By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
I recall playing with my nephew Lucas, who was roughly 2 years old at the time. I held up a mirror to him, and asked him whose picture he saw in the mirror. He shouted, “That’s Lucas!” I responded, “But who is Lucas?” With a happy giggle, he squealed, “Me!”
How did he learn that he could refer to himself using the pronouns “I” and “me”? I am no child psychologist, but I imagine that one mile-marker in Lucas’ development was his acquired ability to distinguish himself from the objects and other human beings around him. He gradually came to realize that his own thoughts and body were connected to but independent of the world around him, and that through speech he could interact with those who spoke to him.
You may never have pondered the philosophical underpinnings of the pronoun “I,” but it is fundamentally a path, perhaps the first and most natural path, to God. To be a being capable of saying “I,” you must implicitly be aware of other beings who are distinct from you, and of objects that are independent of your existence. Your “I,” in other words, presupposes and even demands a “you” capable of responding, of entering into dialogue, of forming a human relationship rooted in play, friendship, and ultimately love. Physically, our progression from a helpless newborn baby to a grown adult highlights our dependence on community, primarily the nurturing care of a mother and father, followed by the support of friends. The same is true for one’s intellectual and emotional development, though the mediating work of parents, teachers and coaches.
But this very development has at its core a subtle presupposition that rarely comes to mind. In our day-to-day lives, we simply assume that our thoughts make sense, that we can communicate effectively when we interact with a fellow human being. We do not question our rationality, even though we have no way of proving the rationality of our thoughts – it is a logic non-starter to use the very rationality that you are trying to prove. But what is implicitly necessary to my self-awareness, that perception of myself as an independent thinker, as an “I”? God might not have been your first answer, but that is the correct one, and when I grasped why this is so, only the “mind-blown” emoji could capture my sentiments in that moment.
The basic insight, formulated beautifully by St. Thomas Aquinas, is this: all rational creatures implicitly know God in every thought they have. In recognizing myself as a being, I naturally want to know about other beings that I perceive with my senses. I can refer to an inanimate object as “it,” while other humans have the honor of being called “you.” But I do not stop at the surface-level of my senses. All true knowledge that I acquire orients me to a truth that exists regardless of whether I know it or not. That is why physicists speak of their joy at discovering the laws of nature rather than creating them. The very structure of my thinking draws me to a “You” prior to me who makes my thought possible, acting as the ground, the Logos, on which my own little logos can stand and operate. Philosophers have called this You the Unmoved Mover, the Uncaused Cause, Being Itself; but God is the best name for it. God makes possible my own being, and ensures that my rationality gives me access to the nature of things, to truth, to the source of all being. The simple fact that I exist, and that my logos can interact with and understand the world around me, is cause for infinite wonder, to say nothing of gratitude. And this humbling but exhilarating sense of gratitude for my being brings me to the threshold of faith in the God who both made this so and loves me so.
Little Lucas, of course, is blissfully unaware of all this, yet his childlike wonder at his own self prompted me to reflect on this mystery latent in every human mind. Perhaps St. Paul had in mind his own progression of wonder from childhood to spiritual adulthood when he wrote, “At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.