By Michael Foley
Years ago Joni Oeltjenbruns wrote a lift-the-flap book called Where is God? In the story, a baby searches for God in his house. Is God behind the door? Under the bed? On the last page, the answer is revealed: God is inside you and me, with the flap revealing a heart and a cross.
Where is God? is designed for children five and under, and its answer about God’s “location” is a good approximation for that age group. I had not heard of it when I wrote Gus Finds God (my artistic inspiration, as I will explain in a moment, was elsewhere), but I had another light to guide me: Augustine of Hippo (354-430). St. Augustine, whose feast we celebrate today, shares the spotlight with St. Thomas Aquinas as the Church’s greatest theologian. Augustine led a lusty and riotous life, hooking up with a couple of mistresses and fathering an illegitimate child before converting to Christianity. Once converted, however, Augustine put the same gusto into his new life as he had into his old, tirelessly defending the Faith against heretics and schismatics as a priest and bishop, writing the world’s first and still most beautiful autobiography (the Confessions), and articulating Christian dogmas in ways upon which both Catholics and Protestants still rely.
Not exactly grist for children’s literature. Nor, you might think, is book ten of his Confessions, where Augustine searches for God by asking the question, “What is it that love when I love my God?” For those of you who have had a course on Augustine or philosophy, you may recall that this is usually called the Confessions’ “book on memory,” and indeed it presents a fascinating account of human memory and its various “caverns.” But most people forget that Augustine does not begin there; he begins with the world around him, directly asking parts of creation if they are God and listening as they “speak” back to him. Only after the parts of creation assure him that they are not God but the work of His hands does Augustine move on to consider how God is—and is not—“inside” him.
I always loved this conversation between Augustine and the creatures and elements around him, especially as it is brought to life in Frank Sheed’s charming translation, and I also loved Augustine’s colorful description of memory, which in some ways is a less dramatic but more coherent version of the movie Inside Out. One day I told my wife Alexandra how all of this reminded me of the old Tootsie Pop commercial, the one where the little boy goes around asking various woodland creatures how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop. Even the commercial’s hilarious language, so lofty for so silly a quest, was reminiscent of Sheed’s eloquent rendering and the playful tone of these passages.
Well, Alexandra replied, you should make this section into a children’s book. And so I did, but not without the help of a very talented illustrator and good friend. Andrea Dahm took my text and my crude sketches and transformed them into what I am sure you will agree is an adorable artistic achievement. And if you look very closely at page 8, you will see how we pay tribute to that Tootsie Pop commercial.
So what did Augustine find when he found God? The simple answer is that he discovered that God is spirit and not body. (Sure, God became man in the person of Jesus Christ, but God as God remains pure spirit.) Augustine realized that God is very real, but unlike other real things (like Tootsie Pops), He is not a spatial or material thing. God is not in space; instead there is a way in which space is “in” God (I know—whoa).
Happily, Augustine found a way to kind of understand this with something much closer to home: the mind. Your very own mind is also something that is real but not spatial. We know that the mind is not spatial because it is not material; it is not identical to the brain or reducible to the brain’s neurological activities. We know that it is real because if it didn’t exist we couldn’t make up arguments either for or against its existence. Understanding the nature of your own mind is therefore a stepping stone to understanding the nature of God, however imperfectly. This link between mind and God makes sense, since we know that man is made in the image and likeness of God and that this image has to do primarily with his (rational) soul rather than his body.
Putting these pieces together, Augustine recommended a journey of “outer-inner-upper”—understood metaphorically rather than spatially, of course.
Outer: Consult the world around you and realize that the universe could not have made itself, that its very existence “speaks” of a good and loving Maker.
Inner: Discover that your mind is somehow greater than the physical universe because it can ask questions about the universe and even know it, and knowing is a very great thing. Indeed, even when the bodily senses and the brain are involved, knowing is not an intrinsically physical act but an intelligent and spiritual activity.
Upper: Realize that your knowing mind, this superior intelligent reality that scrutinizes the whole of the universe and transcends the physical, does not and cannot derive its amazing power from itself but is somehow participating in an Ultimate Intelligibility above and beyond it. And this Ultimate Intelligibility we call God.
This is all heady stuff, and to be honest, Gus Finds God barely scratches the surface. But it is still a fun romp for all ages, and our hope is that the book equips minds young and old for when their restless hearts are again prompted to answer the question, “Where is God?”
Michael P. Foley is a husband, a father of six, and an Associate Professor of Patristics in the Great Texts Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He is the author of Gus Finds God, a children’s book that helps children channel their natural curiosity about the world toward God.