mysterious graces offered us and often perhaps indirectly rejected. Not even the most introverted souls can boast of a complete knowledge of self. "Neither do I judge my own self," says St. Paul. "For I am not conscious to myself of anything. Yet am I not hereby justified: but He that judgeth me, is the Lord" (1 Cor. 4: 3,4).

God's self-knowledge is absolutely complete, extending to all that is knowable in Him. Our knowledge of God is through creatures, as He is reflected in them; the knowledge God has of Himself is immediate.

The blessed in Heaven see Him face to face, but this does not thereby exhaust the infinite fullness of His being and truth. God's vision of Himself is both immediate and comprehensive. His infinite knowledge exhausts the infinite depths of truth in Him.

What is more, so completely does this luminous thought of His penetrate His wholly immaterial being, that it is absolutely identified with it. There is no slumber here to interrupt the spiritual life, no progress from an imperfect to a more perfect knowledge. He is essentially and from all eternity perfection itself, a pure intellectual flash subsisting eternally, the uncreated spiritual light transcending all things. (Cf. St. Thomas, Ia, q. 4, a. 1-4.)

c) From these heights God's knowledge extends instantaneously, in the unique instant of eternity, to every possible mode of existence, as well as to everything that exists now or has existed or will exist, however lowly, however evil.

In what way does God know every possible mode of existence, the innumerable, infinite multitude of beings that might exist? Through the exhaustive knowledge He has of His Own omnipotence, which is able to produce them. He is like the artist who delights in contemplating the exquisite works of art he has conceived and might execute, though they will never see the light of day.

And how does God know from His high abode the things that exist now, and all that has been or will be? Whence does He get this knowledge? Does He acquire it as we do from the things themselves as one after another they come into existence? We ourselves thus learn from events as they happen, and our knowledge, imperfect to begin with, becomes more perfect. But can God have anything to learn from facts as they occur? Obviously not; for His knowledge cannot pass from a less to a more perfect state: He is perfection itself. What then, must our answer be?

We must say, St. Thomas remarks (Ia, q. 14, a. 8), that whereas with us knowledge is gauged by the objects on which it depends, the wisdom of God is the cause of things; wisdom is their measure, they are not the measure of wisdom. Divine wisdom is the cause of things as the art of the sculptor is the cause of the statue, as Beethoven's art produced his immortal symphonies, as Dante's art produced the Divine Comedy.

But the sculptor's work is no more than a lifeless statue; the great musician or the great poet can only weave a harmony of sounds or words to express his thought. God, however, through His wisdom can create beings that are living, conscious, intelligent: human souls and myriads of angels. "God's knowledge in conjunction with His will is the cause of things as the artist's art is the cause of the work of art" (Ia, q. 14, a. 8).

God, in fact, can no more go a begging to created things for His wisdom than Beethoven could learn anything new from his own score: that is quite clear. God can have nothing to learn from events as they occur; on the contrary, it is from the fecundity of His knowledge that He confers existence upon them. The reason is that His knowledge extends not only to all that He is Himself, but also to all that He can do, to all that He actually realizes, whether by His own power exclusively as when He created in the beginning, or with and through our co-operation as when He directs us to the free performance of our everyday actions. In the unique instant of eternity, God already knows all that will come to pass --- all the prayers, for instance, that under His direction we shall freely offer Him later on in order to obtain the graces we need. We will return to this point when we come to speak of providence.

Obviously, then, God's knowledge, far from being caused by things as it is with us, is itself their cause; they are the works of the divine art, of God's genius.

But are these created things known to God only in a general, vague way, or distinctly and to the last detail? Revelation tells us that "all the ways of men are open to His eyes" (Prov. 16:2), that the very hairs of our head are all numbered, that even the least of our actions are known to Him.

Why is this? Because in the production of every least thing God concurs, as to whatever reality and goodness are in it. Only one thing God cannot produce, and that is sin; for sin as such is a disorder, and disorder has no being but is simply the absence of what ought to be. Since, then, the Divine causality embraces all things, down to the least detail, so also must the Divine knowledge; for obviously God knows all that He does Himself and all that He concurs in producing. As for sin, He merely permits it, tolerates it in view of some greater good. It is through this permission that He has knowledge of it; and He sees it in its final overthrow, which in its own way will once more contribute to the manifestation of the good. We shall see this truth more clearly when we come to speak of God's providence.
Therefore, God's knowledge of whatever reality and goodness there is in the universe is from Himself; the source upon which He draws for that knowledge is Himself.

The Divine wisdom compared with the highest human wisdom

With us, the knowledge of spiritual and Divine things is obtained from below, in the mirror of sensible things. God, on the other hand, views all things from on high, in Himself and His own eminent causality.

Do what we may, we here on earth see the spiritual and the Divine only through their reflection in material things. It is owing to this that we attach immense importance to material happenings, such as the loss of an eye, whereas events of the spiritual world, with consequences that are incalculable, are allowed to pass almost unnoticed, such as an act of charity in the order of goodness, or in the sphere of evil a mortal sin. In other words, we see the spiritual and the Divine as in the twilight, in the shadow of the sensible; to use the expression of St. Augustine, ours is an evening vision.

With God it is quite the contrary. In the light of an eternal morning His knowledge is first of all directed to Himself, and in His own very pure essence He sees from above all possible creatures, and those that now exist or have existed or will exist. It is from on high and in spiritual things that He sees the material. To hear a symphony, He has no need of senses as we have; His knowledge of it is from a higher source, in the musical law that gave it birth, and thus it far surpasses the knowledge of the genius who composed it.

It is not through the body that God views the soul of the just; it is rather through the soul that He views the body as a sort of radiation of the soul. Hence His sight is not dazzled by outward show, by wealth and its trappings; what counts with God is charity. A beggar in rags but with the heart of a Saint, is of incomparably greater worth in the sight of God than a Caesar in all the splendor of his human glory. Again, to Him there is an immense difference between a little child before it is Baptized and the same child after Baptism.

Looked at in the light of this world our Savior's passion appears to us enshrouded in gloom, but how radiant it must be when seen from on high, as the culminating point of history, that point to which everything in the Old Testament led up and from which everything in the New descends!

God does not see created things immediately in themselves, in the dim glimmer of their created illumination, as though descending to their level and made dependent on them; He sees them in Himself and His own radiant light. God cannot see created things except from above: any other mode of knowledge would argue imperfection and would cease to be Divine contemplation. Whatever reality and goodness there is in creatures is seen by the Divine wisdom as a radiation of the glory of "Him Who is."

Whereas we can hardly conceive of eternity except by relating it to the particular time period in which we live, God sees the whole succession of time periods in the light of an unchanging eternity. As a man standing on the summit of a mountain takes in at a single glance all who follow one another in the plain below, so also in one eternal instant God sees the entire succession of time periods; our birth simultaneously with our death, our trials with the glory they merit, the sufferings of the just with the endless spiritual profit resulting from them. He sees the effects in their causes, and the means in the ends they subserve.

 The lives of the Saints are very beautiful even in their external aspect as history records them; but they are incomparably more beautiful in the mind of God, who sees everything in its true inwardness and from above, who sees directly the grace in the souls of the just with their actual degree of charity and the degree they will have reached at the end of their journey. He sees our lives in the light of the Divine idea directing them, an idea that will be fully realized only in heaven. Between God's wisdom and ours there is all the difference we observe between a stained-glass window as seen from within the church and as seen from without.

This infinite wisdom of God has been revealed to us in the person of our Lord the incarnate Word, in His life and preaching, His death, resurrection, and ascension. Our Lord has bestowed upon us a participation in this selfsame divine wisdom through living faith illumined by the gifts of the Holy Ghost, the gifts of wisdom and understanding, enabling us to penetrate and experience the sweetness of the mysteries of salvation. Let our practical conclusion be to accustom ourselves by degrees to see all things from God's higher point of view, considering them not as something that may give us pleasure or satisfy our self-love and pride, but in their relation to God the first cause and last end. In the spirit of faith and by the dim light it sheds let us accustom ourselves gradually to see all things in God. Let us see in the pleasant events of our life the tokens of God's goodness, and also in the painful and unexpected afflictions a call to a higher life, as being so many graces sent for our purification, and therefore often more to be prized than consolations. St. Peter crucified was nearer to God than on Thabor.

By thus accustoming ourselves to live by faith and the gift of wisdom we shall become every day better fitted to enter into that knowledge which is to be ours at the end of our journey through life. We shall then see God face to face, and in Him all that emanates from Him, especially those things we have loved on earth with a supernatural love. St. Francis and St. Dominic thus behold in God the destinies of their orders, and a Christian mother on entering heaven sees in Him the spiritual needs of the son she has left on earth and the prayers she must offer for him.

This wisdom corresponds to the beatitude promised to peacemakers. In Heaven, of course, it will be the source of unchanging peace as well as perfect joy; here on earth, even when the joy is absent, it brings us peace, that tranquillity which comes from order through union with God.