Let me return to one of my drumbeat issues: sin. Augustine’s fifth century debate with Pelagius had much to do with defining sin as moral privation (Latin “privatio”): an absence of righteousness in human conduct. Let me offer a snapshot of what Augustine was saying and then invite comments from readers.
The problem of evil troubled Augustine when he was new to his faith. Earlier he had joined the Manicheans and adopted their answer that a perpetual dualism of good and evil exists—the “good and bad side of the Force” as later offered in Star War movies—but he abandoned it as inadequate. To have a true good there could never be an equal and eternal quality of evil—rather evil must be seen as a lesser, parasitic reality.
But what troubled Augustine was the idea that evil has any sense of genuine “reality” at all in a creation that the ultimate and only-good-God had created as good. How could evil even exist in a universe shaped and ruled by God? The answer, Augustine concluded, lay in the Aristotelian concept of privation: of something losing a quality of its proper being. Augustine saw that this could account for evil existing as a distortion of whatever God made for good. So that evil is not some sort of defect in God’s work of creation but a twisting of what is good so that the goodness is removed. God made the cosmos to be vulnerable to the eruption of evil while not creating that evil.
Privatio can be seen in the function of eating: it is good to have food, but eating can be removed from its creation purpose in cases of gluttony, bulimia, or anorexia. The same is true of human sexuality: it was meant for good in the creation of Adam and Eve and for all subsequent marriages. But in being removed from that creation context it becomes an “ungood”.
The next question: why, then, did God allow a vulnerability to exist in the creation, especially when he knew beforehand that evil would erupt as a result? The common answer is that he allowed his highest creatures—men and angels—to enjoy a free will as relational beings; and not to live as automatons.
That’s a serious near miss. As the Augustinian thinker, Jonathan Edwards, pointed out—in his ironically titled Freedom of the Will—there is no such thing as a free will. What God gave us is a free heart—with all our choices (setting up the so-called “will”) always ruled by our dominant affections. So, as Luther held, our real battle is always an affection-fighting-another-affection with the strongest affection always winning—whether it is our love of security, of honor, of wealth, or an appetite for sensual pleasures. Our desires rule us so that we always do what we want to do.
The basis for this is that in making us in his own triune relational image—as one who “is love”—God made us to enjoy love while never coercing us to receive or reciprocate his love. He won’t force himself upon us; rather we respond to his beauty. And apart from him we never discover what we were made for nor do we share in his own eternal life that consists in mutual love.
Augustine then pointed to Adam as the original source of sin so that sin now rules all humanity: all are now “in Adam” and dead towards God until a new birth by his Spirit. This is offered to all but is received only by some.
With spiritual death came the many polarities of the Bible narratives: God’s goodness is taken over by moral privatio; evil is called good; folly displaces wisdom; darkness is preferred to light; the Truth is dismissed for the Lie; hope is replaced by anxiety; and death is loved rather than life. Privatio is the realm of the ruler of darkness whose kingdom is the polar opposite to God’s kingdom in every detail.
Pelagius, however, countered Augustine’s use of privatio by noting that the lack-of-something is not able to be transmitted. In other words an illness can be passed along if a virus is at fault; but if someone simply lacks a strong immune system, that lack isn’t passed along to others. Hence, each person is like a “new” Adam able to make their own moral choice: to become either righteous or unrighteous before God.
Augustine answered by pointing to the ultimate expression of privatio that accounts for every lesser sinful behavior: the loss of God’s presence. With that loss the human soul is still energetic in its love but that love no longer has its proper focus: God. So the natural energy of love now curves back onto ourselves in what Augustine called concupiscence—or self-love. It expresses itself, to use a modern analogy, as an active malignancy in every human soul until God himself recaptures the heart by wooing us to himself in Christ.
The solution to sin? Respond to Christ’s love and then offer that love to others. By this love all men will know that we belong to him. Without it we continue to embrace privatio.