Born of the Virgin Mary | Paul Claudel | Selections from "I Believe In God: A Meditation on the Apostles' Creed"

Why Do We Exist? | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | March 13, 2006


I.

In one of his sermons, Leo the Great (d. 461 A.D.) remarked that "the great reason for the Transfiguration was to remove the scandal of the Cross from the hearts of his disciples, and to prevent the humiliation of His voluntary suffering from disturbing the faith of those who had witnessed the surpassing glory that lay concealed." One might wonder about this reasoning: if it took something so astonishing as the Transfiguration merely to "prevent the humiliation" of Christ’s voluntary suffering from disturbing the very faith of those who witnessed both – namely, Peter, John, and James – can we not conclude that this very "voluntary suffering" is an enigma of the deepest proportions? But might we also wonder whether any kind of suffering is not more difficult to comprehend than voluntary suffering? Understanding the voluntary is one thing, understanding suffering is another.

In Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, we find a discussion of what was called "the modern world" and its mind. The document sketches various ways modern man has concocted to avoid confronting the human condition. To justify their aberrant views, some find answers in "different philosophies." Others want to find solutions, but only by man's own efforts. Some just despair of finding any answers. Bravely, to their minds, these latter propose (as an act of mad courage) to face the world with no answers forthcoming. The only meaning one can find in the world is that which we elaborate for ourselves to explain why we have no explanations. Everyone lives in his own self-made world.

Yet the Council surmised that not a few honest people are "asking the most fundamental questions." What questions are these? The following are listed: "What is man? What is the meaning of pain, of evil, of death, which still persists in spite of great progress? What is the use of such successes (of progress), achieved at such a cost? What can man contribute to society? What will come after life on earth?" (GS 10). Such, we must admit, are basic questions. Never to have thought seriously of their implications reveals a certain unforgivable shallowness of spirit.

Sometimes, nonetheless, we wonder, "Are actual people really bothered by such ponderous inquiries?" Is it not best to ignore such apparently unanswerable questions proposed by pundits – academic, clerical, or otherwise? Are they not just questions designed to keep us in that "bondage" in which Aristotle, in the Metaphysics, said our nature was held? With worry over such wonderments, don’t we just give undue power to rash intellectuals and glib sophists spinning out their tales endlessly for both money and prestige?

To this latter question, of course, we might also suspect that it is precisely the intellectuals who most doubt that there are such fundamental questions, or even less, answers them. However, the old Socratic questions of how we should live and how we should examine our lives are queries that ordinary people do ask themselves, even midst all the business of the world. Indeed, precisely ordinary people, I suspect, are the ones most concerned about them. Their lives, in various ways, confront such issues all the time in the cultural chaos of meanings everywhere cast before them.

Not a few acute people, moreover, complain that all they ever hear in pulpits is "love," with little effort to explain how this issue is related to pain, sin, finiteness, or death. Love is presented without soberness or fidelity. No doubt the very purpose of Benedict XVI’s first encyclical was intended to address this question in its own way. But sin has also taken a hit in much public and ecclesial discourse. Finding sensible explanations of its consequences, of evil and of pain, is something many people long to hear.

II.

Here, however, I want to approach such problems from another angle. Not long ago, I received an e-mail from a friend of mine. The letter gave an account of the family, of trips, of the sickness of the local pastor, of the ordinary things that happen to ordinary people in an ordinary day in an ordinary town. At the end of the e-mail, however, I found the following perplexing query addressed to me.

My friend wondered if Schall has an answer to this question: "Being all-knowing, God must have known when He created us that we were going to suffer and cause Him to suffer as a result of the Fall. He loves us enough to have sent His Son to die for our redemption. Why do you think that He created us at all, loving us that much, yet knowing that we would have to struggle so hard against evil, and knowing that many of us would not be successful in that struggle?" That’s what I like! – a simple, straight-forward question that would need all 4006 pages of the Summa to answer adequately.

My friend added that this is "a basic question, I suppose." That is the understatement of the year! And finally, "I still don‘t ‘get it’! Can you explain this to me in terms that are easy for a simple person to understand." Needless to say, when asked in this very kind way, anyone, with full realization of what he does not know, really should take a stab at responding to such a frank question. Whether Schall "gets it" is of course highly problematic. And I have too infrequently been accused of making my answers especially "easy to understand." Still, I am not of the school of thought that prefers saying nothing to saying what one can. Our minds are not merely instruments for posing questions, but for taking the effort to find answers to them. We have just enough light, I think, to suspect that the very effort to answer such questions sets us on a quest that points to the very meaning of human life and its direction.

What follows is an opinion. An opinion means that evidence exists for the truth of what one proposes, but it also recognize that a major point may be missed here and there. It is not a crime to try to answer such a question. Indeed, it may be something of a major fault not to try. The world is too full of people who make little effort to confront the highest things. Our minds are given to us to think things out – especially, at some point, things about God. Indeed, I would say the very fact that a friend might ask such questions is a vital sign of human intelligence and concern. We are made to address ourselves to such things. We do not have to have higher degrees in philosophy to be concerned with them. Indeed, degrees may be an impediment. Philosophers themselves can get so lost in their own theories that they never feel the existential curiosity that comes from normal people leading normal lives.

III.

One thing I have noticed over the years is that the issues of pain, unjust punishment, evil, and suffering seem, in one way or another, to end up providing a case against God. We have known since Augustine and Aquinas that evil is a major issue in any proof for the existence of God. The basic question, "If there is a good God, why is there any evil at all?," is not really one that is answered once and for all. Rather it must be addressed by each human being in his own life, even though the classic answers are ones we might agree with, once they are spelled out. Aquinas’ brief answer, following Augustine, was simply that God could not allow evil unless He could bring good out of it, a good that might not otherwise exist without the evil. That is really the foundation of all legitimate answers. The question becomes what is the good that justifies all else, including the pain?

But I will begin by considering this very suspicion — God is somehow responsible for our problems since He made us. Hence, we are not to blame our own actions. We were put in a condition whereby, for reasons of which we are innocent, we could not do otherwise. We can thus, so we think, relentlessly pursue our case against God as somehow the origin of it all. Implicitly, we could not even think of "blaming" God for the mess we think we see and the pain we know we have unless we assumed that the God we hold to exist was also somehow morally blameable — and therefore, implicitly, not God. However, just as we cannot rightly blame someone for an act for which he was not responsible, logically we cannot do the same with God unless we have accepted, directly or indirectly, a notion of the being of God that allows Him to be capable of being blamed by us.

Suppose, for the sake of argument that we have a theory of deterministic evolutionism as our basic explanation for the existence of the world and for our place in it. Such is the theory taught in most schools and assumed by much of the culture. We hold, following these premises, that no "intrinsic design," no order, no causality can be conceived that would imply a creator. Though it took rather a long time, everything, including man, appeared and evolved from nothing – by chance. Whatever stable natures we see in the universe (and there appear to be not a few) they are not indicative of form or order. Rather they are merely transitory moments, about to change to something else. One cannot talk of higher or lower beings. Human beings have no special status. They appeared by accident just like everything else.

Now if we hold such a view, whatever variety, it seems rather silly to worry about the cause of pain and suffering. They appeared by chance and also depend on chance, just like anything else. They are determined to be what they are. Of course, we might say that even though our thoughts are determined, we still might ask questions and cast blame though our doing so is itself determined. But even in that case, or especially in that case, we could not blame anything like a God, who by hypothesis had nothing to do with it since, by our reckoning, He does not exist. Even if He did, He could cause nothing that we actually experience. All that people who hold such a theory could do logically – and that is not very logical – would be to "blame" those who were fool enough to want an explanation in terms of some cause. Since there is no "cause," stop worrying about it. Even the worry is determined.

Some folks, I believe, do hold that the capacity of thought evolved from non-thought. But once it by chance appeared among us for whatever reason (sic), we can use it to get rid of the things we do not approve, like pain and suffering, which have also arisen by chance. At least this latter theory, provided it does not change into something else, enables us to blame someone, since, now that the brain has by chance evolved, we can blame each other for not using it to eliminate what we disapprove of in evolution. I admit that this position very much looks like bringing in by the back door what we have closed off at the front door. The fact is, even if we hold a position that logically does not allow for a cause of reason, we still want to give a reason for our not having a reason for the existence of reason.

IV.

But the question I am dealing with obviously does not come from someone who is a determinist. A determinist has his own problems that arise the minute he inquires about why they arise. We are rather dealing, in the matter asked of me, with a world in which the universe is held not to be chaos. It is likewise a world in which the real chance that is within it is itself an aspect of its order. The origin of this order is "all-knowing." Since it is a created world, it means that the world is not necessary. It need not exist. That is, nothing can be found within the Godhead that would necessitate Him to cause something to be out of nothing. Nor is there anything in creation that would explain its own order.

The next step in the question follows. The knowledge of God of creation must include the knowledge of it that we know. We thus do not reduce the suffering found in the world to an illusion or to unreality. The question includes knowledge of "the Fall" and the Redemption, which latter also includes suffering – in this case (in the case of Redemption) the well-known suffering of the man-God. This latter suffering is an even greater enigma since Christ could not be said to be directly affected by the Fall. That would mean, if He took on Himself the so-called consequences of the Fall (particularly suffering and death), He had to do so by some sort of voluntary association with those who undergo this suffering necessarily, once the Fall happened.

Thus, in this light, the question arises, "why are we created at all?" Why do we exist? The implication behind the question seems to be that the existence of suffering and pain challenge the very rationality of existence. Existence, at first sight, should be without these things. But it has these things; therefore, something is wrong with existing in the first place. But the fact is we exist and have pain, so what alternative, if any, do we have besides blaming God for this thoroughly messy situation?

The question does not deny, but assumes, that God loves us. This assumption only adds to the difficulty. If God hated us, we would have no problem in understanding why we suffer and are in agony. We might not like it, but it would make sense. We might still want to know if we were guilty of something or deserved it. But if God is not just, that would not be a problem either. We can only complain if indeed we are created and God is all-knowing. We do not see how these two positions do not imply the direct responsibility of God.

The question then continues: granted this love, 1) why are we created "knowing that many would have to struggle so hard against evil," and 2) knowing that "many of us would not be successful in that struggle?" Presumably, no actual person is exempt from "struggle." Furthermore, some do not make it. They fail their very purpose in creation, they are so free. So connected with this question is that of hell and punishment (see "The Brighter Side of Hell," Nov. 2005). What is the status of those who rebel, in one form another, against God and the creation given to us?

As I see it, with these thoughts in our minds, we can give a sensible answer to the main issue, namely, was the "all-knowing God" somehow unjust or unreasonable, or even perverse, in giving us being in a finite world in which pain, evil, and suffering would be possible? We do not and cannot deny these realities. Do these latter facts make belief in the God that we understand to exist impossible, or even improbable? Or, when spelled out, does it all go together in such a way that some reasonable sense can be made of it? Was the "all-knowing God," after all, so unwise when He created the sort of world we find ourselves in – a world that would include eventually real evil, real suffering, real pain – with, as was mentioned, the suffering found in the Redemption itself?

V.

Why do we exist? Certain things are clear. The fact of an internal life within the Godhead, what we call the Trinity, means, when spelled out, that God does not need anything but Himself. The world does not exist because of some loneliness or lack in God, to provide Him with something He needs, but does not have. What follows is this: if in fact there is anything but God, as there is, it must follow from God’s all-powerful freedom such that it need not exist. But if it does exist, it must be because God had a purpose in its creation. What was this purpose? What precedes in the intention of God, even though it may be last in the order of time, is God’s choice to associate other free beings with Himself in his inner life.

What we know as the world follows from this decision, not the other way around. Thus, God never intended to create a fully natural world, even though in our world grace builds on a real nature. That purely natural world, with rational beings in it, might have been possible, but it did not happen. What came forth was rather a creature who was given more than he was capable of achieving by his own powers. Is this not odd? Not quite. The creature that would be worthy and capable of receiving such a gift had to be both intelligent and free, an autonomous being who was not determined to receive what was offered since what was offered could only, at its highest limits, be received freely, lovingly. The original situation of our kind evidently was precisely an arena in which there was no pain, no death. But both of these latter exemptions were not "natural" but supernatural.

The essence of the Fall is the free rejection of this initially granted order. The temptation of Adam and Eve was precisely to be the cause of the distinction of good and evil. What we know as redemption is God’s plan or effort to continue His original purpose but in the light of accepting man's free choice to reject God’s initial way of receiving this purpose. The alternate way was something that retained the notion that man had freely to choose God but now within a world in which the Fall and its consequences had happened. Finite beings, both human and animal, will by themselves suffer and die. That is their nature as such. Added to this is what we freely do to one another.

But can this suffering, whether caused by nature working itself out or by additional voluntary suffering caused by fellow men, be a cause, as such, for rejecting the original purpose of our creation? It can be, no doubt, since God’s plan of redemption did not propose to restore the condition in which man was initially placed. In Redemption, God chose another way, essentially a way through suffering. The poets and the philosophers had already understood that "man learns by suffering" and "it is never right to do wrong." The New Testament added, "greater love than this no man hath, but to lay down his life for his friends." The Cross thus kept suffering and transformed it. But into what? Surely, not immediately into a situation in which no more suffering would exist?

Rather what the Cross did was to re-propose the problem of suffering. If man rejected God in the Garden when all things worked to his good and usefulness, it means that the cause of his disorder is not in external things but in himself. But this internal point is where the original cause of creation arose in the fist place. The free creature was the center of creation and had himself rightly and freely to order himself to what is proposed as his destiny. The "scandal of the Cross" was designed, if it might be put that way, to achieve freely what was rejected freely.

God could not "redo" the consequences of a free decision. He could only accept it and present the free creature with another way to achieve the purpose that was originally intended for him. Thus, suffering and the possibility of evil, even after the Fall and the Redemption, were not abolished but they were transfigured by Christ as the only way freely to achieve God’s original purpose of inviting men to choose that for which they were created in the first place (cf., Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1).

So, "why do we exist?" We exist because of the freedom and abundance of God. But the essence of God’s love, as of our own, is that it be rooted in a freedom that is not coerced. Thus, we can still reject God, just as Adam and Eve at first did, and for the same reason. That is, we want to create our own rules, our own world. We cannot imagine anything better than what we can make for ourselves. Since our own world is not nearly so glorious as that which is offered to us, God continued to work on us to respond and select the original purpose for which we were created, even within the consequences of our own choices, choices that have led to our suffering and those of others. Granted that we are free and granted that we are created to associate ourselves in the inner life of God as offered, our existence, including our final existence, includes the consequences of our choices, even those in which we reject God and what He has offered to us.

The Redemption is God’s effort to save us even in the light of our choices. This is why it includes repentance, suffering, forgiveness, and, yes, the same final glory to which we are called from the beginning. God, I suspect, has done all He can. His only other alternative, as "all-knowing," was not to create us at all, a path we can be grateful that He did not take. He did not take it because, as Augustine and Aquinas said, He could bring a greater good out of the evils we know and are confronted with. God did take the risk that we would reject him. But even God could not save us without our free response. How we choose thus still remains the central point in the drama of our existence. Our very existence remains the risk that God took in causing us to stand outside of nothingness in the first place.

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Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.

Read more of his essays on his website.



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