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

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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.


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.


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.

Read Part 2 | Why Do We Exist? | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.


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