Original Sin, Advent and Christian Hope


Earlier this week, I was having a discussion with a good-hearted atheist friend who argued that the existence of evil and the explanatory power of evolutionary biology combined to create a strong argument against the existence of God and in favor of a materialistic version of reality.  Perhaps coincidentally, last night as part of my Advent reflections I came across a 2008 homily by Pope Benedict XVI on Original Sin and the hope of Advent. This homily by Pope Benedict is a brilliant summary of the hopefulness of evolutionary Christian theology as articulated by St. Paul and Teilhard de Chardin in contrast to secular atheism. The same Christ who became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth continues to draw the Universe towards himself as the Omega Point light that extinguishes the darkness of evil.  I encourage you to read the full homily here but set forth below is an extended summary:

“[A]s people of today we must ask ourselves: what is this original sin? What does St Paul teach, what does the Church teach? Is this doctrine still sustainable today? Many think that in light of the history of evolution, there is no longer room for the doctrine of a first sin that then would have permeated the whole of human history. And, as a result, the matter of Redemption and of the Redeemer would also lose its foundation. Therefore, does original sin exist or not? In order to respond, we must distinguish between two aspects of the doctrine on original sin. There exists an empirical aspect, that is, a reality that is concrete, visible, I would say tangible to all. And an aspect of mystery concerning the ontological foundation of this event. The empirical fact is that a contradiction exists in our being. On the one hand every person knows that he must do good and intimately wants to do it. Yet at the same time he also feels the other impulse to do the contrary, to follow the path of selfishness and violence, to do only what pleases him, while also knowing that in this way he is acting against the good, against God and against his neighbour. In his Letter to the Romans St Paul expressed this contradiction in our being in this way: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want” (7: 18-19). This inner contradiction of our being is not a theory. Each one of us experiences it every day. And above all we always see around us the prevalence of this second will. It is enough to think of the daily news of injustice, violence, falsehood and lust. We see it every day. It is a fact.

* * *

The question is: how can this evil be explained? In the history of thought, Christian faith aside, there exists a key explanation of this duality, with different variations. This model says: being in itself is contradictory, it bears within it both good and evil. In antiquity, this idea implied the opinion that two equally primal principles existed: a good principle and a bad principle. This duality would be insuperable; the two principles are at the same level, so this contradiction from the being’s origin would always exist. The contradiction of our being would therefore only reflect the contrary nature of the two divine principles, so to speak. In the evolutionist, atheist version of the world the same vision returns in a new form. Although in this conception the vision of being is monist, it supposes that being as such bears within itself both evil and good from the outset. Being itself is not simply good, but open to good and to evil. Evil is equally primal with the good. And human history would develop only the model already present in all of the previous evolution. What Christians call original sin would in reality be merely the mixed nature of being, a mixture of good and evil which, according to atheist thought, belong to the same fabric of being. This is a fundamentally desperate view: if this is the case, evil is invincible. In the end all that counts is one’s own interest. All progress would necessarily be paid for with a torrent of evil and those who wanted to serve progress would have to agree to pay this price. Politics is fundamentally structured on these premises and we see the effects of this. In the end, this modern way of thinking can create only sadness and cynicism.

* * *

As an explanation, in contrast with the dualism and monism that we have briefly considered and found distressing, faith tells us: there exist two mysteries, one of light and one of night, that is, however, enveloped by the mysteries of light. The first mystery of light is this: faith tells us that there are not two principles, one good and one evil, but there is only one single principle, God the Creator, and this principle is good, only good, without a shadow of evil. And therefore, being too is not a mixture of good and evil; being as such is good and therefore it is good to be, it is good to live. This is the good news of the faith: only one good source exists, the Creator. Therefore living is a good, it is a good thing to be a man or a woman life is good. Then follows a mystery of darkness, or night. Evil does not come from the source of being itself, it is not equally primal. Evil comes from a freedom created, from a freedom abused.

How was it possible, how did it happen? This remains obscure. Evil is not logical. Only God and good are logical, are light. Evil remains mysterious. It is presented as such in great images, as it is in chapter 3 of Genesis, with that scene of the two trees, of the serpent, of sinful man: a great image that makes us guess but cannot explain what is itself illogical. We may guess, not explain; nor may we recount it as one fact beside another, because it is a deeper reality. It remains a mystery of darkness, of night. But a mystery of light is immediately added. Evil comes from a subordinate source. God with his light is stronger. And therefore evil can be overcome. Thus the creature, man, can be healed. The dualist visions, including the monism of evolutionism, cannot say that man is curable; but if evil comes only from a subordinate source, it remains true that man is healable. And the Book of Wisdom says: “he made the nations of the world curable” (1: 14 Vulgate). And finally, the last point: man is not only healable, but is healed de facto. God introduced healing. He entered into history in person. He set a source of pure good against the permanent source of evil. The Crucified and Risen Christ, the new Adam, counters the murky river of evil with a river of light. And this river is present in history: we see the Saints, the great Saints but also the humble saints, the simple faithful. We see that the stream of light which flows from Christ is present, is strong.”

General Audience, Pope Benedict, December 3, 2008

About William Ockham

I am a father of two with eclectic interests in theology, philosophy and sports. I chose the pseudonym William Ockham in honor of his contributions to philosophy, specifically Occam's Razor, and its contributions to modern scientific theory. My blog (www.teilhard.com) explores Ignatian Spirituality and the intersection of faith, science and reason through the life and writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (pictured above).
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22 Responses to Original Sin, Advent and Christian Hope

  1. Lynda says:

    This is excellent. Thank you.

  2. mkenny114 says:

    Wise words from Pope Benedict XVI as always – thank you for posting them. The picture of ‘In the Beginning…’: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and Fall that you’ve attached also reminds me of the fourth homily included there – ‘On Sin and Salvation’, which takes a similar approach, but also develops the idea of what sin actually is, and the disharmony it introduces.

    The ideas in the homily above also remind me, indirectly, of an argument often referred to by C.S. Lewis – what he called the ‘Promethean Fallacy in Ethics’ – wherein an atheist with a keen moral sense, railing against the heavens because of the injustices of the world and therefore reinforcing his conviction that God does not exist, is actually referred back to an objective foundation for his sense of justice. I.e.; in our moral outrage, which may lead us to question God’s existence (or at least His goodness), we are reminded that as Pope Benedict said ‘God with his light is stronger’ and ‘evil comes from a subordinate source’.

    • Hi Michael:

      Thank you for your insightful comments. You are correct that “In the Beginning” expands on this General Audience homily. It may be the subject of a future post :-). Thank you for sharing the C.S. Lewis argument on the Promethean Fallacy in Ethics. That also provides a lot to reflect on. I have in mind a great UK blogger who would be perfecting for helping explain it in more detail :-).

      W. Ockham

      • mkenny114 says:

        Hello William, and thank you for your kind comments 🙂

        In fact, (if you will forgive me a moment of shameless self-promotion!), I have written a short post on the Promethean Fallacy here: http://journeytowardseaster.wordpress.com/2013/10/23/c-s-lewis-reassuring-argument-for-the-existence-of-god/
        It is written from a personal rather than analytical angle, but hopefully includes enough of Lewis’ own words on the topic to give a good idea of his argument.

        Returning to ‘In the Beginning…’ and the General Audience, there is one more thing that has occurred to me, which is that Benedict XVI has a remarkable consistency and unity of thought. ‘In the Beginning…’ was based on homilies given in the early 80’s, and in an Audience given in 2008, although with different emphases and developments of ideas, they both witness to a deep intellectual integrity. Furthermore, as with his other work (particularly the Jesus of Nazareth trilogy) all his theology is driven towards the task of facilitating and opening up a personal encounter with Jesus Christ – he is a very pastoral theologian. It is something that I appreciate about him more and more as time goes on, and I think that it is his integrity and consistency of theological vision which enables this pastoral directive. Or maybe it is the pastoral concern that drives and shapes his theological vision… What do you think?

      • Michael:

        Thank you so much for sharing your post on the Promethean Fallacy. It is a great read!

        I really enjoy Pope Benedict’s writing as well. He is simply a brilliant theologian and as you indicate very pastoral. He is also exceptionally open and humble in his writings, which is part of his pastoral style. I happen to believe it is Benedict’s deep intellect and deep relationship with Christ results in his humble pastoral style. His humility and confidence in Christ is exemplified when he stepped down earlier this year as Pope.

        One of the most influential books in my journey back to Catholicism was Benedict’s “Introduction to Christianity”, which was based on a series of university lectures of his from the 1960s.

        W. Ockham

      • mkenny114 says:

        Dear William,

        Thank you again for your comments on my post – you are most kind.

        Re Pope Benedict XVI, I agree with what you have said here – one can definitely sense in all his works the fruits of his deep personal relationship with Christ, not only in the profundity of his theology, but the humility and pastoral concern with which he presents the results of his theological thinking. I haven’t read his ‘Introduction to Christianity’, though you are not the first person who has recommended it to me! Certainly, everything I have read by him has greatly helped me in reassessing priorities and clarifiying certain issues in my own faith.

        By the way, would you mind if I sent you a personal message? I have a few queries regarding Ignatian spirituality in general and Teilhard de Chardin in particular, and I think that you may be able to point me in the right direction on these issues.

      • Hi Michael:

        Feel free to e-mail me at williamockham17@gmail.com.

        W. Ockham

      • mkenny114 says:

        Dear William,

        I shall email you soon. Apologies for slight delay in replying – mad few days at work!


      • No worries Michael. I can relate to it being busy at work 🙂

  3. ptero9 says:

    I love the discussion of good and evil because it is so vital to everyone’s worldview. Free will requires the possiblity of choosing evil actions over good ones. Love is a choice that brings us closer to God and is only love when freely chosen. Even being loved requires our will to accept and feel that love and allow its power to live through us.

    That being said, the nature of God is still mysterious to me. God and goodness must somehow be in relationship to evil and I try to remember and respect the mystery of that relationship.
    Many ideas about the nature of God tend to want to expose the mystery instead of live it, and I think, unnecessarily come to conclusions about the nature of God.

    I’m no theologian, and this point in time probably fall into the category of a fallen away catholic, although there are things about catholicism that I so dearly love. I have a catholic heart.

    I see too much hope placed on the end game, when God will suddenly put everything right, conquer evil, and we get to live happily ever after, some of us anyway.

    But, if God wills that all men be saved, maybe we will be surprised by what that really means. I’m willing to live in suspense, moment by moment trying to stay open to experience the ways that God comes into our lives and in finding an opening in us, opens us up to the power of love, not just for us but through us.
    Advent Blessings!

    • Debra, thank you for your comments. I especially love this quote which is especially insightful:

      “God and goodness must somehow be in relationship to evil and I try to remember and respect the mystery of that relationship.
      Many ideas about the nature of God tend to want to expose the mystery instead of live it, and I think, unnecessarily come to conclusions about the nature of God.”

      Although my knowledge base in psychology is currently minimal I am very interested in the intersection of psychology, theology, spirituality and physical sciences, which is one of the many reasons I enjoy your blog so much! I am currently reading “The Individuation of God” by Peter Todd. It is a great book that attempts to integrate Jung’s psychology and Teilhardian theology.

      I am hoping to continue my education next year and I may even post a few of my rambling thoughts. If you know any excellent bloggers who have studied this intersection of faith and psychology (perhaps from a Hillman perspective) and would like to do a guest post, please let me know :-).

      Peace and Advent Blessings!
      W. Ockham

      • ptero9 says:

        Thank you WIlliam! The book sounds like another one to add to my list 🙂 I, too, share your interest in the intersection of “psychology, theology, spirituality and physical sciences.” This is really where the heart of all understanding intersects.

        Hillman was a bit hostile towards Christianity, but not as much towards Catholicism. It seems he equated monotheism with the development of a very literal view – literal meaning a singleness in meaning in language and ideas.

        I think he saw the importance of understanding what Christian beliefs have contributed to western and modern culture including a shadow problem in dealing with the dead and what he referred to as the invisibles or the gods that very much need to be invited into our world because they hold sway over us whether we know it or not.
        Peace and Blessings William!

      • Hi Debra:

        Here is an interesting perspective from Jenna Lilla, a psychologist and blogger I follow on the dangers of reducing the soul to the psyche. This piece definitely rings true for me and I would appreciate your perspective also.


        W. Ockham

      • ptero9 says:

        Hi William,
        My understanding from what I’ve read of Jung, is that he considered the phenomena to be the focus of his study and did not seem willing to commit to anything beyond that. He stated frequently that regardless of whether or not there is a metaphysical reality, the phenomena is quite real in and of itself and calls for our attention as to the nature of the phenomena. Jung believed that the human experience is one of meaning and myth making, both at the level of the individual and the collective and that modern man is in search of a soul and that the “gods have become our diseases.”

        I don’t think Hillman would have made a distinction between the soul or psyche, except to note that soul, or anima, is Latin and psyche, of course comes to us from the Greek god.

        Hillman certainly shared your disdain for reductionistic thinking in our modern western world.
        I think perhaps Jenna is referring to the reductionism found in psychology as it is practiced today, and if so, I would agree. We’ve reduced psyche down to the language of brain chemistry!

        I’m not sure I addressed your question…

        Thank you for the link! I do enjoy reading the perspectives of Jungians and others who are familiar with Hillman.

      • ptero9 says:

        “Psychology as a subject of its own, rather than a mode of seeing through, reflecting, shaping and containing other substances, is simply a vitrification, a glazed and fixed consciousness without humour, without imagination, without insight. Psyche has become Psychology.” James Hillman

        I think this insight helps clarify the dangers of reducing Pscyhe down to Psychology, yes?

      • Debra:

        Thank you so much for the quote. That definitely nails it!

        W. Ockham

  4. “Evil comes from a subordinate source. God with his light is stronger. And therefore evil can be overcome. Thus the creature, man, can be healed. ”
    I hold onto this as Truth. It gives me hope and strength to continue battling the evil within me and all of humankind.

  5. Ponder Anew says:

    The way I understand this is by what St Augustine said, that “evil is a privation of good”. Such a mysterious relationship in that it seems good should be far away from evil, but essentially he means that there is nothing we can call evil if there be nothing good. I suppose this is what Pope Benedict was making reference to by connecting evil with “subordinate.”
    oh, btw, you have some awards!

    Peace and merry Christmas

  6. Pingback: Challenging the Rehabilitation of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin - Crisis Magazine

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