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 play somewhere.
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 in that.
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 website.
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