The Victory of Factum over Genitum

The solemn declaration of the Credo that “Christ was engendered, not made” (genitum, non factum), is pregnant with rich philosophical insights and is an inspiration to investigate two possible ways of relating to existence: to be made or to be engendered.
God is eternal and the Creator of heaven and earth, though our current translation renders it, “He is the maker of heaven and earth.” That this formulation is unsatisfactory is best proved by the fact that, whereas man can make things, he cannot and will never be able to create, in the biblical sense of the term. God alone can create. The very notion of “creation” is inconceivable without the biblical revelation; it never entered man’s head. Plato’s great dialogue, Timaeus, eloquently proves this fact. Aristotle struggled with the same difficulty, and the best solution that he could think of was to declare the eternity of the world. These two intellectual pillars of Western thought prior to Christ struggled in vain with a difficulty that unaided reason was incapable of solving.

A carpenter uses wood to make (factum) a table. A construction worker needs bricks, mortar, and cement, to make a house. A primitive cook opens cans to make a meal. But a great carpenter does more than just put pieces of wood together; there is a difference between making a table and making a beautiful table. The first case is a pure factum; the second implies a genitum — an artistic birth, mysteriously maturing in a mind, and then realized. A great cook will artfully combine various ingredients and “generate” a delicious dish. Creative chefs develop a sort of artistry in preparing food that gains them fame.
There is a note of inventiveness that spiritualizes a physical activity. To sew a hem is factum; to do lace work is a genitum. To set an elegant table and serve a refined meal is more than just attending to biological needs. Similarly, the primary purpose of a house is to protect its inhabitants from heat, cold, rain, and snow. But being inhabited by a human person, a house should also be a home, a place of intimacy where the great dramas of human life take place: love, birth, death, joy, suffering.
Primitive men had the task of guaranteeing man’s survival in a hostile world. Man was then a Homo faber. When essential needs were provided for, a new task emerged: to feed the human soul and direct its vision higher. Artistic creations, the accomplishments of science, the writings of great thinkers were not a mere factum; they were engendered. A creative, spiritual element had blossomed and transformed a physical activity into a genitum.
Moreover, what is a genitum on one level can be a factum with respect to a higher level. To make a table is a factum, but it is a genitum with respect to cleaning toilets. To write a report on a session of Congress is a factum compared to writing a poem, but it is a genitum compared to copying a manuscript.
The lower a factum is on the ontological scale, the more will it be under the control of our will. But the more the notion of cooperation with a gift becomes predominant, the more it is a genitum. The crucial element will then be the grateful acceptance of a present received and the humble consciousness that whatever is “generated” should not be solely attributed to the merits of the beneficiary, even though his collaboration is required.
This hierarchy of factum versus genitum is a long one until we reach the summit of genitum, which radically excludes any factum: the relationship existing between the Father and the Son in the Holy Trinity. This sublime truth, which used to be honored by genuflecting in the Credo, is totally outside the modest scope of this article. Compared to it, the Incarnation — a genitum with respect to all the activities we have enumerated — is itself a factum.
Particularly illuminating is the notion of genitum versus factum in the intimate sphere. Whereas love is a typical genitum (it is not a pure act of will, but a freely given gift), the marital embrace is a factum; but the latter is clearly a genitum compared to the fulfilling of a practical task. One of the amazing things about this mysterious sphere is that husband and wife, by embracing each other, open the road to a possible conception. Whether or not this will take place is outside their power; the child is a gift. But man’s negative power is totally out of proportion with man’s creative power: It is easy for man to prevent conception, but he can never guarantee its success.
Conscious of the fact that the highest and most sublime things are a genitum, and that man has little or no direct control over them, modern Prometheus shows his defiance by bragging about his negative power. Today, he is reincarnated in the pride of atheistic scientists: We no longer need God.
Man cannot create in the biblical sense of the term. God alone can say, “Be,” and a new being will come into existence from nothing. Modern man can now say, “Be not,” and destroy the embryo and even the world. The means of mass destruction are such that this is no longer an impossibility: It is a fearful reality.
This negative power is the revenge of a defiant creature. Whether some madman will decide to destroy the universe, we do not know. But this metaphysical arrogance has struck deep roots in the reproductive domain; all the means of artificial contraception testify to man’s craving for controlling his life and being less and less dependent on gifts.
Years ago, artificial insemination gained currency; the mysterious and profoundly symbolic union of husband and wife can now be replaced by a medical procedure taking place in a laboratory. The genitum has been eliminated and is replaced by a factum. A dull procedure — stripped of mystery and poetry — has eliminated a dramatic moment of human experience.

A human act is replaced by a laboratory procedure — totally impersonal, with a radical disregard for the dignity of human beings. To be conceived in a woman’s womb is human. To be the product of a chemical combination in a dish is the inhuman; it is an insult to both the Creator and to the creature that might result from this scientific feat. It is like spitting in the Creator’s face. Whatever advantage may ensue, the product is denied its most elementary human dignity.
Today, scientists brag that they can “make” a baby. The divine plan was a genitum; now, trampling on man’s dignity, it is reduced to a factum. Which one of us would not be proud and happy to hear that we were the fruit of a great love between our father and mother? Which one of us would not be resentful if told that he was produced in a dish as a scientific experiment, whose purpose is to achieve power over matter? All men, with one single voice, should protest: We object to being products of a laboratory. We are persons.
Man’s greatness as a person is best shown in his capacity to collaborate with grace, with other human beings, or with talents that have been granted to him. To place factum above genitum — to place independence over communion, control over receptivity — is to deny one’s dignity as a human person.
It is high time that we become conscious of the fact that secularism wages war on a great supernatural mystery: Christ was engendered, not made. Without God’s help, man cannot generate. Defiant creatures now claim victory by proclaiming the victory of factum over genitum; they claim to be in command and no longer in need help from above.
This is a warning: Unless modern man turns back to God, the horizon is dark indeed. 

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  • Alice von Hildebrand

    Alice von Hildebrand is professor emerita of philosophy at Hunter College of the City University of New York and the renowned author of many books, including The Soul of a Lion (Ignatius, 2000), The Privilege of Being a Woman (Veritas, 2002), and Man and Woman: A Divine Invention (Sapientia, 2010).

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