On What Is Impossible to God

In a letter to the Corinthians, Pope St. Clement (d. 99 A.D.) wrote: “Nothing is impossible to God except to tell a lie.” Technically, a lie is deliberately to state in words something that we do not hold in our understanding. For God to “lie” would mean that He informed us of one thing but He really stood for something else. Logically, this position would mean that God created in His Word a universe that did not reflect His being.

What we would find in objective reality, then, does not indicate anything about the origin of the universe or ourselves within it. In this view, even if human beings were the “image” of God, they would not reflect God’s truth or reality. To imitate God, then, would consist in the “freedom” to tell a lie. Strictly speaking, in such a system, a lie could not exist. Everyone would know that nothing anyone said was what he meant. We would be totally cut off from the world and from one another.

In reflecting on this affirmation that God cannot tell a lie, the first thing to ask is what I call the “Muslim question.” That is, in denying God “freedom” to tell a lie, do we limit Him? Do we blaspheme because we deny God the “natural freedom” of any ruler? When we say that “God’s ways are not our ways,” do we mean that our reason can have no opening to the Logos, to God’s truth?

Needless to say, this is the Machiavellian position. A ruler’s power requires the “freedom” to lie. Politicians who do not lie cannot withstand the power of those who do lie and deceive. The Machiavellian logic leads to a “no just God” view of the universe. The Muslim position results in a worship in which submission to Allah means he can do whatever he wants. We have no right or capacity to disagree with it.

The Aristotelian and Christian position is rather that, if God lies, He is not God. God cannot contradict reason, cannot deny His own Logos. What is at stake here is really the integrity of our minds. God does not lie to us about what is right or wrong, true or false. But He does allow us to lie to ourselves. Plato often noticed that the worst thing we could have would be a “lie” in our souls about the truth of being. And we could and do lie to ourselves when we want something that is out of order.

 St. Thomas Aquinas Confounding Averroës by Giovanni de Paolo, c. 1450

How does this lying to ourselves come about? Jay Budziszewski recently recalled to me the famous passage from St. Thomas:

Evil is never loved except under the aspect of good; that is to say, insofar as it is good under some aspect and is considered as being good simply. And thus a certain love is evil, insofar as it tends to that which is not simply good or true good. It is in this way that man loves iniquity, inasmuch as, by means of iniquity, some good is gained, as, for instance, pleasure, or money, or some such. (ST I-II, 27, I, ad 1).
By means of iniquity some good does come about, otherwise we would not be able to choose it. But we also realize that we are hiding something from ourselves. Our “love of iniquity” suppresses the whole good in which any good thing must exist to be what it really is.

A passage in Psalm 81 recently struck me: “But my people did not heed my voice and Israel would not obey; so I left them in their stubbornness of heart to follow their own designs.” The essence of evil is to follow our own designs because we do not want to see the whole in which all things that are, all things that exist, are good. We cannot love evil except that we see it as some good.

This fact is why we can always have some sympathy for the sinner. We can see that there are always some grounds for forgiveness. But there is this “stubbornness of heart” that incites us to love and “follow our own designs.” What remarkable lines those are from the Psalm and from St. Thomas!

We strive to “know ourselves,” as Socrates told us. When we do know ourselves as free and rational beings, we know that we live in a world in which all existing things are, in themselves, good. Yet, goodness follows being. We do not make the rules. But we can find them. God does not “lie” to us. Still, He does not create a universe in which we cannot lie to ourselves if we choose to love something “by means of iniquity,” by means of our own insisting that what we desire in its partiality is really all that is.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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