The Orchestra Analogy: One Divine symphony, no restarts

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 26, 2019

That great twentieth-century evangelist, Bishop Fulton Sheen, had a brilliant ability to come up with examples and analogies to make Catholic teaching easier to understand. One example is the analogy of the orchestra that he used to explain Original Sin. We all understand that the sins of Adam and Eve were the first sins and that somehow Adam’s sin was decisive in the Divine plan. But we find it more difficult to make sense of “Original Sin” as a disruptive force within our very nature as human persons.

On several occasions, Sheen explained Original Sin as a kind of ongoing process. To do so, he compared it to a musician in an orchestra who rebelled against the symphony and its conductor by playing a wrong note. This first flaw was both intriguing and infectious, opening up and encouraging possibilities for the other musicians—the possibility of becoming, in effect, a soloist, of exercising musical freedom in disruptive ways, of trying to improve upon the original score, or of doing something new and different of “my own”: In short, all the foolish possibilities which flatter our pride or encourage our weaknesses.

Continuing the analogy, Sheen suggested that the only solution was for the original composer to invite musicians to join a new orchestra and perform a new symphony—the symphony of our redemption by the Divine composer, conducted by Jesus Christ.

There is something to be said for this analogy. The harmonic ambience of human life is unalterably changed for everybody as sin irretrievably works its way through space and time, unceasing in its discordant effects. With all we now know (or think we know) about human psychology, we are certainly aware of how much damage can be done in children by the sins and shortcomings of their parents, or in spouses by the sins of their mates. The same is true for employers and employees, teachers and students, among friends, and even in our neglect (whether deliberate or not) of those everywhere who need our help.

Nowadays, of course, we are more prone to blame the sins of others that have somehow warped us (as they often do), without recognizing the disorder in our own being which is not actually generated but merely exacerbated by the negative influence of others—and which too easily reaches the boiling point. But the introduction of the “false note” into the “symphony” is still a fine analogy, as long as we recognize (as Sheen himself stated) that it is a fine analogy only up to the point at which it breaks down.

The art of breaking analogies

One of the delights of those of us who cannot think up a good analogy to save our lives is to demonstrate the shortcomings of the analogies offered by more creative souls. Call it another effect of Original Sin if you will, but I believe that even Bishop Sheen would agree that the most important way in which his analogy falls short is in the idea that God is forced by the false note to compose a new symphony and create a new orchestra to put things right.

Never mind for the moment that the broken symphony continues to be played even while the new orchestra is being formed, or that first we received Opus 2 in Noah Major, then Opus 3 in the Key of Abraham, followed by Opus 4 in the Manner of David, not to mention a great deal of truly prophetic conducting, only for everything to unravel multiple times before God decides to dispense with hirelings and conduct the orchestra Himself lest Time should run out! No, I do not believe many would try to use the symphony analogy as a complete illustration of salvation history.

Instead, the biggest problem with the analogy is the one found in nearly all discussions of Original Sin, namely the bizarre notion that God was forced to change His mind and write a new symphony—that God was forced to make a new plan. If we are to understand the least thing about Original Sin, we must begin by stating categorically that it did not force God back to his manuscript paper to pen a new score. It is not only that God does not change His mind. It is also that God does not need to do so.

Unfortunately, the traditional grade-school discussion of Original Sin in Catholic education (when it is taught at all) tends to introduce two very significant doubts. The first doubt is typically centered on ourselves: It does not seem “fair” that we do not get to start off with the same advantages as our First Parents. In fact, the orchestra analogy is designed in large part to eliminate this doubt, by suggesting that once sin starts, the consequent disruption within the whole human race is inescapable. For things to be otherwise, God would have had to do more than prune humanity; he would have had to wipe it out altogether and start again. And even when we contemplate this scenario, we must surely realize that sin, given human freedom, would have begun again as well.

But the second doubt is squarely centered on God. I believe this is an insurmountable doubt in one very important sense. For it is impossible to grasp Who God Is if we grow up convinced that He makes faulty plans which must be altered when they break down. This doubt renders Divine Providence unintelligible. It is the clincher that proves we have pressed the orchestra analogy as far as it will go, because we have pressed it to the point of misleading us when it comes to God. The sacrifice of Christ is not a hastily contrived Plan B deployed to recover from an ill-conceived Plan A.

God’s one and only Plan

Happily, recognizing the breaking point of this analogy may be the most important thing we can do with it. What we must realize in reflecting on the story of Creation and Original Sin is that God knew from all eternity exactly how His entire plan, in all its original integrity, would unfold and work itself out through Redemption in Jesus Christ. God knew from all eternity that the best possible plan—the plan which would give each and every human person the best opportunity to enter into God’s eternal embrace—was a plan which honors our freedom, permits us to sin and therefore to suffer, encourages us to repent, and enables us through grace to seek Him with our whole hearts.

All of this is motivated by God’s deepest desire that all men should be saved and brought to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4). God is love, and from the first, Love understood that the best possible nature for human persons, and the best possible plan for them to join Him in an eternity of love, was a nature and a plan that permitted them to sin, to suffer, and to experience Redemption. It is utterly incongruous to conceive of the story of the Fall as an occasion for God to change His mind. From our human perspective, we might marvel at His predictive accuracy in making His plans, but in reality, since God is outside of time, all things are present to Him in a single glance, which is the glance of Love.

This does not mean the Divine symphony has only one movement. It simply means that there is no need for God to scrap any movement and write another one based on “actual historical results”. God loves us. He has loved each of us from all eternity. And He has known from all eternity that it is precisely through the consequences of sin that the greatest number will be saved. Actually, the truth is even deeper than that. God has known from all eternity that it is through sin and its consequences that each one of us will have the greatest personal, existential opportunity to be saved.

Our loving Father has never been so shortsighted that He has had to tear up a symphony or scrap a plan. His score was written from the first with notes shaped by personal sins and virtues in order to maximize participation in His love. From the first it has been a score of Redemption. Put another way, God has never failed to conduct His orchestra with the symphony’s impact on each one of us personally in mind. Therefore, if we press this modified analogy perhaps we will find ourselves contemplating the music of the spheres—by which I mean the eternal harmony of love.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: davidSanDiego - Feb. 26, 2019 7:57 PM ET USA

    Off the topic of original sin but you triggered a thought. God wanted the best of the best for us, which means he needed to create us as creatures capable of love (agape). But he knew from the first that we were going to fail at that. And that He was going to have to suffer for that failure. This was not plan B, it was the only way.