The Case for Original Sin
At his weekly Wednesday audience on December 3rd, Pope Benedict suggested that the Catholic doctrine of Original Sin is an alternative to a “vision of despair”. At first glance, this does not appear to be an argument in favor of accepting the doctrine, and I don’t think the Pope meant it so much as a rigorous argument as a significant spiritual observation. Yet it is an observation with a certain persuasive power. Let’s take a look.
People adopt their beliefs for a wide variety of reasons, some of which are logically stronger than others. However, for any given person, the most logical argument may not be the one with the greatest personal force. An argument with great force may not be reasoned out step by step, as in a syllogism. It may simply correspond well with our own experience or our own suspicions about reality. In this way, one could easily tend to believe the doctrine of Original Sin at least partly because the alternatives are profoundly unsatisfactory, perhaps even unthinkable.
The idea of Original Sin includes or implies several important elements. In brief, it implies that God (the highest good) is the underlying principle and foundation of all things, such that everything that exists was created as good; second that this goodness has been marred by ruptures and weaknesses which arise ultimately from willful rebellion against God; and third that life can be lived in hope, since its purpose is to seek restoration of the full good through a continual return to God.
Ultimately, there are only two alternatives to this understanding of the world. The first alternative holds that both good and evil are active, co-eternal principles, with the implication that evil can never be fully overcome. This is characteristic of all philosophical and theological dualisms, such as Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism and many modern atheistic attitudes.
The second alternative holds that ideas of good and evil have no meaning, for the only reality is matter, which in itself has no moral dimension. However we may find things, it is simply the way they are and the way we are. No insight can be derived from it and nothing can be done about it. Those who try to form judgments which raise one assessment above another are merely playing a power game. This attitude is characteristic of all forms of materialism, and it strongly influences many forms of relativism. Because the materialist/relativist viewpoint eliminates every requirement for personal transformation, a great many of our contemporaries act as if this viewpoint were true when they want to behave “badly”. But despite the strong influence of this alternative, few live it consistently, and fewer still are dense enough to insist upon it as a consistent philosophical theory (for such insistence requires an immensely paradoxical intellectual judgment about an allegedly meaningless reality).
As the Pope suggested, both alternatives are essentially hopeless. Neither provides a vision which can facilitate anything but despair over the condition we are in, for either there is no prospect of ultimate change, or such change is ultimately purposeless. Moreover, I submit that neither alternative matches our own experience of either ourselves or of the world in which we live. The idea that the world is a good thing but a broken thing, along with the hope of restoring that broken thing to wholeness, unlocks the secret of many a puzzle about life and matches marvelously with our own deepest intuitions. It becomes much easier to understand where we are and where we are going as soon as we realize that everything in the world is actually broken. Suddenly reality becomes intelligible, for everything necessarily points beyond its current state to what it would be like if it were unbroken—or fixed.
Internal assent and even Faith itself is rooted in such correspondences—spiritual, intellectual, and psychological—between what we dimly suspect and the clear explanation which confirms those suspicions. Some explanations make sense and, in so doing, shed great light. Others don’t correspond to our experience, don’t make sense, and take light away. Recognizing the result is often the key to the whole thing. Therefore, it is no off-hand remark that Original Sin stands in immense and obvious contrast to despair. It is rather a profound fact which opens new vistas of human understanding. Maybe, just maybe, Pope Benedict meant his observation to be a sort of argument after all.
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