The Transcendent Purpose of Life Print
By James V. Schall, S. J.   
Monday, 26 July 2010

In May, Benedict XVI addressed the meeting the Italian Bishops’ Conference. The pope recalled the two issues that cause most confusion in education, and not just there. The first is the presumed complete autonomy of man; the second is skepticism about any validity in either reason or revelation. Autonomous man, the man who thinks he owes nothing to anyone but himself, does not free us but rather isolates us. We are not more ourselves with ourselves alone. The notion of person means not autonomy but openness to others: “The ‘I’ becomes itself only from the ‘thou’ and from the ‘you’. . . It is only in encounter with the ‘you’ and with the ‘we’ that the ‘I’ opens to itself.” We cannot be “educated,” let alone live, with no reference to others. We are indeed real agents, centers of our own lives. Our very being calls for more than ourselves.

Skepticism is based on two denials: the first of nature, the second of revelation. Today, nature is considered empty, with nothing to teach us, certainly nothing about ourselves. We do not find traces of intelligence in it, or if we do, we insist that they explain themselves. “Revelation,” however, “is considered either as a moment of historical development, or it is said, perhaps, there is Revelation, but it does not contain content, only motivations.” Thus, if neither nature nor revelation can indicate anything, neither can history, that recalls them, mean anything. Its only value is its own time and place. Since there is neither nature nor revelation, no abiding content comes from history.

The pope, of course, will have none of this mindlessness. Such positions, however common, are not self-evident. Both nature and human nature show clear signs of intelligent order. Revelation further clarifies and completes this already intelligible order. We can, the pope adds, recognize “the transcendent purpose of life” once it is revealed to us. We can see that this purpose is that for which each of us is created

We did not initially figure out this purpose by ourselves. But when it is revealed, it makes sense in terms of what we know: “Our answer (to what this transcendent purpose is) is the proclamation of God, the friend of man, who through Jesus became close to each one of us. The transmission of the faith is an inalienable part of the integral formation of the person because in Jesus Christ the hope of a fulfilled life is realized.” This purpose should also be known to us. We are beings that seek knowledge of what we are. This is the purpose of revelation, as if to say that we are not complete if we are given an end but no minimal indication of what it is or how to achieve it.

Benedict maintains that the economic crisis of our time is paralleled by a more serious spiritual crisis, that of not knowing our purpose. We will not really know what economics is about if we do not what we are about. In fact, as Benedict often points out, much of modern thought is a desperate, even frantic effort to propose some superior alternative to man’s transcendent purpose as given in revelation. The alternatives proposed in modern (and classical) thought are always less that what man is and what his real destiny is about. This vast difference between what God proposes for us and what we come up with as an alternative is almost ludicrous. So much so, that we must postulate some tremendous force working in our souls that blinds us to our transcendent purpose.

What is interesting about Benedict is the way he recaptures the dynamism of modernity, which proposes a self-made perfectionism. He recalls the classic Christian view that the world needs more than itself to be itself: “This is not a question of adapting the Gospel to the world but of drawing from the Gospel that everlasting newness that allows us in every age to discover the most fitting ways of spreading the Word that never dies, visualizing and serving human life.”

“Let us once more propound to the young the high and transcendent dimension of life understood as a vocation called to a consecrated life, whether it is priesthood or to marriage.” Only in this way “will each person be able to gather what is essential.”

So Benedict does not back down. Tell the world about the transcendent purpose of each of us. Tell them about the proper way to achieve it. Do not avoid the realities of life in which we are tested. But know that we need more than ourselves and our own ideas to know what we are about, which is much greater and more exalted than we could possibly have anticipated.


James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is
The Mind That Is Catholic.

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