Friday, March 18, 2016

The Sin & I

There is a murky discussion on pain and evil over here which caught my attention for the sake of one comment:
"I often feel like both Rome and Orthodoxy make too much of human goodness and that men like Blessed Augustine and Martin Luther were more correct. We are fallen, corrupt, and absolutely and completely incapable of moving one millimeter towards salvation without Jesus Christ. Salvation is a free gift. The sheer evil in all of us, and in human history and current events should show us just how sunk in corruption we are."
This is not a proposition I share. The Ancestral Sin severed man from God, but did not eviscerate it entirely, at least not enough to make mankind spiritual excrement, as Luther put it. In his On the Incarnation St. Athanasius wrote that God became man because man was an image and a likeness to God, and that to allow an image of God to whither was to allow a thing of God to vanish, antipodal to the very nature of God. Salvation is not a free gift to the elect, but an act of embrace in exchange for moving an inch towards the one loved.

In a world of Calvinistic pre-destination the elect are chosen individually out of a humanity mired in sinfulness. Is this Christian? In the Gospel at yesterday's ferial Mass the adulteress stormed into a Pharisee's dining room, where a man of the Law was breaching the norms of his brethren and entertaining the subversive Jesus with a rare liberality. The woman is unique among the miracles Jesus performed before the Resurrection. Were there many prior miracles that did not arise from need? A soldier wanted his servant cured. A man wanted to walk. A woman wanted her hemorrhages to desist. Thousands needed to eat. Simon Peter simply wanted not to drown. Christ normally concluded miracles with "Your sins are forgiven you." Poor people wanted Christ to alleviate their known ailments while He in turn relieved them of their sins, a sickness at the time thought beyond curing. That she asked for the forgiveness of sins and cried sufficiently to wash the Lord's feet reflects her trouble. Sinfulness did not bother her, but her own actual sins. Tears of that kind come not from acknowledging past sins, but from sinning and knowing one is wrong while sinning. It is a torment in the soul, ripping up one's inner fabric like a meat grinder. She sought forgiveness, not the beginning of her personally pre-determined destiny. Similarly, the prodigal son returned to his father for all the wrong reasons and his father did not care; the father awaited his son and the moment he caught his offspring in his eye he ran for the son. The father's joy reflects a hope for the son's return more than an expectation just and his compulsion to feast rather than hearing explanations tells us he was simply happy his son was back. His son still could have been lost.

Aside from the narcissism that pre-destination creates—a Swedish Baptist I knew in college, when he was not plagiarizing academic work and currying favor, once told me that he did not know what he would do if he didn't know he was saved—this line of thought loses sight of that fact that mankind corporately fell and is corporately redeemed. Creation is not healed, but healing in available in the new creation of Baptism, water itself being a symbol of creation. Individuals can join it, although not all do. "Many are called, few are chosen" applies neatly to salvation. God calls all; few accept the invitation wearing the proper garment (a Savile Row suit no doubt). Salvation is an interplay.

Today we recall the suffering of Mary at her Son's Passion. Was Mary pre-destined for salvation? She was planned in creation to carry and give birth to the God-Man, but she still had to give her "Be it done unto me." Were this not so jarring an act on its own would the Annunciation have been so popular an art motif? She said "yes" and began the restoration of humanity after Eve said "no" and wounded it.

Many are called to the Cross, but few are chosen. The rest pass by.


  1. I struggle with this idea of total depravity. If I am, from the moment of conception, totally depraved, unable to do the smallest good without grace, then, no matter how it might feel to me, I have no actual free will. Either God will provide grace, in which case I will do good, or he will not, and I will act according to my depraved nature. There is, in reality, no "I" that chooses to do this or that.

    1. I found the "Eastern" view of sin as a sickness quite liberating. I am inclined to sin due to my fallen nature, I am not personally at fault for having a fallen nature, but any sins I commit are my fault from not sufficiently tending to and combating the fallen nature.
      God will provide me grace if He sees me trying to do what is right.