Original sin

The meaning of grace

Why do we lack the perceptiveness to see God?  Again, there seems to be a straightforward answer:  it’s simply beyond human mental capacity.  This is true enough, but someone who believes in God has no reason to accept the assumption that man should be left to his own devices.  There’s a benevolent God out there who knows what we need.  Why doesn’t He help?  Wouldn’t it be possible for God to use His powers to augment our natural capabilities?  He could share with us His vision of things as they really are.  To return to the earlier analogy of sleepwalking, He would “wake us up” by sharing His “God’s-eye” view of the universe and each other.  In his speculations on heaven, St. Augustine has beautifully described this possibility:

Wherefore it may very well be…that we shall in the future world see the material forms of the new heavens and the new earth in such a way that we shall most distinctly recognize God everywhere present and governing all things, material as well as spiritual…As we do not believe, but see that the living men around us who are exercising vital functions are alive, although we cannot see their life without their bodies, but see it most distinctly by means of their bodies, so, wherever we shall look with those spiritual eyes of our future bodies, we shall then, too, by means of bodily substances behold God, though a spirit, ruling all things…God will be so known by us, and shall be so much before us, that we shall see Him by the spirit in ourselves, in one another, in Himself…in every created thing which shall then exist.

–City of God XXII

This augmentation of human nature is called “grace” in Christian theology.  (In the quote above, Augustine describes it in its full form, the beatific vision.)  The Eastern Churches often use the bolder term “theosis” or “deification”, because it involves a sharing in the divine nature or “energies”.  We can now state with precision the question which the story of the Fall is meant to answer:  why is mankind not now in a state of grace?  However well or poorly Augustine’s quote describes the future life, we can all agree that it doesn’t describe this life at all.

The possibility of grace

There are two possibilities:  either it had to be the case that humanity lacks grace, or it didn’t have to be the case, i.e. original sin is either necessary or contingent.  Let’s consider the first possibility first:  why might it necessarily be the case that men lack grace?  There are three possible answers.  The first is that God doesn’t exist.  This would certainly explain the lack of divine assistance.  I will assume that the reader is already persuaded of God’s existence, either for the reasons given in my Defense of Religion or for some others, so I will not consider this possibility further.  The second possibility is that our moral and intellectual limitations are integral parts of what we are.  This is a very depressing thought, as it implies that my selfishness and ignorance at least partly define me, so that I can’t rise above them without ceasing to exist.  In this case, we could hardly even condemn the evil inside us, because the good couldn’t exist without it.  This, however, contradicts our intuition.  Consider the example of above of the husband awakened to love.  If he could permanently in this awakened state, he certainly wouldn’t cease to be himself.

3 Responses

  1. […] readers.  Today, Catholics celebrate Mary’s having been preserved from original sin, which, as I indicate in my essay on that topic, was a blessing not only to her, but to all of us. The other, more interesting objection is that […]

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