Dear reader, don’t worry. What follows is just lay speculation about that oldest and biggest problem: original sin. Your correspondent today is neither a trained theologian nor an expert on human cognition. He’s writing as an Idler (Dr. Johnson’s name for himself when producing essays “as hastily as an ordinary letter”) and a Rambler, Johnson’s publication, wherein he asked his readers to pray “that in this undertaking thy Holy Spirit may not be withheld from me, but that I may promote thy glory, and the salvation of myself and others.”
But to be safe, let’s start on solid ground. About the story of the Fall in Genesis, the Catechism states that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil “symbolically evokes the insurmountable limits that man, being a creature, must freely recognize and respect with trust.” Man let his trust in God die and preferred himself to God: “The harmony in which [Adam and Eve] had found themselves. . .is now destroyed: the control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body is shattered; the union of man and woman becomes subject to tensions. . . . Harmony with creation is broken: visible creation has become alien and hostile to man. . . . Death makes its entrance into human history.” [emphasis original]
That brief passage packs a comprehensive punch about the grand historical and personal consequences of original sin. The Catechism tells us that we are left with a wounded, weakened nature wandering in a “world [which] is in the power of the evil one.” So much we are instructed on the authority of the Church.
But there is much that we don’t know about how original sin transmits itself through the generations. The essential flaw, maybe, can be expressed as one of perception: we can know that there are natural laws and absolute truths, but our imposition of our selves on that perception, our own preferences and desires, obscures our capacity to see. We want to see the Original, the Authentic, the Real to which we are by nature drawn. “Thy face, O Lord, do I seek,” writes the Psalmist. But original sin means that no one sees God in this life.
C. S. Lewis dealt with the question of original sin in orthodox and imaginative ways, not least in his science fiction trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength, take place on planets that differ mainly in whether or not a Fall has occurred among the rational creatures who inhabit them.
In his autobiographical account, Surprised by Joy, Lewis relates this to the thinking of the Australian-born Jewish philosopher, Samuel Alexander. In essence, Alexander distinguishes between our direct perception, or contemplation, of an object – a table, a person, or the divine – and our thoughts about or “enjoyment” (not necessarily pleasurable) of that perception.
“The Fall and Expulsion from the Garden of Eden” by Michelangelo
For Lewis, this distinction became “an indispensable tool of thought” because “the enjoyment and the contemplation of our inner activities are incompatible. . . . Of course, the two activities can and do alternate with great rapidity; but they are distinct and incompatible.” The imposition of our own “thoughts about our thoughts about an object” as we contemplate it is a hindrance to seeing that object – and God – directly; if so, it is perhaps in some way related to the original sin of putting self before God:
I saw that all my waitings and watchings for Joy [for God, or the desire for God], all my vain hopes to find some mental content on which I could, so to speak, lay my finger and say, “This is it,” had been a futile attempt to contemplate the enjoyed. All that such watching and waiting ever could find would be either an image or a quiver in the diaphragm.
Our efforts to find truth fail because we find ourselves thinking about our own thoughts rather than knowing God, and we can barely recognize the difference. Original sin puts the self between us, as created images of God, and reality.
Another writer who dealt with this question, and who in fact was an expert on the science of human perception, was Walker Percy, a novelist and psychiatrist. Percy’s fictional characters are often on the edge of sanity as defined by the materialist, self-absorbed world, yet they are especially sane in perceiving that much is wrong with that world.
In his essay “The Loss of the Creature,” Percy extends the problem of imposing our own thoughts on reality, into the peculiar modern notion of relying on the thoughts of “experts” about reality. He describes a couple in search of an authentic and unique encounter with undiscovered peoples in remote Mexico and who actually have such an encounter, only to fall back to the need of bringing an anthropologist onto the scene to validate its (and their own) authenticity.
Percy describes this as a “loss of sovereignty” in our own experience, our turning over of our search for God to others, not for spiritual guidance, but for a humanly authoritative validation of our selves, the same false selves we put between our true selves as God’s creatures, and God. It takes us another step away from the real, the authentic, and the true that we are made to seek.
Perhaps all of this – and much more like it – lies behind Christ’s instruction to become like children. In their innocence and lack of sophistication, children have a directness of perception that original sin will increasingly cloud over in adulthood. Our darkening of our own perception in original sin left God to send the light of the world to save us.
Thus the old prayer, “Lord, take me from myself and give me to thyself” is an appeal simply to fix our failed perception of reality, the consequence of original sin. But I’m just speculating.
Joseph R. Wood is a former White House official who worked on foreign policy, including Vatican affairs.
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