Tuesday, 25 August 2015
The Apologetic Power of Original Sin
In Christian theology the term 'mysteries of faith' is applied to truths which humankind could only attain knowledge of through revelation. For example, the chief mystery of the faith is the revelation that God is a triune being: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Other mysteries are creatio ex nihilo, the incarnation and the atonement. It is the mysteries of the faith which give Christianity its religious power, so to speak (see my definition of 'religion' below), making it so much more than the intellectual and/or moral idealism that inept churchmen have often reduced it to. It is the apprehension of the mysteries through faith which can render a simple believer a better practical theologian than the professional equipped with a doctorate and which sustains martyrs in their time of trial.
While these mysteries can certainly be explicated by human reason, that is only after the fact of their revelation in holy scripture. Actually, one can concede that the human mind and heart could perceive aspects of the mysteries of faith apart from their revelation in scripture, as, for example, Aristotle postulated a first cause, an unmoved mover who must be responsible for creation. But such heights of apparently unaided perception of divine truth can only be attained because of the revelation of God in nature, including the human nous and psyche, and they remain limited.
One of the mysteries of faith is original sin. I think it was Chesterton who wrote that original sin is the mystery of the faith for which there is the most empirical evidence. The world and human nature are clearly not the way they should be. As creatures animated with souls we seek an explanation for that apprehension. Either God does not exist - the seemingly inexorable conclusion to which atheists like Stephen Fry have come in the face of human suffering at the hands of human and natural evil; or God exists but humankind has turned from him in some act which has brought about calamitous results in the created order.
It is the second belief, which is essentially the doctrine of original sin, that atheists like Stephen Fry - who is on my mind not because he is the best exemplar of the new atheism but simply because I saw an interview with him on the television at the weekend (from which comes the clip) - seem unaware of. His conclusion that the existence of God is inconsistent with the existence of evil does not account for original sin. That lacunae in his thinking may well be accounted for by the low stocks of the doctrine of original sin in much of contemporary Christian preaching and teaching. This, one suspects, is the case in the Church of England (at least outside of evangelical circles) which Fry would have been exposed to growing up. It is certainly so in much of the broader Christian mainstream. I well remember listening to a radio interview c. 2000 with one of the leading clerics of the Anglican Church in Adelaide who opined that he couldn't believe in the doctrine of original sin - notwithstanding its presence in the Church of England's historic Articles of Religion - because it was "creepy" (I'll come back to this observation, which is more astute than the clergyman probably realised).
Presumably such preachers resort to a sort of Teilhardian evolutionary schema in which humankind is "falling upwards", beckoned by God towards a state of perfect union with him through spiritual exercises and devotion to good works (which in contemporary mainstream Christianity are often expressions of particular political beliefs). This dovetails nicely with the contemporary desire to be "spiritual but not religious" - as if one could have the spirituality without the religious doctrine! - and no doubt provides a welcome supplementary income stream for those who conduct workshops and retreats focusing on spirituality. But without a doctrine of original sin this version of Christianity is semi-Pelagian at best and neo-Gnostic at worst. Mere spirituality is not enough to save us from ourselves. Indeed. the realm of spirituality can be just as much subject to the twisted egocentricity that results from original sin as any other area of life.
It is extraordinary that large swathes of what was once Christendom should thus abandon a doctrine with such apologetic power, by which I mean the power to not just explain our predicament, but to enlighten us and set us on the path to redemption. Having been dismissed by liberal theology in the 19th century as primitive and opposed to the prevailing doctrine of the day, which was evolutionary progress, original sin enjoyed a brief revival in mainstream Christianity in the first half of the 20th century thanks to the so-called neo-orthodoxy proposed by Karl Barth, who was reacting to the unspeakable horrors of World War One. But by mid-century Barth's neo-orthodoxy had developed into a political theology of the Marxist Left, a dead end if ever there was one, not least because it neglects one of the fundamental and inescapable tenets of the belief in original sin - fallen humankind is not perfectible in this life.
To be continued...
Note on 'religion'
The term 'religion' and 'religious' are so much open to misunderstanding these days that some Christians think their use should be abandoned, at least in reference to Christianity, lest the uniqueness of the Christian revelation be seen to be put on the same level with the other world religions. I see their point but I disagree nevertheless, and for what it may be worth I offer here my reason for doing so. I use the terms religion and religious in what is perhaps their most ancient sense as far as the Latin term from which the English word is derived goes, and that is to denote the rule of one's life or the beliefs by which I am bound in living.
This understanding of the term, I think, has the virtue of not being an abstraction. It can also be applied to the various 'religious' beliefs of humankind without necessarily implying that Christianity is on the same level, so to speak, as other religions. The fact is that while religions are not all equally valid, all human beings are religious - even the tiny minority of Western educated atheists are obsessed with God and with what rule of life they should follow if he does not exist.