Sense and Nonsense: On the ‘Right’ to Be Created

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On my recent birthday, I was given Volume III of C. S. Lewis’s letters. Lest you think Lewis was idle in his latter years, this third volume contains some 1,800 pages. But I am not against the abundance and superabundance of things, for we are created in both, especially in the latter. I have little patience for believers in a parsimonious world. This latter idea lies at the origins of the many dangerous forms of tyranny in our times.

From Magdalen College, Oxford, on May 15, 1952, Lewis wrote to Genia Goetz, an American woman from Illinois. In this one-page letter, Lewis makes the following profound remark: “Of course, no one of us has ‘any right’ at the altar. You might as well talk of a non-existent person ‘having a right’ to be created. It is not our right but God’s free bounty.” Such a passage is worth the cost of the book, which I did not pay. The wonder of a gift is that it comes from nowhere. We do not usually think of ideas as “gifts”; but they are, once we begin to think them.

Goetz was being confirmed in the Episcopal Church. To this rite Lewis referred when he said that “no one of us has ‘any right’ at the altar.” At the altar, all is abundance. Nothing there can be purchased. What is given is not something that the officiating clergyman “owns,” as if it is his private possession. The most important things in our lives have little to do with “rights.” If I have a “right” to something, it can-not, strictly speaking, be “given” to me. It is already mine in abeyance.

To clarify, Lewis gives an analogy. Does someone have a “right” to be created? The logic is perfect. Does that which does not exist have a “right” to exist? Is existence owed in justice? Would God, in not creating Schall, have been unjust to Himself, to the cosmos, and not least of all to Schall? Lewis thinks that the answer to this wonderment is self-evident. What is not cannot “demand” that it be. How could what is not stand before God and demand that he be?

 

Still, God need not create Schall or anyone else. He has no Kantian “duty” to produce such an improbability as Schall. He could decide that it was not worth the effort and proceed to create someone else, or no one else, and not violate any principle of justice. God is Logos, but He is not necessitated to what is not Himself. Aquinas says we are created in mercy, not justice. We need not be, but we are. If God had to create us, He would not be God, would not be self-sufficient. He would need what is not Himself to be Himself.

But even if things that are not God are not necessary, they exist—they are. They exist, in Lewis’s happy phrase, not by right but by free bounty. In meal graces, we say “through Thy bounty.” This bounty is again abundance and superabundance. The mystery of the universe is not the parsimony of God, it is the amazing bounty. The real question is, “Why are we given so much?” not, “Why so little?” This overflow of being is as true of the physical universe as of the richness of our lives and thoughts. The main thing that prevents us from seeing and delighting in the existence and abundance of things is ourselves.

In May 1952, when Lewis wrote to Goetz, Lucy and Charlie Brown were arguing over who gets to ride the tricycle. Initially, they agree to take turns. But when Charlie finally asks Lucy for his turn, she says firmly, “No.”

They begin to fight again. Char-lie angrily tells Lucy, “All right. Just to settle the argument, let’s say neither one of us will ride it.” Lucy agrees, “That’s a good idea.” Both walk gloomily away and sit on the grass, eyeing the un-ridden tricycle. Charlie, dismayed, concludes: “But it isn’t very much fun, is it?”

In brief, that is the difference between a right and free bounty. The fun only begins when we live in bounty, not rights.

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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