Sense and Nonsense: Blessed Order

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St. Thomas often cites the famous phrase, “sapientis est ordinare“—the function of the wise man is to order. We human beings have the added burden, if I can call it that—for it is also a glory—of ordering ourselves. To order means that we properly place ourselves amidst the other things, including human things, that are not ourselves.

We human beings have a certain nobility. We can even protest what we are. We can think that it is unjust that we are what we are or that we are in the existential situation that we are. Aristotle remarked that man, when he is good, is the best of the animals, but when he is not, he is the worst. Our defiance of what we are is not merely a statement of fact. It bears the remark of a positive opposition, as if we are talking to someone.

But we protest too much. We want God to make us free. But God has said that the only way we can be free is to know the truth. And we can choose not to know the truth. How seldom do we reflect on this enormous power we have.

I like to think that God, when he created us, took the risk of God; that is, he could have chosen not to create us. God was not necessitated to create, or to create precisely us. We underestimate the Godhead if we suppose that God did not know what human choice entailed. It entailed the fact that we could choose nothing less than to reject God and claim virtue for doing so.

 

St. Augustine explained that peace was the “tranquility of order.” Augustine knew the ambiguities of the word pax. Imposed order could be a devastation. Ruin too has some sort of order.

So the order from which tranquility stems is not a destruction. The parts cannot be the parts unless the whole is the whole. Order does not mean absorbing all the parts into a unity, into a sameness. Rather, it means keeping the parts to be what they are, yet parts that are complete, not intended to be other than they are.

When we die, we are not absorbed into God. God keeps us what we are, finite human beings, indeed, particular human beings, each like unto nothing ever known before or nothing ever to be known again. We remain, we abide.

The scandal of the Incarnation is not that man is absorbed into God, but that the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us. God has his own internal order, what is revealed to us as the Trinity. What is not God has its own order, an order essentially related to the inner life of God. We are promised precisely eternal life, the life of God as our own end. Everything in us and about us is ordained to our achieving this end. Anything else is a seeking for it under false assumptions. We cannot, and do not, rest in what is not God. We cannot find anything that does not originate in God. Each tiny thing that we encounter, especially each human person, is directly related to the Godhead in all its glory.

C. S. Lewis remarked that we have never met a mere mortal. Our lives are not insignificant. They are risks. We really can lose our souls. Augustine thought that probably most people in fact did lose them. We like to be optimistic and suggest that no one loses his soul. But if this is so, it is hard to see how anything is of much importance. If nothing we do, say, or believe can really make any difference, what is our dignity? We end up doing what we want with impunity. Surely this is not the order of God for our good.

In God’s intention, creation did not come first, then men. Men came first, then creation. We should not allow the size of space or its age to lessen the grandeur of spirit. We are given dominion over creation. We are to order it for our ends, not denying what it is. God does not “need” us. God was not once unhappy, then he found us. God was always happy, complete. The human being that did not make itself cannot explain itself by itself. The order of its being is not first its order. Our order is greater than we could propose for ourselves. This is why it is not ours to establish in the first place. Sapientis est ordinare. The end of all things is not that we establish here a lasting city. The end of all things is that, having been first chosen, we still must choose, choose not ourselves, but eternal life.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.

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Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books including The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His later books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His last books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017); The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018); Run That By Me Again (Tan, 2018) and The Reason for the Season (Sophia Institute Press, 2018).

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