"The flesh is indeed willing, but the spirit is weak"—Jesus
A while back St. Anne / Weekend Fisher asked whether human nature is basically good or totally depraved. I left a comment as follows:
There is no such thing as pure evil. God is pure good, and the things he creates are all good when properly related to him. Evil is always goodness twisted and perverted. It cannot exist on its own; it is a parasite on goodness.
Thus, when we say that human beings are depraved or evil, this necessarily presupposes that human nature is good. If we had not been meant for something better, it would not be a sin to fall short.
I am not sure I believe in "total" depravity, or even that I am sure what it would mean if it were true. I think it is clear that almost every person has, at some time in their lives, done something ethically good, out of love for other people, rather than hypocrisy or self-righteousness. Christ calls human fathers evil, but he also says that they know how to give good gifts to their children.
What I affirm is that (a) every part of our nature, though created good, is corrupted to some extent, and (b) we are sufficiently enslaved to sin that we are incapable of saving ourselves, but need God's gracious act of redemption through Jesus.
Also, I think people mistakenly think that because the doctrine of "original sin" applies to children, it is therefore especially about children. Children may be fallen, but adults are more so. Otherwise Jesus would not have said that you have to change and become like a child in order to enter the kingdom of heaven.
But this still leaves the question I asked last time, why, if God created us good, are we all so whacked? (OK, I used a slightly different word, but nobody called me out on it.) The Christian answer is well known: because some dude and his wife ate a piece of fruit a while back...wait, what?
The Genesis story is full of rich archetypes and symbols, and if we treat it too literalistically and fail to notice the applicability to our present state, we're missing out on the point. The name Adam means Human Being. The name Eve means Life. In other words, we are all Adam and Eve, as Paul says:
For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive... (1 Cor 15:22, 44-50)
Point is, YOU are Adam, and when you rebel against God you experience what it is like to be a fallen human being. That is when you experience shame and nakedness and the desire to justify yourself by clothing yourself with whatever fig leaves you can gather, even if it isn't always that effective. We can tell the Genesis story about ourselves, as Paul does:
I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead.
Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. (Romans 7:7-10)
There was once, for our species perhaps as well as each individual, a time of rosy innocence before we became aware of morality as we now experience it, in the form of unattainable ethical imperatives and guilt for having disobeyed them. At one time we lived in a state of innocence and spiritual simplicity, but then we wanted to make our own decisions and go our own way, and there were the consequences.
The way people usually tell the story of the Fall, they act as though Adam had eaten of the Tree of the Knowledge of Depravity and Sinfulness. But that's not what the book says, it says the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. What's more the Knowledge is considered in itself something good, a property of God. As the serpent says:
“For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4).
and on the off-chance you don't think the devil is a reliable source of information, God speaking to himself (in the communion of the Holy Trinity) says the same thing:
“The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever” (Genesis 3:22).
Perhaps human beings were supposed to eventually receive the Knowledge of Good and Evil when we became mature enough, but we wanted to try out both good and evil for ourselves, learning about each from experience, and now we experience the moral law in the form of commands which we find impossible to satisfy, with all the resulting effects on our mental and spiritual health.
Since the genetic evidence suggests that there was never a time in which the early homo sapiens population was smaller than about a thousand or so breeding pairs, it seems that we can't take literally the idea of only 2 human beings (even leaving aside the question of where Cain's wife came from!). But I believe that the primary point of the Genesis story is to speak to the reality of the human situation, not to give a factual, literal account of what happened in the past.
Yet given that human beings were created to be in communion with God, but we now find ourselves alienated from him, we can deduce that there must have been some actual set of prehistoric events by which this happened, but because it happened in prehistory we don't know the precise details, just the aftermath. So in that sense the Fall is indeed also about something that happened a long time ago, even if it is recapitulated in each generation (just as Evolution is also recapitulated in each generation, as the traits which were useful in the past manifest once again).
We also have the Tree of Life in the story. Apparently if human beings had remained in communion with God (a state known as Original Justice) there would have been no need to die. Given the laws of physics and biology as we know them (which have certainly been operating for a long time before human beings arrived on the scene) this would have required supernatural intervention. But if touching the body of Jesus in the Gospels allowed supernatural healing to sinners, why should immortality not also have been available to sinless beings in full communion with him?
After people fell, how did the badness get transmitted to later generations? Well the absence of immortality and spiritual communion with God doesn't really need to be explained, that's kind of the default position given the loss of Original Justice. As for more specific morally undesirable traits, they are presumably passed on through genetics and culture, the same way we inherit everything else. Of course it would have required many generations for our genetics to adapt in response to cultural changes (Lamarck was mostly wrong), but it has been a long time since then.
Also, a large part of our evil fleshly impulses are just our animal nature, evolved through natural selection by our pre-human ancestors prior to the Fall. These fleshly impulses are not bad per se, since we are supposed to be spiritual animals in the image of God. But once the Fall disrupted our communion with God they got out of control and started causing problems. If we had remained under the control of the Spirit of God, our animal impulses would be holy as well as spontaneous, and thus part of our blessedness. Or if we were still just animals, who had never known better, we would still have the innocence of animals. A cat is morally innocent when it plays with a mouse, not because that is morally wonderful but because it doesn't know any better. But now we know better (or else ought to know better but are in denial), and it pains us to experience our own worst impulses.
While some animals seem capable of embarrassment or shame at times, so far as I know we're the only animal to frequently feel shame just at the thought of having a body. That's pretty weird! It's also why most of us wear clothes even when it's not needed for protection.
This animal/evolutionary origin for most of our evil fleshly impulses seems a lot more plausible to me then simply being inexplicably cursed with evil-rays as a punishment for having eaten a fruit once. (What do you get when you combine Christianity with evolutionary psychology? Christianity, of course...)
Of course we aren't personally responsible for the fact that we are born in a morally problematic state. But we do need to take responsibility for who we are, as best we can, to control the damage. And while none of us were doing the right thing, God himself took on responsibility for the human condition by uniting himself to human nature in order to redeem it and make holiness and sanctity possible.
A couple more quotes to round out the discussion. The first is from the rationalist blogger (who happens to also be a psychiatrist) Scott Alexander discussing the politics of "trigger warnings":
...I think [the essay he's responding to] contains a false dichotomy: privileged people don’t have any triggers, oppressed people do. You guys are intact, I am broken. But truth is, everybody’s broken. The last crown prince of Nepal was raised with limitless wealth and absolute power, and he still freaked out and murdered his entire family and then killed himself. There’s probably someone somewhere who still believes in perfectly intact people, but I bet they’re not a psychiatrist.
A Christian proverb says: “The Church is not a country club for saints, but a hospital for sinners”. Likewise, the rationalist community is not an ivory tower for people with no biases or strong emotional reactions, it’s a dojo for people learning to resist them.
Now Scott isn't a Christian, but he's sensible enough to steal good ideas even if they come from the Church. Likewise I encourage my readers to steal all the good ideas from rationalism! Take all thoughts captive for Christ (2 Cor 10:5), to prepare for the day when the splendor from all the kings on the earth will be brought into the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:24).
The concept of Original Sin understood properly is equalizing, not dehumanizing. As St. Chesterton wrote:
We have remarked that one reason offered for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow better. But the only real reason for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow worse. The corruption in things is not only the best argument for being progressive; it is also the only argument against being conservative. The conservative theory would really be quite sweeping and unanswerable if it were not for this one fact. But all conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post. But this which is true even of inanimate things is in a quite special and terrible sense true of all human things...
Christianity spoke again and said: "I have always maintained that men were naturally backsliders; that human virtue tended of its own nature to rust or to rot; I have always said that human beings as such go wrong, especially happy human beings, especially proud and prosperous human beings. This eternal revolution, this suspicion sustained through centuries, you (being a vague modern) call the doctrine of progress. If you were a philosopher you would call it, as I do, the doctrine of original sin. You may call it the cosmic advance as much as you like; I call it what it is—the Fall."
I have spoken of orthodoxy coming in like a sword; here I confess it came in like a battle-axe. For really (when I came to think of it) Christianity is the only thing left that has any real right to question the power of the well-nurtured or the well-bred. I have listened often enough to Socialists, or even to democrats, saying that the physical conditions of the poor must of necessity make them mentally and morally degraded. I have listened to scientific men (and there are still scientific men not opposed to democracy) saying that if we give the poor healthier conditions vice and wrong will disappear. I have listened to them with a horrible attention, with a hideous fascination. For it was like watching a man energetically sawing from the tree the branch he is sitting on. If these happy democrats could prove their case, they would strike democracy dead. If the poor are thus utterly demoralized, it may or may not be practical to raise them. But it is certainly quite practical to disfranchise them. If the man with a bad bedroom cannot give a good vote, then the first and swiftest deduction is that he shall give no vote. The governing class may not unreasonably say: "It may take us some time to reform his bedroom. But if he is the brute you say, it will take him very little time to ruin our country. Therefore we will take your hint and not give him the chance." It fills me with horrible amusement to observe the way in which the earnest Socialist industriously lays the foundation of all aristocracy, expatiating blandly upon the evident unfitness of the poor to rule. It is like listening to somebody at an evening party apologising for entering without evening dress, and explaining that he had recently been intoxicated, had a personal habit of taking off his clothes in the street, and had, moreover, only just changed from prison uniform. At any moment, one feels, the host might say that really, if it was as bad as that, he need not come in at all. So it is when the ordinary Socialist, with a beaming face, proves that the poor, after their smashing experiences, cannot be really trustworthy. At any moment the rich may say, "Very well, then, we won't trust them," and bang the door in his face. On the basis of Mr. Blatchford's view of heredity and environment, the case for the aristocracy is quite overwhelming. If clean homes and clean air make clean souls, why not give the power (for the present at any rate) to those who undoubtedly have the clean air? If better conditions will make the poor more fit to govern themselves, why should not better conditions already make the rich more fit to govern them? On the ordinary environment argument the matter is fairly manifest. The comfortable class must be merely our vanguard in Utopia.
Is there any answer to the proposition that those who have had the best opportunities will probably be our best guides? Is there any answer to the argument that those who have breathed clean air had better decide for those who have breathed foul? As far as I know, there is only one answer, and that answer is Christianity. Only the Christian Church can offer any rational objection to a complete confidence in the rich. For she has maintained from the beginning that the danger was not in man's environment, but in man. Further, she has maintained that if we come to talk of a dangerous environment, the most dangerous environment of all is the commodious environment. I know that the most modern manufacture has been really occupied in trying to produce an abnormally large needle. I know that the most recent biologists have been chiefly anxious to discover a very small camel. But if we diminish the camel to his smallest, or open the eye of the needle to its largest—if, in short, we assume the words of Christ to have meant the very least that they could mean, His words must at the very least mean this— that rich men are not very likely to be morally trustworthy. Christianity even when watered down is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags. The mere minimum of the Church would be a deadly ultimatum to the world. For the whole modern world is absolutely based on the assumption, not that the rich are necessary (which is tenable), but that the rich are trustworthy, which (for a Christian) is not tenable. ("The Eternal Revolution", Orthodoxy)
In my previous post in this series I was talking about the goodness of being created with male and female bodies, and somebody asked me what I think about transgender people. So I provided my viewed-as-hate-speech-on-many-college-campuses opinion that it is morally wrong to dislike or mutilate your own body, even though the people in question may find it quite difficult to think in a different way. But I also said that it was just a more extreme example of the type of body-image problem that we ALL struggle with. Christianity, while it is willing to call particular acts sinful, problematizes any use of the word to stigmatize anyone, since after all Christ had to die for my sins as well as your sins.
I read an article once which had a list of derogatory language and insults, and in addition to the usual suspects, things like the N— word (which apparently these days is so contaminated by evil-rays that you can get in trouble for using those letters in sequence, even if you put it in quotation marks as something somebody else said, without actually using it to refer to anybody or anything) included the word "sinner". Because that is a derogatory word used to refer to gay people, just like "fag" or "pansy" or something of the kind. The barely concealed goal was to reclassify the Christian church as a hate group.
Except that's not how the word "sinner" is used at all. I would be very surprised if, when Grand Dragon of the KKK got a bunch of white supremacists together for one of their meetings, he started beating his chest and crying and saying "We are all N—'s, every last one of us! No matter what color skin we have, we have all have black hearts. Before you judge your neighbor, consider first how far you yourself fall short of perfect whiteness when you fail to love your colored neighbor as yourself!" In this case I would think that he was using the words "white" and "black" in a different way than I would expect a hate group to use them.
Sinner is indeed a derogatory word, but one of the key attributes of this word in Christianity is that it applies to everyone, and that you aren't allowed to use it to refer to anybody unless you bear this in mind. This is not to say that all sins are equally bad; that is total nonsense which deprives the word of any meaning at all; there are plenty of Bible verses which quite explicitly say that some sins are worse than others. But all sins come from a root cause that is present in all of us, and you'd have to be morally retarded (oops, another derogatory word) not to sympathize, given that we all struggle with the same things. Except that, once again, we are all morally backwards when it comes to self-righteousness and looking down on others, that's part of the problem.
On my bookshelf I have a section for Heretics, books which I own that contain serious distortions of Christian teaching. Some of these books, I agree with the title even though I disagree with almost everything inside of them. One of them is The God who Risks, by John Sanders. Another book with a great title is The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin through Easter Eyes.
I don't recommend either of these books, but the title of the second one makes an important point. It's an interesting fact that Jews don't make a big deal out of the story of the Fall in Genesis, it's not really a central theological point for them even though it's right near the beginning of the story. It's only after Jesus rose from the dead, and the idea of a new human nature became solidly founded, that we have a platform to go back and criticize the old human nature we all have. Paul talks about Adam so much because he needs something to compare to what Jesus did.
Christian theology centers around Jesus and the Resurrection (a thing which happened in historical times i.e. during the period of written evidence). Our attitude towards Adam, the Fall, and our fallen neighbor must be recalculated in light of this new glory. That's why it isn't a bummer to learn you've been wrong the whole time about how you've been living. A fish can't really tell it's swimming in water until it learns to fly.
Update: I answered some of the questions in the comments below in
Questions about Adam.
The grand conclusion to the series is here:
Flesh and Spirit III: Easter Sermon