On my sins

While the prophets and sages of our Christian tendency — at least the Catholic ones — tend to resist morbidity, they are nevertheless acquainted with their personal share in what we call “Original Sin.” This is, for those who have never heard of it, the Sin of Adam, our most distant paternal ancestor. It is by extension the imperfection of the human race, including Eve, our most distant maternal ancestress.

Both Adam and Eve, in the course of being evicted from their “starter home” in the Garden of Eden, understood at least vaguely why this had come about. (The Lord made it plain to them.) They had done what they had been told not to do, and not done what they had been told to do.

I was going to admit that wondering whether a modern person has heard about this is itself rather baroque, and almost a pose; but I’m not sure it is an error.

Some Internet star just asked a set of contemporary university students if they had ever heard of the Holocaust, for instance, or of several other historical events, such as Kristallnacht, or the Normandy Landings. They were utterly confused — and “blanked out,” as I sometimes do, on names. I reflected that the Bible was not published until somewhat earlier in our collective history, than World War II. But who can say it has faded with distance, when much nearer events have quite disappeared?

Of course, the students could argue that they were never taught about these events, but then, they were never taught they could be missing anything, either. They seem to have learnt, as it were, nothing about nothing.

From what I can make out from correspondence, my own readers belong to the very cream of an élite, for I’d wager they have all heard of the Bible, and even of God. Even the non-Catholics among them have been told about sin, whether or not they took the teaching seriously. For this is the modern world. As Baudelaire says, “Everyone believes in God, although nobody loves Him; no one believes in the Devil, although his smell is everywhere.”

Baudelaire is often misunderstood. He is taken as almost the inventor of modernity in the arts, whereas, his concern was to confute it.

Many centuries before, Augustine anticipated Baudelaire’s simplification, and explained that the Devil cannot be blamed for all sin. In fact men (a term which used to include the women) sometimes committed sins which they had themselves devised. (This is what made them so Original.) He was among the first to openly resist the morbidity that endangers all Christian thought, on the subject of Sin. It is almost as bad as the opposite obsession, which we might characterize as psychotic: to feel no guilt at all.

This is a Christian challenge: to contemplate sin in the lightness of one’s being, finding it deeply implanted in oneself but neither in despair nor indifference.

I was reading Baudelaire, and also his mentor, Joseph de Maistre, author of Les Soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg — the most wonderful account of politics. These are “entretiens sur le gouvernement temporel de la providence.” (In my post-stroke neurological condition, I will not attempt to translate “entretiens.”)

They are a font of what is called Pessimism, in our post-Christian environment. For all of our worldly ambitions are — without exception — subverted by Original Sin. This universal and comprehensive subversion is the condition of our life in this world, to which, by now, we should have adapted. I, and my reader, are likewise constrained.

On the contrary, my hope in God is excited by this. It is at the root of all “spiritual optimism,” when we seek it aright.