Monday, February 23, 2009

Flashback: Fr. Emeric Lawrence OSB Begins Theology: 101 with a Question: Why Did God Create All This? And Out of What?


Continuation of excerpts from lessons taught at Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota, a Benedictine monastery 16 miles from Saint Cloud (population then: 20,0000) and one and a half miles from Highway 52 enclosed in a deep forest as per Benedictine trait of building universities-monasteries away from population centers. These notes are from Theology: 101, Sept. 23, 1946 with the professor, Fr. Emeric Lawrence, OSB. Fr. Emeric had just returned from Marine chaplain duty where as a lieutenant he was awarded a silver star by Gen. Holland (Howlin’ Mad) Smith for courage at Tarawa. He was also my French professor.

As students walked into the classroom, one of them—Bede Hall by name, a graying, 40ish ex-GI on the GI Bill—exclaimed, “Open the window! It smells like a French [scatological word for bordello] in here!” Then, noticing the sudden silence, he wheeled around to see standing behind him in all his austere Benedictine attire, immaculate roman collar and black clerical habit, the class’s professor, Fr. Emeric who said: “We assume, Mr. Hall, you are expert on such things. The class will be seated and we will start immediately.

I begin this class with a question which I will ask…let’s see…Cornelius Whalen (is he here? Where? Ah yes). Mr. Whalen…given that we know God is self-sufficient, why did He create us…the world…the universe? Stand up, Mr. Whalen. Incidentally let’s get one thing straight, gentlemen. We sit up straight in this class, not slumped and when called upon for recitation we stand up. Somewhere in this university, someone of my confreres, has tolerated slumping and recitation from your chairs. It is catching on though not with Fr. Ernest nor me. Not here. Not here.

While I am about it, I notice de rigeur the wearing of GI jackets signifying that most of you are just out of the military service…and I honor that. I am one with you and was released from service in July. I was a chaplain in the South Pacific during MacArthur’s island hopping and we chaplains hopped along with him…and I wore a military jacket as well. But gentlemen I saw that it was clean during my service. I had a colonel as commanding officer…a Lutheran minister may God reward him for his patience with me…who insisted we wore crisply clean GI jackets.

And looking at this room I see that few GI jackets are crisply clean…Mr. Gaylord is wearing one. Gentlemen, we have a saintly old man here…a brother, Room 323 in the main monastic building…named Brother John who works from 9 to 4:30 pm and who has been our tailor and cleaner here since the 1920s and for a pittance he will clean and iron your things—and if you do not have the money he will do it gratis—although two dollars is not is not a munificent sum. See that if you choose to wear your GI field jacket here, you visit Brother John beforehand.

Now I have kept you standing a long time, Mr. Whelan and I see you are shifting from one foot to another [laughter], so why did God create us given that He is entirely self-sufficient? What? Speak up Mr. Whalen. [He responds that God was lonely].

Sir, that is a very sophomoric and frivolous answer…that He wanted company. And you are not even a sophomore but a freshman. The idea that God created us out of a sense of need is incorrect. Mr. Brooks. He did what? Yes. Correct. In fact more than correct: it is theologically incisive. He created it out of LOVE. He created it because He know we would like it. He did NOT create it because He had need of it: He created it because He knew we could gain from it.

Gentlemen, it is the nature of goodness that it radiates outward and since God is Ultimate Goodness He wishes to enlarge His joy to us. Saint John the Evangelist says…here in your text…that “God so loved the world,”, meaning He loved things less than Himself…but here is a distinction: He did not initially make the world for US, He made it as Goodness always does, for His own pleasure—and, here is the distinction, that His pleasure was to bring into existence things that could take pleasure in existence. I repeat and I suspect it will be in your first examination…whereby I see that you are now properly writing…that God brought the world into existence for His own pleasure that the world and we ultimately could take pleasure in existence.

How different that is from the scientist’s version of existence—not contradictory as you will find from Professor Schoffman in the Science Hall. —but theologically. Professor Schoffman, speaking as a scientist, is prone to say from a purely scientific standpoint that science always starts the questioning with something already in existence and goes back to something that has already been created to find the answer. But that is exactly the point and why pure science is not entirely satisfactory. I ask why there is something here at all. Philosophers and theologians ask why ANYTHING exists. And the answer is that God exists because what He is demands existence. You get it, Mr. Roeser? What He is demands existence.

But this universe which He created does not demand existence. Why, then, does it exist? It exists because God created it for His own pleasure and so to expand the pleasure. He created it out of NOTHING. A carpenter creates a chair but to build it he must have wood. God created the universe out of nothing. Now when I say this, Mr…let’s see…Mr. Orville Hesch…stand up, Mr.Hesch, yes thank you. Mr. Hesch you do not have a GI jacket; you are too young to have served, apparently—but your sweater is, to put it mildly, Mr. Hesch is clearly in need of Brother John. Enough digression. Now think about this Mr. Hesch before you respond. When I say God made the universe out of nothing, is it the same, Mr. Hesch, as if I said God made the universe FROM nothing?

Ah, give Mr. Hesch time to think. [Hums to the class’s delight: dum-de-dum de –dum-de-dum-dah-de-e-e-dah, resembling one of the Top 40 on the Lucky Strike hit parade: “Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me.”].

Time’s up, Mr. Hesch. Again the question…now answer carefully: when I say God created the universe out of NOTHING is it the same as saying God created the universe FROM NOTHING? You respond what? Correct! Now [wheeling around to survey the whole class] be honest, how many of you would have answered as Mr. Hesch did? Honest. Mr. Hesch is only eighteen years old—most of you are in your twenties—and have had the matchless experience of being in the military as Cornelius Whalen and , I and many others have…and he responded correctly. Mr. Hesch before you sit down, please amplify. What is the distinction between the two? What? You say…? No, I’m sorry, Mr. Hesch eighteen years of life apparently has its limits [widespread laughter].

We go now to Mr. Bede Hall, grizzled veteran of the European theatre whose service in France gave him experience in comparing temperatures in classrooms to certain Bordels Mobiles de Campagne [laughter] and whose jacket evidently accompanied him from the Bordels to this class since evidently it has not been cleaned or pressed since then and which sorely needs the attentions of Brother John the Tailor. I ask you Mr. Hall what is the distinction between the two…that God created the universe out of nothing versus God created the universe FROM nothing? You say…what? The same? Not even close Mr. Hall, not even close—as radically different as the smell of Bodels Mobiles de Campagne from this room. When it is said erroneously that God made the universe FROM nothing it implies that he used material…nothing…from which to make the universe. But when I say God created the universe OUT OF NOTHING, it presages that God used no material whatever in the making of the universe. See Mr. Hesch?

Mr. Hesch nods his head. See Mr. Hall? Mr. Hall shakes his head. Mr. Hall as I am your prefect in the GI barracks I will share coffee with you tonight after the study hour begins to further delineate this for you. This is a magnificent difference, Mr. Hall and if we concentrate our minds on the difference we see the aweful…I use that word in its original sense a-w-e-f-u-l…majestic sense of concept of the goodness that is God. The answer is clear but a-w-e-f-u-l: God does not depend on things for His knowledge of things. Or as Augustine says in your reading [“De Genesi ad Litteram”] “He made things He knew; He did not get to know the things He had made.”

Conversely, if God abandoned anything He had made, it would simply cease to be. As Augustine adds: “Unless His continuing providence were present in the things He created and preserved them by the same power with which He created them, they would immediately lapse back…into nothingness.” Therefore we see the universe and all that is in it…ourselves included…as being held in existence from moment to moment by God’s continuing will to hold it—and us—there.

That, gentlemen, is the first great theological insight of this course. Failure to see the world this correct way has led man to make such mistakes as to make the angels weep.

Enough for now. More again sometime. When I last talked with him at dinner in 1962 at the Abbey, I was press secretary for the Minnesota governor and on sabbatical…to decide what I would do in the future—accept a private sector job in Minnesota or stay with politics after the election that defeated us that year (I chose politics). Then he expressed his discomfiture with Fr. Godfrey Diekmann OSB who was leading a so-called reformist-dissention cadre of intellectuals pursuing the “spirit of Vatican II.” Emeric said: “I do not see much in Godfrey’s so-called `spirit of Vatican II’ that matches the literal achievements of Vatican II and you can derive from that that I am gravely disturbed.” Later Godfrey was one of the very radical theologians who criticized “Humanae Vitae” so Emeric’s views proved out. Emeric has lain in the Abbey cemetery for only 10 years, having died in his mid-90s, celebrating Vatican II but not its so-called “spirit.”

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