A Wretch Like Me
In our culture, groveling is out, self-esteem is in. But the cross shows us the gravity of our sin.
BY: Fr. Richard John Neuhaus
Forgiveness costs. Forgiveness costs dearly. Some theories of atonement say that Christ paid the price. His death appeased God's wrath and satisfied God's justice. That way of putting it appeals to biblical witness and venerable tradition, and no doubt contains great truth. Yet for many in the past and at present that way of speaking poses great problems. The subtlety of the theory is overwhelmed by the cartoon picture of an angry Father who demands the death of his Son, maybe even kills his Son, in order to appease his own wrath. In its vulgar form-which means the form most common-it is a matter of settling scores, a drama vengeful and vindictive, more worthy of The Godfather than of the Father of whom it is said, "God is love."
And yet forgiveness costs. Forgiveness is not forgetfulness; not counting their trespasses is not a kindly accountant winking at what is wrong; it is not a benign cooking of the books. In the world, in our own lives, something has gone dreadfully wrong, and it must be set right. Recall when you were a little child and somebody-maybe you-did something very bad. Maybe a lie was told, some money was stolen or the cookie jar lay shattered on the kitchen floor. The bad thing has been found out, and now something must happen, something must be done about it. The fear of punishment is terrible, but not as terrible as the thought that nothing will happen, that bad things don't matter. If bad things don't matter, then good things don't matter, and then nothing matters and the meaning of everything lies shattered like the cookie jar on the kitchen floor.
Trust that child's intuition. "Unless you become as little children," Jesus said, "you cannot enter the kingdom of God." Unless we are stripped of our habits of forgetting, of our skillful making of excuses, of our jaded acceptance of a world in which bad things happen and it doesn't matter.
This, then, is our circumstance. Something has gone dreadfully wrong with the world, and with us in the world. Things are out of whack. It is not all our fault, but it is our fault too. We cannot blame our distant parents for that fateful afternoon in the garden, for we were there. We, too, reached for the forbidden fruit-the forbidden fruit by which we not only know good and evil, but, much more fatefully, presume to name good and evil. For most of us, our rebellion did not have about it the gargantuan defiance depicted in Milton's Paradise Lost. Most of us did not, as some do, stand on a mountain peak and shake a clenched fist against the storming skies, cursing God.
But, then, neither were Adam or Eve so melodramatic. On a perfectly pleasant afternoon in paradise, they did no more than listen to an ever so reasonable voice. "Did God really mean that? Surely he wants you to be yourself, to decide for yourself. Would he have made something so very attractive only to forbid it? The truth is he wants you to be like him, to be like gods." The fatal step was not in knowing the difference between good and evil. Before what we call "the fall" they knew the good in the fullest way of knowing, which is to say that they did the good, they lived the good. They knew the good honestly, straightforwardly, simply, uncomplicatedly, without shame.
Some thinkers have argued that "the fall" was really a fall up rather than a fall down. By the fall our first parents were raised, it is said, to a higher level of consciousness in the knowing of good and evil. Now they know no longer simply and directly, but reflexively; now they know in the consciousness of knowing. This, however, is but another conceit of our fallen nature. It is as though a paraplegic, marvelously skilled in the complex maneuvering of a wheelchair, were to despise the healthy as belonging to a lower order because they walk simply, in blithe ignorance of the complexity of movement that the paraplegic knows so well. The conceit is that our complicated way of knowing is superior because it is ours.