Published in The New Oxford Review, LXIX (February, 2002), 20-26.

 

James V. Schall, S. J.

  Georgetown University, DC, 20057-1200

   www.moreC.com/schall

 

ON THE PURPOSE OF ATHIS WORLD@

 

AGod in Christ was reconciling the world to Himself, not holding men=s faults against them, and he has entrusted to us the news that they are reconciled.@

B St. Paul, 2 Corinthians, 5:19.

AAll you nations sing out your joy to the Lord.@

B Antiphon, Week III, Sunday, Readings, Roman Breviary.

 

AHonored as I am with a name of the greatest splendor, though I am still in chains I sing the praises of the churches, and pray that they be united with the flesh and the spirit of Jesus Christ, who is our eternal life; a union in faith and love, to which nothing must be preferred; and above all a union with Jesus and the Father, for if in him we endure all the power of the prince of this world, and escape unharmed, we shall make our way to God.@

B St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Magnesians.[1]

 

I.


The term Athis world@ can have many meanings  -- a scientific meaning referring to the physical cosmos, a theological or a moral meaning.  In the citation from St. Paul, Athe world@ was in the process of being reconciled to God through Christ.  Such a reconciliation implies some fundamental disorder, something had gone wrong.  Paul pictures the world as longing for its redemption as if somehow it also was affected by the Fall, or even by its own finiteness.  AThe whole world is waiting for God to reveal his sons,@ Paul wrote to the Romans.  AIt was not for any fault on the part of creation that it was made unable to attain its purpose, it was made so by God.  From the beginning till now the entire creation, as we know, has been groaning in one great act of giving birth....@ (8:18-22).  So the world itself, as related in the creation account in Genesis, had to be essentially good, not evil, in order for such a reconciliation to take place. 

None the less, the sins and faults of men affected both themselves and the world.  They evidently could not be reconciled by human power alone since they themselves had, in their very being, a transcendent destiny not of their own origin or making.  AThis world@ likewise could be seen as that spirit or mood in the human soul, found constantly in history, that set itself against God.  In this sense, as St. Ignatius of Antioch told the Magnesians, the prince of this world had power so that, Ato make our way to God,@ we needed to see that Jesus Christ is Aour eternal life@ to which nothing, not even the good things of this world, are to be preferred.  This was likewise a constant teaching in St. Augustine.  The alternatives to the City of God always consider something finitely good in the world to be fully capable of satisfying the human heart, a position that Greek philosophy, Christian revelation, and human experience itself deny.

We are thus more or less familiar with this terminology by which Athis world@ can mean several different things.  What I want to examine here is the status of Athis world@ itself.  That is to say, what is the ultimate purpose of what goes on in the world?  What ultimately is it that we see when we see before us the activities of and in this world?  Is it about the rise and fall of nations?  Is there merely some inner-worldly purpose?  And what would it be? 

The antiphon speaks of Anations speaking joyfully to the Lord,@ but we know that nations as such do not speak or sing, though we might hope for a nation that allows us to fulfill our ultimate purposes as human beings in peace  -- not all do, as we know.  We may have heard of the Hegalian expression that Aa happy nation has no history.@  We do find singing in happy lands.


But if we look over the world, both now and in history, we do not find too many happy countries.  Indeed, we are constantly being warned, even by our religion, to be concerned with the dire conditions of poverty that we find in the world as well as by the moral decline in our own culture.  The Holy Father, at Czestochowa on 4 June 1997, remarked, Awe live in times of chaos, of spiritual disorientation and confusion, in which we discern various liberal and secularizing tendencies: God is often openly banished from social life ... and in people=s moral conduct a harmful relativism creeps in.  Religious indifference spreads.@[2]  This is not a happy scene. 

Recently, moreover, I was rereading C. S. Lewis= famous book, The Problem of Pain.  It remains one of the best analyses of this delicate subject of suffering and pain, one that does not exclude the question of the Cross itself.  In the first pages of this book, Lewis recalls his own atheist days.  When asked, Awhy are you an atheist?@ his response was that the evil in the world is what justified this atheist position.  How so?  ATheir (human) history is largely a record of crime, war, disease, and terror, with just sufficient happiness interposed to give them, while it lasts, an agonised apprehension of losing it, and, when it is lost, the poignant misery of remembering it,@ Lewis summarized his position.  A... Every race that comes into being in any part of the universe is doomed; for the universe, they tell us, is running down, and will someday be a uniform infinity of homogeneous mater at a low temperature.  All stories will come to nothing....@[3]  No God could have caused such a world; therefore, there is no God.

II.


St. Thomas himself likewise tells us that the principal argument against the existence of God is the presence of evil in the world (I, 2, 3, ob.1 and ad 1).  The argument is that surely an all powerful and all loving God who intended the good and happiness of rational beings in this world would not have allowed the presence of evil.  Therefore, if there is a God, this God is Aresponsible@ for evil.  But God could not be imagined to cause evil.  Therefore we do not have to believe in Him because, on such an hypothesis, He could not exist.

St. Thomas= answer to this line of thought, following St. Augustine, is straight-forward.  God does not Acause@ evil, but only Aallows@ it.  God would not have allowed evil, furthermore, had He not been able to bring a greater good from it.  Even evil somehow serves the good.  What is this greater good?   Basically, it is that God could not offer Aeternal life@ to a creature except on the condition of that creature=s capacity freely to accept it. God is bound by the conditions of what He wants to do.  In other words, the only being really capable of appreciating the glory of God would itself have to be not God, a creature not determined in its response to the good.  But this entails, in other words, that it would be possible for a free creature to reject God=s offer to it to live at a level higher than could be expected of it in its natural status.  This position presupposes that from the beginning, God intended to create the world in order that the free creature might reach the elevated end offered to him. 

Without this initial purpose there would have been no cosmos, no world.  What this view means is that God did not first create this world, then, as an after-thought, decide to do something with it, namely put free creatures on it and offer them a status that would include some participation in God=s own inner-life.  This very offer would require from the beginning a special grace to make this possible.  Thus, to recall a phrase from St. Thomas= question on charity, Ahomo non proprie humanus sed superhumanus est.@  More than anything else, this statement explains just why it is that we cannot ever properly speak of having an Aearthly paradise@ as our only and ultimate end unless it also includes angels= or man=s free relation to God and what He has planned and offered to the human race.


Now, it is quite possible for some high good to be offered to us but that we still reject it.  We necessarily refuse it in favor of some other good   B hence the classical definition of evil must always include the notion of Alack@ in some otherwise good being, a lack caused primarily by free will.   Such choice of one good over another happens to us all the time, in fact.  Moreover, the revelational offer of God to men is not pictured in Scripture as being something neutral or indifferent, something that we are morally free to take or leave.  Looked at from this angle, God seems to be quite serious about what He offers to mankind.  The offer is not on a take it or leave it basis as if it made no ultimate difference to us or to God what we choose.  Scripture speaks of this destiny as something to be taught to all men.  There is even a certain urgency to this mission, even after two thousand years. 

Indeed, one of the first orders of business in the Church today is to reaffirm the priority of its obligation to preach the full Gospel to all men whether or not they accept its fullness.  The very nature of religious freedom implies that making this teaching known is itself a good, whether it be accepted or rejected.  This is particularly important in our multi-cultural era which, from various angles, rejects the idea that this redemptive purpose and mode are possible, obligatory, or necessary.  This is what Dominus Jesus, the recent instruction about what the Church teaches about itself, was about.[4]            


In his lecture in Rome on the occasion of the Tenth Anniversary of the publication of the Encyclical, Redemptoris Missio, Francis Cardinal George remarked that  Ain recent years, the Pope=s focus on Christ the Redeemer appears to be motivated by a growing concern that the waning commitment to mission ad gentes reflects a crisis of faith  -- faith in the central mysteries of our religion: the Incarnation, the Redemption, and the Holy Trinity.@[5]  The Church must state clearly from time to time just what it holds and why it holds what it does hold.  It can do so in terms intelligible to men of any era or place.  Most people simply do not know what the Church holds about itself; nor do they have any coherent idea of the logical and philosophical coherence of what the faith proposes.  Catholicism, again, is also a religion of intelligence.  Other people, however, do know what the Church holds but they reject one or another of its tenets.  Others still try to make as if everyone already, at least implicitly, holds and practices what it teaches, or, worse, that it does not matter what we hold as it makes no difference for our final destiny.  Again, Catholicism is an intellectual Church with clear and defensible reasons for what it holds and why it makes sense to hold it.

III.


The immediate occasion of these remarks arises out of two somewhat disparate experiences.  The first is the result of teaching a class of some ninety students each semester for twenty years.  In this class, I always read, among other things, Herbert Deane=s provocative book, The Political and Social Ideas of St. Augustine.[6]  In it, we find a frank discussion of what Augustine holds to be the state of mankind as the world comes to its eschatological end as described in Scripture.  Augustine does not think that things will get better and better.  He is definitely not a Athis-worldly utopian.@  Indeed, he doubts if very many believers will still be found in the world at its ending.  Furthermore, Augustine thinks that ultimately few, even among believers, will be saved.  Needless to say, no doctrine can cause more outrage among the modern masses than this one that suggests that what they are presently doing will not save them, no matter what it is.

Let me cite just one illustrative passage to catch the mood of Deane=s presentation of Augustine.  Deane writes:

Augustine ... does not assume that growth in church membership or influence can be equated with an increase in the number of those men who truly love God.  Indeed, as history draws to its close, the number of true Christians in the world will decline rather than increase.  His words give no support to the hope that the world will gradually be brought to belief in Christ and that earthly society can be transformed, step by step, into the kingdom of God.[7]

These are blunt words to any modern ear, especially when combined with Augustine=s view that, in the end, very few will in fact be saved.  On considering these ideas, however, we should not forget that Augustine is also the author of The City of God, a book, perhaps more than any other, that describes the beauty of what we are offered, if we would choose it.

Invariably, when modern students read such words of Augustine or anyone who stands in his tradition, they will be distinctly bothered.  They will frown a lot, incredulously.  They simply cannot believe, even as a proposition to be considered on the evidence we have, that Afew will be saved,@ or that things are not getting better.  Nor can they believe that we cannot make the world better by our own efforts, after all to make things better is why they think they are going to college.  Is not this what we have been doing, that is, making the world Asafe for democracy,@ as a famous American president once put it?  Not a few wonder if the world is not safe precisely because of democracy.


Reading Augustine, however, is often the first time the typical student has ever been asked to consider the real condition and purpose of Athis world.@  It requires an enormous self-blindness to think that, from God=s eyes, the world is in fact getting better and better.  There is a lesson to be drawn here from this deep unsettlement with the thought that this world may in fact be as Augustine maintained..  The lesson is not that there is no hope, but rather where is it that the source of hope lies?  Is it really apart from the inner soul of each human person and the final destiny he is offered from the beginning? 

Augustine, I point out,  is pretty much an empiricist.  He does not, in fact, delight in condemning people to Hell.  Nor does he deny that he may be wrong.  His view on how many are lost or saved is conditioned by his own observation of how men act in the world at least up until his time, though I suspect that he would doubt if our time is much different in principle.  Moreover, Augustine does not think that God is cruel or unloving.  Just the opposite, his clear understanding of what love is, more than anything else, leads Augustine to the conclusion that in fact few do love something above themselves.  We can take one of four positions about what we see in Athis world@: either all people are saved no matter what they hold or do, or most are saved, or few are saved, or none are saved.  Augustine held for the third position, that few were, in fact, saved.  That none are saved is contrary to the faith, while that all are saved, though conceivable, as writers from Origin to von Balthasar have held, is not likely.


If, I point out, Augustine were to read a morning newspaper in any major city in the world today, he would find little evidence that his general assessment of the number saved, based on empirical observation, needs modification.  He would see displayed there in the morning press the same lusts, wars, crimes, hatreds, greeds, dishonesties, and lies that he saw in Carthage or Milan, or Rome.  It is amazing to me how quickly students, when confronted with this example of the morning newspaper, become less hostile to Augustine=s thesis, even when they suspect that what he says about human disorder also applies to themselves.

IV.

The modern student trained by the modern mind in these questions does not, on reflection, really think that what Augustine saw in Athis world@ is inaccurate, just as what St. Paul saw was not an erroneous description of the social facts.  Most students are horrified by what they often see on their years abroad or in what they read in class.  They want to Ado@ something about it, usually, alas, go to law school.  But they do not think that this Adoing@ something has much if anything to do with how they think or live.  And they usually think the task of refashioning the ills of the world to be a Ascientific@ one of relatively easy effort after embracing the right political or economic formula.  The tolerance principle  -- that all thoughts and actions are equal B  means, however, that they will accept no notion that a Aright order of things@ exists and demands their response on objective grounds. 

Moreover, little thought is given to the Afirst principle and foundation@ that St. Ignatius Loyola stated at the beginning of his Spiritual Exercises, namely that our first task is to Apraise, reverence, and serve God and, by these means, save our own souls.@  There is actually a notion that we can save the bodies of others without first attending to our own souls.  Put it in another way, most students in our culture, as well as the culture itself, shy away from any idea that there is really a truth corresponding to human nature and to what is.  Or to put it inversely, some levels of action and culture are definitely anti-human, the principles of which are found operative in the presuppositions and agendas of their own souls in their own culture.


What people want to hear is that even if they do any desired thing, even if they define sins as virtues, as we do today, usually in the name of human rights, there are to be no ultimate consequences of anything we do.  What most seem to want is a world of no risk, of no consequences.  If we want God to take the risk out of our world so that nothing we do makes any difference, so that we can believe or do whatever we want with no untoward results, then what we have logically done is to remove any reason for our being created as free human beings in the first place.  So at this stage, I should like to say that what goes on in this world is the carrying out in history of the risk that God took in creating creatures He made for themselves, though in making them for themselves, He made them to return to His own inner Trinitarian life which is being offered to each.  Any effort to deny Augustine=s point about the seriousness of our acts in order that we might not have to worry about their consequences does not enhance but destroys human dignity.

V.       

The second experience that I should like to recall has to do with the death of my mother=s last sister.  My aunt died in Iowa in May, 2001, at 98 years old; she lived the twentieth century.  My family on both sides came from a small town in Northwest Iowa.  Both sides of the family were numerous so that I have many relatives who have already died.  After the Funeral Mass of my Aunt, the funeral cortege drove ten miles across rich corn and bean fields back to the town cemetery.  As I looked at this familiar spot, I could see the graves of my great grandparents, my grandparents on both sides, aunts, uncles, cousins, my own mother.  On the tombstones were names of people I had known or had heard spoken of.  An Iowa graveyard in the Springtime is usually well taken care of, peaceful, a record harkening back down the ages of those who once lived there in all their deeds and beliefs. 


As I looked at those graves, I realized that no one here was of any national or international importance, though each was of eternal standing.  Most lived their whole lives on farms or in this small town.  Maybe some made it to other places, soldiers especially.  What strikes me about this little town and those who lived there  B as it must of any little or large town that we might know B   is that what is important in these lives is really not the record of their work or accomplishments except insofar as these were generally outer signs of a person=s inner life.  So when I again ask the question, Awhat is the purpose of >this world=?@ in this context, I think that the real drama is about what sort of life these people lived.  Did none, some, most, all save their souls?  If they did, it means that the ultimate drama of life, against which littler else makes any difference, is taking place anywhere and everywhere.  In this regard, I am always struck by Christ=s dealings with the little towns in which he grew up or in which he visited  -- Nazareth, Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capharnaum.  He worked miracles in these towns, more so, He said, than those the people of Tyre and Sidon had seen.  He warned them that it would not go well with them.  AWhat could such insignificant people have been doing to warrant such a castigation?@ we wonder. (Matthew, 11:16-24).  Neither Rome, nor Athens, received similar warnings, though Jerusalem did.


In an old Peanuts, we see a very little Linus, not much more than a year old.  He is sitting on the floor quietly sucking on his bottle.  In the next scene, he is startled.  He looks up to see Lucy walk by.  She has a determined look on her face.  ANothing that=s going on in the world today is my fault,@ she announces to everyone, particularly to an amazed Linus.  In the third scene, Linus has a glum look on his face after  hearing this astonishing information, while Lucy walks by him now with a placid, rather self-righteous countenance.  In the final scene, Linus suddenly becomes alive.  He has figured out that Lucy=s denial that anything is her fault equally applies to him.  So  he hoists his bottle in the air and happily shouts, AI=ll drink to that!@[8]

What goes on in Athis world?@  Underneath all the secular history and drama of the world, what really is happening, as we see in our cemeteries, is that people are deciding, within their lives, whether they will choose God or reject Him.  Lucy=s thesis that Anothing that=s going on in the world today is my fault,@ though spoken with great paradox in her case, is a modern Rousseauist version that maintains that no personal or human acts are important.  Institutions are at fault.  Obviously, the dour Lucy thinks something is wrong in this world.  She denies that she has anything to do with it.  All human actions, it is said, are conditioned exclusively by structures and laws, not by personal free will.  What is important is not what we do or hold but what organization or cause we support. 

The division of good and evil passes not through our souls, whether rich or poor, intelligent or dull, but through the institution to which we belong.  People are rich or poor, good or bad, because of someone else=s fault, not even someone else=s personal act since all acts are equally tolerable, but because of some institution or arrangement.  Change that arrangement, it is said, and you will change man.  The only problem with this well-worn thesis is that human nature remains the same under all institutions.  Evil reappears no matter what the configuration of the world.  The heart of the world remains in the human soul.  But where is this human soul?

Robert Kraynak, in his remarkable book, Christian Faith and Modern Democracy, a book that again calls Augustine to our attention, considered the rise of New Age religions and the incapacity of Christians or any one else to look much beyond success or failure in this world.  Kraynak writes that


such trends are not primarily imposed by the coercive state (though some are aided by it); nor do they triumph by insisting that other more noble activities are forbidden (one is always free to choose).  Rather, they triumph because of widespread doubts about the real existence of a transcendent order of Being and Goodness beyond the material world and uncertainty about any higher purpose to life than middle-class careerism and popular entertainment.  In most modern democratic societies, these are the only activities that call forth energy and commitment; all others are excluded by skeptical indifference and by demands for immediate sensations that seem harmless because they rarely lead to outright persecution.  Instead, the dominant culture is imposed by the social tyranny of public opinion that, in principle, may be rejected but rarely is because the higher alternatives are treated with contempt or are simply forgotten.[9]

This was likewise a theme that Eric Voegelin also touched on when he remarked that the rise of modern ideology into the form of a this-worldly eschatology was largely caused by a failure of belief of Christians in the real transcendence objects or goals of their faith.[10]


What all of this means about the purpose of this world and the personal status of each human person before God must be seen in the light of Augustine=s belief that, judging from their acts, few were in fact saved.  In the light of the myriads of small and large town graves in all parts of the world throughout history, graves that reflect the existence of lives in which the ultimate drama of choice took place once and for all, we must conclude that the ordinary lives of ordinary people are likewise scenes of the greatest risk.  This is why the mission ad gentes is of such abiding importance.

VI.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, in his Salt of the Earth, responded to the question of whether the Enlightenment idea of necessary progress of this world towards Atruth, beauty, and goodness@ was tenable.  He responded, Aredemption is always related to freedom.  This is what you might call its risk structure.  Redemption is thus never imposed from the outside or cemented by firm structures but is held in the fragile vessel of human freedom.@[11] 

What this means, in conclusion, is that the purpose of the world is the risk of God=s initial decision in creation, that is, to associate other free, but necessarily finite beings with Himself, in His inner Trinitarian life.  Whether this comes about in each particular life is what goes on at all times and in all places.  Nothing can be automatic or apart from individual choice, however related to others as it is.  The Commandments are precisely to be kept.  We can never really say, contrary to Lucy, that Anothing that goes on in this world is my fault.@  And if there are things that are our fault, this is why we have the particular mode of redemption we are given.


The great questions of the status of the nations, looked at from the vantage point of the City of God, are not important except in so far as they reveal the choices, the ultimate choices, of individuals in their living and dying in all times and places, even in small cemeteries in out of the way places in Iowa.  This is why every small town, every small parish, every apparently  unimportant life is significant and remains, as do the supposedly great towns with their great men and women, the locus of what goes on in this world.  This is always the choosing of where we stand before God as manifested in our deeds and our understandings about what is.  Augustine thought few chose well.  Modern ideology tells us it does not make much difference how we choose, for our choices, at most, cause Aprogress@ but not personal salvation.

 AMan was created to praise, reverence, and serve God and by this means to save his soul@  B to repeat Ignatius= famous affirmation.  This remains the principle and foundation of what goes on in this world.  This is the exact place of the risk that God took in inviting, not demanding, our acceptance of that initial invitation to eternal life.  Even God had no choice but first to create us, then to see how we might choose.  This invitation can be accepted.  It can be rejected.  Ultimately, what we choose  B and all choices have particular objects B  makes all the difference in this world, and in the next.  For it is this world in which the ultimate risk of God can take place, the risk that some might not choose to love Him, the more exalted risk that some, many or few, might so choose to love Him.



[1]St. Ignatius of Antioch, Bishop and Martyr, (40-107 A. D.), Letter to the Magnesians, found in the Roman Breviary as Second Reading, Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time.

[2]L=Osservatore Romano, June 18, 1997, 7.

[3]C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1962),14.

[4]Declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church.  August 6, 2000.  The Pope Speaks, 46 (#1, 2001), 33-52.

[5]Francis Cardinal George, AOne Lord and One Church for One World: The 10th Anniversary of Redemptoris Missio,@ L=Osservatore Romano, January, 2001, 7.

[6]Herbert Deane, The Social and Political Ideas of St. Augustine (New York: Columbia University Press, 1956).

[7]Ibid., 38.

[8]Charles Schulz, Don=t Be Sad, Flying Ace (New York: Topper Books, 1990).

[9]Robert P. Kraynak, Christian Faith and Modern Democracy: God and Politics in the Fallen World (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001), 28.

[10]Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics, and Gnosticism (Chicago: Regnery, 1968), 85-114.

[11]Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium, An Interview with Peter Seewald (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1997), 218-19.