For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. Romans 1:18
And the old man, who was then so old that he hardly spoke at all, said suddenly out of his silence, “I should thank God for my creation if I knew I was a lost soul.”G. K. Chesterton, Autobiography
In a political season there will be a great deal of talk about what we deserve. If we are economically well placed, we deserve an ever-ascending stock market. If we labor day by day we deserve ever-ascending and certain wages. We deserve health care, job security and home ownership, and, by the way, everyone has a right to go to the college of his or her choice.
And in a certain sense this is all quite true. In a perfect society, under the doctrine of the common good, although we may not quite deserve all these things item by item, day by day, we do deserve life and liberty, a just reward for our labor, and a government good enough to create stable circumstances.
But in another sense the thought that we deserve the good life is one of the great causes of misery and political disorganization. Chesterton once wrote that the doctrine of original sin was the most cheerful dogma he knew. He meant by this that, at the least, the Christian doctrine of original sin makes life tolerable by helping us understand ourselves, and helping us understand as well the evil that befalls us in a fallen world. But original sin, the taint upon our nature born of Adam’s rebellion, has a deeper meaning and a more immediate bearing on life. Christian theology teaches that we come into life as flawed creatures, owing a debt that we cannot pay and suffering a condition that, unless it is relieved, will mean that life cannot end before the throne of God but must end in the punishment due creatures who cannot but displease their Creator.
This doctrine, graphically illustrated over cathedral doors in the Middle Ages by the carved display of Christ with the elect on his right hand, the damned in pain on the left, seems harsh to modern ears. In fact, its harshness is surrounded by conditions: the unwillingness of a just God to punish with eternal fire those who cannot know; his willingness to receive those who, not knowing, seek righteousness with a single heart; and, above all, his mercy. But none of this obviates the great fact that we come into the world as, in St. Paul’s very direct words, children of wrath.
This is a fact. It is also good news. The Fathers often call the fall of man a happy fault because it opened for mankind the gates of God’s providential love, and that redeeming love then filled and fills the world with joy. A culture of rancor, ingratitude and anger at a world that sometimes imposes hard conditions, cannot build Chartres, compose Mozart’s Requiem, or write the Tempest. It is striking that a Christian world, the world of St. Paul, Augustine, and Anselm, secure in the knowledge of damnation justly deserved saves us, says the Mass, from final damnation. This world was yet more secure in the knowledge of Christ’s grace, making this a happy world, happy because it was effused with gratitude. There is a reason why the Eucharist is a title taken from a Greek word that means simply “thanksgiving.” And while we are thanking God for all the blessings of this life, we are most of all thanking God for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ which has brought us grace and life.
It is hard to find a sustained literature of victimhood and complaint in the Middle Ages, or even in Dickens, but complaint and victimhood poison the very air of the early twenty-first century. That this occurs is the direct result of the pernicious doctrine that we are born good, a doctrine that makes the world unintelligible and bitter. From Renaissance optimists like Pico della Mirandola to the Deists to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, there runs the theme of the innocence of man, and with it the thin crescendo of complaint that we have been corrupted and betrayed by law, tradition, custom, and government. The world as it is must then be explained by the corrupting nature of the laws and customs of civil society (Rousseau) or by human malice. The bitterness that threatens to ravage American culture is born in part of the conviction that what is wrong with the world, since I am innocent, must be caused by the malice of others. My struggle in life is caused by the rich. The government causes the economy to fail. I am good; the environment is damaging. At worst, the evil and pain that impinge on every life are caused by lack of education; knowledge will set you free, a doctrine originally espoused in the garden by the serpent and since propagated by Gnostics, Anabaptists, illuminati, philosophes, rationalists, Horace Mann, the National Education Association, the Humanist Association and its allies, the aclu, the national librarians associations, the sex education industry, and National Public Radio. The latter is an especially poignant example, for npr greets the world every day with a kind of breathless disingenuousness, amazed that after all the education, after the United Nations, after contraception, there are still, as the Great Authority said, wars and rumors of wars.
It is easy to see that this doctrine of original goodness can turn the world into a hell on earth. It renders Christianity essentially irrelevant, because it renders Christianity essentially optional. If the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord, that fear must be rooted in the reality of God’s existence, perfection, power, and justice, and in our fallenness. If we are good, saved by knowledge and benevolence, Christianity is rightly what it has become in the United States: at best optional. God’s mercy is not then the central fact of my life, because I owe His justice nothing, and Jesus Christ is but a kind of gentle encourager who wants to help us make the world a better place and comfort us in times of personal crisis. The four last things are then not death, judgment, heaven or hell, but a good obituary, a sufficient estate, successful progeny, and a happy sendoff to the woozy-white terrain of the nice God, in whom we may have had only conventional interest, while in the church below our associates describe our excellences in ways that would embarrass St. Augustine or St. Thomas. The doctrine of original goodness—the doctrine that man never fell and therefore requires no salvation—is the cause of spiritual desolation. If the Bible is wrong—if we do not come into the world as children of wrath—we do not in fact need God. To be anxious for one’s soul is not an outmoded pathology. It is reality. While the end is love, the Church will accept as a motive for repentance and confession fear of the Lord because that fear is the first step along the road to God’s love, and awareness that without Christ we are children of wrath is a reality that blossoms in a life of gratitude and hence of joy and peace.
The political consequence of the doctrine of original goodness is rancor that seeks not reform but revenge. In theory it should be possible to make the world good, for is not my weakness and failure the result simply of inattention or lack or effort on the part of a pusillanimous government whose agents are unwilling to allocate sufficient funding, or, as noted above, the result of implacable ill will on the part of others? We now pray for everlasting peace. The Mass more wisely prays for peace in our time. We look forward to a world from which pain has been expelled. Governments should be able to control hurricanes. Post modernity is liable to say, “We are innocent; unaccountable difficulties have befallen us. Let us complain and sue.” Happy sinners, the recipients of unaccountable grace and mercy, will say, “While we were in our sins, Christ died for us.” Joy to the world.