Sunday, April 12, 2009

"The Mystery of Iniquity"


"...[W]e have no available explanation for evil or sin as such, not because we may not have many insights into such things, but because we don't have an explanation of anything at all. We have a salvific revelation: what is revealed as something now operative is the mystery of God's plan of salvation for us. This plan of salvation enables us to know the Father and share in his life by sharing in the life and death of his Son...Any Catholic understanding of evil cannot be part of a general human understanding of evil...because of a very peculiar epistemological starting point: the resurrection within historical circumstances of a murdered man as the beginnings of a new creation.

What we have then is not a general 'philosophical' explanation which can be extended to an explanation of such things as evil, nor even a description of how things are that are, from which we might deduce a description of evil, even a description in terms of privation of being or privation of good. We have a contingent human transmission of a form, a shape, of salvation. This I have shown to mean that our only approach to the question of evil or of sin (and thus of what original sin might be) is when we look at 'that which we are on our way out of.' This is a particularly difficult epistemological starting point, and we might do well to remember what happened to Lot's wife when she turned around to see what she was on her way out of. Much treatment of sin, and original sin, is the theological equivalent of a pillar of salt: something that is no longer on its way out of anything...My attempt has been rigorously to maintain the dynamic of salvation throughout, from which alone a certain limited insight can be gained into sin and into original sin.

... We have only one way into an understanding of what sin, including original sin, might be, and that is starting from the resurrection. That is to say, there is a certain radical blindess as to both good and evil that began to be unveiled only as a result of the resurrection. The forgiveness of sins, which became part of both the preaching and the power that flowed from the resurrection and is its central meaning, is what enables us to approach the question of sin. It therefore behooves us to proceed somewhat gingerly in deciding what sin might be, because the permission we have been given to look back is a healing and forgiving permission, and any claim to understand sin that is not an understanding of how it is forgiven is automatically suspect. We must be careful not to know too much. If, in the Genesis of the first fruits of the fall was the knowledge of good and evil, does it not suggest that this knowledge, at least in its current form, is inappropriate to us?"

...[T]he question legitimately arises whether knowing that something is good or evil is known within the framework of accusation (whether of self or others), or within the framework of forgiveness (of others or self). It is...part of the particularly Christian understanding of sin that any accusatory knowledge of sin has a particular propensity to blindness about complicity and that only forgiveness enables us to see..."

James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong

In these passages from a Radio National interview, Alison speaks of how a too-simplistic (or, as he puts it, a merely two-dimensional) view of Christianity serves to spare us the necessary "existential angst and pain of being discovered by someone else, which is what Christianity is all about.. [T]he 2D obsessed with sin. It seems to think that we know what sin is about from the beginning, because for the 2D atonement theory story to work, sin has to be a kind of a fixed package that needs paying for. There is this problem: sin. What is the solution going to be? The solution has got to be as big as the problem. But that means that in fact it’s sin that gets to dominate the story, because salvation becomes a response to sin, which makes God reactive. Now if God is reactive, then the real God in the story is that which is being reacted to, which means that sin is what is really running that particular storyline. Now the curious thing is that there is no pre-existing understanding of sin. If you read the Hebrew scriptures, you will find n different understandings of sin, none of which anyone can make any sense of. There are moral sorts of sin, there are forms of purity, there are huge shifts in understanding of what sin might be about over time. But there is certainly not a fixed understanding of what sin is about.And what there certainly is not, is any notion that the story of Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis, which is quite a late story, that that story was ever read by the rabbis as if it were the story of a particular fall. In other words, it was not read by the rabbis as we Christians read it. For a very good reason: the only reason it was read as an account of a fall was in the light of the resurrection. It was because Christ rose from the dead that it became possible to say, Oh, we aren’t what we thought we were. We aren’t creatures who are made for death. The human cultural reality of death is not the same thing as our biological finitude. Our biological finitude is the condition of the possibility of us enjoying God. But that was something we only discovered in the light of the resurrection of Jesus. And looking back we can see, Oh, we’ve been snarled up from the beginning. And St Paul’s shorthand for “we have been snarled up from the beginning” is with reference to Adam. So Adam comes into the story as St Paul’s way of saying: This cultural reality run by death goes back as long as there have been human beings at all. But, and this is the good news, it is accidental to us, not essential to us. We are not creatures who have to be run by death. And this was something that only became available in the light of the resurrection. Now you can see that that actually means that there’s a very different picture of sin emerging. Rather than sin being a lump that’s just there, against which God is going to throw the full weight of his sacrificial son – oompf! – like that. Instead of that, sin is that which can be forgiven. Sin is a secondary reality because the primary reality is the forgiveness. And actually if you think about it psychologically, that’s actually what is true in most of our lives. When we are weaned from lists of sins, in the case of most of our life stories, a real understanding of sin comes as a ‘Oh my God, that’s what I’ve been doing, I’ve been involved in this or that or the other, and I thought it was perfectly normal, I didn’t even realise what I was doing. And it’s only now that I begin to see what I was involved in, and must struggle to get out of it, and must struggle insofar as I can to make amends for what I’ve done.’ Many of us would recognise that as a genuine account of what sin is about. Not the list which presupposes us knowing something, but the breaking of heart, the breaking of heart which is what happens when we’re being given a bigger heart, we can see we were too small, we were stuck in something too small, we were doing something that was less than worthy of who we are discovering ourselves being able to become. In other words, this is the key thing, sin is only understood in the leaving of it. It’s not a reality that is understood first, and then salvation is made to measure for it.Now the point of that is that it’s designed to make it possible for us to participate in the fullness of creation to live as if death were not, not to be trapped in our snarled under version of creation."

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