Blessed are the Pure in Heart . . .
… For they shall see God. When Dante visits Heaven (in Paradisio), his guide is, most appropriately, Beatrice. Her name reflects what is known in theology as the ‘beatific vision.’ The beatific vision is the sight of God. In 1 Corinthians 13:12, St. Paul declared, “now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” John promised that we will see Christ as he is (1 John 3:2). St. Paul again said, in 2 Corinthians 3:16, “But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
In church parlance, we talk of Jesus ‘saving us from our sins.’ But what is he saving us for? We often say ‘so that we can go to heaven.’ But what is heaven, and why do we want to be there? Is it only so that we can escape the scary reality of death and eternal torment? The Christian tradition has rarely focused on salvation simply as means to escape death (though that is, of course, part of it). Instead, theologians from both the East and the West, as diverse as Gregory of Nyssa, St. Augustine, and Jonathan Edwards have all declared that the goal of our life is to see God, that is, the beatific vision.
When I first encountered the idea of the beatific vision, I was a little skeptical. I couldn’t help but think of a bunch of people sitting on clouds staring in calm meditation at the face of God, or picturing a more Buddhist-like ‘one with everything,’ where we all dissolve into this perfect ray of light. But I have come, through my reading, to a different image. To see God means to come into union with Him. The fourth century theologian St. Athanasius said, “God became man that man might become God.” By this, he didn’t mean an eradication of the ontological difference between creator and creation, but what is commonly referred to as ‘deification.’ To be deified means to embody the qualities of God. St. Athanasius is not saying that we will become God in an ontological sense, but rather that we will be intimately united with God through love. For St. Augustine, the beatific vision was primarily about being brought into the communion of God so that we can see God face to face at the end of time through the bond of love. To see God as he is, face to face, is to join in the creative, ‘musical’ expression of God, to join in the ‘dance’ of the Trinity. In the words of D. B. Hart “The way of finitude [that is, the way of createdness] is not one of departure from and return to an ideal purity, but one of contingent participation and implication in the infinite expression of God’s love, a progress not of ideal reduction but of glorification, endless “musical” enrichment.” (The Beauty of the Infinite, 207).
Think of the world around us. North America alone has vast topological difference, impressive geological formations, beautiful mountains, and stunning coastlines, not to mention a magnificent array of flora and fauna. We are told that the heavens declare the glory of God (Ps. 19:1). The beauty, creativity, and diversity of creation reflect the Creator. What we see here is but a dim foretaste of God’s infinite beauty and goodness. Thus, looking at creation reminds me that to be united with God, to achieve the beatific vision, is not a boring assimilation, but a loving and gracious gift of God—allowing us to be united with Him in his wild, creative love.
The beatific vision is something that we will not achieve until after we die. We look forward to the day when we can see God as he is, face to face. But this does not mean we should be sitting on our hands right now. The desire to see God, to be united with him glows perpetually in our hearts. Everything we do in the here and now ought to come out of our desire to achieve closer union with God. Thus, our morality is one more expression of our desire to be closer to God. Virtue in and of itself is not the highest good (as the Stoics thought); but rather, the highest good and end goal of our life is to be united with God. Evil is incompatible with God, and we seek (through Christ and with the help of the Holy Spirit) to cleanse ourselves and grow in virtue, always looking forward to the day when we will join God in his creative dance, when we will see not as through a glass darkly, but face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12).
This article was first published at Logos-think on July 30.
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