I’ve always been fascinated (and have often been edified) by the theological acumen of non-theologians. Take, for instance, the late Walter Miller. As Mrs. Richardson and I continue to work through his science fiction masterpiece, A Canticle for Leibowitz, I’ve been struck to varying degrees by his theological insights. I was particularly intrigued by the reflections of Dom Paulo (the abbot of the Leibowitzian monastery in the novel) on original sin:
And yet, Dom Paulo’s own Faith told him that the burden was there, had been there since Adam’s time – and the burden imposed by a fiend crying in mockery, “Man!” at man. “Man!” – calling each to account for the deeds of all since the beginning; a burden impressed upon every generation before the opening of the womb, the burden of the guilt of original sin. Let the fool dispute it. The same fool with great delight accepted the other inheritance – the inheritance of ancestral glory, virtue, triumph, and dignity which rendered him “courageous and noble by reason of birthright,” without protesting that he personally had done nothing to earn that inheritance beyond being born of the race of Man. The protest was reserved for the inherited burden which rendered him “guilty and outcast by reason of birthright,” and against that verdict he strained to close his ears. The burden, indeed, was hard. His own Faith told him, too, that the burden had been lifted from him by the One whose image hung from a cross above the altars, although the burden’s imprint still was there. The imprint was an easier yoke, compared to the full weight of the original curse.
It’s a fascinating take on the inconsistent anthropology of modern man, is it not? It’s almost ironic. The same man who will claim and proclaim the inherited grandeur of being man – the same man, that is, who will wax eloquent on the great and grand virtues of being human – will revel in the inherited wonder of man (a wonder that Christian theology would call the imago Dei, marred though it is) while simultaneously protesting the very possibility of inheriting a transmitted curse from the original man. It’s the anthropological equivalent of having your cake and eating it too.
Consider, for instance, the beginning of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their
parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.
Here is how modern man views himself, and Miller is right to point it out. The value of this insight lies in the fact that the unfettered humanistic naivete of modernity rests on an assumption of an inherited glory, but the assumption is marred by modernity’s demand that the inheritance only include those attributes that exalt and are worthy of praise. But once the assumption of inheritance is granted, does it not provide a foundation for deeper discussions with modern people about these implicit demands? I think so.
Which is simply to say this: if man can inherit glory in being man, then he can inherit shame in being the same. Once this is granted, then we are close to being able to discuss the gospel.
So “Thank you!” Walter Miller. Who knew that such fascinating nuggets of truth could be found in post-apocalyptic science fiction?