11 July 2016

The ‘structure’ of ancestral sin

Our Father among the Saints, Gregorios of Nyssa

In light of the recent tragic and infuriating news (some of it in my own area) and the dust-up on race and policing which has been brought up in its wake, I’ve been following a recent conversation on Facebook about the nature of oppression and whether or not it can be considered ‘structural’. Oddly enough, the two participants were both Orthodox, and both were probably better-versed in theology than I am. But it struck me that such a conversation, even about such ‘secular’ matters as racial injustice in modern America, needs to be backgrounded in a valid understanding of ‘oppression’. When we are speaking about oppression we are actually speaking about the pursuit and accumulation of secular power (whether political or social or economic) at the expense of others – at the root of which is a blindness, an αμαρτία, which looks away from God and sets its sights on something lower. When we are speaking about oppression of any sort, we are speaking about sin. And when we are speaking about sin we need to turn to the Fathers to understand it properly.

Orthodox teaching about the sin of Adam is different in a slight and subtle way from Western teachings about original sin – though as with practically all slight and subtle differences between Eastern and Western thought, profound differences in worldview and orientation will follow. Our Father among the Saints Gregory of Nyssa, speaking on the deaths of unbaptised infants during the Pelagian controversies, put it this way, in slight contradistinction to Blessed Augustine of Hippo:
The premature deaths of infants have nothing in them to suggest the thought that one who so terminates his life is subject to some grievous misfortune, any more than they are to be put on a level with the deaths of those who have purified themselves in this life by every kind of virtue; the more far-seeing Providence of God curtails the immensity of sins in the case of those whose lives are going to be so evil.
In other words, in the view of the one Greek Father who spoke authoritatively on the subject of infant baptism and the fate of the unbaptised: infants who die in innocence, yet who are unbaptised, are neither to be thought of as meriting perdition, nor are they to be thought of as being equal with those who have been regenerated through baptism and who struggle toward virtue in life. This points to a style of thinking in which the sin of Adam is not imputed personally upon the infant in her natural state, but in that state, as a result of the sin of Adam, the natural likeness of God in the infant is still a damaged one, one in need of repair and cleansing (and hence, the need for baptism in the first place). Even though the infant has no personal sin to repent of, the environment, even the very fabric of reality in which she is formed and born is such that her human nature still falls short of perfection. In this way, both the anti-sacramental, individualistic desolation of Pelagianism and the legalistic extremes to which the Augustinian anthropology was later carried in the West, particularly by the Calvinists, are avoided.

So what does all this theological stuff have to do with the nature of oppression? Well, for one thing, the Orthodox view that ancestral sin is not something imputed upon the individual, but rather something which taints the reality in which the individual is formed, opens up the possibility of addressing social sins, or structural sins. We are all affected by the sin of Adam, and our natures and even the nature of reality are darkened by the sin of Adam. It follows from this, that other sins which are not personally imputed upon us, can also have deleterious effects on us, on our social surroundings, even on nature and the ways in which we understand it. When in the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom before partaking of the Gifts we pray, for example, ‘forgive my transgressions, both voluntary and involuntary, of word and of deed, of knowledge and of ignorance’, it is an acknowledgement that we may sin without having been aware of it, or that we may have partaken in others’ sins, even the sins of our forefathers, without any one act of volition on our part.

It is not, therefore, some error of Western thinking, much less a modern one, for an Orthodox person to acknowledge that the very structure and shape of the society, even the reality, around them can lead them into an involuntary sin, or a sin of ignorance. Indeed, this is the very shape of things which has resulted from the Fall, as the Greek Fathers themselves understood it. It is hardly something antithetical to Orthodoxy to acknowledge the sinfulness of certain collective ways of being, the sinfulness of ideologies, the sinfulness of ‘ordinary ways of doing business’, which will always fall short of the sophic vision or the Edenic ideal – yet against which it is nonetheless necessary to struggle. The social witness against structural sins – like consumerism, the wealth gap, militarism, neocolonialism, racism, even usury – is indeed a vital part of Orthodoxy, such that even (and especially!) the most traditional Churches in our communion have given voice to this witness.

The Orthodox believer in this conversation who was using sarcasm to ridicule the notion of structural sin or social evil would probably not think of himself as rebelling against the Fathers – even though, if in fact he is reacting against the idea of involuntary, non-imputed sin generally and asserting an extreme-Augustinian anthropology, that’s precisely what he is doing. Reading him charitably, though, it’s clear that what he is reacting against is precisely the same heresy which Blessed Augustine himself reacted against, and for very good reasons. After all, modernity produces no new heresies, just repackages old ones, and nowhere is this more true than in sociology. The Pelagian controversies resurfaced with one particular publication of the Enlightenment: Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s A Discourse on Inequality. Just as Pelagius asserted the purity and perfection of infants prior to baptism, Rousseau took the same idea and stated it thus: ‘man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains!’ The assumption that man is born perfect and that it is only society which chains him to imperfection is the main driving force behind much, if not all, modern secular-humanist reformism and revolution. Society must be attended to, and not man.

Even if the first part of that assertion is true (and I very much hold that it is), the second part asserting the perfectibility of man without regeneration is not only false: it is a wicked, prideful lie of the Evil One. There is a reason why, even though in Orthodoxy we regard Blessed Augustine with some well-deserved suspicion (particularly on the question of anthropology), he remains a saint in our Church, whereas Pelagius is reviled as a heretic. We must not, and cannot allow a preoccupation with perfecting society take the place of the vital duty of seeing our own sins, working to turn back, reorienting ourselves to Christ. In fact, without repentance and humility, not only can we not reform society, but in fact the reform of society we actually desire gets further and further away from us.

So let us pray for the reform of the society and for the struggle against our structural sins, by all means. But let us first pray for forgiveness of our own transgressions, and let each freely make his own way to repentance.

No comments:

Post a Comment