July 15, 2009
Sneaking Back into Eden
Last week something very strange happened. I made a comment that stopped my girlfriend from talking. Much of the time, I can’t get a word in edgewise — not that I mind, since she’s wry, whip-smart, and deliriously Southern. But this time, she got really quiet and sounded for once impressed. She said, in a soft voice. “That’s really profound.”
As readers realize, I don’t hear that very often. Raucous laughter yes, sometimes milk-spraying guffaws, occasionally a driver steering off the road at one of my anecdotes. There’s even an old Cajun friend of mine whom I can at will force to laugh until he vomits, using only my Bob Dole imitation. Imprudently, he invited me to his wedding. (I really should use my powers for good instead of evil.) As I noted in a reminiscence of love I wrote last summer, at times I’ve even caused Midwesterners to nod and admit: “That’s funny.”
The one word that never comes up in my connection is “profound.” And I’ve learned to live without it. In fact, I steer clear of folks who throw that word around. Ditto the kind of people who:
- Claim to have read and been “really changed” by von Balthasar’s Theo-Drama.
- Collect holy cards of victim souls and pray for “extra suffering.”
- Try to browbeat all their friends into doing the Montfort consecration. “Oh, so you don’t trust Our Lady?”
- Insist that Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev — a four-hour, mostly silent, black-and-white drama depicting Russian icons drying — is their favorite movie.
In other words, to cite a piece this site ran by James Hitchcock, I’m a Chesterton kind of Catholic. And yes, I have no Bernanos. So this may be the only profundity I ever inflict on the reader. (If you’re like me, just hold your nose and wait for the jokes in subsequent paragraphs.)
My beloved and I were deploring some new scientific monstrosity or other, along the lines of cloning embryos to grow new livers for rock stars in rehab, and I said quite by accident something potentially thoughtful: “I think that most of our modern sins are the result of our trying to sneak back into the Garden of Eden.” In other words, to gain back the preternatural gifts Adam lost, which, according to traditional Catholic theology, were pretty impressive.
While our records are scant of human society before the Fall (St. Thomas Aquinas speculated that it happened in a matter of hours, even before Adam and Eve had the chance to consummate their marriage), authoritative tradition teaches that included in God’s gift bag were:
- Immortality. We wouldn’t have tramped from golden youth through crapulous middle age to decrepitude, then dust. No wrinkles, sagging, sore joints, or colostomy bags. Had Eve showed more humility, and Adam more moral courage, man’s world would have been a vast but pious nudist colony that didn’t make you cringe, look away, and wish for “quality control.” No one knows how long we would have dwelt on earth, but medieval theologians speculated that after a time, each embodied soul might have been assumed as Mary was — our only “test case” of a sinless human being who wasn’t also the incarnate Son of God. That’s why she was the only candidate considered for the Vatican Space Program.
- Impassibility. We wouldn’t have been subjected to mental or moral suffering, and our bodies would have been preserved from any serious pain — although one assumes that kids who stuck their hands into the fire would still have felt some urgency to pull them out eventually. Unless, of course, our bodies would have been immune from any destructive force — a viable reading of the doctrine. If so, then an unfallen Olympics might have included Volcano Diving, Alp Jumping, and Chainsaw Swallowing.
- Freedom from concupiscence. Our desires would never have exceeded what was appropriate for our needs, or goaded us into sin. No one would take “all you can eat” as a personal challenge, hog both lanes of a two-way country road, look longingly at someone else’s spouse, or gasp at the results of a pregnancy test. Each child would be a wanted child.
- Freedom from ignorance. Everything would be on a strictly need-to-know basis, and we’d know everything we needed. Our private theological opinions and the “common sense” that was prevalent in the culture would match up with the actual state of affairs in heaven. Following our conscience would never entail heresy or dissent, and there’d be no call for papers like the National Catholic Reporter.
- Freedom from sin. We wouldn’t carry around inside our heads a tiny Miltonic Lucifer, ready to scream “Non serviam” at the drop of a hat or one’s pants. While sin would be possible, it would seem to people strange — a deviation from the norm, like a dog walking on its hind legs, instead of going back to its vomit. Our wills would match our consciences, and when we did what we thought was right . . . it would be.
- Lordship over the earth. One hopes man would not have remained a naked, rural vegetarian but would have built wondrous cities. Imagine New York without the attitude, New Orleans without the crime, Vienna without the socialists. Our use of natural resources would never outstrip what was prudent or fair, so innocent third parties wouldn’t have to suffer from the waste we dumped in rivers, the filth we pumped into the air, or the nonsense we wrote on Twitter. We would just know better than to do such things, and our mastery of the earth would be seamless and eco-friendly.
Now it seems to me that most of the project of secular modernity could be summed up as the technological and ideological crusade to achieve all the above — and shove the pesky business of the Fall and the Redemption down the memory hole.
It’s perfectly legitimate to try, within the limits of justice and the natural law, to mitigate the suffering that came to us from the Fall. (There are some Catholics who fetishize suffering, but they aren’t reading this column — they’re off watching Andrei Rublev.) Too bad the human race — thanks to its fallen will and darkened reason — typically blows past those stop signs like a Humvee plowing through a tollbooth. So we seek immortality by turning ourselves into stem-cell cannibals, and impassibility by downing drugs or asking the “cause” of our suffering for a divorce. We conquer concupiscence by changing the rules to match our cravings, and ignorance by clubbing the intellect into submission to the will. We keep ourselves sinless by defining deviancy down, and spread our conscience like Silly Putty to pick up the op-eds in the newspaper. And we lord it over the earth by shifting the costs for our self-indulgence to poor folks who live downwind, to hapless foreigners, or future generations.
Nice work if you can get it.