Saturday, March 12, 2011

The loss of original justice


Half a world away, as I sit here listening to Robert Shaw and the London Philharmonic play Mozart's Requiem, uncounted thousands of Japanese people struggle and scramble to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of incomprehensible natural devastation.

The opening stanzas of the sequence "Dies Irae" are eerily appropriate: Day of wrath! O day of mourning! /See fulfilled the prophets' warning, /Heaven and earth in ashes burning! Oh, what fear man's bosom rendeth, /When from Heaven the Judge descendeth, /On Whose sentence all dependeth.

In truth, the temblor which struck just off the northeastern shore of Honshū, the main island, is but a small foretaste of the wrack which will come at the End of All Things. Even the apocalyptic warnings of Our Lady of Akita, grim and desperate as they are, leave open the possibility that the hand of the Almighty may yet be stayed; the time when the true End will come—without warning,[1] "like a thief in the night"[2]—is already fixed, and no plea or prayer will halt the descent of the axe.

Yet it's true that many people, even Christians, see no necessary connection between sin and natural disasters. The connection isn't in the fact that disasters occur; tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes and such are all consequences of living on an active, dynamic planet. Even disasters that occur from the collapse of man-made things, from the tower at Siloam[3] to the World Trade Center, aren't direct consequences of sin, though one could argue that our need for such structures is an indirect consequence.


And so, when thousands of people suffer and die due to such events, we hear the wail: "If God is good, how can He permit such things to happen?"

The doctrine of original sin seems difficult to defend because it appears to rest on the Biblical account of the fall (Gen 3:1-19), which on the face of it is a parable of our origins not to be taken literally. This, however, is a misleading proposition: no matter how dim or confused the Genesis account may appear to be, it doesn't follow that we shouldn't take it seriously just because we can't take it literally. Our first parents were given a test of obedience; prompted by the temptation of Satan, they failed that test; as a result, they lost their state of original justice not only for themselves but for us all. This is what we need to accept as true, apples and serpents notwithstanding.[4]

This state of original justice haunts us as a kind of communal memory. We wander through our lives with this nagging sense of having been deprived, as though a grandfather long forgotten was shorn of noble estate and his line attainted by writ.

People who have no more knowledge of the doctrine of the Fall than they do of the Monroe Doctrine have this sense that we shouldn't be prone to suffering and death; people who don't know Adam and Eve from Abbot and Costello sense that we should know more than we do, that we shouldn't be capable of evil and yet we are. Cultures that have never known neither King Nimrod nor King Oedipus know what hubris is.

This feeling/sense/intuition that we're less than we should be has always existed side-by-side with the knowledge that we're something more than other animals. Aboriginals may have taught their people to live in harmony with Brother Bear and Brother Wolf, but they taught this in the knowledge that they could choose to live in discord with nature, while the bear and wolf could not. Hindus may teach the transmigration of souls, but they don't teach transmigration of the intellective property.

Nothing we say in rejection of God makes sense so long as we carry this intuition with us. We could not disbelieve in a God who permits suffering if we weren't possessed of the conviction that impassibility is our due; we could not deny a God who permits disease and death if we had no sense that we were meant to live forever, that death is an obscenity and a theft. Yet how could we come to feel such gifts are our birthright when we come into the world ignorant and vulnerable, when we are surrounded by those who do what we know to be evil, when suffering surrounds us on all sides?

And more, this intuition we have drives our sciences. No longer possessing original rectitude, we propound theories of law, crime and punishment to create an artificial rectitude. No longer possessing immortality, we yet strive to make men live longer, and look to the day when technology will inaugurate a virtual immortality. No longer impassible, we strive to end all suffering, creating pills and pleasures to be at our right hand forevermore, at least palliating what we can't cure.

Original sin, like Hell, begins to make sense when view as an injury Man did to himself, and not as a punishment or doom laid upon him in God's anger. But because this injury was spiritual in nature and not material, it remains a wound beyond Man's ability to heal by himself.

God permitted our first parents to disobey Him precisely because He is good, because He values love freely given, obeisance willingly tendered. Obedience out of fear is imperfect; any human tyrant can demand and obtain so much. And it was out of love that He extended the means by which our wounds can be healed and the breach between us and God crossed.

But until the fullness of years is reached, we must still live with the consequences of the Fall. When the last trumpet sounds and the dead are raised incorruptible,[5] only then will Nature have no further mastery over us.


[1] Mt 24:44; see also Mt 24:36, 25:13, Mk 13:35-37, Lk 12:46.
[2] 1 Thess 5:2-3; see also 2 Pet 3:9-10, Rev 3:3.
[3] Cf. Lk 13:4-5.
[4] DS 788, 2123; see Ott, Dr. Ludwig, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, pp. 106-107.
[5] 1 Cor 15:52.