The Gift of God | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | June 15, 2009 | Ignatius Insight
The Gift of God | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | June 15, 2009 | Ignatius Insight
In Nazareth on May 14, Benedict XVI made the following
incisive remark: "The conviction that the world is a gift of God, and that God
has entered the twists and turns of human history, is the perspective from
which Christians view creation as having a reason and a purpose" (L'Osservatore
Romano, English, May 20, 2009). That is a
remarkable sentence. Human history, to be sure, does have its "twists and
turns," that is, it is very complex, unexpected, and difficult to understand.
But its workings out ever leave us with a sense that there is intelligence at
In spite of this difficulty of understanding, we can still
say that this same creation is a gift. It is not a necessity. It did not have
to happen, nor happen in the way it did happen. God also has entered human
history. Indeed, this entering is the salient point in the unfolding of human
history itself. That is, within the actual world, at a given time and place,
God in the Person of the Word did dwell on this earth. This fact must mean that
the world we live in is significant for this divine indwelling to happen among
us. Or perhaps, we should say that the world is important enough that God once
dwelled among us. "Why would He do so?" we wonder.
Notice that the Pope says that there is a reason and a
purpose for creation. It does not just happen that the cosmos exists. It, the
whole, does not "cause" itself, but is caused. And if it is caused, it is
caused for a purpose. This purpose stands prior to creation itself and is not
part of it. Most religious traditions also think that peace among us is also a
gift of God. But it is not a gift that can be achieved "without human
endeavor." Peace requires we recognize that the world "is not our own."
What then is the world? It is not for itself. Rather it is
"a horizon within which we are invited to participate in God's love and
cooperate in guiding the world and history under his inspiration." What does
this "invitation" imply? We might say the world exists that something else
might take place within its confines according to what it is. Among the beings
in the world are the rational beings who stand in the unique position of
looking back at the world itself, articulating it. The world does not seem to
be complete without this articulation, as Plato said. The world and history are
to be "guided" by the rational being. So the world does not achieve its purpose
outside of the purpose of the rational being for whom the world exists.
The families, societies, nations, and institutions that are
characteristic of human life present a context in which "love and cooperation"
can take place. But the hitch is this, that the free creature is "invited" to
know what is true; he can reject it. He can build a world that is not the one
to which he is invited. This is why the world is a "horizon," or a field of
play, or an arena in which what is constantly going on are the decisions of
each personal human being about how he lives and ultimately his eternal life,
the real reason for his personal existence.
On the same day, this time at the Grotto of the Annunciation
in Nazareth, Benedict stated: "What happened here in Nazareth, far from the
gaze of the world, was a singular act of God, a powerful intervention in
history, thorough which a child was conceived who was to bring salvation to the
whole world." Here is another "twist and turn." Great things do not necessarily
happen in great places or to famous people, as Tolkien was fond of pointing
out. Like Augustus Caesar, the great may at best be occasions whereby the
important things happen. Benedict calls it nothing less than a "powerful
intervention in history." That is, something from outside of history came into
history. It was an "act of God," not man, not of nature.
What was it that happened? A child was born. What was He
about? He was to bring "salvation to the whole world." What was this salvation?
It directly had to do with whether each free and rational person would accept
the gift of everlasting life, but the intervention did not remove death or
suffering from this world. "When our Lord Jesus Christ was conceived in Mary's
virginal womb through the power of the Holy Spirit, God united himself with our
created humanity, entering into a permanent new relationship with us and
ushering in a new Creation." Jesus Christ is identified here as God. The power
of the Spirit is the agency that brings about the union of God and man. The
result was a new relationship between God and man because the Word was in fact
now endowed with a human nature. But the person who bore this nature was God,
the only begotten Son of the Father.
If this New Creation is to be genuinely human, however, it
cannot just be imposed on mankind. Someone must accept the gift. That someone
is Mary. But she too is free and she questions the angel about the intervention
proposed to her. God, Benedict adds, "does not impose himself, he does not
simply predetermine the part that Mary will play in the plan for our salvation:
He first seeks her consent." This consent is nothing idle or perfunctory. For
God to be in the world as human requires that someone human allow or invite Him
in. Thus, Mary is not a kind of clone made by some artifact. She is a genuinely
free being who must consent. "Let it be done unto me..."
The Pope then draws an important contrast between God's
situation at the initial creation and the one at the New Creation that
transpires with Mary's consent. "In the original Creation there was clearly no
question of God seeking the consent of his creatures." That is, it is simply
impossible for God to ask a non-existing being whether it wants to exist. In
that sense, God could only find out how free beings would react to Him if they
existed in the first place. It was enough they were created in goodness that
they be allowed to decide how each would stand to the good. We must add here,
that what God had in mind was something initially beyond the range of what
might be expected of a rational being. For God intended that they be offered a
life, eternal life, which was proper to His Trinitarian life, not just a kind
of immortality either in this world or the next, which did not include the full
human being, body and soul.
Thus, "in the new creation," God does ask the consent of the
free creature. "Mary stands in the place of all humanity." Mary's consent is
what allows the Incarnation to happen as it happened. Once Christ is conceived,
he can be born, grow, live, and die as a human being, as someone who actually
lived on this earth, who was present there in a given time and place. The
existence of God in the world is a fact.
Benedict cites St. Bernard to say that Mary's consent is the
locus of the "nuptial union between God and humanity." This union of man and
God thus is not conceived as an imposition, but it is an invitation that must
be freely accepted, otherwise it would not allow for that relation of love and
friendship in which the highest things of God alone can exist.
These two short addresses of Benedict in Nazareth, I think,
bring out something we need to understand about our world and about God. The
plan of God for the world is directed to those creatures who can receive the
kind of life that He offers them, eternal life. He can simply decide to make
such a world, the first Creation. But the Second Creation, both in the case of
the First Parents and in the case of Mary, is of a much more exalted nature.
God cannot offer what He intends for us unless we first exist. We have no say
Once we are conceived and born, we are conceived and born as
human beings. We find that within history an event took place, at Nazareth in
fact, in which God became man. This event changed the world. It was God's
initiative. It is the central fact of human existence. It enabled the world
finally to achieve its purpose, that we reach that end to which we are invited.
But the kind of beings we are means we must agree to accept the gift. We can
reject this gift. The drama of the world, in the end, is nothing else but the
accounting of how each person chooses to direct his life in the "horizon" of
the world in which he is given in his time and 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, 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 now available from The Catholic University Press. Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
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and news in the Church!