Sunday, May 12, 2013

Thank God for Sin

There, I got your attention, didn't I?  No, God does not want you to sin.  But even more than He does not want you to sin, He wants you to be free to act and think according to your own will, which is why He created you in his image and likeness in the first place and not as a puppet or robot.  Ideally, of course, He wants us to will with Him what He wills for us (unity with Him in love), but He wants us to do so freely, not under compulsion.  Which means that He created us free to go against his will, free, that is, to do whatever we want, whether it hurts or heals us, whether it brings us life or death.

Augustine put it perhaps most vividly (as Augustine so often did): "Suppose God came and spoke to us here in his own voice (he never ceases to speak through his scriptures [per litteras suas], of course). But now, imagine that he is here and saying to one of you, 'Do you want to sin? All right, go ahead, then: sin. Do anything that gives you pleasure. Anything that you love on earth shall be yours. You are angry with someone? Fine: let him die. You want to lay violent hands on someone? He is yours to seize. If you want to hit someone, you can hit him. If you want someone condemned, condemned he shall be. Whatever you want for yourself, you shall possess it. No one is to oppose you, no one is to say to you, "What are you doing?" No one will say to you, "Don't do that." No one will say, "Why did you do it?" All the earthly things you crave shall be yours in abundance. You shall live to enjoy them not just for a time but always. But there is just one reservation: you will never see my face.'"

Augustine, of course, is also largely responsible for the theory of original sin: that somehow, once Adam and Eve had freely done what they wanted and disobeyed God, their descendents were all infected with this sin, so that even if we wanted to will the good, we no longer could without grace.   And, to be sure, even medieval theologians found this theory a little difficult to swallow.  What about the babies who died before they could be baptized?  What about all those not born in Christendom who never had a chance to be baptized because no Christians had yet brought them the sacrament?  But, important as they are, these are corner cases, distractions from the principal issue: why is it that even when we think we want to turn toward God and live according to his will for us, we can't?  What makes it so hard to live without sin?  The fall makes a good metaphor for why it is so hard, but it still doesn't quite explain why God let Adam and Eve and, therefore, everyone else turn away from him into corruption and death in the first place.

Here's what Augustine suggested, by way of Peter Lombard:  "WHY GOD ALLOWED HUMANS TO BE TEMPTED, KNOWING THAT THEY WOULD FALL.  AUGUSTINE, IN ON GENESISMoreover, it is usual to ask 'why God allowed humans to be tempted, whom he foreknew would be led astray. --But it would not be praiseworthy for human beings, if they could live well only because none would persuade them to live evilly, since, in their nature, they had the power and, in the power, the will, with the help of God, not to consent to the persuader'; 'and it is more glorious not to consent than to be unable to be tempted'." Augustine, still via Peter, goes on to explain that God created "those he foreknew would be evil" in the first place "because he foresaw that he would draw some good from their evils."**  But--I can hear you asking--why not just create us so that we did nothing but good?  Why create us if He knew that we would mess everything up? What good did God foresee He would draw from the evil of sin?  In a word: freedom.  "It is more glorious not to consent than to be unable to be tempted."  It is more glorious to be able to sin than it is not to be able to sin.  It is more glorious to be able to fail than not to be able to fail at all.

In other words, God did not want us to be automata or slaves.  Sure, God could have created beings who did everything perfectly, everything exactly according to his will.  In fact, He did: we call them planets and stars.  But He created us in his likeness and image, which means, with the ability to choose how to think and behave, not because He does not hate sin, but because He loves virtue more, and virtue coerced is not virtue, but slavery.  G.K. Chesterton put it with characteristic verve: "The free man owns himself.  He can damage himself with either eating or drinking; he can ruin himself with gambling.  If he does he is certainly a damn fool, and he might possibly be a damned soul; but if he may not, he is not a free man any more than a dog."***  Not everyone is comfortable with this.  How many times have you thought to yourself how much better it would be if somehow we (our society, our culture, our government) could keep people from doing anything bad?  Wouldn't that be great?  Wouldn't it be wonderful to live in a world in which no one ever willed anything evil?  Wouldn't it be wonderful if...oh, let's see...there were a law against damaging ourselves with eating or drinking or ruining ourselves with gambling so that no one could ever do him- or herself harm?  Oddly, God didn't think so, otherwise He would never have allowed us to be tempted in the first place, now would He?  For some reason, God thinks freedom is more important than guaranteeing we all behave exactly as He wants us to.  Now that's something truly to be thankful for, don't you think?

*Augustine of Hippo (d. 430), Expositions of the Psalms 121-150, Exposition of Psalm 127, trans. Maria Boulding (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2004), pp. 105-6.
**Peter Lombard, The Sentences: Book 2. Creation, dist. 23, c. 1, nn. 1-2, trans. Giulio Silano (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2008), p. 104.
***I am not sure that I agree here with Chesterton that the opposite of a free man is a dog.  Dogs have a freedom of their own.  We will return to the question of animal souls in a future post!

1 comment:

  1. Of course, there's also Julian of Norwich ("Sin is behovely") and the whole Felix culpa concept as well...