Archive for the ‘Understanding Sin’ Category


Flannery O’Connor and the Horror of Sin — Vicki Burbach

June 25, 2014

FamilyTree of Sin

Take a lesson from the carpenter, who, when he wishes to drive a large nail, is not satisfied with giving it a few strokes, but continues hammering until he is sure it is firmly fastened. You must imitate him, if you would firmly implant this resolution in your soul.  Be not satisfied with renewing it from time to time, but daily take advantage of all the opportunities afforded you in meditation, in reading, in what you see or hear, to fix this horror of sin more deeply in your soul.  – The Sinner’s Guide (Chapter 29, Paragraph 14) by Venerable Louis of Grenada, A Dominican Father

Years ago, I was introduced to a story by Flannery O’Connor.  I’d love to say that I was enlightened by her literary genius.  That I was fascinated by her brilliant grasp of the mystery of grace.  That I recognized the opportunity for redemption laid before her masterly-crafted characters.

Unfortunately, I can say none of those things.

Truth be told, the first time I read one of O’Connor’s stories, I was so horrified by the graphic and violent nature of her writing that I didn’t even finish it.

Fast forward a few years.  After reading Father Barron’s book, The Strangest Way, wherein he walks through all the powerful images in O’Connor’s novel, The Violent Bear it Away, I was inspired to take another look.  So there I was, this evening, attending the second class of a brief, four-week course on Flannery O’Connor, wherein we  spent an insightful and highly stimulating hour and a half discussing her renowned short story, A Good Man is Hard to Find.

Given her knack for shocking readers through the use of the grotesque, O’Connor seems the perfect reference for a discussion regarding our “horror” of sin (or lack thereof).  Most notably, it appears that behind her use of disturbing characters and startling images rests a profound recognition regarding our relationship to sin.  Rather than abhor it, as Louis of Granada recommends, we virtually revel in it.  In fact, we are often so oblivious to its existence that we mistake it for virtue.

At one point in the story, O’Connor uses the powerful image of a monkey to illustrate the disgusting nature of our affinity for sin:

“The children ran outside into the white sunlight and looked at the monkey in the lacey chinaberry tree.  He was busy catching fleas on himself and biting each one carefully between his teeth as if it were a delicacy.”

Upon reading this passage, I was immediately struck by the notion that I was the monkey, and the fleas represented my sins.  Can you think of a more repulsive image with which to illustrate our relationship to sin? Are we really that pathetic?

Before you turn away in disgust, Louis of Granada may give you pause:

“…the first source of sin is error in the understanding, which is the natural guide and counselor of the will.  Consequently, the chief endeavor of the devil is to darken the understanding, and thus draw the will into the same error.  Thus he clothes evil with the appearance of good, and presents vice under the mask of virtue, that we may regard it as a counsel of reason rather than a temptation of the enemy.” 
The Sinner’s Guide, (Chapter 29, Paragraph 18)

O’Connor furthers this allusion through the main character in A Good Man is Hard to Find.  Like many of us, the Grandmother is a first class hypocrite.  She believes herself to be a good Christian, when in reality, she is not very likable.  Somehow, she, too, is blind to sin in her own life.

Of  this heroine, Flannery, herself, says,

“The heroine of this story, the Grandmother, is in the most significant position life offers the Christian.  She is facing death.  And to all appearances she, like the rest of us, is not too well prepared for it.  She would like to see the event postponed.  Indefinitely” (“On Her Own Work”, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose).

At the climax of the story, the Grandmother has the opportunity to receive grace.  “Her head clears for an instant…”  and there is a profound moment where the Grandmother is both a recipient and a conduit of grace.  There is good evidence that she accepts it, for in death she “…half sat and half lay in a puddle of blood with her legs crossed under her like a child’s and her face smiling up at a cloudless sky.”

Unfortunately, like many of us, it takes her imminent death for the Grandmother to be aware of  her need for redemption and to be open to receiving grace.  In fact, upon her death, the villain even comments,

“She would have been a good woman…if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” 

In other words, were we to face imminent death at every moment of our lives, we might actually flee from sin in abject horror and persevere in virtue.

Louis of Granada tells us that the only way to develop a horror of sin is to receive grace.  Not merely in the hour of death, but as often as we can.  As Christians, we must take advantage of every conduit of grace available to us to fix a horror of sin deep within our souls.  Those conduits include the sacraments, prayer and a firm resolution to keep our eyes on eternity.  He advises us,

He who desires to walk resolutely in the same path must strive to imitate them by fixing this resolution deep in his soul.  Appreciating things at their true value, he must prefer the friendship of God to all treasures of earth; he must unhesitatingly sacrifice perishable joys for delights that will be eternal.  To accomplish this must be the end of all his actions; the object of all his prayers; the fruit he seeks in frequenting the sacraments; the profit he derives from sermons and pious reading; the lesson he should learn from the beauty and harmony of the world, and from all creatures.  This will be the happy result of Our Saviour’s Passion and all the other works of love which He unceasingly performs.  They will inspire him with a horror of offending the good Master who has done so much for him.  Finally, this holy fear and firm resolution will be the mark of his progress in virtue.
The Sinner’s Guide, Ch. 29,Paragraph 13)

If we fail to follow this advice, we’ll lose our ability to recognize grace when it comes.

As O’Connor warns, “Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violences which precede and follow them.  The devil’s greatest wile, Baudelaire had said, is to convince us that he does not exist.” 



The Sin at Our Origin 2 – Frank Sheed

November 28, 2013
Even those who accept his existence forget his active malevolence, at most think of him as a sort of ugly extra, not a principal in the struggle of man's soul. Our Lord did not see him as negligible. He called him "a murderer from the beginning, a liar and the father of lies." As his own passion and death were approaching, he spoke of Satan again and again. Here, in the very dawn, with the first human order wrecked, God's first statement of what he would do is made to Satan and in terms of Satan's overthrow.

Even those who accept his existence forget his active malevolence, at most think of him as a sort of ugly extra, not a principal in the struggle of man’s soul. Our Lord did not see him as negligible. He called him “a murderer from the beginning, a liar and the father of lies.” As his own passion and death were approaching, he spoke of Satan again and again. Here, in the very dawn, with the first human order wrecked, God’s first statement of what he would do is made to Satan and in terms of Satan’s overthrow.

A continuation of our last post…


Results of Adam’s Fall
So all men were involved in the catastrophe of Adam’s sin. We are all born with natural life only, without the supernatural life of sanctifying grace. That was the chief thing Adam lost for each of his descendants. To reach the goal for which we are destined we must be reborn.

A certain precision is necessary here. We sometimes slip into thinking that if he had not sinned he would have kept grace and we could have inherited it from him. But grace is in the soul, and we do not inherit our souls; each soul is a new creation. Adam’s obedience was the condition on which we should all have come into existence with grace as well as nature. He disobeyed, the condition was not kept, we are born without sanctifying grace.

That is what is meant by being born in original sin, which is not to be thought of as a stain on the soul, but as the absence of that grace without which we cannot, as we have seen, reach the goal for which God destined man. We may be given grace later but we enter life without it, with nature only.

And our nature too is not as Adam’s was before he failed the condition, but as it was after. The gift of integrity, guaranteeing the harmony of man’s natural powers, has gone. Each of our powers seeks its own outlet, each of our needs its own immediate gratification; we have not the subordination of all our powers to reason and of reason to God which would unify all our striving; every one of us is a civil war.

At two points principally the disorder is at its worst, the passions and the imagination.

Passions are good things given for man’s service; but in our actual state they dominate us as often as they serve us — more often indeed, unless we make an effort at control which costs us appallingly. They were meant to be instruments which we should use; instruments should be in our grip; only too often we feel as if we were in theirs.

The imagination is a good thing, too. It is the picture-making power by which we can mentally reproduce sights seen, sounds heard, textures touched, tastes, scents. For the intellect, the knowing power, it is a necessary servant. Made as we are we could not very well live in a material universe without it. But all too often it is a master, substituting its pictures for the hard effort the intellect should be making, refusing to let the intellect accept spiritual truths simply because imagination cannot make pictures of them.

It is worth our while to pause here and think over this dominance of imagination in ourselves — the times when we meant to think some problem out and imagination so distracted us that at the end of an hour we realized no thinking had been done; the times when we made some good resolution, and the mental picture of a girl or a drink shattered the resolution in an instant. And all because we no longer have the gift of integrity.

But it is not only as individuals that we were all involved in the catastrophe; we were involved as a race too. In Adam the race was tested. Before his sin the race — in him — was united with God; after, the unity was broken. There had been unity between the race and God; now there was a breach between them. Remember that, for God, the race is a fact, a reality. Each man is not only himself; he is a member of the race.

Because Adam broke the unity, his children were born members of a fallen race, a race no longer at one with God — a race, therefore, to which heaven was closed. A given man might he virtuous, but he was a virtuous member of a fallen race. Loving God, he might gain sanctifying grace, which means the power to live the life of heaven, but he still belonged to a race to which heaven was closed. Only if the breach between his race and God could be healed could he attain his own destiny, reach heaven; even naturally we are members one of another.

This is the problem created by the sin of the representative man. The race had been at one with God; it was no longer at one; the central problem was at-one-ment, a word whose meaning we disguise by pronouncing it atonement. With at-one-ment all the rest of our theology is concerned.

How To Restore a Fallen Race?
There has been an immense amount of theological thinking on atonement, at-one-ment, as a problem; more particularly as a problem the human race had set God. The sin of the race stood, and must remain forever, an obstacle between men and their true destiny, unless either humanity could find some way of expiating it, making compensation for it, or God simply forgave it. Even with the sin expiated or written off, the breach remained and must remain unless God chose to remake the broken contact — not simply between individuals and himself but between their race and himself.

Fathers and Doctors of the Church have thought magnificently on what God could and could not do, on why the way he chose was the best way and whether it was the only way. But both the space at our disposal and our status as beginners in theology means that this discussion is not for us — not here, not yet. We shall concern ourselves with atonement not as a problem but as a reality, not what God might have done but what he did.

We know that he meant to redeem mankind and heal the breach, and make heaven once more open to men. Because that was God’s intention, he went on giving sanctifying grace to those who loved him, a gift carrying with it the power to live in heaven and meaningless if heaven were never to be open to them.

We know that he meant to redeem. We may hope that our first parents knew it too. But the first statement of what he would do was strange; it did not carry its meaning on the surface; and it was addressed not to them but to Satan — the seed of the woman should crush his head.

Satan, in the shape of a serpent as Genesis relates, had tempted men to their ruin. They were to be punished; so was he. And Genesis shows God as ironically phrasing his punishment in terms of the serpent form Satan had adopted — he should go on his belly and eat the dust of the earth forever. He would continue to tempt man and one day man would defeat him utterly; these prophecies too were cast in serpent terms — Satan should lie in wait for man’s heel, a descendant of the woman would crush his head.

I have lingered thus upon Satan because we so easily forget him. Even those who accept his existence forget his active malevolence, at most think of him as a sort of ugly extra, not a principal in the struggle of man’s soul.

Our Lord did not see him as negligible. He called him “a murderer from the beginning, a liar and the father of lies.” As his own passion and death were approaching, he spoke of Satan again and again. Here, in the very dawn, with the first human order wrecked, God’s first statement of what he would do is made to Satan and in terms of Satan’s overthrow.

What God would do, he would not do quickly. The disease admitted into humanity by the choice of self as against God was given every chance to run its course, work out its logic. God’s providence did not desert man; those who implored him were not left unaided; but it was Satan’s carnival all the same. He had gained no rights by his success over Adam, but he had gained immense power; he was the prince this world obeyed.

How long this first stage lasted we do not know, but as history at last begins to see mankind, the sight is at once heartening and horrifying: religion universal, everywhere twisted and tainted with lesser or greater perversions, but God never wholly forgotten and often marvelously remembered.

Four thousand years ago, the plan of redemption suddenly seems to take shape — at least to our eyes. God spoke to Abraham: his children were to be God’s chosen people. Out of the chaos of the nations, one nation was to bear mankind’s hopes. They were to be the guardians of monotheism, proclaiming that God is one; and of them was to be born the Savior of the world, the Messiah, the Anointed One. Of his kingdom there should be no end.

The Jewish prophets multiplied their utterance upon both points — upon the one God and upon Messiah — with mixed success. By the time Messiah was due to come, indeed for centuries before, the Jews were unshakably monotheistic. But only rare ones among them had grasped the essential nature of the kingdom the Savior was to found, and the supreme truth about the Savior himself — namely, who he was — they did not know.


The Sin at Our Origin 1 – Frank Sheed

November 27, 2013
John also meant his disciples to consider when he said to them, "Behold the Lamb of God!" So we say to you, "Think of Him, study Him, know all that you about Him, look Him up and down. He is God; do you understand that He stood the sinner' stead? He is man; do you know how near akin He is to you, how sympathetic He is, a brother born for your adversity?" The person of Christ is a great marvel; how God and man can be in one person, it is impossible for us to tell. We believe what we cannot comprehend; and we rejoice in what we cannot understand. He whom God has provided to be your Savior is both God and man; He can lay His hand upon both parties, He can touch your manhood in its weakness, and touch the Godhead in its all-sufficiency. Study Christ; the most excellent of all the sciences in the knowledged of a crucified Savior. He is most learned in the university of heaven who knows most of Christ. He who hath known most of Him still says that His love surpasseth knowledge. Behold Him, then, with wonder, and behold Him with thankfulness.

John also meant his disciples to consider when he said to them, “Behold the Lamb of God!” So we say to you, “Think of Him, study Him, know all that you about Him, look Him up and down. He is God; do you understand that He stood the sinner’ stead? He is man; do you know how near akin He is to you, how sympathetic He is, a brother born for your adversity?” The person of Christ is a great marvel; how God and man can be in one person, it is impossible for us to tell. We believe what we cannot comprehend; and we rejoice in what we cannot understand. He whom God has provided to be your Savior is both God and man; He can lay His hand upon both parties, He can touch your manhood in its weakness, and touch the Godhead in its all-sufficiency. Study Christ; the most excellent of all the sciences in the knowledged of a crucified Savior. He is most learned in the university of heaven who knows most of Christ. He who hath known most of Him still says that His love surpasseth knowledge. Behold Him, then, with wonder, and behold Him with thankfulness.

I’m convinced there is a vast body of my fellow citizens now who do not know how to read the following. They will ask questions like “Do you really think there are angels?” with an incredulous look as if they are speaking with an utter moron. Or “Do you really think Adam existed and lived in a garden created by “God”? The answers to these questions have to be Yes and Yes.

But to answer them “Yes,” I need to be thinking mythically. Oh, so you don’t think they are true, sneers my imagined interlocutor and I have to answer, No, that’s not what ‘myth’ means, my friend (all imagined interlocutors are friends in my world).

Myths are ways of speaking about some of the profoundest truths known to man. Take that from us, as a cheap scientism takes the supernatural from our world to claim the supremacy of a scientific method over all forms of human activity and thought, and you kill Mozart. At this my interlocutor throws his hands up and exclaims, “Mozart! What the fuck does he have to do with anything?”


Fall of Angels
All spiritual beings, angels and men alike, are created by God with the Beatific Vision as their destiny — the direct vision of himself. All of them need supernatural life to give them the powers of seeing and loving that their destiny calls for. And for all there is an interval — for growth or testing — between the granting of supernatural life and its flowering in the Beatific Vision.

Once God is seen as he is, with the intellect in the immediate contact of sight and the will in the immediate contact of love, it is impossible for the soul to see the choice of self against God as anything but repulsive, and in the profoundest sense meaningless; in the immediate contact, the self knows beatitude, total well-being, and no element in the self could even conceive of wishing to lose it. But until then, the will, even supernaturally alive, may still choose self.

So it was with the angels. God created them with their natural life, pure spirits knowing and loving, and with supernatural life. And some of them chose self, self as against God. We know that one was their leader; him we call the devil, the rest demons; he is the named one — Lucifer (though he is never called so in Scripture), Satan which means Enemy, Apollyon which means Exterminator, Beelzebub which means the Lord of Flies, or Beelzebul, Lord of Filth. The rest are an evil, anonymous multitude.

The detail of their sin we do not know. In some form it was, like all sin, a refusal of love, a turning of the will from God, who is supreme goodness, towards self. Theologians are almost at one in thinking it was the sin of pride; all sins involve following one’s own desire in place of God’s will, but pride goes all the way, putting oneself in God’s place, making oneself the center of the universe. It is total folly of course, and the angels knew it.

But the awareness of folly does not keep us from sinning and did not keep them. The world well lost for love — that can be the cry of self-love too. One of the secondary theological excitements of the next life may be learning the detail of the angels’ sin.

The angels who stayed firm in the love of God were admitted to the Beatific Vision. The rest got what they had asked for — separation from God. He still maintained them in existence out of their original nothingness, but that was all. Note that their choice was final.

Men are given another chance, and another, and another. Not so angels. We have no experience, and never shall have it, of being pure spirits, spirits not meant for union with a body as our souls are; but philosophers who have gone deep into the concept see reasons why an angel’s decision can only be final, and a second chance therefore pointless.

The angels who sinned were separated from God. They must have known that this would mean suffering. God had made them, as he has made us, for union with himself. Their nature, like ours, is a great mass of needs, needs which only God can meet. All spiritual beings need God, as (and immeasurably more than) the body needs food and drink and air. Deprived of these the body knows torment, and at last dies.

Deprived of God a spirit knows torment, and cannot die. It is deprived of God by its own will to reject God, but this will not change; its self-love is too monstrous. The lost will not have God, who alone can meet their needs, but who by the greatness of his glory shows their own self for the poor thing it is. Union with him would be self-love’s crucifixion, and self-love has become their all.

There is more to be said of hell than that, and later more will be said; but that is the essence of it. One single detail must be added. Hell is not simply a place of self-inflicted torment; it is a place of hate. Love, like all good things, has its source in God.

Cut off from its source, it withers and dies. It is as though the moon, in love with its own light, rejected the sun. Hell is all hate: hate of God, hate of one another, hate of all the creatures of God, above all of those creatures who are made in the hated image — one remembers the demons who preferred swines’ bellies to a return to hell (Luke 8-32).

Fall of Adam
For the human race’s beginning we go to Genesis chapters two and three — written in metaphor as the story of Everyman, Everywoman, Everysin, but wholly true in all that matters to us. If we can read those two chapters and not meet ourselves in them, we need a course of remedial reading. St. Paul, Corinthians 15:21-22, and Romans 5:12-20, would be part of the course. In the next few pages I summarize the Church’s meditation on St. Paul’s meditation on the Fall.

God created man and woman with the natural life of soul and body, and with sanctifying grace, God dwelling in his soul and pouring supernatural life into it. In addition he gave man preternatural gifts, not supernatural but rather perfections of the natural — guarding it against destruction or damage. Notable among these were immunity from suffering and death, and integrity. This last is perhaps the one we look back to with the greatest longing, for it means that man’s nature was wholly at peace; the body was subject to the soul, the lower powers of the soul to the higher, the natural habits wholly harmonious with the supernatural, the whole man united with God.

The point of union, for the first man as for all spiritual beings, was in the will, the faculty which loves, which decides. And he willed to break the union. He sinned, disobeying a command of God. The detail of the sin we do not know — Genesis describes it as the eating of forbidden fruit, but we are not bound to see this as literal. Two things about it we do know.

Man fell by the tempting of Satan; it was the first engagement in a war which has gone on ever since and which will not end until the world ends. And what Satan tempted our first parents with was the promise that, if they disobeyed, they should be like gods. Satan must have felt the full irony of it. Pride had wrecked him, pride should wreck men.

For Adam, the individual man, the results can be simply stated and simply comprehended. He had broken the union with God, and the life ceased to flow. He lost sanctifying grace; supernaturally he was dead.

He lost the preternatural gifts too. He could now suffer, he had come under the natural law of death; worst of all he had lost integrity, the subordination of lower powers to higher, in the rejection of his own subordination to God. From now on every element in him would be making for its own immediate and separate gratification; the civil war with man had begun.

For Adam, the man, the future was stateable equally simply. He could repent, turning to God again; God would remake the contact and sanctifying grace would be in him once more. But the man it was in was a very different man. The preternatural gifts were not restored, so that integrity was not there. It was to a man with his powers warring among themselves and tugging away from God as often as not, that grace was given back. To figure his condition, we have but to look at ourselves.

But Adam was not only a man. He was the man. He was the representative man. For the angels the testing had been individual; each angel who fell did so by his own decision. But the human race was tested and fell in one man, the representative man. In his catastrophe every man till the end of time was involved. There has been much mockery about this, of the “Eve-ate-the-apple-we-get-the-stomach-ache” variety. But, with no disposition to mock, we can still find something baffling in it.

The difference between the testing of men and angels is not the problem. The angelic race could not be tested in an individual angel, for there is no angelic race. Men are related to one another, because we are all brought into being, procreated, by others. Not so angels. Each is created whole and entire by God; he can call no other angel father. Our souls are the direct creation of God, but by bodily descent we are all children of Adam. And in our father we fell. But why? How could his sin involve us? That is the real problem, and we must be grateful for any lights we can get upon it.

Obviously there is something in the solidarity of the whole human race clear to God but not to us, that he could so treat the race as one thing. Some involvement in the fate of others we take for granted — a father makes decisions for his family, a ruler for his people. The solidarity of the family and the nation sufficiently explains the fact of one man’s will being decisive for all. We do not see a similar solidarity for all men whatsoever — the foreigner is remote from our mind, the dead more remote, the unborn remotest of all.

But no one of them is remote to the eye of God, who not only makes all men, but makes them in his own image. God sees the whole race, every member of which he created, as one thing — somewhat as we see a family as one thing or even a man. The mere number and variety — myriads upon myriads of men — and the uncountable ages, do not impede the vision of the eternal and omniscient God.


Love and Lust – anon

July 5, 2013


I came across this quite some time ago and quote it from time to time. Then I lost it, couldn’t find it anywhere. And, then, magically, it drifted across my disorganized mess of stuff. Here it is, finally captured, never to be lost again. I love it for its simplicity.

Love is whisper, Lust is a roar,
Love is content, Lust wants more,
Love is offered, Lust just takes,
Love mends the hearts that Lust breaks


Original Sin – Pope Benedict XVI

March 26, 2013
Mother Teresa genuflecting. The Eucharist can never be merely a kind of community builder. To receive it, to eat of the tree of life, thus means to receive the crucified Lord and consequently to accept the parameters of his life, his obedience, his "yes," the standard of our creatureliness. It means to accept the love of God, which is our truth -- that dependence on God which is no more an imposition from without than is the Son's sonship. It is precisely this dependence that is freedom, because it is truth and love.

Mother Teresa genuflecting. The Eucharist can never be merely a kind of community builder. To receive it, to eat of the tree of life, thus means to receive the crucified Lord and consequently to accept the parameters of his life, his obedience, his “yes,” the standard of our creatureliness. It means to accept the love of God, which is our truth — that dependence on God which is no more an imposition from without than is the Son’s sonship. It is precisely this dependence that is freedom, because it is truth and love.

In the Genesis story that we are considering, still a further characteristic of sin is described. Sin is not spoken of in general as an abstract possibility but as a deed, as the sin of a particular person, Adam, who stands at the origin of humankind and with whom the history of sin begins. The account tells us that sin begets sin, and that therefore all the sins of history are interlinked. Theology refers to this state of affairs by the certainly misleading and imprecise term “original sin.” What does this mean?

Nothing seems to us today to be stranger or, indeed, more absurd than to insist upon original sin, since, according to our way of thinking, guilt can only be something very personal, and since God does not run a concentration camp, in which one’s relatives are imprisoned, because he is a liberating God of love, who calls each one by name. What does original sin mean, then, when we interpret it correctly?

Finding an answer to this requires nothing less than trying to understand the human person better. It must once again be stressed that no human being is closed in upon himself or herself and that no one can live of or for himself or herself alone. We receive our life not only at the moment of birth but every day from without — from others who are not ourselves but who nonetheless somehow pertain to us. Human beings have their selves not only in themselves but also outside of themselves: they live in those whom they love and in those who love them and to whom they are “present.”

Human beings are relational, and they possess their lives — themselves — only by way of relationship. I alone am not myself, but only in and with you am I myself. To be truly a human being means to be related in love, to be of and for. But sin means the damaging or the destruction of relationality. Sin is a rejection of relationality because it wants to make the human being a god. Sin is loss of relationship, disturbance of relationship, and therefore it is not restricted to the individual. When I destroy a relationship, then this event — sin — touches the other person involved in the relationship. Consequently sin is always an offense that touches others, that alters the world and damages it.

To the extent that this is true, when the network of human relationships is damaged from the very beginning, then every human being enters into a world that is marked by relational damage. At the very moment that a person begins human existence, which is a good, he or she is confronted by a sin-damaged world. Each of us enters into a situation in which relationality has been hurt. Consequently each person is, from the very start, damaged in relationships and does not engage in them as he or she ought. Sin pursues the human being, and he or she capitulates to it.

But from this it is also clear that human beings alone cannot save themselves. Their innate error is precisely that they want to do this by themselves. We can only be saved that is, be free and true when we stop wanting to be God and when we renounce the madness of autonomy and self-sufficiency. We can only be saved that is, become ourselves when we engage in the proper relationship.

But our interpersonal relationships occur in the context of our utter creatureliness, and it is there that the damage lies. Since the relationship with creation has been damaged, only the Creator himself can be our savior. We can be saved only when he from whom we have cut ourselves off takes the initiative with us and stretches out his hand to us. Only being loved is being saved, and only God’s love can purify damaged human love and radically reestablish the network of relationships that have suffered from alienation.

The Response of the New Testament
Thus the Old Testament account of the beginnings of humankind points, questioningly and hopefully, beyond itself to the One in whom God endured our refusal to accept our limitations and who entered into those limitations in order to restore us to ourselves. The New Testament response to the account of the Fall is most briefly and most urgently summarized in the pre-Pauline hymn that Paul incorporated into the second chapter of his Letter to the Philippians. The church has therefore correctly placed this text at the very center of the Easter Triduum, the holiest time of the church year:

Have this in mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee would bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Philippians 2:5-11; cf Isaiah 45:23

We cannot consider this extraordinarily rich and profound text in detail. We want to limit ourselves here to its connection with the story of the Fall, even though it seems to have a somewhat different version in mind than the one that is related in Genesis 3 (cf, e.g., Job 15:7-8).7 Jesus Christ goes Adam’s route, but in reverse. In contrast to Adam he is really “like God.” But this being like God, this similarity to God, is being a Son, and hence it is totally relational.”I do nothing on my own authority” (John 8:28). Therefore the One who is truly like God does not hold graspingly to his autonomy, to the limitlessness of his ability and his willing. He does the contrary: he becomes completely dependent, he becomes a slave. Because he does not go the route of power but that of love, he can descend into the depths of Adam’s lie, into the depths of death, and there raise up truth and life.

Thus Christ is the new Adam, with whom humankind begins anew. The Son, who is by nature relationship and relatedness, reestablishes relationships. His arms, spread out on the cross, are an open invitation to relationship, which is continually offered to us. The cross, the place of his obedience, is the true tree of life. Christ is the antitype of the serpent, as is indicated in John 3:14. From this tree there comes not the word of temptation but that of redeeming love, the word of obedience, which an obedient God himself used, thus offering us his obedience as a context for freedom. The cross is the tree of life, now become approachable. By his passion Christ, as it were, removed the fiery sword, passed through the fire, and erected the cross as the true pole of the earth, by which it is itself once more set aright.

Therefore the Eucharist, as the presence of the cross, is the abiding tree of life, which is ever in our midst and ever invites us to take the fruit of true life. This means that the Eucharist can never be merely a kind of community builder. To receive it, to eat of the tree of life, thus means to receive the crucified Lord and consequently to accept the parameters of his life, his obedience, his “yes,” the standard of our creatureliness. It means to accept the love of God, which is our truth that dependence on God which is no more an imposition from without than is the Son’s sonship. It is precisely this dependence that is freedom, because it is truth and love.

May this Lent help us to free ourselves from our refusals and our doubt concerning God’s covenant, from our rejection of our limitations and from the lie of our autonomy. May it direct us to the tree of life, which is our standard and our hope. May we be touched by the words of Jesus in their entirety: “The kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 135).


Sin and Salvation – Pope Benedict XVI

March 25, 2013
"When you eat of it [that is, when you deny your limitations, when you deny your finitude], then you will die" (cf. Genesis 3:3). This means that human beings who deny the limitations imposed on them by good and evil, which are the inner standard of creation, deny the truth. They are living in untruth and in unreality. Their lives are mere appearance; they stand under the sway of death. We who are surrounded by a world of untruths, of un-life, know how strong this sway of death is, which even negates life itself and makes it a kind of death.

“When you eat of it [that is, when you deny your limitations, when you deny your finitude], then you will die” (cf. Genesis 3:3). This means that human beings who deny the limitations imposed on them by good and evil, which are the inner standard of creation, deny the truth. They are living in untruth and in unreality. Their lives are mere appearance; they stand under the sway of death. We who are surrounded by a world of untruths, of un-life, know how strong this sway of death is, which even negates life itself and makes it a kind of death.

Now the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, `You shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but God said, `You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.”

But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate.

Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons. And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

But the Lord God called to the man, and he said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of thee in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”

The man said, “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” …And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, `You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” …

Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.
Genesis 3:1-12, 17-19, 23-24

On the Subject of Sin
After the end of the bishops’ synod that was devoted to the subject of the family, we were discussing in a small themes for the next synod, and Jesus’ words group possible at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel came to mind. These words summarize Jesus whole message: “The time is ” fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).

One of the bishops reflected on these words and said that he had the impression that we had long ago actually halved Jesus’ message as it is thus summarized. We speak a great deal — and like to speak — about evangelization and the good news in such a way as to make Christianity attractive to people. But hardly anyone, according to this bishop, dares nowadays to proclaim the prophetic message: Repent!

Hardly anyone dares to make to our age this elementary evangelical appeal, with which the Lord wants to induce us to acknowledge our sinfulness, to do penance, and to become other than what we are. Our confrere added that Christian preaching today sounded to him like the recording of a symphony that was missing the initial bars of music, so that the whole symphony was incomplete and its development incomprehensible.

With this he touched a weak point of our present-day spiritual situation.

Sin has become almost everywhere today one of those subjects that are not spoken about. Religious education of whatever kind does its best to evade it. Theater and films use the word ironically or in order to entertain. Sociology and psychology attempt to unmask it as an illusion or a complex. Even the law is trying to get by more and more without the concept of guilt. It prefers to make use of sociological language, which turns the concept of good and evil into statistics and in its place distinguishes between normative and non-normative behavior.

Implicit here is the possibility that the statistical proportions will themselves change; what is presently non-normative could one day become the rule; indeed, perhaps one should even strive to make the non-normative normal. In such an atmosphere of quantification, the whole idea of the moral has accordingly been generally abandoned. This is a logical development if there is no standard for human beings to use as a model – something not discovered by us but coming from the inner goodness of creation.

With this we have arrived at the real heart of the matter. People today know of no standard; to be sure, they do not want to know of any because they see standards as threats to their freedom. Here one is made to think of some words of the French Jew Simone Weil, who said that “we experience good only by doing it…. When we do evil we do not know it, because evil flies from the light.” [Gravity and Grace, trans. E. Craufurd (London, 1952), Josef Pieper, Pieper calls attention to some words of Goethe in Dichtung and Wahrheit, where he says that we can "not see a mistake until we are free of it."] People recognize the good only when they themselves do it. They recognize the evil only when they do not do it.

Thus sin has become a suppressed subject, but everywhere we can see that, although it is suppressed, it has nonetheless remained real. What is remarkable to me is the aggressiveness, always on the verge of pouncing, which we experience openly in our society — the lurking readiness to demean the other person, to hold others guilty whenever misfortune occurs to them, to accuse society, and to want to change the world by violence.

It seems to me that all of this can be understood only as an expression of the suppressed reality of guilt, which people do not want to admit. But since it is still there, they have to attack it and destroy it. As long as the situation remains thus — that is, as long as people suppress the truth but do not succeed in doing away with it, and as long as they are suffering from this suppressed truth — it will be one of the tasks of the Holy Spirit to “convince the world of sin” (John 16:8).

It is not a question here of making people’s lives unpleasant and of fettering them with restrictions and negations but rather simply of leading them to the truth and thus healing them. Human beings can be healthy only when they are true and when they stop suppressing and destroying the truth.

The third chapter of the Book of Genesis, on which this meditation is based, is of a piece with this task of the Holy Holy Spirit, which he pursues throughout history. He convinces the world and us of sin – not to humiliate us but to make us true and healthy, so “save” us.

Limitations and Freedom of the. Human Being
This text proclaims its truth, which surpasses our understanding, by way of two great images in particular — that of the garden, to which the image of the tree belongs, and that of the serpent. The garden is an image of the world, which to humankind is not a wilderness, a danger, or a threat, but a home, which shelters, nourishes, and sustains.

It is an expression for a world that bears the imprint of the Spirit, for a world that came into existence in accordance with the will of the Creator. Thus two movements are interacting here. One is that of human beings who do not exploit the world and do not want to detach it from the Creator’s governance and make it their own property; rather they recognize it as God’s gift and build it up in keeping with what it was created for. Conversely, we see that the world, which was created to be at one with its Lord, is not a threat but a gift and a sign of the saving and unifying goodness of God.

The second movement involves the image of the serpent, which is taken from the Eastern fertility cults. These fertility religions were severe temptations for Israel for centuries, tempting it to abandon the covenant and to enter into the religious milieu of the time. Through the fertility cults the serpent speaks to the human being: Do not cling to this distant God, who has nothing to offer you. Do not cling to this covenant, which is so alien to you and which imposes so many restrictions on you. Plunge into the current of life, into its delirium and its ecstasy, and thus you will be able to partake of the reality of life and of its immortality. At the moment when the paradise narrative took its final literary form there was a great danger that Israel would succumb to the many seductive elements of these religions and that the God of die promise and of creation, who seemed so far off, would disappear and be forgotten.

Against its historical background, as we know, for example, from events in the life of the prophet Elijah, we can understand this text much better. “The woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6). In that religious setting the serpent was a symbol of that wisdom which rules the world and of the fertility through which human beings plunge into the divine current of life and for a few moments experience themselves fused with its divine power. Thus the serpent also serves as a symbol of the attraction that these religions exerted over Israel in contrast to the mystery of the God of the covenant.

It is with Israel’s temptation in mind that Holy Scripture portrays Adam’s temptation and, in general, the nature of temptation and sin in every age. Temptation does not begin with the denial of God and with a fall into outright atheism. The serpent does not deny God; it starts out rather with an apparently completely reasonable request for information, which in reality, however, contains an insinuation that provokes the human being and that lures him or her from trust to mistrust: “Did God say, `You shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1).

The first thing is not the denial of God but rather doubt about his covenant, about the community of faith, prayer, the commandments — all of which are the context for living God’s covenant. There is indeed a great deal of enlightenment when one doubts the covenant, experiences mistrust, demands freedom, and renounces obedience to the covenant as a straitjacket that prevents one from enjoying the real promises of life. It is so easy to convince people that this covenant is not a gift but rather an expression of envy of humankind and that it is robbing human beings of their freedom and of the most precious things of life.

With this doubt people are well on their way to building their own worlds. In other words, it is then that they make the decision not to accept the limitations of their existence; it is then that they decide not to be bound by the limitations imposed by good and evil, or by morality in general, but quite simply to free themselves by ignoring them.

This doubt about the covenant and the accompanying invitation to human beings to free themselves from their limitations has appeared in various forms throughout history and also shapes the present-day scene. [The following considerations are based on the careful reflections on the concept of sin developed in Pieper, Begriff 27-47.] I mention here only two variations — the aesthetic and the technical. Let us treat the aesthetic variation first. It begins with the question: What may art do? The answer seems perfectly clear: It may do anything that it “artistically” can. It needs only one rule — itself, artistic ability.

And only one error can be made with respect to it — artistic error, artistic incompetence. From this it follows that there are no such things as good and bad art works but only well-written or poorly written books, only well-produced or poorly produced films, and so on. The good and the moral no longer count, it seems, but only what one can do. Art is a matter of competence, so it is said; anything else is a violation.

That is enlightening! But it means, if one is to be consistent, that there is an area where human beings can ignore their limitations: when they create art, then they may do what they can do; then they have no limitations. And that means in turn that the measure of human beings is what they can do and not what they are, not what is good or bad. What they can do they may do.

The significance of this is far more evident today with respect to the second variation, the technical. But it is only another version of the same way of thinking and of the same reality, because the Greek word techne stands for the English word “art,” and the same idea of “being able” is implied here. Hence the same question pertains: What may technology do?

For a long time the answer was perfectly clear: It may do what it can do. The only error that it knows is that of incompetence. Robert Oppenheimer relates that, when the atomic bomb became a possibility, nuclear physicists were fascinated by “the technically sweet.” The technically possible, the desire to do and the actual doing of what it was possible to do, was like a magnet to which they were involuntarily attracted.

Rudolf Hoss, the last commandant of Auschwitz, declared in his diary that the concentration camp was a remarkable technical achievement. If one took into account the pertinent transportation schedules, the capacity of the crematories, and their burning power, seeing how all of these worked together so smoothly, this was clearly a fascinating and well-coordinated program, and it justified itself.

One could continue at length with similar examples. All the productions of horrible things, whose multiplication we look on nowadays with incomprehension and ultimately with helplessness, have their common basis here. But in the consequences of this principle we should finally recognize today that it is a trick of Satan, who wants to destroy human beings and the world.

We should see that human beings can never retreat into the realm of what they are capable of. In everything that they do, they constitute themselves. Therefore they themselves, and creation with its good and evil, are always present as their standard, and when they reject this standard they deceive themselves. They do not free themselves, but place themselves in opposition to the truth. And that means that they are destroying themselves and the world.

This, then, is the first and most important thing that appears in the story of Adam, and it has to do with the nature of human guilt and thus with our entire existence. The order of the covenant — the nearness of the God of the covenant, the limitations imposed by good and evil, the inner standard of the human person, creatureliness: all of this is placed in doubt.

Here we can at once say that at the very heart of sin lies human beings’ denial of their creatureliness, inasmuch as they refuse to accept the standard and the limitations that are implicit in it. They do not want to be creatures, do not want to be subject to a standard, do not want to be dependent. They consider their dependence on God’s creative love to be an imposition from without.

But that is what slavery is and from slavery one must free oneself. Thus human beings themselves want to be God. When they try this, everything is thrown topsy-turvy. The relationship of human beings to themselves is altered, as well as their relationships to others. The other is a hindrance, a rival, a threat to the person who wants to be God. The relationship with the other becomes one of mutual recrimination and struggle, as is masterfully shown in Genesis 3:8-13, which presents God’s conversation with Adam and Eve.

Finally, the relationship to the world is altered in such a way as to become one of destruction and exploitation. Human beings who consider dependence on the highest love as slavery and who try to deny the truth about themselves, which is their creatureliness, do not free themselves; they destroy truth and love. They do not make themselves gods, which in fact they cannot do, but rather caricatures, pseudo-gods, slaves of their own abilities, which then drag them down.

So it is clear now that sin is, in its essence, a renunciation of the truth. Now we can also understand the mysterious meaning of the words: “When you eat of it [that is, when you deny your limitations, when you deny your finitude], then you will die” (cf. Genesis 3:3). This means that human beings who deny the limitations imposed on them by good and evil, which are the inner standard of creation, deny the truth.

They are living in untruth and in unreality. Their lives are mere appearance; they stand under the sway of death. We who are surrounded by a world of untruths, of un-life, know how strong this sway of death is, which even negates life itself and makes it a kind of death.


Concupiscence II – Scott Hahn

September 11, 2012

Saint Paul: “I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin.” Guercino, San Paolo

In order to overcome the effects of concupiscence, we must first know what they are. Tradition names three.

  1. Our intellects are darkened. Our faculty of reason now takes direction from our glands and our gut. It is only with God’s grace, revealed truth, and our own effort that we can think past the promptings of our flesh.
  2. Our wills are weakened. The will can only will the good. But the will acts upon the data provided by the intellect, which is now working in darkness. Thus our will is often misdirected — not toward God as our ultimate end, but toward creatures as our proximate end. The will still chooses good things; it just chooses lower goods, apparent goods. Nobody every chooses evil as evil, even the person committing suicide or murder. Hitler thought he was doing good by ridding the world of Jews, Gypsies, and Catholic priests. That’s how twisted human nature can become, once concupiscence is allowed free rein.
  3. Our appetities are disordered. Our desire for food, sleep, sexual intimacy — all of these are good in themselves, when they are ordered to God, as they were created to be. But through concupiscence they become disorderly; and so our bodies have a tendency to drag us down into gluttony, laziness, lust, and other habitual sins.

    You can see the ravages of concupiscence now. The intellect is darkened, so it is not feeding the will. Thus, the will is weakened further still. Finally, the desires of the flesh have become disorderly because the soul is no longer governing the body as it should.

By now we should better understand the cry of Saint Paul: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). Like Paul, we should also be sure that our deliverance comes from Jesus Christ our Lord. We must, however, learn to discern Christ’s call to repentance in our everyday lives, for these are the appointed moments of our deliverance.

Sin begins, for us, with our disordered desires. First we are tempted by a hankering after something we should not have. Our first level of obligation, then, is to resist temptation: to reject the desire and remove ourselves from the situation that is agitating us. If we fail to do so and we sin, we have a graver and more difficult obligation, because we have placed ourselves in greater danger. We must now repent of our particular sin, confess it, and do penance for it.

But what if we don’t repent? What if, instead, we go back for another round of the forbidden pleasure? Once we fail to fulfill the second level of obligation, then we face God’s punishment. Even this, however, is not what we might expect. God doesn’t ordinarily punish sinners by sending a lightning bolt from a sunny sky. The worst punishment we can receive is the attraction the sin exercises upon us. When people choose a forbidden pleasure, the punishment for sin becomes the pleasure they experience illicitly, because once they experience it, they want it more. If God abandons us to our illicit pleasures, we find we can no longer resist them at all. Before long, we’re hooked. We’re dependent, or codependent, or addicted.

Once we’re hooked on a sin, our values are turned upside down. Evil becomes our most urgent “good,” our deepest longing; what is actually good stands as an “evil” because it threatens to keep us from satisfying our illicit desires. At that point, repentance becomes almost impossible, because repentance is, by definition, a turning away from evil and toward the good; but, by now, the sinner has thoroughly redefined both good and evil. Isaiah said of such sinners: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20).

Concupiscence run amok is God’s punishment for unrepentant sin, and it’s a punishment that fits the crime. When people persist in choosing the lesser good, God eventually removes their restraints. In the first chapter of his Letter to the Romans, Saint Paul explains that “God gave [the pagans] up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity … because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the creator” (Romans 1:24-25). “God gave them up to dishonorable passions” (1:26) and “to a base mind and to improper conduct” (1:28). In punishing people, God respects their freedom. He “gives them up” to the lusts, the passions, and the conduct that they themselves had chosen. But when God — Who gave them life — has given them up, can they be any more dead?

I’ll say it again: The pleasure in sinning is the first punishment for sin. This comes as a surprise to most people. We think of divine punishment as a vendetta by which God gets even with sinners. But the worst temporal punishments God allows are the attachments that arise from sins freely chosen.

Drunks, for example, don’t start off as drunks. They start off by getting drunk once, then again, then again. So if we desire alcohol and we don’t moderate that desire, we find ourselves intoxicated; and the drunkenness is the punishment for the sin of immoderate drinking. At that point, we should realize that we have failed in our initial duty to resist temptation; we must then repent, confess, and do penance. But if we don’t repent — if, instead, we go back for another drunken binge — then we will feel within our souls the weight of this illicit good drawing us downward, further away from God.

That’s what happens when the intellect is darkened and the will weakened. We render ourselves almost incapable of repenting, apart from some divine intervention — a car wreck, abandonment by our family, eviction from our home, the loss of a job. When disaster strikes, the sinner usually thinks that God is finally waking up and beginning to punish him. But that is not divine wrath; it’s divine mercy, saving the sinner from a worse and everlasting fate.

What we then see as punishments, as wrath, are really the flashes of sudden, brilliant light that God sends to illumine a soul darkened by concupiscence and sin.

It is important that we come to understand God’s punishments in the right way. The Old Testament speaks of God’s “anger” or His “wrath” 168 times. Yet we can say with conviction that God does not “get angry”; He does not “punish” us in His “rage.” For God is eternal and unchanging; thus, He does not undergo the movements and changes that human beings experience in our emotions and passions.

When the Bible speaks of God’s “wrath,” it is speaking metaphorically, as it often does. Think, for example, of the Psalmist’s reference to God’s “right hand and His holy arm” (Psalms 98:1.). This does not mean that God has limbs and members, any more than He has emotions and passions. Saint Thomas Aquinas explains: “When Scripture speaks of God’s arm, the literal sense is not that God has such a member, but only what is signified by this member, namely operative power” (Summa Theologica 1.1.10 ad 3m).

What does the metaphor represent? Anger is a relational word. If we are angry, we must have an object of our anger — someone with whom we’re angry. Since anger cannot properly refer to something in the Trinity — for unchanging God has no eternal anger — it cannot refer to God’s eternal relations. It must, then, speak of a temporal relationship between God and man. Saint Thomas is helpful here: “Thus with us it is usual for an angry man to punish, so that punishment becomes an expression of anger. Therefore punishment itself is signified by the word anger, when anger is attributed to God…. [Still,] anger is never attributed to God properly, since in its primary meaning it includes passion” (Summa Theologica, 1.19.11, c).

Divine wrath, anger, and punishment are terms that help us to understand the actions in our lives, and in history, by which God achieves justice and restores order. But these are not the ragings of a “hanging judge.” They are, rather, the instrument of His mercy and kindness. God’s punishments are like the chastisements of a loving father, or the press of the shepherd’s rod and staff that guide us in right paths. They are remedial, restorative, redemptive, medicinal. Said Saint Paul: “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance” (Romans 2:4).

God’s anger has been defined as “the greatest disasters and blows which may strike people as the outcome of sin, as `punishment’ which is bound to sin because God has willed it.” Saint Paul said: “We know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who do such things” — that is, who sin (Romans 2:2).

God often punishes us in ways we do not expect. But His punishments are never vindictive or arbitrary; they are the inevitable consequences of our free choices. Indeed, His punishments — even the ultimate and everlasting punishment of hell — are the very safeguards of human freedom and assurance of divine love. For no love can be coerced. We must be free to choose God’s love or — tragically, ultimately — to reject it. If we did not have the option of choosing sin and hell, we could not have the freedom of truly choosing and loving God. If God did not permit us to say no to Him, our yes would be worthless, the programmed response of a machine.

We have to face the fact that when we sin and opt for something instead of God, we’ll get what we choose.

Unfortunately, because we must make our choice using faculties weakened by concupiscence, it will always be a struggle. Concupiscence can only drag us in one direction: downward, away from God. Moreover, its gravity is overwhelming, overpowering us body and soul.

We can begin to overcome concupiscence through self-mastery and self-denial — indeed, we must do so — but even that is not enough. We need the help that only God can give: the grace He dispenses freely in the sacrament of penance. That grace works with divine and creative power; it creates anew the heart that sin has disordered, disfigured, and disgraced.


Concupiscence I – Scott Hahn

September 10, 2012

Hieronymus Bosch, Allegory of Gluttony and Lust c. 1490-1500

Denied by the secularists but pretty much something we all EXPERIENCE, sin is one of the great non-sequitors of modern life. It makes no sense, yet is such an obvious part of life how could it not be utterly sensible? If you wish to consider more, try our category Understanding Sin, and peruse the articles that follow this one. But  in the meantime, regard Scott Hahn’s highly readable contemplation on St. Augustine and concupiscence.


As a university professor, I sometimes assign students to read Saint Augustine’s Confessions. The book has almost universal appeal. Even the most worldly and unconverted readers find themselves captivated by Augustine’s brilliant style — or at least by his suggestive remembrances of a misspent youth. In some cases, the saint’s book gets read primarily because his sins were scarlet. The careful self-analysis of Augustine’s Confessions can be tremendously helpful to those of us who are preparing our own sacramental confessions.

There is one passage, however, that puzzles even devout readers. It’s more than a passage, actually. Augustine spends seven chapters describing a brief moment he spent late one night when he was sixteen years old. What thrilling escapade could consume such a magnificent mind to that extent?

Augustine and his friends pilfered a few pears from his neighbor’s orchard.

Readers find this baffling. Augustine gave long years of his life to the pursuit of sins of the flesh. He had mistresses. He conceived a child out of wedlock. With no less ardor did he give himself over to sins of the spirit. He tracked exotic spiritualities far into the regions of heresy and apostasy. He skipped out of Christian instruction and gave his soul over to the care of a non-Christian guru. Many and great were his transgressions. Yet no single sin does he subject to such minute analysis as the petty theft of pears when he was sixteen.

Again and again, Augustine asks why he committed the sin. It wasn’t that he was hungry; in fact, he wasn’t. It wasn’t that he was tempted by exceptional pears; they were actually inferior to the pears he had at home. It’s not even that it was time for a snack. Augustine and his companions didn’t even eat the fruit they took; they threw it to the pigs.

Why, then, did he sin? Augustine tirelessly asks the question and relentlessly rejects one possible motivation after another. Finally, he asks if, perhaps, he found enjoyment in doing evil itself. But this, too, he dismisses as nonsense. No one, he says, commits evil for its own sake. No one chooses evil just because it’s evil. People sin not for the sake of evil, but for the sake of something good.

This is the part that scandalizes some Christians. How can he say that sinners do not choose evil when they sin? Augustine counters that human beings can only desire good things. We want what’s sweet to the taste, what’s comfortable, what makes us more free, what removes difficulties from our lives. Moreover, all the things we desire are good because God has created them that way. “And God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). All the things in the world share, in some way, in God’s glory. Every artwork bears the distinctive mark of its artist, so every creature is a manifestation of a natural sacrament of the creator. And it is that sample of divine glory that makes the things of this world so attractive to us.

What is it, then, that takes the desire for something good and transforms it into a sin? Augustine puts it beautifully: “Sins are committed when, out of an immoderate liking for things — since they are the least goods — we desert the best and highest goods,” which are God, His truth, and His law. “These lower goods have their delights,” he continues, “but none such as my God, Who has made all things; for in Him the just man finds delight, and He is the joy of the upright of heart.”

Augustine concludes that he stole the pears for the sake of his friends’ companionship and for the laughter they would share. The friendship, the camaraderie, and the laughter were all good things, gifts from God, and good to desire. Yet the boy went wrong when he placed the desire for these things before the desire to please and obey the Lord God.

We, too, sin not because we want what is evil, but because we want what isn’t good enough. We give our hearts, our bodies, and our souls to trifles and passing sensations when we should go, instead, to the summit of all pleasures, the eternal creator of all joy. In fixating on God’s gifts, we turn our backs to the giver.

The problem, then, is not that we find creatures attractive, but that we find them more attractive than God. The problem (in Augustine’s words) is our “immoderate liking for things,” for pleasure, and for earthly glory. This was the problem for Adam and Eve. For the forbidden fruit in Eden — like the fruit in Augustine’s neighborhood orchard — was not evil. Indeed, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was good in every way. Eve saw immediately “that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6).

The tree had all these natural good qualities because God had made it that way. It looked good, and it could do good, giving wisdom to the person who ate from it. But God had commanded the first couple to sacrifice all those great goods for the sake of a higher good, a supernatural good. And that is what they failed to do — out of fear of the serpent, out of pride, and out of a fear of suffering loss (see Hebrews 2:14-15 ). The fruit wasn’t evil; but the disobedience certainly was. It’s not bad to want knowledge, or to have a hankering for ripe apples, but it is bad to pursue these things in directions that lead away from God.

Adam and Eve did this. They reordered their priorities so that their immediate desires — safety, self-preservation, knowledge, and sensual delights — might be fulfilled, while the higher goods — such as faith, hope, and love — would be deferred. They did not directly choose evil. They chose lesser goods. They chose goods that seemed more real at the moment. Self-preservation and hunger are deep-seated animal instincts, for which the body produces intense physical responses. Yet there is no similar physical drive for faith, hope, and love. There is no gland, no organ, no hormone that will press us on to choose God above everything else. What was required of Adam and Eve was a sheer act of will — uniting their own will with God’s will — and thus sacrificing all the lower desires of their bodies and souls, hearts and minds.

Their choice had long-term consequences. Their need created new needs: to hide themselves, to justify themselves, to cover their nakedness. Adam and Eve had given primary place to their lower desires, and now their lower desires were taking over. Whereas they had previously been “naked and unashamed,” now their nakedness provoked disordered feelings in both of them; and they felt it necessary to cover up with garments woven from fig leaves. Whereas Adam had earlier tilled and kept the garden in a seemingly effortless way, now he found himself toiling in hardship and sweat.

Our first parents had reversed the divinely intended hierarchy in the human person and in the human race. Now, instead of our souls governing our bodies, our bodies — and their longings and appetites, pleasures and fears — were driving our souls.

Saint Paul calls this the rebellion of the flesh against the spirit (see Galatians 5:16-17; Ephesians 2:3; CCC, n. 2515). Theologians call it concupiscence (pronounced kon-KYOO-pi-sens), a term that refers to our “human appetites or desires which remain disordered due to the temporal consequences of original sin.” Concupiscence is by definition unreasonable: Our chaotic drives are in rebellion against the order of reason.

Concupiscence itself is not sin, but it is the result of original sin and the cause of actual sins. It is an innate inclination to sin; but it is not a personal transgression. Concupiscence does not render me guilty, but it does render me vulnerable to temptation and positively prone to sin.

“As by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19). As Adam snuffed out the divine life in his soul and the souls of his descendents, so Christ came to restore that divine life and enable us to share it. Most of us receive that divine life, when we are babies, through the sacrament of baptism.

Baptism takes away the stain of original sin, but concupiscence remains with us. Our drives and our passions, though good in themselves, are out of proper order.

Concupiscence is self-perpetuating, and it pulls us downward. We find creatures attractive because God made them that way, as samples of His glory, to lead us to thank Him, praise Him, and love Him all the more. But we tend to take these created things and make them the ultimate objects of our desire — whether a spouse or a friend, chocolate or alcohol, books or cars. The more we indulge our passionate desires, the more they take hold of us, and the more they increase our need for them. The more we need these created goods, the less we sense the need for God — even though it is He Who has given us the goods of the world.

Concupiscence renders us vulnerable, temptable. We are tempted by this world through our concupiscence. But just because we entertain thoughts that are wrong doesn’t mean we’re guilty. It isn’t until we allow those thoughts to start entertaining us that we have committed an actual sin on the inside — and, unless we repent quickly, we will soon commit them on the outside.


Cette Claudication Mysterieuse

August 11, 2012

I usually don’t post on Saturdays and Sundays but recently I’ve been finding stuff, stuff that I’ve posted before or just a quote that caught my eye. I’ve decided to post these from time to time on the weekends. Those words from Paul below replay themselves over and over again in my mind.


More than any other passage, Moses’ farewell speech in Deuteronomy  30:15-20 brings out the real nature and tragedy of sin. “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.

But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.

Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”


“So the project is knowing that we are sinners, but what, exactly, is sin? This is a much more difficult question than it seems, because sin is a negativity, a dysfunction, and hence cannot be looked at directly. Henri de Lubac spoke of it as cette claudication mysterieuse, this mysterious limp, and thereby caught its elusive, derivative, and parasitic quality. We might begin to shed some light on the issue by distinguishing, in accord with biblical instincts, between Sin and sins, that is to say, between the underlying disease and its many symptoms. When, at the end of his career, the Curé d’Ars was asked what wisdom he had gained about human nature from his many years of hearing confessions, he responded, “People are much sadder than they seem.”

Blaise Pascal rests his apologetic for Christianity on the simple fact that all people are unhappy. This universal, enduring, and stubborn sadness is Sin. Now this does not mean that Sin is identical to psychological depression. The worst sinners can be the most psychologically well-adjusted people, and the greatest saints can be, by any ordinary measure, quite unhappy. When I speak of sadness in this context, I mean the deep sense of un-fulfillment. We want the Truth and we get it, if at all, in dribs and drabs; we want the Good, and we achieve it only rarely; we seem to know what we ought to be, but we are in fact something else. This spiritual frustration, this inner warfare, this debility of soul, is Sin.

It is nowhere better described than in the seventh chapter of the letter that Paul wrote to the Romans toward the end of his life. The passage begins simply and magnificently: “I do not understand my own actions” (Romans 7:14). Paul knows, even twenty years after his conversion to Christ, that he remains an enigma to himself.

And the mystery is clearly articulated: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). Paul lives at cross purposes to himself, his best inclinations stymied, his highest thoughts countered by his lowest desires, his good will giving rise to sordid acts. Sounding like an alcoholic who knows that taking a drink is the very worst thing he could do precisely as he raises the glass to his lips, Paul continues, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it” (Romans. 7:18).

When he looks within, he sees, not an ordered harmony, but a battlefield: “for I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind” (Romans 7:23). And the conclusion of this bit of brutally honest introspection is an anguished statement and an equally anguished question: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). The Apostle to the Gentiles …sees the truth of his situation with awful clarity his spiritual life is a civil war, and no amount of fighting will resolve the conflict.

Pascal mines further this Pauline vein when he says, “We are incapable of not desiring truth and happiness and incapable of either certainty or happiness.”This is both our greatness (we know what we ought to have) and our wretchedness (we cannot achieve it). In one of the best known of his Pensees, Pascal says, “Man is neither angel nor beast, and it is unfortunately the case that anyone trying to act the angel acts the beast.”  In other words, when we convince ourselves that all is basically well with us and that through our efforts of mind, will, imagination, can work our way out of our wretchedness, we do not resolve our dysfunction; we intensify it. Part of the mythology of the Enlightenment was just this confidence in auto-salvation.

Many nineteenth-century thinkers, including some Christians, held that our technological advances, our improvements in medicine, our growing political wisdom would conduce, finally, to the emergence of the kingdom. The prophets from Kierkegaard to Barth pointed out the dangerous hubris behind this assumption, and the horrors of the twentieth century — two global wars, several attempts at genocide, the nuclear threat, and the beginning of terrorism — have shown the truth of Pascal’s dictum. The perpetrators of the greatest violence in human history were not those who believed in the fall but precisely those who denied it.

Every Advent Christians sing a haunting song whose words and tune go back to the ninth century, but I wonder how carefully they aver to the lyrics:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appears.

In the ancient world, people were tremendously afraid of being kidnapped and held for ransom, Alone, far from home, malnourished, often tortured, hostages could only hope against hope that their deliverance might come. This is the situation evoked by that well-known song: Israel, the people of God, are held for ransom in their lonely exile, and they cry out for their savior, the Son of God. To be in Sin is to know the truth and to feel the texture of this imprisonment.

In his homilies on the book of Exodus, Origen proposes an allegorical reading of the battle between the children of Israel and the Egyptians. The Israelites, he says, symbolize all of the positive powers of the soul — creativity, intelligence, energy, love — while Pharaoh (and his minions) stand for the negative forces of fear, hatred, and violence. What has happened in our fallen state is that Pharaoh has come to dominate Israel, that is to say, the power of Sin has co-opted and mastered for its purposes our positive energies.

Now our minds (which remain hungry for the Truth) are placed in service of falsity; and our wills (which still love the Good) are pressed into service for evil; and our creativity (which still longs for the beautiful) is harnessed to ugly purposes. According to Exodus, Pharaoh compels the Israelites to build fortified cities and monuments to himself. And so, following the allegory, our sinner’s souls are given over to producing fortifications to protect the ego and monuments to trumpet its prominence. This enslavement of our best to our worst is Sin.

Augustine offers one of the pithiest definitions of Sin: itis the state of being incurvatus in se (caved in on oneself). The powers of the soul, which are meant to orient us to nature and other human beings and the cosmos and finally the infinite mystery of God, are focused in on the tiny and infinitely uninteresting ego. Like a black hole, the sinful soul draws all of the light and energy around itinto itself.

Dante illustrates this Augustinian insight by placing Satan at the pit of Hell, frozen in ice, incapable of movement, and weeping from all six of his eyes.’The Devil’s angel wings (now devolved into unsightly bat wings) beat the air furiously, but he can go nowhere: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” Trying to fly while stuck in the ice; driving your car with one foot on the gas and the other on the brake: that is the dysfunction, the frustration, that the Bible calls “Sin.”

But we mustn’t despair, even after surveying this depressing series of images and metaphors, for we have a savior. We cannot set this condition right (“who will deliver me from this body of death?”), but there is someone who can. Paul’s lament ends with an exultant proclamation: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25). Christianity affirms that Emmanuel (God with us) has come and has gone right to the bottom of Sin in order to defeat it.

In his full humanity, Jesus entered into the complex nexus of Sin, and in his full divinity, he did something about it. He stood shoulder to shoulder with us in the muddy Jordan waters of our egotism, but he was not simply a fellow sufferer, He also lifted us out of those waters and offered us transfiguration. And it is none other than those so lifted up and so transfigured that can look with confidence, and even a touch of humor, at the mess from which they are being saved. It is the saints who know that they are sinners.”
Fr. Robert Barron, And Now I See


The Fall – R.R. Reno

April 26, 2012

The Fall by Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (6 March 1475 – 18 February 1564), commonly known as Michelangelo.

Sin is crouching at the door (Genesis 4:7)

The Serpent Was More Subtle.
On the sixth day God creates “the beasts. . . and the cattle.. . and everything that creeps upon the ground” (Genesis 1:25). Yet, now appears something “more subtle” and seemingly of a different order. Just who or what is the subtle serpent? The voice of the tradition is unequivocal: it is a worldly form of Satan, the fallen angel. The modern historical-critical tradition rejects this reading; von Rad is typical: “The serpent which now enters the narrative is marked as one of God’s created animals…. In the narrator’s mind, therefore, it is not a symbol of a `demonic’ power and certainly not Satan. What distinguishes it a little from the rest of the animals is exclusively its greater cleverness.” So which shall it be: demonic power personified or the animal trickster of folklore?

At the very minimum, Jewish and Christian readers expect this verse to cohere with other parts of the Bible. For example, Job 1 portrays an interaction between God and Satan that sets up another scene of temptation. God allows Satan to afflict Job in order to tempt him to curse God (Genesis 1:6-12). Wisdom of Solomon 2:23-24 interprets the original temptation along similar lines: “God created man for incorruption, and made him in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world.” The New Testament only reinforces the presumption that temptation and transgression come from the devil.

In Luke’s Gospel, Satan and the demons are closely associated with serpents and scorpions (10:17-20), and in John of Patmos’s vision of end times, the power of Christ is depicted as dethroning “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelations 12:9). Even when the image of the serpent is absent, the link between Satan and temptation is clear. In the New Testament scene that recapitulates the circumstances in Genesis  3, Satan tempts Jesus in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13).

Scripture interprets scripture, and the weight in favor of reading the serpent as Satan is overwhelming. But we can do more than adduce intra-canonical warrants. It is useful to think through why there is such a strong consensus that a demonic power lay behind the original transgression.

The benefits of pursuing this question are significant. We not only understand Genesis 3:1 more fully, but we also develop a deeper, more intelligent grasp of why angels and demons become so important in the later books of the Bible and why so many later theologians developed systematic accounts of non-bodily, spiritual creatures.

The way forward is not obvious. As Origen notes, “In regard to the devil and his angels and the opposing spiritual powers, the Church teaching lays it down that these beings exist, but what they are and how they exist it has not explained very clearly.” [On First Principles preface.6 in Origen: On First Principles, trans. G. W. Butterworth ( Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1973), 245.]But Origen, however tentative in his speculations about Satan, gives him a central role in the cosmological drama of fall and redemption. The role is emphasized in the many later scriptural passages that implicitly comment on Genesis 3:1. As the larger tradition affirms again and again, evil and the possibility of transgression begins with the angels.

It is very important to see that this view of the origin of evil is not the product of an ancient view of the world as bounded by a heaven above and a spiritual realm below, the so-called three-tiered universe often adduced by modern scholars as a sufficient explanation for early Christian (and Jewish) interest in angels and demons. The devil is not a mythological figure invented by a pre-scientific, credulous spiritual imagination.

On the contrary, the idea of a fallen angel helps biblical readers of Genesis 3 in two ways. First, a reference to Satan immediately conjures a cosmos-wide power, and this helps dramatize the cosmos-wide scope of the divine plan and the sinful resistance to it. Second, the concept of the devil serves as a placeholder for the most extreme possible negation of the divine plan that is consistent with the belief that God is the all-powerful and all-good creator of everything out of nothing.

Let us begin, then, with salvation history. In the broadest possible sense, if we assume that the serpent is not just a particular animal in the garden of paradise, but is instead a grand spiritual being who has already embarked on the deepest and widest possible rebellion against God, then at the very least we have succeeded in refraining a quite intimate and concrete story of temptation in Genesis 3 within a cosmic context. What the serpent says is not just a localized event.

Recourse to the devil inflates the significance of the events. The story is not merely about a serpent and a woman and a man. On the contrary, the garden scene depicts the ultimate adversary at work. The transgression, therefore, is infected with the depth and breadth of Satan’s prior rebellion. It is universally consequential, or as the terminology of traditional doctrine would have it, the sin is original.

One might object that this enlargement of the events in Genesis 3 does violence to the plain sense. But the objection ignores the context, which positively begs from a cosmic frame of reference. The seven-day account of creation that opens Genesis is part of the Priestly tradition; in contrast, the second account of creation of man and woman in Genesis 2 reflects the Yahwist tradition. The standard modern approach to reading these two accounts emphasizes their differences. The P writer provides an account of the architecture of the cosmos, while the J writer is more interested in the human-focused flow of history.

However, the two perspectives overlap. The Priestly material suggests a historical dynamism toward the seventh day (Genesis 2:2). Now we can see how an interpretation of the serpent as the devil opens up a cosmic frame of reference for reading the Yahwist. Instead of trying to give a conceptual answer to the question of how a particular event in the past can have universal consequences, the tradition gives an exegetical answer. The episode is cosmic in significance because the serpent is Satan, the primordial agent of rebellion.

Job, the biblical text most closely related to Genesis 3 in theme and situation, evokes a similar conclusion about the human condition. The main body of the book is highly particularized. Job’s flocks are stolen, his house destroyed, and his children killed. These personal tragedies trigger a long series of debates with Job’s friends about the justice of Job’s sufferings, debates that turn on whether Job is a righteous man.

The central premise is that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. The assumption is that our actions determine our destinies. Have I obeyed? Have I transgressed? As readers familiar with the book know, Job’s friends argue that Job must have transgressed. Job counter-argues that he has not. But for our purposes, the important point of the debate is more general. Throughout the back and forth of argument, all the focus falls on the human condition.

In a sense, Job and his friends live in the Yahwist strand of Genesis. The discrete details of our lives provide exactly the right frame of reference for thinking about the human condition. And yet, Job neither begins nor ends with this focus. Instead, the story opens with Satan approaching the LORD God in his heavenly court. He challenges God, suggesting that God lacks the ability attract spiritual loyalty without buying off the faithful with worldly rewards. The story ends with the famous divine appearance out of a whirlwind, an appearance in which God recounts to Job, not the details of his life and actions, but instead the divine acts of creation. In short, the cosmic perspective frames and contextualizes the human-focused concerns of Job and his friends.

The devil functions in the same way in the New Testament, Again and again St. Paul reminds his readers of the true scale of their struggle against sin. Worldly trials and temptations are not just local; they are afflictions of the devil. The faithful are to resist with confidence, for in due time the God of peace will crush Satan under their feet (Romans 16:20). This image of triumph draws on Genesis 3:15 — the divine prophecy that the children of Eve shall crush the head of the serpent.

In the same way, Hebrews uses the greater spiritual powers of angels and demons in order to frame the significance of the passion and death of Jesus. The one who was greater than angels was made lower in order to destroy what the writer calls “the power of death, that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14). Luke’s Gospel makes a similar move when it evokes the intruding agency of evil: “Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot” (Genesis 22:3). The reader is put on notice. The events in Jerusalem, like the events in the primordial garden, have the gravest and greatest of consequences.

Our goal is not to try to reconstruct a New Testament angelology or demonology and transpose it back onto Genesis. The point is much simpler. When 1 Peter 5:8 warns that “the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour,” the effect is not to conjure up pictures of a trident-carrying, horned creature with cloven hoofs. Instead, this and other appeals to Satan function in the same way as the apocalyptic visions of Daniel, Zechariah, and Revelation, all of which portray our destiny in the context of more powerful forces.

Here a reading of the serpent as Satan begins to pay theological dividends. As we allow the image of Satan to guide our reading of Genesis 3, we learn something about the large biblical vision of human freedom. Although our actions are free and we genuinely shape the directions of our lives, we do not define the moral and spiritual atmosphere in which we live. As any mention of the devil reminds us, we are cast into a world already shaped by a creation-wide history of resistance to the divine plan. Our freedom is not pristine, unaffected, and uninfluenced by prior events. We must decide and act in circumstances beyond our control.

Of course, not every portion of scripture can be brought into harmony with every other part. The Bible is fundamentally heterogeneous and cannot be reduced to general theological principles. We should avoid the impulse to interpret scripture simply in order to draw out a theological point, even the very important point that human freedom is constrained by a larger contest between good and evil. Theological concepts are never fully adequate, and no single theological conclusion does justice to the plentitude of the scriptural text. For this reason, it is worthwhile to digress into some further, more technical reasons for calling the tempting serpent “Satan.” These reasons emerge out of the problem of theodicy, the conceptually difficult need to acknowledge the reality of evil while affirming the power and goodness of God.

We can best begin by considering the contrary interpretation. The text says the serpent was an animal — admittedly a strangely clever and talkative animal — and that is the end of it. [A talking animal is not sufficient reason to hypothesize about demonic (or angelic) agents. Balaam's ass talks, but the role of the ass is that of a sensible animal and not a spiritual being (Numbers 22:21-30).] With this approach we gain in literalism, but an immediate problem emerges. As human beings, our acts are voluntary or free insofar as they are motivated. An unmotivated act is accidental, not free. But as embodied rational beings, we are motivated by what we perceive and by conclusions we draw from our engagement with the world. As St. Augustine writes, “Nothing draws the will into action except some object that has been perceived.” [Augustine, De libero arbitrio 3.25.74. I draw this formulation from the translation provided in tt MacDonald's nuanced analysis of St. Augustine's approach to Adam and Eve's sin in "Primal ," in The Augustinian Tradition, ed. Gareth B. Matthews (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 110-39 at 118]

If this is so, then the first transgression must have been motivated by something perceived in the garden. Perhaps it was the novelty of a talking snake. Perhaps it was the loveliness of the fruit. Perhaps the slipperiness of human language, a faulty memory, or the all-too-natural tendency of the human mind to be distracted led the woman to eat. Perhaps the natural affections and loyalty of the man to the woman led him to follow suit.

The point is not to specify the motive or cause. Instead, we need to see what is entailed in allowing the serpent to be just a clever snake. Because our freedom is embodied and responsive rather than purely spiritual and originative, if the serpent is just another bodily creature in the world, then the temptation toward primal sin follows as a consequence of the way God creates.

He makes us free in certain way, but the created order contains realities and impulses that are intrinsically tempting and out of balance: a talking animal such as the serpent, a lovely fruit, the bond of companionship, or some other feature of created, embodied existence. In short, if the serpent is just an animal, then sin emerges out of the human encounter with the natural order.

This conclusion immediately runs up against the problem of evil. The notion that the original transgression occurs as a result of our embodied freedom seems to contradict the biblical assertion that God creates everything and calls it good. Not surprisingly, then, the tradition reads Satan into this verse. There are (so the traditional train of thought presumes) free spiritual beings whose created free wills are not moved by their perception of other created realities. In their independence, these spiritual beings are capable of a pure choice, a choice unmotivated and uncolored by instinct and natural desire. For this reason, spiritual beings can make choices that are originative and not responsive. A spiritual being can choose evil without being motivated by anything God has created. Angels are, as it were, self-moved.

If we suppose the existence of an angel who has fallen, then we have a way out of the problem of evil in our reading of Genesis 3, or at least a way of giving a more subtle form to the problem of evil. [Here I follow Augustine's line of reasoning in his long digression at the beginning of his treatment of the fall in The Literal Meaning of Genesis 11] By interpreting the serpent as Satan, we have created exegetical space for a prior, purely spiritual choice of disobedience, one not motivated by the desire for something in the created world that is perceived as good. The fallen angel is motivated solely by his choice of evil, the darkness of a world without the supreme goodness of God (Genesis 1:4).

Of course, the pure freedom of the devil is a finite freedom. The devil is not a primordial being who exists before creation, and in this sense the devil’s freedom is part of the divine project from the outset. However, although the finitude of a purely spiritual freedom constrains its scope and consequences, finitude does not mitigate the capacity of a disembodied freedom to do and become something out of its own pure choice. In a certain sense, God is still on the hook.

But for God’s creation of the angels, none would have fallen. Yet the important point is secure: no aspect of creation other than freedom itself is implicated as the reason for an angelic fall. The devil falls strictly because of his choice and not because of any other feature or quality of the created order. This allows us to say that the first transgression, the fall of the devil, occurs in creation, but not because of creation. “It was,” writes St. Augustine, “an evil arising not from nature but from choice” (City of God 11.19).

These suppositions about the finite spiritual freedom of fallen angels open up conceptual space for an interpretation of Genesis 3, and this allows us to pursue a reading that avoids the problem of implying that the ordinary conditions of our embodied freedom lead to sin. Interpreted as Satan in bodily form, the serpent in the garden can be understood as the vehicle for the intrusion of a more original evil choice into our world of embodied freedom. Aspects of creation (e.g., the attractive tastiness of the apple) are obviously implicated in and serve as the medium for transgression, but we need no longer presume that created goods trigger the first human sin.

Instead, Satan’s prior, purely spiritual, and self-directing choice influences Eve’s subsequent, embodied, and responsive choice. She is not thrown off balance by anything God has created. Her transgression turns on her response to a prior form of evil that is, in itself, an act of finite but pure freedom. Of course, Adam’s sin has precisely the same form. She hands him the fruit, and he responds to Eve’s prior choice. Once the infection is introduced it spreads.

The conceptual advantages of reading the serpent as Satan shows why it is terribly naive to imagine that the classical interpretation is motivated by a love of mythological figures. [The modern historical-critical tradition is hopelessly confused on this point. See, for example, Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11:.4 Commentary.. Unable to countenance "the mythological explanation of the serpent," Westermann concludes that the origin of evil must be a purely human phenomenon. Westermann is apparently unable to imagine that biblical readers (including readers whose writings would subsequently be incorporated into the canon) would develop interpretive hypotheses in order to avoid contradicting basic theological convictions about the nature of God and creation. Von Rad also falsely assumes that classical demonology is mythical and summarily rejects the traditional reading of the serpent as Satan by insisting that the narrative treats temptation as "a completely un-mythical process.” The dichotomy works only if one supposes that hypothetical or inferred beings are by definition mythical, but this is absurd, since it would make a great deal of scientific and mathematical reasoning mythological.]

To read the serpent as Satan is not to think of the snake as a wicked elf or a rebellious satyr. On the contrary, the traditional exegesis of the serpent as Satan resolves the dilemma posed by a literal reading of the story. To suppose the serpent to be Satan’s worldly guise allows us to coordinate the strong affirmation of the intrinsic goodness of creation in Genesis 1 with the narrative disobedience, resistance, and rebellion of Genesis 3.

At this point we should step back and consider an obvious objection. The reading of the serpent as Satan may help us with the difficulty of affirming the intrinsic goodness of God’s creation. The hypothesis of an angelic fall allows us to assert that freedom alone can pervert itself; it cannot go awry simply as human freedom engaged in response to created goods. Yet this approach, we might worry undermines human responsibility. If the fall is triggered by Satan’s earlier choice, then how can we be held responsible? It would seem that the original sin is the devil’s fault, not ours. And if this is the case, doesn’t the entire Pauline economy of guilt in Adam and forgiveness in Christ collapse?

The objection is helpful, because it forces us to be clear about the nature of our embodied freedom, as well as more attentive to what scripture actually says about our roles in both the empire of evil and the reign of Christ. It is certainly true that we are free participants in the divine plan — for good or for ill. However, transgression is like Caesar’s army crossing the Rubicon. Our freedom does not determine us all at once. It sets us down a particular path. More important, in crossing any number of moral and spiritual Rubicons, we are like soldiers deciding to follow, not generals leading their legions. Our freedom is real; we must decide to move our feet in one direction or the other.

But that freedom is reactive and responsive, not executive or commanding. We need a leader to trigger our movement. This is why human freedom never provides a sufficient explanation for the march toward sin — or the countermarch toward righteousness. Humans seem capable of a depravity — and righteousness — that far exceeds our ordinary capacities, which is why ordinary language stretches toward adjectives such as “demonic” and “saintly” when describing human extremes. We can follow much further than we can lead.

There are scriptural and commonsensical reasons for thinking of human freedom more on the model of an enlistee than an officer. Joshua ends with a re-statement of the choice that determines us. We cannot create endlessly new and different paths into the future. On the contrary, we must decide whom to follow: “Choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:14-15). We are free to switch loyalties, but we cannot invent new armies and new objectives. With exactly the same underlying assumptions about the human condition, St. Paul insists that our choice, which recapitulates the original choice of Adam and Eve, is about whom to serve and not an invitation to brainstorm about the good life. “You are slaves of the one whom you obey, writes Paul, and in Adam we are conscripted into the army of sin (Romans 6:16).

The gospel stories evoke the same view of freedom when they portray the good news as a challenge to “the powers” that hold us in their thrall. We seem always beholden to a prior evil that gives us orders that we willingly obey, and Christ frees us by giving counter commands. Mammon leads us one direction; God leads us in another. When Paul says that “for freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1), he does not mean that we can opt out and wait for a third option. We are freed from sin precisely because we are taken captive in Christ. In him we serve the life-giving master.

Thus an appeal to Satan in our interpretation of Genesis 3 reinforces a general Biblical claim about our created condition. Our freedom is always a matter of whom we obey, and in sin we seek a perverse fulfillment of our natural desire for obedient service. Promethean self-direction is a fantasy, for we are not created with the capacity to serve ourselves. We can only serve that which is greater, which is why the supposition that the serpent is Satan fits nicely with the larger biblical tendency to see the fundamental form of sin as idolatry. The perverted human will follow the false gods, false leaders, and false promises, all the while imagining them to be the source of life.

The view of human freedom as a decision about whom to obey finds ample confirmation in everyday life. We cannot follow our instincts, but we can follow the idea of following our instincts. We cannot live as natural men and women, but we can follow a philosophy of natural existence. We cannot live only for ourselves but we can adopt the principle of egoism. By St. Paul’s analysis, in sin we pervert rather than undo or destroy the purposes for which human nature was created. We live a distorted facsimile of covenant. We are “slaves to the elemental spirits of the universe” (Galatians 4:3).

We were created to know and worship the living God, but in our blindness we serve dead idols (Romans 1:21-23). Thus, when we introduce the greater power of Satan into our interpretation of Genesis, we are not understanding human responsibility for sin, nor are we compromising the Pauline vision of salvation history. Instead, we are bringing our reading of the fall into conformity with the New Testament account of our slavery to sin. Sin is a perverted obedience, a false following, a deceived discipleship. To suppose the serpent to be a form of Satan helps us see the true form of our slavery to sin — and by contrast to see the obedient form of our participation in Christ.

Although there are strong reasons in support of a traditional reading of the serpent as Satan, neither scripture nor the classical theological tradition gives Satan an ongoing, central role in the unfolding of the divine plan. St. Paul observes “sin came into the world through one man” (Romans 5:12) and that the divine campaign against the entire empire of evil is conducted through “that one man Jesus Christ (Romans 5:15). While we may not be commanders in the cosmic conflict, salvation history turns on our loyalty. Although the possibility of evil should be traced back to the purely spiritual freedom of fallen angels, we need to be careful. The origin of evil should not be confused with the location of its ultimate conflict with goodness. The centers of government may have been in Richmond and Washington, but the tide of the Civil War turned at the small Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg.

For Gregory of Nyssa, the human focus of the scriptural story is clear from the outset, and he explains why God fittingly chooses our embodied freedom as the place to work out his redemptive plan. Our amphibious existence as both embodied and free places us at the center of the cosmic drama. “God, taking dust of the ground, formed the man, Gregory writes, “and, by an inspiration from Himself, He planted life in the work. of His hand, that thus the earthy might be raised up to the Divine, and so one certain grace of equal value might pervade the whole creation, the lower nature being mingled with the supra-mundane” (Catechetical Orations 6 in NPNF 5.480).

The human creature has a unique role. We are what angels and demons can never be: a hybrid of body and spirit that participates in all aspects of the created order. Through us, therefore, God can reach into all the corners of his creation. Neither pure spirit nor mere body, we are at the crossroads of reality. The future of the cosmos is in the hands of whichever army controls this strategic point.

Thus, for all the biblical concern about demons and for all the theological principles that warrant the hypothesis of the devil, focus falls on the human. We live out our loyalties in the quotidian realities of everyday life. It is here and now that we do the work of Satan, and it is here and now that we encounter Christ, who has the power to free us from the thrall of our own past choices, from the primordial choice of Adam and Eve, and from the original wickedness of Satan. We do the most to defeat the devil and sanctify the world when we focus on our core competence: obedience to the call of Christ in the midst of human affairs.


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