Friday, June 26, 2009

The Atonement and Orignal Sin

I've begun now a series of posts about the Atonement. Two are behind me but I fear that many more are in front. The issue has ramified (as so often happens).

I concluded that the issue of the Atonement, if thought through, requires that one both posit Original Sin and describe how it might be overcome. The Atonement fixes or puts right what went wrong with humanity in the Fall and thus makes us able to love God with all of heart and mind and neighbor as self. But what precisely did go wrong and how might it be put right? I find that I have at best a partial answer to this question. Thus do no expect any resolution here. That (if it ever comes) must await another day. All that I have to offer is the very first hint of a solution. Indeed I'll have much more to say about challenges to the form of solution I offer than about the solution itself. My argument is very much a work in progress.

Recall the path whereby I reached this conclusion. I first argued that the Atonement was pedagogical in intent and potential effect; I argued, that is, that Christ, in his death, gave us a perfect example of love, and that this example would lead us to give our love in return. But I realized that this view was shallow and at best a partial truth. Indeed I realized that I was guilty of a kind of inverse Pelagianism. Pelagius argued that from Adam we did not receive a nature warped and thus inclined to sin. On the contrary, he argued that Adam was a bad example and nothing more, and that we are as perfect in nature when we come into the world as was Adam when God first breathed life into him. In my first post on the Atonement, I adopted the view of Pelagius. I assumed that we are quite ready, as we are now, to evince a perfect love if only we are shown what that is. Like Pelagius, I thought that there was no corruption of nature but only an example to follow. For Pelagius, Adam was but a bad example. For me, Christ was but a perfect example. The error is at bottom one and the same.

If we resist Pelagianism here, we must explain how the Atonement made possible a cure for the disease of soul that we inherit from Adam; and to do this, we must explain just what that disease is, for if we do not understand the disease, we cannot understand the cure. Thus we must undertake the task of Theodicy. (Theodicy, recall, is the attempt to explain why an all-good and all-powerful God might have had reason to allow evil to exist.) The issue of the Atonement ramifies once again. (Indeed I fear that it might so fully ramify that I will find that I can give an account of the Atonement only if I also simultaneously give an account of all the fundamental dogmas of Christianity - the Trinity, the Incarnation and all the rest. But if it must be, let it be.) Why must we undertake Theodicy? I believe (as do many Christians) that though God allowed evil to enter the world, he did not create it himself. Rather it is the creation of humanity (and perhaps of other rational, contingent beings as well). This evil, moreover, came about when we severed the relation that before we'd had with God and so made ourselves into sinful creations who, cut off from God, became quite capable of evil both minor and great. This is the origin of the disease of soul that afflicts us all. This is how it came to be.

But this is at most the barest hint of that in which original sin consists. I've said just a bit about its cause and its effect. (Cause: that free act whereby we severed the relation that before had bound us to God. Effect: Evil.) But I've not yet said what original sin is. It is a disease, a disorder of soul that inclines us to sin. But what is this disease, this disorder? What did we do to ourselves when we Fell?

I am tempted by Thomas' view. (The seeds of his view had been sown long before. It is present in Augustine and before him in Plato.) It is at least an answer that is intelligible, and it does explain much of the evil that we do (as any view of original sin must). Thus Thomas in Nature and Grace:

It is the disordered disposition which has resulted from the dissolution of the harmony which was once the essence of original justice, just as bodily sickness is the disordered disposition of a body which has lost the equilibrium which is the essence of health. (Q 82, Art 1)

The whole order of original justice consisted in the subjection of man’s will to God. Man was subject to God first and foremost through his will, which directs all other parts of his soul to their end, as we said in Q 9, Art 1. Disorder in any other part of his soul is therefore the consequence of his will turned away from God. Privation of original justice, by which the will of man was subject to God, is therefore the formal element in original sin. Every other disorder of the powers of the soul is related to original sin as the material which it affects. Now the disorder of these other powers consists especially in this, that they are wrongly directed to changeable good. Such disorder may be called by the common name of “desire.” Materially, then, original sin is desire. Formally, it is the lack of original justice. In man, the power of desire is naturally ruled by reason. Desire is therefore natural to man in so far as it is subject to reason. But desire which exceeds the bounds of reason exists in him as something contrary to nature. Such is the desire of original sin. (Q 82, Art 3)

Intellect and reason have the primacy where good in concerned. But, conversely, the lower part of the soul comes first where evil is concerned. For it darkens reason and drags it down, as we said in Q 80, Art 1. Original sin is therefore said to be desire rather than ignorance, although ignorance is one of its material defects. (Q 82, Art 3)

Since man has lost the control of original justice which once kept all the powers of his soul in order, each power tends to follow its own natural movement. (Art 4)

The gist of the view is clear. When we turned from God, the will ceased to exert the control natural to it; and without that control, our other faculties began to pursue their natural ends without the balance, without the restraint, that the will is supposed to provide.

But about this I have more questions that answers. I list them as they occur to me. Order means nothing.

  1. Why did the will cease to exercise control? What is that connection of the will to God that seemed to render it so vulnerable? Why wasn't, say, sexual desire effected in the same way?
  2. What has the defect of will to do with love? I have said that original sin made us unable to love as we should? But what has our inability to control our various faculties do to with that? The connection is not clear.
  3. How precisely did Christ's life or his death on the cross fix this defect of will?
  4. Given that Christ's life and death might somehow fix the will, why was it necessary for this? (Recall that, at the very start of my discussion of the Atonement, I supposed that the Atonement was not only sufficient to achieve its desired effect but was necessary for that effect as well.
  5. Given that the Atonement made possible the restoration of the proper function of the will, should we not expect that Christians, who have availed themselves must fully of the action of the Atonement, would be morally superior in act to non-Christians? But the supposition that they are is dubious at best. (Indeed this stands as a challenge to all accounts of the Atonement that suppose its primary effect to be the correction of a defect in our nature. If this were so, wouldn't Christians be better people than in fact they are?)

I must leave the issue here. I see no deeper into the issue at present.

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