There’s a reason Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam is so admired and famous. It is, really, the perfect image of the whole theme of the Judeo-Christian tradition: the simultaneous reaching of man for God and of God to man.
That really is the great mystery and staggering conceit of the whole faith: that man actually is somehow participating in the works of God. He is not simply a passive subject, but stands up and reaches out for and even contends with the Divine. The word ‘Israel’ means, essentially, ‘who wrestles with God.’ This is in contrast with ‘Islam’ which means ‘submission to God.’ Israel struggles for God: makes demands of God, dares to ask questions of God, seeks to understand God. In what can only be described as intolerable cheek, Israel demands to be an active participant with the Divine. This is the faith where Jacob seizes hold of the angel of God and refuses to release him without a blessing, and where an example of ‘man after God’s own heart’ is a passionate, hot-tempered warrior-poet.
This ‘intolerable cheek’ would be rank blasphemy if it weren’t commanded by God. The Lord made man to be free. As such, He demanded a level of autonomy or personal glory from him. When God put man in the garden, He put the forbidden tree with him. God gave man the chance to sin, knowing all that would come of it, because He wanted man to have the dignity of something that was his own and, save in that it was given by Him, not God’s: his own free choice. God does not choose for man. In unspeakable humility, He surrendered that portion of Himself to man and determined that man would have a say in his own creation. It is a small say, just as the one tree was a small part of the Garden, but it is the finishing touch that gives man his unique character. He is dependent, and yet independent. Contingent, and yet self-determining. Totally subject, and yet free.
Thus is the dignity of man: the only animal able to stand up and converse with God. God does not just reach for Adam, but Adam reaches for God. Man’s achievements are not simply nothing, nor is he bereft of rights or dignity, for God gave him these things.
This explains two vital facts about the Catholic Church: first, that she often venerates purely secular achievements such as the Glories of Greece and Rome, and second the extreme honor due to Mary the Mother of Christ.
To take the first issue, secular or non-Christian achievements may not be able to save a man’s soul, but that doesn’t mean they are not glorious themselves. Whether Aristotle was ultimately saved or not does not change the wisdom of his teachings. Whether Hector beheld the face of Christ after his death has no bearing on his nobility. It is, of course, infinitely more important that a man should be saved than that he should do great deeds, but the greatness of such deeds is not simply an illusion. The wise Medievals sang the glories of the pagans who came before them until the world was sick of it. Caesar, Alexander, and Hector were listed alongside King David, Charlemagne, and Godfrey as the nine worthies. Rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s includes the honor due to great achievements and glorious deeds. “This is the work of our sweat! Our blood! Our blistered hands!” as the ancients said of the Seven Wonders. The God of Israel is not offended by man’s standing on his feet and seeking after greatness: Magnanimity is a Christian virtue. He is a God with whom man may lawfully hold discourse and even disputes, who may demand answers and ask for signs (in Isaiah, God even rebukes men for not having the dignity to make a request of Him when offered). The heroic impulse was given man by God and is good.
The other, the extreme honor due to Mary, is because she represents the pinnacle of Man’s reaching for God: the exact point where the finger of Adam touches that of the Creator, and what is formed by that connection is the God-Man: Jesus, the Son of God and Son of Mary, in whom all mankind is blessed. The wrestling of man and God results in God becoming man and so enabling man to become like God (which, after all, was the cause of the conflict in the first place). This wrestling is nothing like an ‘equal relationship:’ God forbid! As if Man would ever be able to endure something like that (what would he be able to offer?). But it is a relationship and not merely a series of directions, and man has a real part to play in it. And what a staggering, almost terrifying compliment it is to be told that God expects something from us! That He wishes us to make some kind of contribution, to “put in our oar,” so to speak, to (if it is not too absurd a phrase) help Him!
This is the contradiction, the paradox at the heart of our Faith: that God is supreme, but Man still counts for something, if only because God made him so. It is a puzzle that no theologian or philosopher will ever answer: that Man can struggle with God.