Wednesday, February 24, 2010

O Felix Culpa!!

In a class today, we were discussing the question, much debated by theologians through history, of whether there would have been prelapsarian sex in Paradise. Augustine believed there would have been, and his position convinced most major theologians since, most notably Aquinas himself, but this was hardly a decided question in the early church. In fact, Augustine's position was quite novel.

It's not my intent here to get into that exegetical history; the important point to note is that the question, seemingly idle speculation at first glance, actually gets to heart of other theological speculation over nature vs grace, and ultimately of theodicy as it relates to the Fall. The answer is important to our whole understanding of human nature and salvation, as God's "original intent" has been brought to bear on other, perhaps more practical, questions.

The other major hypothetical one's answer to which likewise changes one's whole view of salvation history, even though to some it may also seem vain the question of whether God would have Incarnated were it not for sin.

Aquinas ultimately comes to the conclusion that Christ would not have come, since He came for our redemption, though he says this rather reluctantly and acknowledges that the other position is acceptable and has able defenders.

However, under theologians like Scotus, this opposite position, known as "Incarnationalism," "the Franciscan Thesis," or "The Absolute Primacy of Christ," was explicated with more precision and seems to be a position the Church has been leaning more and more towards over the centuries, albeit gradually. I wouldn't even be surprised to see it someday made into a dogma; it certainly seems to be at least implicit in Public Revelation to me.

Having said that, obviously I personally don't think it could have ever been any other way. I am convinced that all grace throughout history, even of the Angels, comes from the Incarnation, as the God-Man was predestined to grace and glory before any other question in the order of God's eternal decrees besides the procession of the Trinity Itself. Certainly including before the question of sin. I am in good company believing this. Including that of St. Maximillian Kolbe, best known for his martyrdom at Auschwitz, but also I think sometimes overlooked as one of the 20th century's greatest theologians (perhaps because of his overshadowing martyrdom, or perhaps because the New Theology would soon take center stage).

In fact, the thesis is that all Creation can be attributed to the purpose of Incarnation. God created the universe not just to love something outside Himself, but to enter into that external reality and unite it with Himself. There is also a Marian dimension here that has been explored if one also considers the idea of the "joint predestination of Jesus and Mary." God willed not only to Incarnate, but to be born of woman, the Virgin Mary specifically, who likewise thus had a destiny from eternity not dependent on sin. And thus, typologically, also the whole Church and each individual soul, of whom Mary is simply the supreme type.

So, one can see how ones opinion on Incarnationalism affects one's whole view on the meaning of life, of Creation, of human nature, of God's purpose and plan for our lives and the world...even though the "what-if" might seem to some unimportant given that sin did, in fact, happen.

Which is what I started to think about in class today. The one objection that seems to be behind the position of those who, throughout history, have rejected the "Franciscan" position (even before there were Franciscans), is the notion of the "Felix Culpa" (a phrase from the Exsultet at the Easter Vigil). The "happy fault of Adam, that won for us so great a Redeemer," which does form a powerful theodicy. Why would God allow sin except if this greater good came from it? Doesn't positing that Jesus would have come either way cancel out any redeeming value of the Fall or original sin? Isn't the beautiful thing about the story of the Fall, the promise of Redemption resultant? This is certainly the strong point of anti-incarnationalist position.

However, two points came to mind. The first is that, of course, just because God would have incarnated even if man had not sinned, this would not make Him a "redeemer," even if He was still the source of all grace. The Passion and Cross, Death and Resurrection of Christ...are still "greater goods" that can be seen as arising from the "felix culpa."

But, more importantly I started to think today, is exactly the point that the "what if" of paradise and un-fallen human just that. I started to see a certain value in the objections of those who find the very premise of such questions vain and the answers unknowable. Not that I agree with them totally; I have already said that I believe one's position on Incarnationalism affects ones whole view of the universe; but I started to consider that this doesn't necessarily exclude a certain indifference to the "what if" questions, which can (for some Catholics) just become a vainly curious hypothetical piece of trivial speculation that doesn't affect their present life in the way it is supposed to if it is to have any value.

I realized that one can still posit the Absolute Primacy of Christ, and His predestination to grace and glory before all else, without necessarily thinking of it in terms of what God "would have done" if man had not fallen. Exactly because that's a big if. God's providence is sovereign, and man did Fall, as God must have always foreseen he would. Though man is free, presumably God had infinitely many potential timelines to choose from. If He really didn't like the one with Adam and Eve falling, surely He could have created a world instead with a Jack and Jill whom He would foresee wouldn't Fall. But He didn't choose that. He chose the world where man did Fall, and where His incarnation was thus specifically as a Redeemer.

This very much goes back to my post on the Sense of Sin. Considering these things, I started having a true sense of "O felix culpa!" for the first time that was something more than it had been in the past, even as my appreciation for the Absolute Primacy of Christ, which means the absolute primacy of Love, increased. Previously (and I think this is true for many Catholics) the question was something of an awkward or embarrassing one. Theodicy, the explanation of the "greater good," takes on the tone of an apology, an explaining-away; while people pay lip-service to the idea that it "must have been for the best," there is still this sense of a demur longing for Eden, this regret that seems to subvert the entire theodicy.

But, I realized, I trust God's decisions and aren't going to harp over the past. And so, in the story of the Fall, I can now see, not some disaster that God "salvages" by making everything better, but in some sense as the privileged means by which God chose to enter into the world. Not that I'm saying God caused sin directly in the Calvinist sense, but rather, I guess, that "grace is in the gaps"...and that the greater part of the beauty in the whole story, the whole great drama, that Providence has arranged, is in the struggling and suffering.

That, from the beginning, God was in love with sinners, and that (as some of the Fathers we're reading now allude to) the Fall of Adam was both a free choice, yes, but also in some sense inevitable, "built into" the very nature of nature from the start. That the absolute primacy of Christ is not only inseparable from His joint predestination with the Virgin Mary, but also from the predestination of all mankind (I'll do a post on Catholic predestination soon enough). The Church was there from the start, and as I alluded to in my post on Ecclesia and Synagoga...the Church is necessarily a Church of sinners.

Therefore, looking wistfully to some state of Unfallen Life that "might have been," seems to me more and more to be a sort of spiritual sickness, even as speculation on "pure nature," as if it could exist without Grace, was in theological circles until the recent synthesis on this question. It may sometimes serve as a useful foil for exploring the prioritization of various ideals, but it is something that, at least in the condition we do find ourselves in, mainly seems to propagate that self-righteous myth of "innocence" and the delusion of the primal "good self."

But no, we are sinful. We're born screaming terrified infants with absolutely unformed chaotic minds and uncontrolled alien bodies. We are brought into being by those (human and divine) who know the world is filled with pain and evil, who know the challenges and tortures we are going to have to endure, and who nevertheless have chosen to love us into being, who love us before we even exist, for love's sake, who love us not only "in spite of" but for our weaknesses, and yet prior to any consideration of them. It reminds me again of the last chapter of Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, which I quoted in a not entirely irrelevant earlier post.

Somehow, by the grace of God, we are able to grow and learn and integrate, to work at the Herculean labor of building a cohesive personality, of rightly-ordering our soul. And at a certain point in that monumental task, you come to realize that the growth is the whole point, and come to be thankful for the gaps, for the imperfection, for the flaws, for the brokenness, for the utter fragility of the meaning we construct...because that's where God comes in, that is where the light shines through, that is precisely the means whereby God chose to enter into the human experience, the place "where," as Lawrence Ferlinghetti put it, "in the darkest night/of everybody's anonymous soul/He awaits again/an unimaginable/and impossibly/Immaculate Reconception/the very craziest of/Second Comings"...

Thank God for human weakness!!!! I glory in my infirmities; His grace is sufficient for me.


Michael D said...

I'll preface this by admitting that I believe Aquinas is right to slightly waffle on this issue, as the hypothetical, though the often insightful and plum necessary to philosophical endeavor, has the ability to confuse if we forget its place as hypothetical. Furthermore, I'll also admit right off the bat that I agree with Aquinas' position that assent ought to be given to the idea that Incarnation would not have occurred without sin.

You're right to comment that greater world views are molded by beliefs regarding the Incarnation. Parts of this post remind me thoroughly of Dante, the idea of forging relational identity, and how to be human is to suffer the need for the other. It almost seems though that to admit of the contention that Incarnation had always been planned is to assert in some way that God suffers a need for us, and without our presence in which to participate, He would be incomplete. A highly unorthodox view, but I think in a way it follows from the belief that Incarnation had always been planned. I think this, more than anything, is pushing me to believe that Incarnation was only ever to exist in the discourse of sin.

A Sinner said...

Well, as I conclude, I'm not sure that believing in the Absolute Primacy of Christ's predestination to grace and glory...necessarily requires thinking of this "hypothetical" of in terms of if there was no sin, would He still have come.

Because God chose a history in which He foresaw that humans would sin. So, perhaps incarnation and sin...ARE necessarily tied up one with the other in terms of logical causation; but maybe not in the order you think (ie, perhaps God made Adam and Eve instead of Jack and Jill exactly so that He could permit them to sin and so have reason to Incarnate).

It's really a question of whether, in the order of causation/purpose, God first freely determined to Create, then foresaw sin, and instead of choosing to create something alternate because of it, chose to Incarnate to salvage it. Or whether He chose freely to incarnate before all other considerations, then chose to create everything else to enable that, even to the point of allowing sin. Given that the Incarnation is of a higher order than even mere Creation, I have to believe that God would prioritize and Will that before all else.

I've become uncomfortable believing that we're merely taking part in a "Plan B" that, nevertheless, just coincidentally happens to be greater good than the alleged "Plan A". But if B is better, why ever have A? So I trust God knew what He was doing all along. This is the Best of All Possible Worlds.

In some ways it is a question similar to the infralapsarian vs. supralapsarian debate in Calvinism. Maybe it will make more sense after the post on predestination I plan to do this weekend.

But, needless to say, I don't think I'm exactly implying that God was compelled by necessity to incarnate anymore than He was to create. He freely chose both, the question is which did He choose first? Is the former causally dependent on the latter, or the latter on the former?

I hold the Franciscan Thesis, that the incarnation was the whole purpose all along. That we are all loved in Christ, and that all grace has always been in consideration of Him, even of the angels, even before the Fall.