Saturday, July 16, 2016

Sin Essential and Contingent

I must admit that I have always thought Augustine fundamentally correct when saying, "My heart is not at rest until it finds its rest in thee, O Lord."  We denizens of the finite are not completed by the finite.  We search inescapably for "more-than-ness."  The problem is that while we search for this "something more than the finite," we look for it in the only place seemingly we can look: in the finite.  So we arrive at the dilemma of human being: An inhabitant of the finite looks for the infinite, but can only apprehend the finite.  Such a situation in which an infinite grasping connects to a finite object or meaning -- "connects" in being prima facie satisfied -- produces the phenomenon of sin.  And so Calvin could claim that the human mind is a factory of idols, for it is of the very being of our being, it seems, to "elevate the conditioned to the level of the unconditioned," to use Tillich's trenchant phrase.

Now all of this is pretty standard fare for the theologian, particularly the Lutheran theologian.  We know that the human mind is a factory of idols -- though we Lutherans don't often employ these words -- and that it is of the nature of human beings that we turn away from God in unbelief, pride, idolatry and concupiscence.  While we have an "ontological thirst" towards God, towards that Infinite which can only satisfy our thirsting after completion, we find ourselves a'whoring (using the traditional language) after false gods, after those seemings within the finite that seemingly satisfy.  In so doing we turn away from the horizon of the infinite, believing that a finite bird in the hand is worth the entire bevy of the infinite.  This is unbelief.  As we turn towards the finite, we realize that the turning is ours.  It is a matter now of our identification of that within the finite that can satisfy our ontological search.  This identification is pride.  That which is not infinite, but is now to satisfy the drive towards the infinite is an idol; it is something conditional now elevated to the level of the unconditional.  And the a'whoring is something done with an almost infinite zest, an excitement of the finite beyond what the finite can support.  Such an excitement is concupiscence, a desire to devour and dominate the infinite as one's own religious and erotic ecstasy.

I have always been fairly comfortable claiming that this is the basic condition of human being.  Although I have read many things about our getting over of transcendence -- Bonhoeffer probably first -- I never seriously thought human beings could or would do it.  The imprint was just too strong. "We are but a little lower than the angels," I thought, "and surely the complexity of our consciousness, of its hopes, aspirations, motivations, reasonings, rationalizations, fears, etc., witnesses deeply to this."  As the years have churned by, it seems, I have not really lost the sense of the striking difference between human self-consciousness and the consciousness of animals.  "There is something different," I tell myself, "and this something different is the divine imprint."  But lately I have been wondering if what I tell myself is accurate, or even of much significance.  Charles Taylor's A Secular Age lays out our western plight pretty well, and there is nothing in the macros of his diagnosis of the human problem that seems to me fundamentally inaccurate.

It seems like human beings in the old North Atlantic world just are quite different now.  Many I meet appear not at all to have an ontological thirst.  While I can always satisfy myself with the hope that they do retain this nonetheless -- even though they don't know it -- this interpretation is getting more difficult to sustain.  When people look with blank eyes when one attempts to uncover the hidden religious dimension of their secularity and/or atheism, the philosopher must take a step back and at least question his assumption.  What if these people don't have an ontological thirst at all?  What if they don't try to satisfy it in all of the wrong places?  What if their seeming drive for pleasure is not prideful concupiscence grounded in idolatry, but merely a drive for pleasure?  What if human beings aren't who we theologians have always assumed them to be?  What then? 

Charles Taylor attempts to show that the ambiguity of our present situation -- there still is some haunting of transcendence, after all -- can strike a significant counterpoise to exclusive humanism, that reveling in the immanent as if the question of transcendence could be jettisoned completely.  He tries to display how certain trajectories within the immanent are cross-pressured by the question of transcendence, though now of a post-modern and "excarnational" type.  So for him, at least, the ontological thirst is still somehow present, though perhaps not directly experienced as thirst.  It is as if one had a physical malady that disallowed the experience of thirst, so that one would identify one's states by certain of one's actions.  So the traditional strategy is not fundamentally different for Taylor.  One still has the condition, after all, even if one is not experiencing it.  So we are left with the question:  What if there is no ontological thirst at all?  What if the having of it was merely a stage in the history of consciousness, and not an element in the structure of consciousness?

I am enough of a philosopher to know that I can't really pull a rabbit out of the hat.  If there is no ontological thirst as an element in the structure of consciousness, then the transcendent fall into sin is problematic.  If this is the case, then the paradise story is not an exemplification of a timeless condition, a story that is true because it states in narrative form what deeply is: We temporal voyagers are existentially not somehow who we essentially are, and the gap between our existence and our essence is manifest as sin.  If there is no universal ontological thirst, even an unexperienced universal ontological thirst, then our sin and salvation, our capacity to thirst, to wander into idolatry, unbelief, pride and concupiscence, is a thoroughgoingly contingent, historical-conditioned state of affairs.  It does not have to be that way, and, indeed, it is becoming less so.  So what then?

At this time all that is left is preaching.  Preaching does not uncover the structures of consciousness so that they are accordingly recognized, but changes the contour of consciousness.  It creates.  Verbum dei manet in aeternum not because of the underlying structures it brings to expression, but because of the new realities it creates, realities of sin and salvation.  Accordingly, preaching the law really does create sin -- or at least what we denizens of the North Atlantic countries have traditionally identified as sin.  (There is much that needs to be said here, but I am not saying it now.)  That there are very sizable tensions here with traditional theological assertions goes without saying.  But theological tensions are nothing new.  Since the time of the Enlightenment, it has been extraordinarily difficult to provide a coherent theological account of God and world.  Tensions abound; it is a question for the theologian of what one can live with.  If one wants to take seriously the possibility that exclusive humanism may become the dominant ethos in our part of the world, and that this humanism is not delusionally occluding a more profound ontological structure, then we have to talk seriously about the contingency of that which we once thought essential.  That this places even more importance on the reality of the preached Word both in law and gospel is not something that Lutheran theologians will find surprising.

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