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Read Part 2 of "On Praise and Celebration" | Part
What I want to contend here is that, if we are Catholic, we can expect the
answers to these questions to be more likely to be rejected when they tell
us that we are made for joy than when they tell us that we walk here in
a valley of tears, which we obviously do. The great temptation to the faith
is not that it promises too little but that is promises too much. Paradoxically,
Catholicism is rejected in all likelihood because it is too plausible, not
because it is insufficiently intellectual. Catholics act at times almost
as if they are afraid of what the faith implies. The claim to truth is a
very counter-cultural position. Modern "dialogue Catholicism,"
as I call it, has taken the non-confrontational tack of insisting on exchange
but not in insisting in conclusions to dialogues. Dialogue seems to go on
forever with everyone afraid to conclude anything that would "offend"
any position. The world seems to be filled with people afraid to discover
the truth of things.
We are ever busy finding what is true, or at least plausible, in other religions
and philosophies, but we seldom find or speak what is wrong in them. No
one is to be "offended," in a world in which, contrary to its
own heritage, we dare not admit some things are wrong, some things are not
good. Little urgency is found in the pursuit of dialogue. Yet, dialogue
in the classical sense had something pressing about it, something demanding
a resolution to asked questions about ultimate things. Platos dialogues
and Augustines dialogues all reach conclusions. It is not as if erroneous
positions are not lived out in practice. Philosophies and religions produce
their own culture in which their subtle theoretical positions are embedded
in practice. Dialogue is not merely theoretical, but cultural. If we hold
in theory that all is relative, that no position can claim any truth, that
we can pursue our own "values" whatever they are, that we have
a "right" to do as we think, whatever it is, then we live in a
world of lethal chaos. Theory justifies action and action flows from theory.
Modernity has sought to replace theology with anthropology. That is, everywhere
we look, we see not God but man. Human works and ideas are embodied not
merely in personal lives but in society and even in nature. The human mind,
no longer dependent on a theory of nature and natures God, depends
on itself alone. What it makes or conceives, simply is, with nothing to
which to compare it. No alternative exists except a change of mind, which
is always possible and contains the same justification as any other the
original effort to make a man-made world.
The question we ask here then is not merely one of a praise of fine actions,
but whether there is anything to celebrate, anything not made by us. Catholicism
is a religion of Incarnation. Most of the historical heresies of our faith
have arisen around the truth of whether God became man, or better, over
a rejection of this possibility. There is a curious irony in the fact that
the Incarnation meant that the Word, the second Person of the Trinity, became
man. In one sweeping act, as it were, God, man, and world were united in
one being within the universe. This meant that while searching the universe,
we did somehow encounter man, but not merely human man, but Word, eventually
Word made flesh.
It has been the belief of modern atheism that if we eradicate God from man
and the world, we will keep everything for ourselves. And when we have succeeded
in this effort, what we have left is ourselves, only now it is an ourselves
deliberately functioning minus those reaches within ourselves that take
us beyond ourselves, with neither grace nor acknowledged being. For there
is now nothing beyond ourselves. Catholicism says of the world that it need
not exist, but it does exist. The reason it can affirm this truth is because
it has a theory of God that allows it, a theory of the super-abundant inner
life of the Godhead, what we call the Trinity. Catholicism argues that God
would be God even if the world did not exist. Thus it logically argues that
the world would not be the world if God did not exist. If we think God out
of existence, we think ourselves and the world out of existence. Yet, we
cannot and do not give ourselves existence.
Catholicism does not hold, however, that the divine creation of man and
the world means that man has nothing meaningful to do within the world.
It holds in fact the opposite, teaching that what is to be done in the world
is a free imitation of what is the inner essence of the Godhead out of which
the world was created. And at the peak of this world stands the free human
creature whose inner purpose in his very creation was beyond himself. He
was created for something more than, beyond the world, beyond even the natural
capacities of his own rational being. And this is why man is not really
at home in the world, even though it is his natural habitat.
If this paradox is the case, any effort to pretend that the world is sufficient
for man is bound to distort his very essence or purpose by implying that
some other end is available to him. Well, there is another end available
to him, that is, himself, forever. This is the essential definition of hell,
that there is only himself. This alternative of the self is deliberately
chosen in preference to an end that man did not create or give himself but
one to which he is invited, even though he cannot by himself quite know
what he is invited to until he accepts the invitation.
The essential search of man in this world has been for an explanation of
what he is and why he is. It has been an effort to find out the meaning
of his existence, the giving of which he is not the cause. His essential
temptation is to choose too lowly, to prescribe for himself an end that
is not worthy of the one to which he is properly invited. Marx said, in
his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, that everywhere we look
we want to see only man, in nature, in society, in culture. All marks of
God are to be replaced by human rational that would indicate that man does
not have a transcendent origin beyond himself. The principal and perhaps
the only alternative to this view today is that of classical Catholicism,
though there is Islam, which denies both Incarnation and Trinity and sees
man as only subject to Allah. What is under fire is not the Catholicism
that is in agreement with a world evaporated of both nature and Incarnation,
but the Catholicism that is not.
And the essence of this struggle concerns whether there is something worth
celebrating, some proper form of celebration that sums up, at the same time,
why there is so much evil in the world and why there is something
worth having simply because it is. In the end, man cannot give himself
what is worth celebrating and rejoicing about. The sacrifice of the Cross
has to be united to the Resurrection of the body in order that the final
purpose of the actual creation outside of God that we were given may be
made manifest. This celebration is what the Mass is ultimately about, why
it is not something that we concoct for ourselves but something that is
given to us as the primary contact that we have to the Godhead that sums
up the purpose of creation. God associates other free beings in their very
intelligence to Himself in that response of delight and wonder that alone
is something for its own sake, something that redeems the time and restores
the effects of the Fall.
"Religion has for centuries been trying to make men exult in the wonders
of creation," Chesterton said in his famous essay, "In Defence
of Nonsense," "but it has forgotten that a thing cannot be completely
wonderful so long as it remains sensible. So long as we regard a tree as
an obvious thing, naturally and reasonably created for a giraffe to eat,
we cannot properly wonder at it. It is when we consider it as a prodigious
wave of the living soil sprawling up to the skies for no reason in particular
that we take off or hats...." It is in this background alone, I think,
that we can begin to wonder what it is that there is to celebrate. Something
exists that need not be, a something that includes ourselves, something
so wondrous that we can only behold it in awe, in both silence and in dance,
which is really in a solemn way what our liturgy is about. But it is about
this world too for it is the Sacrifice of the Cross in which all that could
be saved, would be saved. What would not choose to be saved, not even God
We "praise God from whom all blessings flow," as the hymn goes.
But we celebrate what is because we did not create it, because it
is something that is not ours to make but only to behold and in which to
rejoice after the manner in which human, finite things rejoice. And it is
through the Word made flesh that we discover the purpose of why we exist
in the first place. We exist, briefly, to worship God, to celebrate in what
is given to us as the only proper way to worship God, something all men
have been seeking to discover from the beginning, even when they think they
are only seeing themselves in all that is. Dialogues that do not proceed
to the end of the argument are dangerous enterprises. The questions that
Charlie Brown asked during the night, "Why am I here?" "Does
my life have any meaning?" "What is the purpose of it all?"
these are proper questions of our kind.
Samuel Johnson rightly warned us not to praise something "too extravagantly."
Yet, when we come down to the central given meaning of "celebration"
in contrast to praise, we are to spend our lives, as Plato in his Laws
said, almost prophetically, in "singing, dancing, and sacrificing."
The extravagance of God in creating what is out of precisely nothing
bears all the marks of a divine madness or wisdom. It leaves us in an awed
silence that such things should be, that we are taken seriously in our freedom
so that we could be "unserious" also in our glory.
It is no accident that the Mass is a "Eucharist," a thanksgiving.
But it is a thanksgiving achieved at great cost, for it is a thanksgiving
that includes the redemption of our sins, even of those who choose not to
be redeemed. We are, ultimately, created to participate in the inner life
of God, something that transcends what we are. We are made for praise and
celebration. No lesser gift did God choose to give us. The heart of the
rejection of God is thus the claim that He gave us too much. We are not
prepared to accept that we are not sufficient to ourselves, that our glory
is more than what we can give ourselves.
The heart of the acceptance of God is simply the praise and celebration
by which we are to worship God not in the way we give ourselves, but in
the way He gave us, the way that includes the Cross on the road to Glory.
"Praise is given to virtue ... but celebrations are for successful
achievements." The worship by which we praise is at the same time already
a "successful achievement."
We are not to attempt to create for ourselves what is already given to us,
and that superabundantly. But we are to celebrate what is in the
only manner worthy of its celebration, something that we do not and cannot
give to ourselves. Ultimately, we receive glory if we are free enough to
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James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
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Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing,
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Read more of his essays on his
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