experience ourselves as torn and twisted. we have the best of intentions; we want to be good and generous and kind and brave, but we end up being ugly, mean, stingy, and cowardly. We are suspicious of strangers, hostile to our neighbors, disloyal to our friends, ungrateful to our parents, harsh to our spouse, unsympathetic to our children, unfaithful to our ultimate convictions.
We are filled with bad habits. We eat too much, drink too much, smoke too much, talk too much. We are uncharitable, lazy, vain, proud, irascible, nasty, unfeeling, and cruel. We don't want to be any of these things; we are ashamed of ourselves; we don't do things we want to do and we do things we don't want to do. We are creatures of passion; we fall victim to rage, hunger, fear, anxiety, depression, imperious sexuality; and yet our passions do not so completely dominate us that we do not realize at the final moment that what we are doing is shameful.
Sometimes we feel like monsters. We chastise a child who does not deserve punishment, and wince at the hurt look in his or her eyes. We are cruel and unjust to a subordinate, and sense the suppressed resentment. We lie to a superior, and feel smug but unclean. We cheat, and feel guilty in our cleverness. We reject affection from loved ones and watch their body tense with hurt. We ridicule an aging parent and see the sorrow and confusion. We are petty, ungrateful, dishonest, and vindictive. But while we know that to some extent we are trapped and do evil things because there are powerful forces of evil within our personality, we also know that any particular act of evil is gratuitous and unnecessary.
But, as monsters go, most of us are rather benign, resembling Cookie Monster of Sesame Street rather than the dread Grendel of Beowulf. We may have dropped bombs in a war, we may have killed others in combat, we may even have been a hit-and-run or drunken driver, we may have ruined someone else's reputation or career, we may be primarily responsible for a broken marriage. But we are not hit men, professional killers, assassins, concentration camp gauleiters, war criminals, child molesters, rapists, thrill killers, or psychopaths. We are not a Hitler or a Stalin; we are not responsible for the deaths of millions. Yet we know that we share the same human nature as these terrible people. We know that there are strains and tendencies in our own personality that pull us in the direction of cruelty and the destruction of others.
It is so very easy to watch complacently as a congressional committee on television picks someone apart who has been caught in violations of the law because of weakness, ambition, and fear. Yet unless we are totally caught up in our own self-righteousness, we know that we too have done similar things on a smaller scale. We have not told the truth, we have winked at the law, we have bribed, we have cut corners, we have looked the other way, we have suppressed our ethics. We have argued that "everyone is doing it."
Worse still, we are hypocrites—whiten sepulchers—all white and shiny on the outside but filled with corruption. We pretend to be good and virtuous, to be outraged by the faults of others; yet we know that a penetrating probe of our own life would reveal in us most of the sins we denounce in others. Our morality is often an act of covering up both guilty conscience and suppressed desire.
And our desires are so powerful! In our rage we would destroy all our enemies. In our greed we would want to take everything our neighbors have. In our envy we would punish all excellence, every accomplishment, the success of someone who appears more gifted than we. In our pride we would wreck the good name of anyone who is praised. In our lust we yearn for every attractive body we see. The restraints of civilized living and our fear hold us back, but we know that within us, at times barely chained, is a wild, vicious, destructive animal.
We are filled with prejudices, biases, bad habits, and limitations. We have acquired all the narrowness of our own social class, our own ethnic group, our own neighborhood or community—sometimes without many of their virtues. We are snobs, bigots, and dogmatists; we distrust and hate those who dare to be different from us. Sometimes we try to break away from our own past, but we still carry its narrowness with us even while we try desperately to assume the limitations of the approved new class with which we try to identify.
We experience our existence as fragmented, distorted, cut off, and trapped. We are cut off from our friends, our family, those we love. We are cut off from the material world in which we live; the best we can do is use it rather than be part of it. We are cut off from that which is most generous, most authentic in us. We are cut off from our work, which for other people defines us but which to us seems strangely distant.
We are trapped in our own weakness, limitations, inherited and acquired maladies, bad temper, weak stomach, neurotic defenses, uncontrolled lust, undisciplined selfishness, thoughtless judgments, fears, anxieties, defensiveness, past mistakes, present errors, and unwise commitments. We have so little room to move, so little untrammeled freedom, so little opportunity for choice, so little chance. Caught and cut off, we live lives of routine despair.
We desire freedom and community. We often sense that we would like to break with the ingrained patterns of our past, go somewhere else and start life anew. We don't do it because we lack the courage, and perhaps because we know we would bring our problems with us. But we long to break out of the chains in which we are caught, cast them aside and start to really live. We want to belong to others and to have them belong to us, not possessively, not jealously, but honestly and freely. We want to be in contact with them; we want their support and affection and love, and we want to be able to give these in return. We want to live in peace and harmony with nature. We want to enjoy and grow in our work. We want to know and enjoy our own skills and talents and goodness. We want to have done with self-righteousness and self-pity, with arrogance and fear. We want to be ourselves.
We want liberation and reconciliation, but they seem so hard to attain. How can we escape the conclusion that human nature is either fundamentally bad or that it is caught in the chains outside forces have imposed on it?
Yet we know that neither liberation nor reconciliation is impossible to attain. If we experience our own evil, we also experience our own goodness. Sometimes our good intentions are not carried out; other times we are spontaneously and almost thoughtlessly better than we ever thought we could be. We resist an impulse to strike out at an extended helping hand, we respond to a harsh word with a heating tenderness, we bite our tongue, we restrain our passion, we choke off our rage; we yield to gentleness, sympathy, understanding, generosity, courage, and insight. We break a bad habit, conquer a vice, end a quarrel. We laugh instead of scream, relax our anxieties for a moment and give over completely to enjoyment and peace; we make love gently, skillfully, effectively, becoming momentarily one with the other, free from both resentment and inhibition. We come alive again, we are reborn, we rejoin the human race.
Liberation and reconciliation, then, are possible but never easy.
Jesus came to end mans slavery and alienation. His followers perceived themselves as both trapped and alienated (though they would not have used these words). They, like us, were sinners, hardened to their vices and bad habits. They, like us, had experienced moments of liberation and reconciliation; but when they encountered the risen Jesus, now revealed to them as Christ, they found the chains dropping away, the barriers collapsing. They were free, they were one, they could start all over again; they were reborn.
The battle between good and evil that had gone on in the personality of each of them, just as it goes on in the world, was now tilted in the direction of good. Whatever their propensities to do evil might be, they discovered that in the risen Jesus their propensities to do good were stronger. They were new men, the partisans of new, free, and reconciled humanity. They had been saved.
They strove to find figures of speech that would convey this astonishing experience of rebirth to others. The image that came most immediately to mind was the purchasing of the freedom of a slave. They had been slaves to sin and death; Jesus had purchased their freedom by his suffering and death. And they thought of the heavy debts one could acquire, debts that in their time could lead to prison and slavery. Their moral debts had been paid. God was not angry at them, they need not be angry with one another. They had been forgiven, they could forgive others. Jesus had paid their debts by his death and burial.
The word-pictures made the point. Where there had been slavery there was now freedom, where there had been a heavy burden of guilt there was now reconciliation. But the images could not be pushed too far (no image can), for in both cases they would have turned the heavenly Father into a stern and cruel judge at best and a monster at worst. In the logical absurdity of the redemption image, the Father would be presented as exacting the price of the death of his son in order to free us from the bonds of Satan. In the satisfaction image, he would have even more seriously demanded the crucifixion as a price for his injured dignity. Obviously there is no relationship between that God and the crazy farmer or the loving father of the prodigal son. Turning the picture into a metaphysical model to be taken with all literal logic converts God into exactly the opposite of what Jesus revealed to us. The liberating and reconciling God who elected to suffer in and through Jesus in order to free us and unite us ends up looking like a monster thereby.
But while God did not exact a price for our liberation, or the payment of a debt of honor in the literal meaning of those words, it was still true that the followers of Jesus experienced his death and resurrection as the cause of their liberation and reconciliation. They were free and they were one because Jesus had suffered and died. He had given them an example of how to live, he had revealed to them the love of the Father; he had shown them that evil could not conquer good, that hatred was weaker than love, that death would have to yield to life. He had shown them the "secret hidden from the ages," that God has a saving and loving plan at work in the world, that God intends that there be reconciliation and love, and that nothing would prevent the ultimate realization of this plan—not even the terrible death of the man who was most intimate with him. The cross and resurrection were necessary so that the depths of God's love might be fully shown, and so that the unshakable power of God's plan might be fully revealed. Caught up in the excitement of such love and the strength of that plan, the apostles now were themselves so excited and so strong that they could break from their chains and tear down the barriers.
Some Christians object that this does not really make Jesus the Savior. (One fears they would be content only with the image of Jesus physically opening the closed gates of heaven or physically paying off a debt to a teller in the Divine Savings and Loan Association.) In fact the cross and resurrection were essentially to release the saving dynamic of the Christ experience on the world. In the power of that dynamic it becomes possible for us to end our slavery and our alienation. We are still imprisoned and cut off, but we don't have to be. God imposes neither liberation nor reconciliation on us. The death and resurrection of Jesus neither solves our problems nor forces us to be free and united. Rather, the salvation accomplished by Jesus has made it possible for us to achieve freedom and unity by creating an environment where we know that such goals are possible, by confirming in the most vivid and dramatic way possible our own very hesitant stirrings toward liberation and reconciliation. Salvation has always been part of God's plan. Human sinfulness is an obstacle to that plan. The self-revelation of God in Jesus, and particularly in the death and resurrection of Jesus, revealed the plan. Indeed one could say that Jesus was the plan, because in him the whole plan was revealed. In this revelation we are given a new power to be liberated and reconciled because we are now able to see that our efforts to break free from the bonds of sin and overcome its constraints are integrated into God's loving graciousness. The universe is destined for freedom and reconciliation, and in Jesus we can see that such is the case and we can become part of the process. Only those who have no understanding of the power of a truth to have an immense physical impact on human life and human society will dismiss this saving revelation as merely psychological. It is much more physical in its impact (or ontological, if one likes philosophical words) than some imaginary payment at the satanic slave market or the heavenly savings and loan.
"Every man comes into the world noble and at the same time wretched, rich in a magnificent future and yet inclined to evil." The root predisposition—not yet the flaw—from which evil comes is to be found not in the fact that humankind is a composite of body and soul but rather in the fact that humankind is finite like every creature and knows its finitude, unlike any other creature save the angels. Because we are moral and are capable of reflecting on our morality, unlike any other bodily creatures, we are also capable of fear, as are all bodily creatures, and distrust— a uniquely human characteristic.
The sin of the human race is the sin of distrust—of cosmic distrust; it is the sin of refusing to believe that the universe in which we find ourselves is trustworthy and therefore the sin of refusing to believe that the power that produced the universe and placed us in it is trustworthy. Since we cannot trust the cosmos or its creator we cannot trust anyone but ourselves and hence are driven to put our security and our confidence solely in our own powers and abilities. Thus, we cannot even take the risk of treating other humans as trustworthy.
Refusing to believe in the trustworthiness of others is called hatred. Making an act of faith in the trustworthiness of others is called love. The sin of the race, therefore, is the sin of hatred. We commit our own personal sins of hatred but we are also born into a sinful race that has accumulated predispositions to hatred and the results of hatred down through the generations. The blend of our own predisposition to distrust and the accumulated distrust of the centuries is what constitutes the evil in us. But there is also the contrary and very powerful predisposition towards trusting union with others—our nature as social beings thrusts us powerfully in that direction. Thus the human personality is the arena in which conflicting forces of trust and distrust, love and hatred, fear and faith conflict. The Catholic Christian believes that there is more good than evil in human nature, more cooperation than selfishness, more trust than distrust, more love than hatred— though sometimes just barely. He believes that in the human personality there is the capacity for reconciliation, reconstruction, and restoration. Because of personal and hereditary limitations we can exercise this capacity only imperfectly, but such an exercise is by no means impossible. However, we can only engage in sustained love and reconciliation when we have first made an act of faith in the fundamental trustworthiness of the universe. In this sense, faith in God is essential to overcome the sinful dispositions of our personality and our race. Jesus came to reveal to us in a superabundance how loving is the fundamental power of the universe and hence how worthy of receiving our trust. Jesus came to tell us that we need not fear, that we could take the risk of vulnerability required by loving reconciliation. Thus it is in and through Jesus as the revelation of the loving trustworthiness of God (and the cosmos and life he has created) that we overcome the effects of the sin of the human race. The Catholic Christian today acknowledges, of course, that there are other ways of learning of God's loving trustworthiness than through Jesus. The Lord, however, is the way par excellence. The Catholic Christian also notes that many who do not know Jesus—and alas some who do—neither believe in the trustworthiness of life nor act like they thought it was safe to risk oneself in love.
Love for the Catholic Christian is not so much the desire to possess someone else as the desire to be possessed by the other. Love is the passionate and devout commitment of one person to the welfare and happiness of another. In such a commitment, the personal identity of the first person is not lost but enhanced because the most noble and most generous aspects of his personality are called forth. To possess another in love does not mean to be possessive of him. It means rather to graciously accept his passionate and devout commitment to my welfare and happiness, to assume that there is a tendency toward permanence in that commitment, and at the same time, to respect the radical freedom of the other. It is a risk to expose oneself to the vulnerability of such a commitment—for the other may come to reject our passionate and devout commitment. It is an equal risk to accept such a com mitment (and give it in return) because respect for the radical freedom of the other leaves one open to the possibility of a devastating exercise by the other of that freedom.
We must even respect the freedom of God, though we know that he has permanently and implacably committed himself to love for us. The permanence of that commitment— like the permanence of any human commitment—is found in the freedom of God and not in any "legal" or economic claim ("pos-sessiveness") we might wish to have on him.
The "paradise" that was "lost" by human sin is a relationship between humankind and God in which, despite our mortal, crea-turely, and human propensity to fear and distrust, humans still stood in a relationship with God in which they accepted him as trustworthy and gave themselves to him in love and, through him, gave themselves to one another. Whether and how such a historic paradise may have existed, however, is not the point of Christian revelation that is concerned with the restoration of human faith in God's loving trustworthiness, through his self-revelation in Jesus—and in particular, in the death and resurrection of Jesus. (Some Catholic writers suggest that the paradise story looks both to the past events and also to the present and future opportunities which God offers humankind for reconciliation and unity—particularly through his self-disclosure in Jesus—opportunities that humankind repeatedly rejects but which God repeatedly offers again.) Such a "restoration" recreates the situation as it should be, whether or not it ever in fact had existed in the past. Reconciliation in love and trust is a fundamental longing of humankind and the basic aspiration of human nature—even if our finitude and our resulting fear and distrust impede our efforts toward such a goal. The underlying flaw in human nature, its basic and tragic weakness, its essential deprivation is that its propensity to suspicion and distrust conflicts with its propensity to openness and trust. Its self-defending hatred conflicts with its self-giving love.
So the revelation of salvation in the cross and resurrection of Jesus paradoxically confirms the fundamental goodness of human nature. Sinfulness did its worst, and then God turned the tables and revealed that, despite its best efforts to be evil, humankind was still not fundamentally depraved. For Jesus was human, and he rose from the dead; he was good, and the Father confirmed his goodness with the resurrection. And he confirms our goodness. Flawed, sinful, twisted, broken, torn, fragmented we may be, but we are still fundamentally good. Despite our sinfulness we have the capacity for salvation; we can become free and reconciled. Our unity with Jesus means that we cannot be completely depraved, and if there is any capacity for good left in us at all, then we are good; therefore—and here's the problem—we are capable of becoming better.
Catholic Christianity has always rejected both the naive optimism that denies the sinfulness of humankind and the gloomy pessimism that sees human nature as depraved. Humankind, in the Catholic view of things, is basically good but capable of terrible depravities. Through the ages of its existence it has shown itself to be depraved and sinful indeed, and this tendency keeps humankind from being all that it can be, all that it wants to be, and all that it was meant to be. Still the evil disposition of humankind does not make it evil in itself. On the contrary, the basic goodness is still latent in human nature, waiting to be freed. So, unlike traditional Protestantism, Catholic Christianity does not believe that Jesus merely covers over human sinfulness. Catholic Christianity does not believe that humankind by itself could have broken with its sinful past; it needs the revelation of God's salvation in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Unlike such writers as Rousseau, Marx, and Freud, Catholic Christianity does not believe that human sinfulness is merely the result of political, economic, or psychological oppression; it is convinced that human sinfulness is much deeper than that. But neither does Catholic Christianity deny the importance of political, economic, and psychological oppression as both cause and effect of sinfulness; it tells its members that the struggle against these oppressions is part of God's saving plan—which now, as in the time of Jesus, needs our cooperation. Finally, Catholic Christianity rejects the notion preached by some present-day pessimists—and practiced on occasion by some of its own leaders—that you cannot trust humans to be free, because in their freedom they will destroy themselves. Catholic Christianity is under no illusion about human sinfulness and does not think that progress against its effects will be quick or easy. But it does believe that God created humankind as good and that He plans for the triumph of that goodness. The victory that Jesus won over sin and death was a revelation, not only of the goodness of God but of the goodness of humankind, which was created in the image and likeness of God.
The victory of Jesus was not won without suffering. Neither will our own personal victories be won without suffering. We will wrestle with our evil tendencies up to and beyond death. The victory of Jesus gives us the courage to stay at the battle no matter how many times we are repulsed. Nor will the victory of humankind over its collective evil be quick in coming. It, too, will have to be "purchased" at the cost of much hard work, suffering, commitment, failure, and rededication. But the Catholic Christian knows that the victory will be won because of the decisive victory of Jesus. And that means that as much as we would like to, as weary as we get, as many failures as we experience, we cannot quit.
The Christian never quits in the fight against evil. And that is as good a description of him as any.
1. Adam, theologians agree, is used in the Scriptures as both an individual and as a corporate personality. The sin of Adam, then, is both individual and corporate. In the past, perhaps too much emphasis has been placed on the individual aspect of this sinfulness and not enough on its corporate nature. Humankind as a collectivity is sinful—as one need only read the morning papers to observe. We are born into a race that has piled up a terrible record of sins throughout its past, and that record is part of our cultural and psychic inheritance. In a very real sense the sins of parents are visited upon their children, because the children's personalities are so much the result of parental behavior and the cultural influences of the society in which children are born. It is a badly flawed heritage that is passed on to us. It is a critically defective human race into which we come. The sinfulness began with the beginning of the human race and has gone on until now. The result is a heritage burdened with evil. However, countervailing forces of good have also been at work, alleviating the burden if not eliminating it.
The real problem is not why our first parents sinned, but why there is sin at all. This is the restatement in the human domain of the mystery of evil, or more properly the mystery of good and evil. While the mystery cannot be resolved, we must at least say that in the case of the human creature, the capacity for freedom made necessary the possibility of evil.
2. The early Christian writers—St. Irenaeus in particular—heavily emphasized the victory aspect of salvation. Christus Victor ("Christ the Victor") seemed to be the best way to describe what the Easter event revealed about human sinfulness. Contemporary theologians, made uneasy by the absurdities (frequently offensive to both non-Christians and thoughtful Christians alike) to which the redemption and satisfaction images can be pushed when they are turned into literal theological paradigms, are beginning once again to emphasize the victory picture—an emphasis that seems especially appropriate in our own gloomy and pessimistic era, when fear of the destructive aspects of humankind almost paralyzes many people.
3. Catholic social theory does not think you can remake human nature by changing its social and economic environment. Yet it is committed to such change because a more open and just human society frees the individual to make more of his own personal decisions about liberation and reconciliation. In particular it does not believe that an all-powerful state can produce a new kind of human within a generation. Neither does it believe, as does the old liberal rationalism, that society is made up of struggling, antagonistic, isolated individuals. Human nature, in the view of Catholic social theory, is not nearly as pliable as the Marxists believe, and not nearly as individualistic and selfish as the rationalists and some Protestants seem to believe. Humans are fundamentally good and fair and cooperative unless they are afraid. Salvation is God's revelation that there is nothing of which we ultimately need be afraid. Catholic social commitment means working for a social and political and economic order where the causes of fear are steadily diminished.
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