Why Be Catholic? 9: The Fall
It is difficult—it has always been difficult, I think—to find a worldview that makes perfect sense. For example, if we believe the universe is created and governed by an all-loving God, we have trouble explaining natural and moral evils. But if we believe we are not created and there is no God, we have trouble explaining our own sense of right and wrong, our innate fear of judgment, and our yearning for something that transcends nature and endures beyond it.
In Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton wrote that he accepted the tradtional claims of orthodox Christian doctrine because that doctrine fit perfectly into all the openings, chasms, protrusions and fissures he found in examining the world. It all interlocks, he said, like a vast and exquisitely designed machine. Only when coupled with Christian doctrine does the universe make a complete and intelligible whole. These ideas led him into the Catholic Church. The great John Henry Newman also reflected on his own experience of the world. To him, it was impossible to explain the constant conflict between human aspirations and human failures—the deep sense everyone has that there is a great deal wrong which ought to be right—unless man is somehow fallen from an ideal state which is still embedded in his consciousness. Newman too became a Catholic.
For both Chesterton and Newman, then, Catholicism presented a worldview which fit reality. Catholicism required them neither to deny their deepest aspirations (as does secularism), nor to make a monster out of God (as do Deism and Islam). Rather, Catholic teaching takes things as they really are, including taking ourselves as we most deeply perceive ourselves to be (when we aren't engaging in special pleading to satisfy our flesh or our egos), and then Catholic teaching explains exactly what is right and what is wrong, and why, through the doctrine of Original Sin. The Church teaches that we were created for God and designed to live in close union with Him. But through rebellion against him, we have lost the perfect integrity that comes from living in that unity. The results are plain to see all around us. This is an explanation that makes consummate sense.
Happily, this Fall was not sufficient to thwart our destiny. Rather, it stimulates us to a sort of divinely inspired frustration with our weaknesses and limitations, and a divinely inspired dissatisfaction with all the natural and moral problems in the world. Our sense of frustration and dissatisfaction causes us to look again to God for the means to restore our unity with Him—a means that we can find only in Jesus Christ. There is a sort of inescapable logic in this account of fall and redemption. It may not always speak perfectly to what we’d like to believe or like to do at any given moment, but it does speak perfectly to what we most deeply perceive of reality when we’re being honest with ourselves.
To Deists and some simplistic Christian sects, because the hand of Providence guides things perfectly, it follows that whatever is is right; those who fail to accept this are justly doomed. To secularists, by contrast, whatever is is wrong; insofar as we can engineer something better, especially to ensure our own temporal satisfaction, we must do so; those who stand in the way must be coerced or thrust aside. It is not surprising that many secularists regard religious people as a threat, because religious people don’t place much confidence in man’s ideas about how to make a perfect world. They are likely to keep trying to help others, one by one, out of love; they are not likely to trust programs to end all programs, or wars to end all wars.
For the deeply religious person, and in particular the person who has tuned in to the Catholic vision of reality, everything is right with God but human sin has mucked up the world pretty badly. Sin alone is sufficient to explain all of our trials, struggles, disasters and sorrows. Christian doctrine fits what we see of the universe as a hand fits a glove, or as the hand of God fits the world He created. Therefore, it makes sense to the Catholic to seek first the Kingdom of God, and to expect that everything else will follow (Mt 6:33).
At bottom, in the recesses of our hearts, I suspect all of us know we need something more to save us than the plans of the intelligent, the rich, the famous and the powerful. This is because we know we need someone to save us not just from this or that situation but from ourselves. Initially we perceive the goal but dimly, because we are fallen, but that we are fallen becomes increasingly obvious as we mature. The fundamental mission, the only mission that will work, is to restore man’s lost integrity. This integrity can exist only in union with God, without Whom perfection is impossible. But if the problem is that we are fallen, then who can lift us up? Only the Son can draw us back to union with the Father. Only Jesus Christ can restore our integrity, and with it the integrity of the entire universe. Only Jesus Christ, the Son of God, can honestly say the words we most yearn to hear: “Behold, I make all things new” (Rv 21:5).
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