Romans 3: 23 For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God
If I was to describe to you the hodge-podge of Christian influences that have resulted in my understanding to date, half of you would say “no wonder he sounds so confused,” while the other half would say “it is truly a miracle that he makes any sense at all.” Well, this post should satisfy both sides….
The idea of Original Sin is difficult for many to accept. In brief:
Original sin, also called ancestral sin, is a Christian belief in a state of sin in which humanity has existed since the fall of man, stemming from Adam and Eve's rebellion in Eden, namely the sin of disobedience in consuming the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Original sin, in Christian doctrine, the condition or state of sin into which each human being is born; also, the origin (i.e., the cause, or source) of this state. Traditionally, the origin has been ascribed to the sin of the first man, Adam, who disobeyed God in eating the forbidden fruit (of knowledge of good and evil) and, in consequence, transmitted his sin and guilt by heredity to his descendants.
Depending on your point of view, Original Sin can be something rather insignificant or can mean total depravity (another loaded phrase, but not the subject for today).
Despite its importance for understanding Jesus’ sacrifice, the doctrine of original sin has been minimized since the European Enlightenment.
What is this relationship of Original Sin to the Enlightenment? Perhaps it is as simple as seeing the myriad utopian schemes for the perfectibility of man that have been born from this age of so-called reason.
From communism (you will be perfect, under penalty of death), to National Socialism (our people are perfect, the rest will suffer the penalty of death), to liberalism (you will have perfect liberty, and you will accept it or risk punishment up to, and including, death), to progressivism (science will make you perfect, even if it kills you) to cultural Marxism (some are perfect, the rest are deplorable and deserving of death), to post-modernism (all of these schemes for perfection are nonsense; there is no such thing as truth, so how can there be perfection? You might as well kill yourself).
After that list (and tell me that my descriptions are wrong…), the Apostle Paul doesn’t sound so bad, does he, when he writes (citing from the Hebrew Scriptures):
Romans 3: 10 As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; 11 there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. 12 All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”
What to do with this seemingly damning doctrine? Perhaps it will come across in a more agreeable manner if we consider a different source. From The Gulag Archipelago, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn:
The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.
We might hate the concept of Original Sin, but how is it possible to deny that the line separating good and evil is evident in each one of us? How could it be in each one of us, just like we each have an epidermis (original “skin”)? What term do you want to use to explain this? “Oh, but it isn’t fair that God damned us this way.” Maybe, maybe not.
I have been listening to a series of lectures by the Thomistic Institute: Aquinas 101. One of these lectures is by Abp. Augustine Di Noia, OP: "Aquinas on Original Sin: The Promise of an Interdisciplinary Approach."
It is a long lecture, about ninety minutes including a short Q&A at the end. At about the 44-minute mark, Abp. Di Noia offers (either quoting or paraphrasing Thomas):
Original Sin is not an inclination to evil, but a lack of facility in choosing the good. …It is not something positive, it is something missing.
Keep in mind this “lack of facility.” Original sin is not something God put in us; it is something missing from that which God created.
Man chose the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; man chose to develop his reason without God. Human history is littered with too many examples to list that demonstrate the consequences of this: sin, driven by man’s reason without God, permeates each one of us.
That “lack of facility in choosing the good” is evidence of the facility we lost when the idea of good and evil became divorced from God’s wisdom. It has nothing to do with “fair.” It has to do with the free will that is in each one of us. From C. S. Lewis:
The sin both of men and of angels, was rendered possible by the fact that God gave us free will.
Further, from Lewis:
God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong, but I can't. If a thing is free to be good it's also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible.
You still scream: it isn’t fair! Lewis responds:
Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.
Or perhaps you enjoy plain oatmeal three times a day, seven days a week, week after week after week.
We see the evil, and we know what the evil is, yet we choose it. As Tom Holland as pointed out, it is from Christianity where we have gained our understanding of good and evil:
[Prior to Christianity] there is nothing at all about the emergence of the qualities or the values or the teaching of Christianity at all. … The idea that human rights kind of hangs in the ether waiting to be discovered is as theological as believing that the Lord Jesus Christ was raised from the dead and sits at the hand of God the Father. It requires a leap of faith.
Yet we have evidence regarding the source of our ideas on good and evil; look at the ethics of Rome and Greece before Christianity swept the Mediterranean. Of course, the reshaping of our ethics didn’t happen overnight, but it cannot be denied that it happened.
For some reason, this quote from Abp. Di Noia struck me. We do lack the facility in choosing the good. It is the facility we lost when we went around God; it is inherent in our capacity to choose. Whether you believe the story of Adam and Eve is actual history or if you think it portrays this inherent reality within all humans, there it is. The fruit from that tree in the Garden is evident, daily, in each one of us – in our lack of facility to choose the good.
Abp. Di Noia has also introduced me to a website, Thomistic Evolution. I will spend some time with it.