Heaven is not an abstraction

The realism or concreteness of Catholicism is startling to minds conditioned only by abstractions or by materialism alone.

“Today’s feast (Assumption) impels us to lift our gaze to Heaven; not the heaven consisting of abstract ideas or even an imaginary heaven created by art, but the Heaven of true reality which is God himself.”
—Benedict XVI, Homily, Feast of the Assumption, 2008.

“The teachers are terrified of the thought that they might really have something divine to teach. They are terrified of dogma, or Tradition, or of Divine Revelation, of Divine Law, of authority, of ‘Thus says the Lord.’”
—Peter Kreeft, Jesus Shock.

“Let there be one common festival for saints in heaven and for men on earth. Let everything, mundane things and those above, join in festive celebration. Today this created world is raised to the dignity of a holy place for him who made all things. The creature is newly prepared to be a divine dwelling place for the Creator.”
—St. Andrew of Crete, Discourse, Feast of the Nativity of Mary.

Though full of ideas, the characteristic of Catholicism is its stubborn concreteness. It talks about a “real presence,” as opposed to an unreal or merely symbolic one. Its Trinitarian God is different from the classical concept of a First Mover or the Good. The Trinity means personal relations within the Godhead itself and, from there, not to “humanity” in general, but to each existing human being. “Humanity” is a logical abstraction, in fact, an abstraction from an abstraction. Christ did not become man to save a logical abstraction, but to save Suzie, John and Henry, actual human beings with names. Indeed, properly speaking, the Word was made “flesh,” not “man,” just to be sure we have the idea straight and what it refers to. But it is an idea that we must carefully spell out and define so that we know exactly what is at stake and what is meant.

The Incarnation is a most scandalous idea; we should not doubt it. No doctrine gives more consternation to the philosophers and to the other religions than the Incarnation. The idealists, the Jews, the Muslims, the Hindus have to reject it on their own grounds. God, while remaining God, becomes one of us; and we know, or should know, what we are. We are not God. We are not the “ground” of our own being. But this fact does not deter us from maintaining both that Jesus is God and that this same Jesus is man.

Those who wrote the Nicene Creed used their heads carefully to show how both of these positions are true, how they do not contradict each other. They distinguished properly. Using one’s brains is also a first principle of Catholicism. So is “he who has ears to hear, let him hear.” The two are connected, as it were, the hearing and the thinking. Christ was the Word made flesh; he also heard his mother and father, his disciples, and those who hated him.

Logical abstractions, as such, take us back to the Platonic form. Plato has to be thought about. No one is more stimulating or more fascinating. In thinking about him, we, as Catholics, are likewise able to think about Jesus more clearly. As Augustine said, the Platonists had the Word, but not the Word made flesh. When a mind thinks the forms, they are already “eternal” or unchangeable, but abstracted from something that exists. We have the capacity to know what is not ourselves because it exists and we affirm it.

We study logic to know about genus and species and things that we use to understand what is. We are bad logicians when we confuse our ideas as they exist in the mind with the reality that is. Ideas as such are “real” enough with their own being in an intellect that belongs to each existing person. When Marx talked about the “species-man” that we were to become, he was confusing logic with reality. Species only exist in the mind. That simple confusion has been a scourge to real human persons. Wrong ideas have consequences, even when we insist they are good ideas.

Another characteristic of Catholicism is its doctrine that Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath, had a mother. She has a name, Mary. The people who wrote of her knew her. Her husband’s name was Joseph; her cousin was Elizabeth. She was Jewish. She lived in an obscure but real place called Nazareth. She is not a myth or a conclusion of a syllogism, even though her existence found syllogisms useful, to wit: “All that is born of woman is human. But Christ was born of Mary, a woman. Therefore, he was a human being.” She has a name that, like all human names, refers to a single concrete existence. It applies to no one else, even if there are many other Marys in the world and in the Scriptures. Our names do not designate a species or a form, but the wholeness of what we are, body, soul—all the this-ness that makes us unique, unrepeatable.

One of the revolutions that is taking place in the Catholic Church under Benedict is the complete re-presentation of every basic teaching so that its essence is made quite clear and quite intelligible in terms of truth itself to ordinary human beings as well as scholars. In this sense, Spe Salvi is so remarkable that we hardly know what to do with it. Many would like to ignore it. It is nothing less than a thorough re-explanation of the four last things in terms that anyone, including scientists, can understand. And I note that it is an explanation—not, as we have seen too often, an “explaining away” such that heaven, hell, death, and purgatory become fancy ideas for what in effect are abstractions.

One of the central things the Pope has done is to put politics in its own place. Its own place is not nothing, but it is not salvation either. Politics is an aspect of moral theology, not eschatology, as the Pope pointed out in his book Eschatology, a book that shows us that this pope has been thinking about these things for a very long time. Few theologians, philosophers and critics—Eric Voegelin being an exception—have been alert to the way modern politics has become a branch of eschatology. That is, it claimed the power to resolve the fears and hopes of the last things by itself.

Benedict has clarified the issue by showing that eschatology goes on in whatever polity that man has put together. Politics do not excuse us from the burden of saving our souls.

The Kingdom of God is not a political norm of political activity, but it is a moral norm of that activity. Political activity stands under moral norms, even if morality as such is not politics nor politics as such morality. In other words, the message of the Kingdom of God is significant for political life not by way of eschatology but by way of political ethics. The issue of a politics that will be genuinely responsible in Christian terms belongs to moral theology, not eschatology.

This passage can be applied to Mary in an illuminating way. When her son was born “the whole world was at peace” under Augustus Caesar. Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem because of a political edict or census even though this going has older traditions from the Old Testament about where the Messiah would be born.

The point I wish to make here is that the salvation of the world is going on in whatever political entity we find ourselves, even the worst. Augustus Caesar had no clue that his decree would have any world-shattering implications. He was just trying to figure out how many citizens were in his newly formed Empire. The Old Testament considers this “counting” as a form of vanity and mistrust of the Lord, but census taking is itself a perfectly normal political action, as we know. Eschatology, none the less, was working itself out in the Roman Empire. It was doing so in spite of the inner intentions of the Roman leaders. The Roman leaders themselves would be judged by their deeds whatever went on. We can say that they were instruments of providence. Benedict in fact implies in his Regensburg lecture that when Paul was called to go to Macedonia, something more was going on than a boat trip to see dispersed Jewish communities.

Anne Carson Daly has frequently pointed out that, if we carefully read the Scriptures when they mention Mary, we discover that this young Jewish lady was no push-over. She in fact talked back, in no uncertain terms.  Thus, when the Angel Gabriel made his announcement to her—or better, his request—she wanted to know, in effect, “What’s the deal?” She did not see any way this was possible. Also, once she did understand, she made a momentous decision to accept, a decision that impinges on the whole history of the world. This incident took place in a very obscure hamlet and was not noted by the political movements of its time. But the Incarnation happened. It was not a dream.  The Christian theme from the Magnificat is not that the powerful will rule in the essential things but that “he has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.” The theme of The Lord of the Rings was that the lowly are often the ones through whom the great deeds are finally accomplished.

Mary’s twelve-year-old son slipped off the caravan and returned to the Temple in Jerusalem. When he was finally found, his mother asked him if this is the way a young man acts toward his parents. And she was right to ask him about what was, to his parents, irresponsible behavior. But the young man did answer his mother frankly and honestly. He told her about his Father’s business. She did not pursue the matter. She did not ask: “What Father’s business?” Mary was not totally privy to this business of the Father, but she had every reason to suspect that more was going on in this incident than she understood.

In his book on Luke’s Gospel, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the archbishop of Vienna, writes:

Mary did not just have vague impressions to go on. She had not been given her child by Joseph. God had made her a gift of the child, after she had given the angel her assent to God’s plan. Other people might doubt whether it was so, might cast suspicions on her…. She knew whence this child that she had received had come. She kept in her memory every word the angel had said to her about the child’s future.

Again, we are not dealing with an abstraction or a myth here. Mary herself was gradually learning more about this son of hers by observing him. She was involved in something greater than herself.

In one sense, Mary knew more about Jesus than he did, at least on the human side. With a real human nature, Christ had to “grow” in knowledge as he went along. She could tell him from her memory the details about the Gabriel incident or the Bethlehem situation or the being lost on the way back from Jerusalem. She was there. We do not know whether she did or did not talk to the young man about it, though it seems likely. St. Ignatius has said that certain things happened even if they were not in Scripture. Christ probably washed up after a hard day’s work before he had supper, but not a word of it is in Scripture.

But we do know that Mary “pondered” these things, ever more so as the young man grew. We know nothing of what went on from his twelfth to his thirtieth year. Presumably Joseph died in this period. Still, Mary knew something momentous was going on around her son. She had been told by Simeon in the Temple that a “sword” would pierce her heart. Knowing this, she needed some of John Paul II’s “Be not afraid,” which, of course, was a theme of Christ himself. But not being afraid and not being sorrowful when something happens to a mother’s son are not the same things. It is like saying that we should not make too much of the Crucifixion because we know about the Resurrection.

In the beginning of this essay, I cited a comment of Peter Kreeft about weak or effectively unbelieving bishops, pastors and teachers. In a graphic phrase, Kreeft said that many are “terrified” by what the Church teaches about who Christ is, who Mary is. In Kreeft’s phrase, these are “shocking” teachings if true. Nietzsche, in fact, said much the same thing, namely, that few Christians really believe and practice what they are to believe if one knows their own teachings. Nietzsche, the great analyzer of modern thought and its implicit contradictions, was also contemptuous of professed Christians who did not really believe what the Church taught about Christ. They did not act on what they said they believed. This scandalized Nietzsche and sent him off in other directions.

But the doctrines about Mary are all consequent on who she was. As Andrew of Crete said on the feast of Mary’s birth, through her acceptance of the Angel’s invitation, a place was made in this world “for him who made all things.” That is to say, that the origin of all things, the Word, needed someone on the human side before he could actually enter the world by becoming flesh. He was dependent on the acceptance of Mary of this seemingly outlandish plan of salvation of the Father that in fact depended on her consent. But once she consented, she herself had to follow out the results, both as a mother and as someone seeking to understand what was happening. She had to keep what she saw in her heart, because she knew about the sword. She was not yet sure what it would actually be in her case. She herself was not martyred like most of the apostles. Her “sword” was a mother’s sword, that which comes from the love of a child for the good of the child.

When Benedict spoke of the Assumption of Mary, he was careful to state that this teaching was grounded in reality. In his book Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict again and again made the point that all the efforts to explain Jesus as both God and man fail. Modern scholarship sometimes seems to be obsessed with the need to deny the reality of the Incarnation. However, the facts of Scripture and of reason reflecting on it make clear that Jesus did exist. Moreover, all the testimony is that he was indeed God made man. That is to say, the Incarnation, life, death and Resurrection of Christ happened.

Once we understand that God did in fact enter the world as the Incarnate Word made flesh, we also realize that the world is forever different and on its way to what God has intended for it. In Spe Salvi, Benedict points out that we have hope in our own future because of the fact that Christ was in the world and that we are created to follow his path. This means that resurrection is not just a pious hope. We each are human persons who will be resurrected in the flesh. This is our destiny and indeed what we wish. This hope is why the Pope says that heaven is not an abstraction. This is why Mary’s Assumption is not just a story.

All Marian doctrines are Christological doctrines. Mary stands on the human side for our destiny in which, while remaining ourselves, we each see God face-to-face. Mary did not “become” God. She remains Mary the mother of Jesus, the young man who skipped out of the caravan. We can imagine the two of them in heaven having a good laugh over this, along with Joseph, who probably thought at the time that maybe they would have to put the kid on a short leash, until Mary told him to let it go for now.

In conclusion, the birth of Mary and the Assumption of Mary teach us about ourselves in a kind of mirror of the way that Christ’s life teaches us. Not a few are inclined to think, “Well, Christ was God and I am not, so his example is beyond me.” But Mary is another matter. Yes, she too is without original sin as befits her role as Christ’s mother. She is not a goddess. She is the Mother of Sorrows and the Seat of Wisdom because she was at the Cross and pondered each step that led her son there.

The realism or concreteness of Catholicism is startling to minds conditioned only by abstractions or by materialism alone. Mary’s life reminds us that each life, in its actual context of living, growing and dying is a full life whose final outcome also depends on what we believe and do with our lives. No one in Mary’s time ever paid the least attention to the “significance” of her life. Yet, it was her life that led to the first death of our kind after the death of her son. When Benedict tells us that heaven is not an abstraction, what he means is that the real person each of us is will follow the same path. We will each also be judged, for, as he recalls the Creed, Christ came to judge the “living and the dead.”  That is, our lives are significant. We are not saved whatever we do or think.

We are said to live in a “vale of tears.” We know of Mary’s sorrows. We are said to be pilgrims and wayfarers, that is, we are each on our way to that purpose for which we are created. In the case of Mary, the purpose for which she was created, aside from the reality of her being, was that the Incarnation of the Word could happen in this world. But it depended on her. At that moment when she confronted the angel, the whole future of the world was at stake in a small out-of-the-way place. She did not have to be “great” to be great. What she had to do was accept the offer of God to have a son who would be called Emmanuel, God with us.

It is all very concrete. If we do not like it, we can become something else, non-concretists, as it were. One thing is sure: no other explanation of things comes anywhere near to this one in guiding us to what it is that we most want. Mary’s Assumption showed the way. This is a “frightening” doctrine if it is true. But it is true. This is why we need and want to hear it, even when we do not hear it.

Fr. James V. Schall, SJ About Fr. James V. Schall, SJ

Fr. James Schall, SJ (1928–2019), was long a professor of political science at Georgetown University, a thinker of wide learning, and an author extensively published — including, happily, here at HPR.