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"From the Free Will of God": On Why Anything and Everything Exists | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | February 5, 2010

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"Is it not true that what we call 'nature' in a cosmic sense has its origin in 'a plan of love and truth'? The world 'is not a product of any necessity whatsoever, or of blind fate or chance. ... The world proceeds from the free will of God....'" -- Benedict XVI, World Day of Peace, January 1, 2010 [1]

"The Christian paradox consists precisely in the identification of divine Wisdom, that is, the eternal Logos, with the man Jesus of Nazareth and with his story." -- Benedict XVI, First Vespers, December 17. 2009 [2]

"One may interpret the whole biblical narrative as the gradual revelation of the Face of God, until it reaches his full manifestation in Jesus Christ." -- Benedict XVI, Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God, January 1, 2010 [3]


If the world proceeds from the "free will" of God, this fact means--and this should startle us--that it need not have existed at all. Otherwise, the divine will was not free. We do not understand the world if, even for a moment, we think that it "had" to exist or had to exist as it is. But if it does exist, as we observe that it does, then we seek to know what it might be that would cause God freely to choose something to be that He need not have chosen to exist at all. The existence of any actual thing cannot be explained apart from what causes existence as such. The first step from non-existence to existence cannot be taken from non-existence. The step can only originate in what is. Ex nihilo, nihil fit. From nothing, nothing comes about. We cannot think otherwise, once we ponder what "nothing" means.

When we think about this situation, we must avoid putting some determinism in God whereby the world "must" exist whether He likes it or not. In other words, we might claim that God had to produce the world and us in it. He had no alternative. When we opt for this necessitarian theory, if we do, we are seeking to escape the logic of our own being. Our own very existence reveals a free chosen-ness on the part of its origin in being. It too need not be, but is. We seek, in other words, not to be responsible for our own acts. The thesis that we are determined in some or all things allows us to pretend that we can escape this responsibility. We need not answer for our own thoughts and deeds, except to ourselves.

We arrive at this position that God need not create anything, either the world or us, however, only if we understand that God was sufficient in Himself. That is, He did not lack anything such that He "needed" to have something besides Himself, something not under his control, for His own good and completion.

This fullness of divine being is the consideration of God that we learn about from revelation. The Godhead is Trinity. Our God is one God, but this oneness does not mean that there is no otherness in God. This otherness is personal in nature. The Persons are each distinct, but each is fully related to the other two. The Father is not the Son. The Son is not the Father. Neither is the Spirit. All are one God. The Son is the Logos, the Word in which all that is the Father is given to the Son. Only He who knows the Father knows the Son.

It is precisely because of this diversity of Persons in the Godhead that we cannot say that God "needs" something besides Himself, mainly other beings, something to love or help Him out. Aristotle had worried that God was lonely. He had no evident friend. He lacked something that seemed to belong to the highest of conceivable relationships. It was a good worry. But this Trinitarian view was based on information that Aristotle did not have available to him, though he came amazingly close to its truth. He understood that, even though, as a final cause moves all things that are not God, God moves all things by love and knowledge. All that is not God seeks, in its own way, the goodness from whence it comes. The fullness of love and knowledge are already manifested in the Persons of the Godhead. The Trinity is, as it were, a completed project, not something to be completed. But this completion does not mean that God is inert, but His being is completely active about what it is.

If God "needed" something that He did not already have, He was not the God we understand to be the creator of heaven and earth. The fullness of the Godhead is the ultimate reason why God did not have to create what is not Himself. So, suppose we grant this position that God did not have to create for His own good—what follows? The first consequence is that if something besides God exists, it is limited to be what it is, something less than God. Two gods are impossible.

The second consequence is that, if God did not create out of necessity, He must have created from what is beyond necessity. He must have created because He chose to do so. Thus all that is not God will bear marks of this "having been feely chosen to be" in their very nature and being. This "choice" was not just an arbitrary choice. It was a choice of what is good becoming even "more" good without ceasing to be fully good. God plus the world is not greater than the same God minus the world.

If there is something besides God, however, it would seem that whatever it is possesses sufficient abundance to be what it is in its fullness. God did not create a parsimonious world. Its scope continually astonishes us. Yet, we are the ones also capable of so being astonished. That He did create a stingy world is at the bottom of the most recent of heresies, which want to give man power to define himself by circumscribing the universe available to us. It may appear in the beginning that much is lacking. But it does so only if we factor out of our consideration the ultimate source of wealth in the universe. This source is not more material things, of which the universe seems to have plenty, but the human mind itself. This is the power, as Aristotle said, that is capax omnium. Giving man "dominion" over creation itself was primarily a project to teach him of the abundance in which he was created.

Man is thus said to be created in the "image" of God. Moreover, the perfection of God, or at least our awareness of it, is increased, not lessened, if, beside Himself, we find in existence other beings with intelligence and free will. God evidently does not have two "creations," one of the physical world and another of man. Word and being are related, esse et verum. God creates one world in which man is an essential "part" of the whole of creation, the part to which all else is related. Even in his very body, all parts are ordered so that he might know. The purpose of the cosmos is not itself—glorious that it be—but its bearing of man and his personal drama within its whole reality.

Thus, we can say that the primary creature God had in mind in creating the whole of the cosmos was the human person, the rational and free creature in all his multitude. Paul tells the Galatians, "But the time came when he who had set me apart before I was born and called me by his favor chose to reveal his Son to me..." It is not just Paul who is "set apart." Every person has his individual origin ultimately in God's knowledge and will. This origin means that in knowing any individual human being, we do not reach back to confront only him. We reach his very origins in a plan of God not just for his being but for the order of personal beings who exist. Each person has in the Godhead what Aquinas called an "exemplar," a way of being not God sustained in existence by God.


Benedict XVI states that the Christian "paradox" concerns the identification of the eternal Logos with the man Jesus Christ. It seems that God cannot be man and man cannot be God. The fact that Christ is man and God is the paradox—seeming errors that are true. But it is important to understand how both are true. In his book, Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict said that if Jesus is the Logos who dwelt amongst us, as He is, that fact alone makes the whole cosmos different. If the world proceeds from the free will of God, so does the incarnation of the Logos, one Person, true God, true man. The world is not God. Christ did dwell in the world.

The incarnation of the Son is presented to us as an act of obedience, as "doing" the will of the Father. Obedience in itself, to be what it is, must always be a free act. The Son did not "choose" to be the Second Person of the Trinity. He was that in His very being. What He did choose was to follow, to be obedient to, the plan of God in creating man in the first place. God intended that all free and rational beings choose, on being invited, to live an eternal life with the Father that was above the finite nature of man.

This plan—not in its end, but in its manner of accomplishment—was altered by the Fall of Adam and Eve and its subsequent effect on all mankind. God, as it were, found Himself in a strange situation. He could not give what He was unless it was accepted freely. Otherwise, the free but finite being would not be really free, would not really be a self, a person. It would not be what it was, a really autonomous person who had rule over his own acts, even about accepting his own final good.

Put another way, God could not have wanted anyone to love him, to participate in His inner life who did not want to do so. The Kingdom of God, in the end, contains no one who does not want to be there. There is no such thing as forced love even for finite beings. God had to accept the terms of His own plan for beings in existence other than Himself. And he did accept it. This is the ultimate drama of the relation of man to God, something that drives all human history on its way to the divine. The relation of man to God does not make men un-free, not does it make God into a force that achieves by coercion what cannot be achieved by freedom.

In this sense, what man was by nature was already, in the first act of creation, subsumed into something that man could not by himself either expect or realize. Homo naturaliter non humanus sed superhumanus est, as Aquinas put it. This higher destiny explains why man cannot, much as he tries, find in this world anything that finally satisfies him, finally seems to be what he is created for.

The reason for this inability is that he is not, in fact, created for anything less than to enjoy the inner life of the Godhead, the Trinitarian life as offered to a finite free creature. God did not initially "ask" man whether he would want to be invited into this higher life. Man was invited there by his very creation such that he could not rest in anything less. This inner drive explains a good deal of the unsettlement in human history.


The whole biblical narrative is a gradual revelation of the Face of Christ. Scripture is full of references to our desire to see God "face to face." The notion that God has a Face is a remarkable one. We do not think it is possible, yet it must be somehow. What might it mean for a spiritual being to have a Face? It means that spirit shapes matter. This "Face" of God is also part of the Christian "paradox." Not merely is the Logos identified with the man, Jesus Christ, with the Person who is divine, but this Person has a Face. Babies, we note, seek the face of their mothers. Lovers seek the face of their beloved. We tell most of someone by his face, which seems to reflect most what he is in his soul. A reading of the Gospels suggests nothing so much as people seeing the Face of Jesus—some to love it, some to reject it.

Aristotle had asked a most perceptive question. He wanted to know whether we would want our friend to become someone else other than who he is. What if he could be a god or a king, would he still be our friend? Aristotle did not think so. We want our friends to remain what they are, who they are. Likewise with ourselves, Aristotle asked whether, if we were given all the goods and benefices in the world on the condition of becoming some other person, whether we would choose to do so. He did not think so. We might expand this principle to maintain that neither does God want us to be anyone else but ourselves. But He does want us freely to be what we ought to be. This is why we were brought into existence.

In fact, we do not want anyone to be other than he is, including the Persons of the Godhead. Or to put this in other terms, each person has an origin that is rooted in the Godhead as he can be imitated in finite beings. When we finally know and love even one other human person, we find that we do not arrive at just that person. We arrive at an awareness that he in his very being takes us beyond himself, by being himself. The gift of the other is not just his own gift.

Yves Simon remarked that the difference between human and divine love is that divine love creates the being it loves, whereas human love finds the good in another already to be there, not created by the human lover. The good and beauty we find are already there. This is why our world is, at bottom, a gift, not a self-creation. The notion that Scripture is a gradual unveiling of the Face of God to us is God's way of ultimately revealing what his plan, rooted in the "free will" of God, is about. It is about vision, face-to-face, being given what we could not imagine by ourselves.

And yet, in the root of our being, we find that since nothing we encounter in this world finally satisfies or completes us, we know that we, each of us, are created for what we cannot give ourselves. But it can be given to us, if we choose it. This is why the "Christian paradox" is that the divine wisdom, the Logos, is in the life and Face of Christ, as it is gradually revealed to us. It is revealed both in itself and in every face we ever see and gaze upon, once we know that all faces of men were to behold that from whence they came—each one, one at a time, into this world, with its drama and its history.


[1] L'Osservatore Romano, December 16, 2009. Citation is from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 295

[2] "To University Students of Rome," L'Osservatore Romano, December 23, 2009.

[3] "L'Osservatore Romano, January 6, 2010.

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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.

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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