Thursday, September 22, 2005

O Felix Culpa! O necessarium peccatum Adae!

There is an excellent post at DarwinCatholic on the connection between sin and suffering that is due to natural disasters (such as the one about to be visited upon the Gulf coast). Mr. Darwin (I hope he doesn't mind if I call him that--I don't know whether he wants his real name bandied about) notes that, if we are to take our own physical sciences seriously, we must believe that catastrophic natural events have been a part of history since Day 1, and would have been regardless of whether Adam--or anyone else--had sinned. He begins with a remark strikingly similar to my own thoughts:
In the past, I've toyed with questions about how perhaps natural disasters would have occurred, but man's reaction to them would have been radically different, because man would not have had the inherent fear of death and lack of trust in God that fallen man has. (Aquinas also thought that man would still have physically died had there not been a fall, and that 'death' in Romans 5:12 indicates spiritual death rather than physical.)

After some interesting further thoughts, he concludes with a reference to Tolkien:
I think one of Tolkein's brilliant insights, and one of the ways in which he is thoroughly un-modern, is that he saw clearly in his theological vision of the world that the fallen nature of man and of creation in general was not just a defect to be lamented, but had been incorporated by God into his plan so that even greater examples of virtue and sacrifice might be achieved.

A huge fan of Tolkien myself, I find this view congenial. But I am something of a Christian humanist, too, and the story that reconciles natural disasters with human suffering by reference to the Thomistic analysis also strikes a chord with me. In my view, a natural disaster is really only a "disaster" when viewed from the perspective of human suffering. Volcanoes erupt, hurricanes blow, and tsunamis rise all as a part of the orderly, deterministic physical world in which we find ourselves. Nothing about such things is puzzling. What is worrisome is the fact that human suffering, sometimes ineffably vast amounts of it, is often caused by such things. I've touched on this subject briefly before, in my post on the so-called "Problem of Evil." There I argued that what really troubles people about natural disasters is the fact that God appears to be letting them happen when He has the power to prevent them. What they want, I think, is not so much that God prevent natural disasters, but that he prevent human suffering. There's nothing to worry about from a tsunami that heads of towards the South Pole and affects no one and nothing, so why bother to prevent that? We want human suffering to be prevented, and it appears as though the only way to prevent that is to prevent its proximate cause, the natural disaster.

But what if there is an avenue open to us to prevent, not the proximate cause, but the ultimate cause of the suffering? Such an avenue is open to us. We may abandon our very selves to God. If we do that, we may find that we continue to suffer physically, but in God's love none of us is lost eternally. It is a distinction that Plato also recognized in such dialogues as his Gorgias and Republic: it is the state of one's soul that determines whether one is blessed or not--the fate of one's physical remains is entirely accidental.

Physical suffering is, of course, intensely unpleasant. But so was the Cross--it can be borne by someone who is willing to bear it. I'm not at all sure that I am such a person, mind you. I'm not known for my patience, though in recent years I've worked ever harder to look at my own suffering in a new way, a way that confesses "Thy will be done--whatever it is." It doesn't always make the physical suffering itself any easier to bear, but it makes it easier to deal with spiritually, and I find that I am happier as a consequence.

Part of the problem in this, I think, is a latent utilitarianism that sometimes creeps into our way of looking at things. We ought not to be thinking to ourselves, if I look at the situation in this way, I will be happier, and that is the reason why I should look at the situation in this way. We should rather think: This is the way God wants me to look at this situation, and so that is how I will look at it. Oh, by the way--I seem to be happier now. What do you know about that?

Even my 11 year old son sees the wisdom in this. We were talking the other day about sins that involve pleasure. I was trying to explain to him that pleasure in itself is not sinful, only the ways in which we make use of pleasure. I tried to get this across by saying that God gave pleasure to us as a way of being closer to him here and now, of knowing a little something of what it will be like to be with him forever. My son said "But doesn't that turn pleasure into a reward for acting right?" I thought that was pretty insightful of him--we're not supposed to love God and follow the commandments in order to get a reward for doing so--we're supposed to act out of love, out of a genuine desire to be Godlike for its own sake, whatever the consequences. St. Thomas More once said, "Even if he should condemn me for my sins, at least his justice will be praised in me." In other words, I care less about what will happen to me than I do about seeing to it that God's will be done. If I have done something contrary to God's will, then it is only right and fitting that I shall be lost--but a greater good will be served: God will be praised, and his will exalted. To find such a thought comforting is, perhaps, the line of demarcation between sainthood and ordinarihood.

In the end I think I still see the place of disasters in nature the way I always have: stuff happens, and sometimes it happens to human beings. It is a necessary feature of the world that volcanoes erupt, the earth shakes, tsunamis rise, etc., but what these events wind up meaning to the rest of us is entirely up to us and our reception of God's call to hear his word and open our hearts to his will.

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

Lovely, Professor Carson.
I found your blog by googling "Peccatum Adae" as I am reading The Pilgrim's Regress currently. Mother Kirk volunteered the term.

I am certainly no philosopher, holding only a BA in Celtic Studies (I'm not a goth or druid wannabe though, no worries), but I agreed with and enjoyed your post, was happy to find it, and will explore more of your blog as time permits.

I am a follower of Christ and stay-at-home wife and mom.
Bless you, Brother, and stay fixed, hold your gaze.
You were created to worship.