Tuesday, March 03, 2009

God, Judge Death and original sin

(Pictures by Brian Bolland and Michelangelo)

When I was younger, I was a fan of the comic 2000AD, which featured Judge Dredd. The nastiest of Dredd’s enemies over the years was Judge Death. This superfiend and his followers were undead law enforcers from another dimension, and worked on the twisted logic that, because all crime is committed by the living, all life should therefore be a crime.

As a result, they went around killing everyone: “The crime is life – the sentence is death!” Unreasonable and not very nice at all.

The similarity to original sin has only just occurred to me. Let me take a step upmarket from Wikipedia and go to the Catholic Encyclopedia, which describes it as “a consequence of [Adam’s] first sin, the hereditary stain with which we are born on account of our origin or descent”.

Adam and Eve were created in a state of grace; by their actions, they forfeited this, falling into physical and spiritual mortality; the rest of us, though, don’t get this initial benefit of the doubt (a sort of spiritual Lamarckism: the descendants inherit not the innate condition of the parents but an acquired characteristic). It seems unfair on the rest of us, though.

The Encyclopedia explains:

by the sin of Adam [man] has been deprived only of the Divine gifts to which his nature had no strict right, the complete mastery of his passions, exemption from death, sanctifying grace, the vision of God in the next life.

So it’s not that we’re being positively punished for original sin; rather, we’re deprived of a set of privileges because of it. But the lack of these privileges does expose us to harm, though. It seems a rough deal. As Shaggy once protested, in a slightly different context: “It wasn’t me.” I didn’t eat any apples. I didn’t listen to any serpents and/or rib-women. I didn’t disobey any commands. And I have an alibi: it was, as James Ussher can confirm, a good 5981 years before my birth.

Apparently, though, there’s a perfectly good sense in which we can all be held responsible on this count. The Encyclopedia quotes Thomas Aquinas:

An individual can be considered… as part of a whole, a member of a society… an act can be his although he has not done it himself, nor has it been done by his free will but by the rest of the society or by its head, the nation being considered as doing what the prince does… Thus the multitude of men who receive their human nature from Adam is to be considered as a single community or rather as a single body… If the man, whose privation of original justice is due to Adam, is considered as a private person, this privation is not his 'fault', for a fault is essentially voluntary. If, however, we consider him as a member of the family of Adam, as if all men were only one man, then his privation partakes of the nature of sin on account of its voluntary origin, which is the actual sin of Adam.

And it adds:

Being a distinct person I am not strictly responsible for the crime of another; the act is not mine. Yet, as a member of the human family, I am supposed to have acted with its head who represented it with regard to the conservation or the loss of grace. I am, therefore, responsible for my privation of grace, taking responsibility in the largest sense of the word. This, however, is enough to make the state of privation of grace in a certain degree voluntary, and, therefore, "without absurdity it may be said to be voluntary" (St. Augustine).

With all due respect to the intellects of Aquinas, Augustine and others… How can anyone accept this reasoning, except when they’re wanting to paper over one of the cracks in the belief system to which they’ve already committed?

It may have been (and in some circles still is) culturally common to blame subjects for the conduct of their rulers, or children for the dishonour of their parents, and that fact no doubt lends some superficial credibility to Aquinas’s account. But why should this standard be the right one for God to hold? Outside the realm of original sin, Christianity treats souls individually: if your parents and grandparents committed a huge number of awful sins, you are judged no more harshly than the offspring of good people.

To imagine that my role and yours in the Fall are “voluntary” is an “absurdity”. This “responsibility in the largest sense of the word” is empty, and to treat it otherwise stinks: the doctrine can’t get off the ground without taking a base human prejudice, elevating it to the level of moral principle and then nailing it to God’s mast.

Sin entered the world with human life; we’re all human, so we’re all sinners, and the sentence is death.

(Don’t get me started on why it’s wrong to eat fruit that gives you knowledge of good and evil, nor on why God needed the elaborate incarnation/self-sacrifice routine to save us from the fallen nature he’d imposed on us.)

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