by ANTHONY DISTEFANO
From the Catholic Phoenix
When we Christians are reminded of our moral failings, how should we respond? The question is not do we act badly, or if we do so often or spectacularly. Of course we do, just like people of other religions, & no religion at all. Yet we should resist the common temptation to debate who—Christians, atheists, Muslims, etc.—acts badly most often or with the deadliest consequences, as this can lead us to trivialize human suffering & make us seem evasive. An honest response to the evil that all people do, including those of us who profess Jesus as Lord, begins somewhere near the insight of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago:
“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, & it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us & destroy them. But the line dividing good & evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
“During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil & sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One & the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn’t change, & to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good & evil.”
“I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof” should remind us that Solzhenitsyn is talking not only about unbelievers, & that we all bear responsibility for a great many evils, including the crucifixion of our Lord. “I was there when they crucified my Lord/I held the scabbard as the soldier drew his sword/I rolled the dice as they pierced his side” Bono sings in “When Love Comes to Town,” echoing the famous spiritual & placing all of us at the cross as more than bystanders. While there are implications to the ideologies people serve, & while we can justly question the claim of secularists that atheism has little role in the murderous regimes of the recent past, there are bigger fish to fry here. The pertinent question when confronted with our sins is whether or not Christianity can make good theological sense of this acting badly, & whether there are resources within our texts & traditions to not only correct faulty understandings which make it possible to act badly & claim that one is acting appropriately, but also to lead sinners to repentance & into closer conformity to Christ. As Christians, we believe that we do.
The doctrine of original sin is, as it has always been, unpopular. To some, it’s hateful nonsense, while to others it is simply incoherent. Alan Jacobs’ fine book on original sin surveys the attitudes of opponents & defenders with his characteristic insight, & helps explain why even some Christians recoil from the doctrine. I recall when a Catholic told me with certainty that, especially in light of Darwin, the Church needs to get rid of its doctrine of original sin, as it is supposedly inconsistent with what we now know about human origins. All I’ll say about it here is that any alternative explanation, Christian or otherwise, fails to be as comprehensive & logical. The speculative secular meanderings through the unconscious, the mantras regarding the need for re- or better education (especially without the religion), the attempts by evolutionary psychologists to explain (away, it often seems) our moral sense, & the fuzzy Pelagian exhortations offered by Christians who reject original sin even if they don’t know it don’t seem to explain much more than the depth of their advocates’ confusion about human nature & the ongoing noetic & moral effects of the fall of man. As far as Eastern paths, I’ve never been able to accept either the unreality of evil which seems implicit in those accounts, or the negative assessments of desire that feature so prominently in them.
The traditional Christian teaching on original sin explains as much as can be explained, keeping in mind that the kind of neat & tidy intellectual package sought by secularists to “explain evil”, one that offers a complete interpretation with few questions left unanswered, is a fantasy. One of the beauties of our faith is its ability to articulate, with intellectual breadth, poetic depth, & the necessary restraint, how & why the world we inhabit is at once filled with such beauty & such horror. Only an account that takes seriously the world as created by God & despoiled by creatures rebelling against him can do justice to what we actually experience in not only the daily tragedies, small & great, that mark our world, but also in the darkness of our own hearts that Solzhenitsyn describes. Likewise, only such an account can make any real sense of love or beauty. And on this point Christians should have a query for secularists. While they often indict us for having no adequate response to why the innocent suffer, to the so-called problem of evil or pain, why don’t we insist that they offer a response to the problem of beauty & goodness? “Whence Mozart?” should be our question. While Christians have offered accounts of evil & suffering that, in their elegance & depth, demand at least an attempt at a serious response, how many plausible, non-reductionistic accounts of goodness have secularists offered?
Moreover, the resources of Christianity enable us to name & repent of the evil we do. Christian life should always be self-correcting. The priest who molests, the spouse who commits infidelity, the mean-spirited xenophobe, the pharisaic Catholic: scripture & tradition indict them all. It will often take time for the Church to develop its understanding of natural law & biblical teaching on many issues, but, as David Bentley Hart nicely illustrates in Atheist Delusions, the recognition of the morally problematic nature of an institution like slavery, however inchoate, is there early in Christian history. The Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth, as Jesus promises in John 16. Not all at once, & our grasp of the full implications of that truth is seldom perfect. Yet the infidelities of Christians can not hide long from the bright light of unfolding revelation. Excuses can be made, self-awareness shunned, but truth will out. We have traveled a long way from St. Paul’s “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, slave nor free” to where we are today, & we can discern something of that distance by looking at the starting point in the 1st century. There will always be those who believe that social, cultural, religious, political, ethnic, & gender distinctions allow us to judge ourselves superior to those who differ. As Hart explains, however, this sensibility, challenged by the growing Christian awareness of the implications of “in God’s image,” can no longer be taken for granted, even by those who don’t subscribe to our faith, & when we do detect signs of it in theory or practice we are quick to challenge it.
Finally, should we not expect that the Church will always be, in some sense, a school for sinners from which we will not graduate in this life? Did not Christ call those who are sick, some of us much worse than others? The path to holiness is difficult for all, but, as CS Lewis notes in Book 3 of Mere Christianity, the “raw material” that some of us begin with, whether temperament, disposition, or any number of factors shaped by nature or upbringing, is far more damaged than that of others, & our progress may look negligible to those who can not see the heart & what it has been shaped by. “Don’t judge, lest you be judged” is not a plea for a false tolerance which looks the other way, but a command to be realistic about the battles every one of us is waging against those powers & principalities aiming to prevent our transformation, often by exploiting our raw material. “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle”, said Philo of Alexandria. And how many of us know the full extent of the battles that even those close to us have long been fighting?
These matters have been revisited numerous times throughout the history of the Church, & it is a shame that so few Christians take advantage of our many resources. Perhaps the best place to learn how to think through them with the mind of the Church is in the anti-Donatist & anti-Pelagian writings of St. Augustine, the Doctor of Grace who knew a few things about the recalcitrance of the human heart, even of the redeemed, & of the saving, healing grace of the Divine Physician. His Confessions, though written before his great treatises against the Donatists & Pelagians, is, among other things, a monument to his growing recognition that the hope of any kind of moral perfection is rooted in a flawed understanding of human nature. His admissions of his own ongoing struggles, even as a bishop of the Church, in the 10th book of the Confessions mark a watershed in the history of Christian sensibilities, & helped open the way for the Church to recognize the fuller implications of its moral teachings. The seeds of his later developed theology of original sin are here, along with thoughtful & provocative reflections on the Christian life that cast into sharp relief the obstacles to a life of faith, hope, & love.
All this should give us confidence to respond honestly to the accusations often made against us. So, too, should the following words, from an 1862 interview of Charles Dickens by Fyodor Dostoevsky:
“He told me that all the good simple people in his novels [like Little Nell] are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity towards those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love, being used up in what he wrote. There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life.”
“I do not understand my own actions,” St. Paul wrote. “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” There are, as Solzhenitsyn & Dickens said, two people in me, one who feels & acts as he ought and one who does not. To deny this is to deny self-knowledge. “Why do I wrestle with myself? Why am I seemingly torn in two? And why do I also know that love is not merely self-aggrandizement, a learned social response necessary to keep chaos at the gates, or a puffy emotional response shaped by democratic capitalism at its consumeristic worst?” Folks like St. Paul, St. Augustine, Solzhenitsyn, & Dickens help clarify for us, reasonably, without recourse to totalizing explanations that wrap up the enigma of human moral psychology & action in trendy pseudo-scientific language, the moral struggles we all must face up to if we wish to know ourselves. They know both the dark side of the human will as well as the Love that not only moves the sun & the other stars, but also inspires the divided heart to revel in goodness, truth, & beauty & to perform works of compassion & charity.