Traditional statements of original sin draw these first three assertions into an intelligible unity by giving an account of how it is that a situation which, although it is no part of the universe as God created it (point 1), is nevertheless all-pervasive (point 2), and which need not have existed (point 3) yet exists nevertheless. Such an account commonly involves two further points that I shall call a remote and a proximate explanation. The remote explanation tells how the human plight began; the proximate explanation, how it continues. The former is original sin as originating, the latter original sin as originated. For reasons that will appear presently, distinguishing between these is by no means splitting hairs.
That is either really spectacular wisdom or a complete side-stepping of the issue of actual history.
Continuing with the passage:
As for what explication might look like positively, Alison's views are not easy to pin down. He does refer repeatedly to the example of Paul in Romans by way of suggesting what a hypothesis about origins is and does. But Paul's support for a project such as Alison's is ambivalent at best. On the one hand, Romans is undoubtedly the classical precedent for tracing human sinfulness to an origin "in the beginning." But on the other, Paul does not trace it to a founding murder, of which he gives hardly a hint, but to Adam. That, however, in Alison's judgment, does not signify (joy 130). It was from revelation in Christ that Paul came to know about the universality of sin; in Adam he found "a useful way of illustrating" what he knew (joy 155). The universality must have begun somewhere, and Adam was "a more convenient way of talking about this than any other" (joy 241). Formally, Alison's own reasoning is similar. Grant that there is a futility, an impotence, coextensive with human history and culture; grant further that this condition is not necessary but contingent; and the conclusion that the state of affairs known as original sin had an origin is unavoidable. Adam is optional, to some extent, but a functionally equivalent story about our earliest ancestors is not. Explication demands one beginning for all human sin and, to quote Humani Generis as Alison does, "it does not appear how" such a beginning is compatible with anything other than monogenism (joy 244).
But do the conditions of the problem as stated demand positing one beginning-or any beginning? The nub of the matter, I should say, is the second condition: original sin is contingent. So it is. Now, contingent realities, of whatever kind, do not account for themselves. That is true by definition. To account for them is to find out and articulate how they depend on something else. Whether we call the accounting-for "explanation," and whether we call the something else a source or a cause or an origin or a reason why, is not very important; the fact is that our minds do from time to time get hold of an intelligible relationship between a contingent thing or event, and something else, some other that answers the question, "Why is this so?"
Now, on the assumption that every contingent reality-everything, that is, except God-has a cause or origin or reason why, it does follow that human sin in the most radical sense has a cause or origin or reason why. Alison makes just this assumption, performatively, by asking for the origin that original sin "must" have had. But is there any legitimate a priori justification for thinking that every "why?" question has an answer? Is asking "why?" of original sin perhaps asking the wrong question? Is there,consequently, no answer?
In some sense Alison's answer is no more satisfactory than was the old storytale answer. Why is there original sin? Because Adam sinned? Then why did Adam sin? If it was because of the serpent, why did the serpent sin? If the serpent is supposed to have been a fallen angel, why did the angel sin? And so on. My point is that there is really not much to choose between Adam and a group of anthropoids, considered as candidates for the job of explaining the origin of human sin, except that it may be easier to believe in the anthropoids' existence than in Adam's. Either way there is no final "because." Why did the anthropoids sin?
...if this last question never gets asked explicitly in *The Joy of Being Wrong*, the reason may be that Alison hedges a bit on whether the founding murderers did sin. The scene of historical origin that he paints is a scene of change; that much is clear. Such a change requires something that is constant, and something that is different afterwards as compared with before..
Hefling points out,
How any, theologian explicates original sin depends, knowingly or otherwise, on what that theologian thinks sin is and what it would be to explicate it. A few paragraphs back I suggested that to ask "why?" of original sin might be to ask the wrong question; otherwise stated, that original sin cannot be explicated in the way that other contingent realities allow of being explicated. The suggestion is not new. Thomas Aquinas held that nothing whatever can or does depart from the plan of the divine intelligence that organizes the universe of finite beings-nothing, with one exception. The exception is sin in the radical sense: not this deed or that, but irrational failure to will the good, a failure that is the origin of human evil (Summa theologia 1.17.1). In this remarkable statement Thomas is making the first of the five points listed above: neither directly nor indirectly does God will, create, or cause sin. Why did Adam (or the anthropoids) sin? If there were a reason why, Thomas might say, it would not be sin but something else, something intelligible, something given by God. I suspect that Alison would find unsuitable the metaphysical terms in which Thomas frames his position, and certainly they cannot speak to the condition of readers such as The Joy of Being Wrong is meant for. But it does not follow that the insight so framed is wrong or that it cannot be framed differently. It amounts to saying that to ask "why?" of radical sin is to pay it a compliment, by supposing that it is something in its own right, that it can be grasped and understood, that as such it participates participates in the universal intelligibility of creation. None of this, for Thomas, is true of sin. Sin is radically unintelligible. It has no cause, explanation, source, origin, or reason why. It does exist. But it exists with the horrible mind-defeating reality of a false fact, a surd.
Coming up against that surd, I think, is what drives Alison to say at one point that at the origin of sin "desire distorted itself" (joy 151). It is hard to fathom what such a statement could mean-and that in itself is suggestive. We are dealing with an absence of meaning. Had Alison said "desire failed to desire, failed to be itself," he would have been moving towards Thomas's teaching on the human will. Nor, in the long run, would he have been moving away from his own understanding either of original sin or of God. Rightly he maintains that original sin is known in its being forgiven and that it should be defined as that which can be forgiven; rightly he says that the point of knowing it at all-the purpose of a doctrine of original sin-is to keep those who are privileged to participate in the forgiving sociality that God has established in Christ, the risen victim, from misremembering their own complicity in victimization...
...I mentioned at the outset that a decision to take the resurrection as a methodological point of departure upsets the customary narrative sequence by which Christian doctrines have been organized. It may be that to follow through on that decision would mean abandoning narrative sequence entirely, as a way to explicate doctrine. Adam and Eve make perfect sense as a way to say why there is original sin-so long as we are telling stories, and provided we do not ask too many questions. A Girardian "original scene" makes the same kind of sense-narrative sense and is subject -to the same proviso.
Well. The only thing they can come up with is the abandonment of narrative sequence?
I don't know what to make of this. It completely makes sense to see the past through the transforming and transfiguring events of Christ's life and work--His victory. It completely makes sense that narrative sequence would be shattered, subverted, and recreated. It helps me to see that the foundational story of the faith is Christ's story, not the first few chapters of Genesis.
But still...I can't help but feel that a huge question is being begged, the one with which I began this entry--was there ever a "time" or condition of sinlessness and deathlessness in collective or individual history? Was there ever some kind of actual choice-against-God that broufht sin and death into the world? Our priest said yesterday that when humanity fell, creation fell with it--was there a time when there was no mortality whatsoever? I have huge trouble with this!
Can anyone help with this?