"Words create history": On Benedict XVI and the Synod | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | October 20, 2008 | Ignatius Insight
"Words create history": On Benedict XVI and the Synod | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | October 20, 2008 | Ignatius Insight
"Already the human word has incredible power. Words
create history; words form thoughts, the
thoughts that create the word. It is the word that forms history, reality."
— Benedict XVI, Address at Opening the 12th Ordinary General Assembly of
the Synod of Bishops, October 6, 2008.
Benedict continues to instruct a seldom-listening world
about what it is all about. His short address at the opening of the Synod on
the Word of God is really of remarkable profundity. Let me go through what the
Holy Father says here. The "address" is but two and a half single-spaced pages
long. It begins with a passage from Psalm 118 (119) that was in the Office of
that day, at the first daytime prayer.
Benedict cites the Latin: "In aeternum, Domine, verbum
tuum constitutum est in caelo ... firmasti terram, et permanent. Omnia serviunt
tibi. Omni consummationi vidi finem, latum praeceptum tuum nimis. Tuus sum ego:
salvum me fac." This reads: Your word, O
Lord, forever stands firm in the heavens.... You have made the earth firm and it
remains. All things serve you. I have seen the end in all consummation, thy
precept is much hidden. I am Thine, Lord, make me to be saved." How often do we
read such words and never "see" them!
At first sight, we might see here just another pious
meditation. We are, however, admonished to recognize God's will and His Face in
the Word. The theme of the "Face" of God is not unfamiliar to modern
philosophy. Emmanuel Levinas in particular used it. John Paul II often cited
him on this very point, that we search the Face of God. We read in Scripture
about our longing to see the Face of God. We might suspect that this desire is
just a metaphor until we recall that we are Christians. We know the Incarnation
has already happened. The Face of God is not an abstraction for us.
The first words of the Psalm tell us that the "Word is the
true reality on which one must base his life." It is not the solid "world," but
the word which is even more solid. The pope cites the very words of Jesus to
follow this Psalm: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never
pass away." In effect, the word is prior to the heavens, which are outside of
God as we know from John's gloss on Genesis. Yet, isn't a word a very fleeting
and vanishing thing? Still, the human word has "incredible power."
It is here that Benedict uses the passage at the beginning
of this essay: "Words create history;
words form thoughts, thoughts that create the world. It is the word that forms
history, reality." At first, this priority will strike us as odd. Yet, if we
think about it, our history exists only in words and artifacts that are their
equivalent. The fleeting words are permanent if we remember them. The instant
that which they name passes, we only have the word left to tell us about what
happened or existed.
The next step in Benedict's reflection deals not with words
as such. Rather "The Word of God is the foundation of everything; it is the
true reality." We human beings go from reality to word indicating reality. But
are the words permanent? We have to understand the really solid things are not
matter but words. Material things pass away; words do not. We think we can rely
on things, but really they are fleeting. "Only the Word of God is the
foundation of all reality." It is more stable than material things. This is
astonishing when we first read it. It again reminds us of science, of the
relation of cosmos to its own order.
Here Benedict changes the very definition of realism. "The
realist is the one who recognizes the Word of God." The realist builds his life
on the Word. Realism is a common topic of political philosophy and philosophy
itself. It always purports to base itself on solid things. It is against
idealism. It sees things "as they are." It knows about the Fall, about what
Aristotle called human "wretchedness." But here, with words, we evidently find
something more solid than things, which are passing.
Moreover, all the things that do exist serve the Word.
Recalling the words of the Prologue to John, what is in the beginning was not
things but the Word. Initially, reality came from word, not vice versa. With
all this preliminary reflection, the Pope reaches the most astounding
affirmation: "All of creation, in the end, is conceived of to take the place of
encounter between God and his creation, a place where history of love between
God and his creature can develop." Creation exists that something can "take place."
"All things will serve Thee." How so?
What is this apparently enormous world about? Are we really
significant? We seem so tiny, so ephemeral. If we are significant, why? Surely
it cannot be merely for the fact of the world's bare existence. But if the purpose
of creation is that there be within it creatures who can freely love the
Godhead, and vice versa, there must be a location in the universe for this
drama, this choice of what we will be, to play itself out. "The history of
salvation is not a small event, on a poor planet, in the immensity of the
universe. It is a not minimal thing which happens by chance on a lost planet."
Clearly the Pope here again addresses modern science in its own ethos and
Science, presumably, claims to tell us that we are. Still,
to use Walker Percy's famous title, we seem to be "lost in the cosmos." Not so,
responds Benedict. We are not a sidelight of creation, but its very center. The
drama of our lives takes place within the arena of the cosmos in which we find
ourselves whether we like it or not. The universe exists that this drama can
happen on its own terms. "Everything is created so that this story can exist,
the encounter between God and creature." Such a passage rather reminds me of
the Lord of the Rings.
At this point, Benedict recalls that Jewish thought in the
Hellenistic period argued that the material world existed so that the Torah or
the word of God might exist. Christians do claim the Hebrew Bible as their own.
The pope finds this same idea in Ephesians, where Christ is the "first born" of
creation. Since the birth of Christ took place under Caesar Augustus, Paul
could not be referring here to his birth as a human being but his place within
The universe itself moves toward Christ, nothing else. But
it does not do so "automatically," as it were; we have to choose to enter. The
universe and all in it is gift, but its ultimate purpose is never imposed. God
never denies our freedom even in our salvation, or better, especially in our
salvation. If it is not free, it is not salvation. Thus Benedict states, in a
marvelous passage: "One can say that, while material creation is the condition
for the history of salvation, the history of the Covenant is the true cause
of the cosmos. We reach the roots of being
by reaching the mystery of Christ, his living word that is the aim of all
creation." In finite being there is already the word that does not have its
origins in itself. As Josef Pieper said, of what is, there is a nothing side—in that it could not
cause itself—and an origin in the depths of the Godhead.
As the two great commandments tell us, in a priority that
has often been confused in the history of theology, being is directed to works
which themselves find the purpose of being in real objects. Love your
neighbor. Do good to those who hate you.
"In serving the Lord we achieve the purpose of being, the purpose of our own
existence." This is why we can say that each human person is specifically
created and that God knew him in the womb of his mother before he was. But it
also means that our first being is itself directed to something else, not
merely ourselves. This is why in Deus Caritas Est, Benedict was insistent in relating justice to
charity as a personal thing to each of us.
Benedict next takes a very Augustinian step. He calls it a
"leap forward." "Mandata tua exquisivi."
"We are always searching for the Word of God." Each thing that we find, on
living it out, on examining it, is not what we are looking for, even though it
is in itself "lovely," as Augustine found out. We have a drive within us, an
unsettlement even in the most settled things, even in our deepest loves. We do
not just "read" this word. We may settle for just reading the human words in
revelation. But, if this is all we do, "We do not find the true actor within,
the Holy Spirit." Or, as Benedict puts it paradoxically, "We do not find the
Word in the words." We can read Scripture, be experts in it, but never find the
Word in it, in the words we study and read and pronounce on.
As an example of this latter phenomenon, Benedict recalls
the Magi who went to the Pharisees to find out where the Messiah would be born.
They knew. "Bethlehem," they told him. "They are great specialists who know
everything. However, they do not see reality." This is a devastating sentence,
really. We are experts, scholars, we "know" everything, but we "see" nothing
but words. We do not know the Word in the words.
Thus, there can be a great danger "in reading Scripture."
The Scriptures are present, not just past. In addition to reading, we must also
seek. "We must always look for the Word within the words." That expression too
is quite striking: "The Word within the words." Exegesis is not just literary
or just reading a text. Rather, it is "the movement of my existence. It is
moving towards the Word of God in the human words." By actively conforming
ourselves to the Word
The things that we can invent, or make, or encounter are
"finite." Even mystical experiences are finite, passing. Behind them, in them,
is something hidden that we seek. Why are they present to us? Yet, the infinite
God knows no limits. It is not through the world but through the Word of God
that we enter "into the divine universe." This takes us to what is universal,
the words we encounter in the Church, not into a small group of specialists.
Everyone has hidden in his heart this desire for truth, for the word that has
its origin in the "great truth of God."
Here, Benedict connects with a theme that was in the
Regensburg Lecture, namely, that Christianity does not come to the nations from
the outside. If it bypasses the political boundaries, it is because already, in
each human heart, this "searching" for the commandments of the Lord is found. A
"universal culture" unites us all.
This culture, however, is based on the unity of the universe
itself in which there are beings who can know and seek to know, for which
purpose the universe exists in the first place. The Psalmist says "Tuus sum
ego: salvam me fac." This hope of salvation
from nothingness and from sin is already a desire that we have from our very
The Lord has a Face that we seek. The Word is made flesh.
All of our words relate to the reality in which we find ourselves. We seek to
express the truth in words, to possess them when they have passed, to remember
them. Nothing is really lost to us. Still, the word is a call we can reject.
"Everything is created so that this story can exist, the
encounter between God and his creature."
"Salvation is no small event." It takes place in some out of
the way planet on the outer side of the cosmos. What we are already involved in
is this drama. The Word is addressed to all men because they all already find
within themselves that which was there from their beginning, the word in which
they stood outside of nothingness. The word is rooted in Word, in Light, the
Word that lasts, the Word has a Face.
"The history of salvation, the history of the Covenant, is
the true cause of the cosmos." We thought it was the other way around. We
thought that the cosmos was before we were in being, that we were but
afterthoughts, if we were thought at all. We came last, but only in time. We
exist prior to the cosmos. We find ourselves in a history in which we are
deciding freely, always here and now, whether we shall accept this purpose for
which we were made from the beginning, which was our beginning before it began.
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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
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning,
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006),
The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007).
His most recent book from Ignatius Press is
The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays, is due out later this year from The
Catholic University Press. Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!