Lenten Meditation: Original Sin IIadmin | 23 March 2011
This is the second of four Lenten meditations on original sin. The previous meditation is posted here.
“Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David”
Kyrie eleison. Lord have mercy upon us. It is the recurring refrain, not just of the season of Lent, but of our Anglican liturgy. In a way, it is an implicit acknowledgment of the condition of our sinfulness, the on-going legacy of original sin, if you will, the mystery which we are pondering in this series of Lenten addresses.
The Canaanite woman in the Gospel story for the Second Sunday in Lent cries out for mercy. It is, evidently, not a cri de coeur that is restricted to the people of Israel. It is universal. She cries out for mercy to Jesus for her daughter who is grievously vexed with a devil, deeply troubled spiritually or mentally, we might say. But that whole idea of being vexed by a devil suggests the power and hold of evil on our souls. Somehow it seems that we cannot just go and do all that we would like to do or even believe that we ought to do for ourselves or for one another.
Paul expresses that deep sense of how we are divided within ourselves. He states the condition of our divided wills, “the good that I would I do not, the evil that I would not do, that do I do.” We are a divided house and we cannot stand on the power of our strength of will, crowing to the universe, like Frank Sinatra, that “I did it my way.” Time and time again, the Church in the liturgy through the Collects and the Scripture readings especially, reminds us of this deeply disturbing feature of our human lives, the condition of our divided selves, the reality of our corrupted wills.
And yet, to pray for mercy is to acknowledge this reality without succumbing to the utter hopelessness of despair. To pray for mercy is to be open to God’s power and grace which is greater than the contradictions of our being. This is an important point, I think, because logically there is something incomplete in defining ourselves negatively. It presupposes something positive. Sin, original sin, is about privation, a lack or absence of being and truth. But it is totally dependent upon what it denies. Sin is nothing in itself.
The story of the Fall, for all of the shortcomings (and strengths) of its poetic, imaginative and mythological form, makes the same point. Creation and even the divine commandment that God gives to the Adam, to our humanity, is absolutely prior to our actions. In denying the commandment, itself part and parcel of the goodness of the created order, we not only deny God; we also contradict ourselves. “Did God say?” the serpent of our devious reason asks. But we know what God said. We choose not to hold ourselves accountable to it.
The story of salvation as it unfolds in the Old Testament concerns itself with the awareness of our evil and sin, on the one hand, and the power of God’s will for us, on the other hand. Not only does God reveal himself to Moses in the wilderness as far more than a mere tribal deity, making himself known in the burning bush as “I am who I am,” a phrase that will reverberate down through the centuries of theological reflection, but God reveals his will in the form of the Law to the people of Israel in the wilderness.
The Law is itself a kind of grace, a form of mercy, even though, of course, the Law convicts every one of us. Implicit in the Law, I wish to suggest, is the idea of original sin as it will be ultimately signalled by Paul in the New Testament. The Law upholds the divine principle for the ordering of our moral lives in its twofold aspect: the love of God and the love of neighbour. It gives us a vision of the right ordering of our souls and lives. It gives us a vision of perfection, a vision which we emphatically have not achieved.
It becomes the challenge to live by the teaching of the Law. But how do we do that? Just on the strength of our wills? Do we say that we do the Law? Completely, perfectly? Are there no other gods in our lives? Paul, again, brings out the deeper lesson of the Law which catapults us into the grace of God. He was “a Pharisee of the Pharisees,” he says of himself, the strictest of the strictest with respect to the doing of the Law. And there is the unmistakeable sense of pride and, let’s be honest, self-righteousness in such a view. But Paul comes to realise that the Law is not just about outward observances; it requires an inward obedience as well. And it is there, in the awareness of the divided self that we discover the full impact of the doctrine of original sin. Paul recognises in particular that the tenth commandment convicts all of us. “Thou shalt not covet.” To think it is to be aware of how we have committed it.
It is as if he has come to realise the inner spirit of the Ten Commandments and has come to recognise how in our hearts we fail to measure up to the very truth which we know in some sense or other. In that sense, the Law becomes sin. It convicts us of our inner shortcomings.
This sense of the inner division of our wills is part and parcel of the Christian insight. There is not just adultery in the flesh; there is the inner adultery of our hearts, the lust of our minds, and so on and so forth. It is the point which the confession of sin makes so simply and yet so clearly. We have sinned in “thought, word and deed.” The progression itself is intriguing, instructive and all-encompassing. The deep awareness of the inescapable condition of our sinfulness springs us forward into the mercy of God.
Paul’s writings have had an enormous influence on the understanding of the Christian faith, and, perhaps, nowhere more importantly than on the person of Augustine of Hippo. The doctrine of original sin is often attributed to Augustine on the basis of his reading of St. Paul. And, while some have wanted to argue that Augustine has misread Paul, even those from outside the Church, like Sigmund Freud, for instance, basically agree with Augustine’s reading of Paul, even though Freud expresses the discontents of our humanity in an altogether different register and indeed, altogether despairingly. The point is that Augustine gets Paul’s point about the divided will of our humanity and he gets the point, too, that we are all implicated in Adam’s sin. The point being that we are in Adam. At issue, then, is how we are incorporated into the new Adam, Christ.
Augustine is a magisterial and richly complex figure. He has influenced the shape of western Christianity in both its medieval and reformed expressions. Thomas Cranmer is deeply imbued with what the scholar, Ashley Null, calls “a mature understanding of Protestant Augustinianism.” Part of that Protestant Augustinianism comes out in the prayers of the liturgy that capture so much of the Pauline and Augustine insight into the human condition and to the priority of divine grace which alone can heal and restore us.
“All that we can do of ourselves,” says Augustine, “is sin.” This is a challenging statement. Children and adults all want to be affirmed that they have done well. “Well-done, thou good and faithful servant.” And rightly so. How, then, does that relate to this extraordinary claim that all that we can do of ourselves is sin? Because any good that we do is the good that is given to us to do. It is about our participating in God’s will. It is God in us. That saves us from the presumption of our self-righteousness.
But aren’t we bidden to do good and to work for the good of others? Can God command us to do what we cannot do? No. He commands us to do what he would have us do and in so doing we are at one with his will working in us. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” Paul tells us. It would seem to suggest that it is simply up to us, though we might wonder about the aspect of fear and trembling, if that is so. But Paul then immediately goes on to say, “for it is God who works in you.” God works in us. God’s goodness and grace is prior and primary. Cranmer understood this completely and undertook on every conceivable occasion to locate our works not as meriting grace and reward but as the expression of a living faith. It was one of the issues du jour, a theological issue, belonging to the Reformation over against the late medieval church. “We have no power of ourselves to help ourselves” is part of an Augustinian insight that all that we can do ourselves is sin.
We can, I hope, understand that insight derived from Paul, expressed so cogently by Augustine and captured so eloquently by Cranmer. But there are other aspects of Augustine’s teaching that relate to the idea of original sin that are much more disturbing. They arise out of his controversy with Pelagius and Julian of Eclanum, both of whom locate a moral principle of goodness in our humanity. This idea, too, has a long legacy that keeps on coming up, especially when assertions are made about people being basically good through their own efforts. Augustine saw that as a denial of the complete sufficiency of God’s grace and as compromising, to the point of denial, Christ’s saving work on the Cross. The further point is that it completely alters the understanding of good works. They become our projects and not the forms of divine charity at work through us.
Of course, the Christian revolution was about putting the world upon a whole new foundation, the foundation of divine charity. There would be the constant temptation to turn that foundation into the projects of human rights and works. “Eyes/ assured of certain certainties,/ the conscience of a blackened street/Impatient to assume the world,” as T. S. Eliot puts it (Preludes, IV).
But, perhaps, the most disturbing aspect of Augustine’s view of original sin comes up with respect to baptism. It is something which I still run into occasionally and I am sure you have too. It is the idea that without baptism you are consigned to hell. Augustine is blamed as the author of the hideous doctrine that unbaptised infants go to hell. And, to be honest, he says as much. It scandalises all who hear it. Julian of Eclanum, erudite and urban, was appalled and, it has to be said, provoked Augustine to this extreme view on occasion. It doesn’t take away the scandal, or at least the sense of unease about something which seems so harsh. It doesn’t fit our sentimental hopes and aspirations whether ancient or modern.
And yet, the point is that we cannot earn God’s favour. None of us merits heaven. It is not a right. And all, I repeat, all are sinners. And, while there is a more-or-less to our sins and our sinfulness, each of our sins are particular to us in some way or other, whether known by us or not, in the long end of the day, sin is sin and it is about our being divided from God through our wills. Augustine is consistent; of course, consistency is one of those things we often despise. So much better just to muddle along like Mr. Worldly-wise in John Bunyan’s spiritual classic, Pilgrim’s Progress, confident in himself and utterly unable to imagine that his heart is not good, deluded in his own certainties. “I will never believe that my heart is thus bad.” What gets lost is that inner knowledge about “the corruption of our nature and our absolute dependence on God’s grace,” as Alan Jacobs succinctly puts it (Original Sin, A Cultural History, New York, Harper Collins Pub, 2009, p. 124).
So what are we to make of this? Augustine in his Confessions, which is not simply about his story but his understanding of the story of every one, as it were, shows that sin is present even in the tiniest infant. It has nothing to do with physical or intellectual power. After all, the child can’t even speak that is why it is an infant, in fans, without speech. And, to be sure, the child may even be innocent in the sense that the child lacks the power to harm, which is the true meaning of innocent, in nocens. But Augustine argues that the infant wants what we all want in one way or another and in ways that have marked our personalities in one fashion or another, namely, to be the center of the universe. We aren’t. God is. And therein is the lie at the heart of our being.
But consigned to hell? That’s a bit rough, isn’t it? Yes. And put that way it misses the point of the Church’s mission. It is the duty and necessity of the Church to baptise and to teach the importance of baptism. It is not the duty of the Church to say who is or is not going to heaven or hell. That, after all, is a matter to be left to God and to God alone and in a manner that can be left to God in good conscience since God has revealed his love to us most completely and most convincingly in Jesus Christ. Our duty and task is to make that love known. In a way, Christians are nothing more than those who know the love of God. Despite the stain and weariness of our sins, we are the beloved in Christ. And in a Christian understanding this is what our humanity is called to be, “for God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten son.”
To try to understand that more fully and to live it out more completely in our lives remains the struggle, the struggle for faith and grace over our tendencies to self-will and self-righteousness. But what about baptism? Well, there are those who have died as martyrs for the faith even though they were not baptised formally. Call it a baptism by blood. There are those who die before they are baptised even though that was the intention of the parents and family. Call it baptism by desire and so on. And there are those whose actions reveal the divine charity at work in them regardless of their knowing it.
But, at the end of the day, all that one is talking about is this Christian insight into the nature of our humanity that finds its perfection and truth in God. That is to recognise the incompleteness of our humanity apart from God. To be apart from God is the hell of our own experiences; it is what we will apart from our wills at one with God’s will. This becomes part of the mission of the Church. To proclaim Christ Jesus as our saviour and to make him known, not in judgement but in love, a love which triumphs over all our judgements and all our fears and anxieties.
The Canaanite woman has a hold of the truth of God in Jesus Christ. He is the mercy seat and she will not be put off either by the silence for “he answered her not a word,” or by the disciples or by the dialogue with Jesus that talks about his mission in terms of the house of Israel. For as she say, “truth Lord, yet even the little dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” She has an insight into the saving grace of God. It underlies her prayer for mercy. If we could do it our way, then, there would be no need for God; indeed, there would be no God. Jesus draws out of her what he would draw out of everyone of us, our desire to be at one with his will for us. To know that is to know the only counter to our divided selves. It is what allows Augustine to say, “Love God and do what you will.” For to love God is to want only what he wants. Only in him do our wills find their unity.
“Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David”
Fr. David Curry
March 22nd, 2011