On the Limits and Possibilities of Acknowledging Human Tragedy
It’s one of the great mistakes of contemporary political discourse that the doctrine of original sin is almost exclusively used to justify inaction.
The usual argument goes as follows: humans are profoundly, tragically sinful. The world is a broken realm in which no great good can be achieved. All human intentions, no matter how benign, are always tinged with distorting and sinful pride. It follows, then, that we should expect tragedy at all times, no matter how desperately we seek to control our fates.
As usual, Reinhold Niebuhr says it best (in The Nature and Destiny of Man):
The tragedy of human history consists precisely in the fact that human life cannot be creative without being destructive, that biological urges are enhanced and sublimated by dæmonic spirit and that this spirit cannot express itself without committing the sin of pride.
Sin touches every human action, which paralyzes us from hoping to “solve” problems. Every “solution” only engenders new (unintentional) problems. No action can erase sin. No policy can save us from tragedies. All that we can do, then, is acknowledge the inevitability of tragedy, that we might be prepared when it wounds us once more.
It’s an argument as compelling as it is common. But it’s theologically inadequate.
For human inaction is an active choice in itself (as Niebuhr knew better than anyone). Humans are tragically defined by their misplaced pride, but recognition of this fact is no excuse from action. The choice to surrender to our broken anxiety is still a choice. And all human choices are tinged by sinful pride. Guilt cannot be dodged by its recognition.
If we cannot save ourselves from sin by abandoning all hope of responding to tragedy…what’s the alternative?
We are compound creatures, constrained by history and blinkered by pride, but also defined by our ability to transcend these limits. Niebuhr again:
Implicit in the human situation of freedom and in man’s capacity to transcend himself and his world is his inability to construct a world of meaning without finding a source and key to the structure of meaning which transcends the world beyond his own capacity to transcend it.
Humans are partial creatures—brought forth from dust and animated with a spark of divine creativity. We commit terrible, tragic sins as a result of our pride, but we are capable of transcending our animal natures to recognize the Good. We must be capable of such transcendence from time to time, for we are children of an all-knowing, fully good being.
That which appears to be tragic and sinful now will someday be redeemed, since history must eventually be redeemed as ultimately, fundamentally Good. God’s unquestionable goodness requires Christians to believe that the innumerable pains and tragedies of human life will someday make sense when Creation’s plan becomes evident. We will not know their final meaning until that time, but humans are capable of grasping it in part. Without these brief moments of transcendent clarity, there are no grounds for hope. At all.
If we see the world’s brokenness, then, it is not enough to choose to accept it. We are not simply the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. We are also Christ’s children, and we are also called to love one another. He asks us to risk sin in the hope that our efforts to make a better world might be sustained by God’s grace. Our efforts to do so are sustained by our recognition of the limits of our abilities. We must act, though we err in part or in total. We must act, though we will inescapably be complicit in guilt.
None of the foregoing tells us specifically what to do, of course. Actions taken in God’s name are notoriously polluted by human pride. We must decide on our own—and the resulting guilt will be ours as a result.
But make no mistake. The world’s brokenness does not give us license to stand idly by in tragedy’s wake. There may be other good reasons to do so, but they are prudential and political—not theological (let alone divine).