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"Words create history": On Benedict XVI and the Synod | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | October 20, 2008 | Ignatius Insight

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"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 apparent conclusions.

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.

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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 Godhead.

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 being.

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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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, 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 website.

Visit 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!


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