Sin & Death – a moebius strip

For a while now I have thought about posting something about one of the most theologically influential verses in the New Testament, Romans 5:12, on which Augustine famously depended for his teaching on original sin. Readings from a recent daily Mass brought me back to it. The passage that caught my eye was this:

Since the children share in blood and Flesh,
Jesus likewise shared in them,
that through death he might destroy the one
who has the power of death, that is, the Devil,
and free those who through fear of death
had been subject to slavery all their life. (Heb 2:14-15)

These verses express perfectly our predicament as fallen creatures and the pivotal importance of Paul’s allusion to it in the fifth chapter of Romans. The Revised Standard translation of that verse is:

Therefore, just as through one person sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all, inasmuch as all sinned.

It was not idle theological curiosity that gave rise to the doctrines of Christian faith. Rather these doctrines were forged in the furnace of often fierce theological controversies, and this is certainly true of Augustine’s interpretation of Romans 5:12. The Bishop of Hippo waged a bitter struggle against Pelagius and the Pelagian teaching which, though it may have been more nuanced than later readers of Augustine are led to believe, nevertheless fostered a rather more optimistic assessment of the human predicament than Augustine and the Catholic tradition that followed him felt warranted. Citing Paul’s “all men have sinned” as a result of the sin of Adam, Augustine insisted that all humans have inherited the guilt of Adam. (There is obviously much to be said on that, sin being necessarily a willful and conscious act, but that is for another day perhaps.)

The Eastern Church, and many of the Eastern Fathers, found in Romans 5:12 another meaning, one not necessarily incompatible with the now standard Augustinian reading, but one that nevertheless gives a significantly different emphasis. Weblogs are not the ideal place for exegetical complexities, nor am I an exegete. Here, however, are the outlines of the matter as I understand them. (I draw on the work of the Orthodox theologian John Meyendorff.)

Meyendorff argues that the Western Church’s Latin translation of the Greek for “because all men have sinned” — in quo omnes peccaverunt — is subject to question. The original Greek is eph ho panes hemarton. “The form eph ho — a contraction of epi with the relative pronoun ho — can be translated as ‘because,'” writes Meyendorff, who then points out that the pronoun can as well be masculine as neuter, and that, if a masculine pronoun, it would refer back, not to sin, but to death. Meyendroff:

The sentence then may have a meaning which seems improbable to a reader trained in Augustine, but which is indeed the meaning most Greek Fathers accepted: “As sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, so death spread to all men; and because of death, all men have sinned.”

Meyendorff proceeds to quote a number of the Easter Church Fathers in defense of this translation, an example being this from Theodoret of Cyrus: “mortal beings are necessarily subject to passions and fears, to pleasures and sorrows, to anger and hatred.”

But I think we can do better than that. It seems that the upshot of the Eastern Church’s reading, if Meyendorff is accurate here, is that sinfulness is the consequence of death, or perhaps better, the fear of death that suffuses life with a suppressible dread from which mortal creatures flee, and, in doing so, flee from God, from themselves, and from one another — Christ having died to “free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life” (Hebrews 2:15).

What is sin if not the expression of the creature’s deep-seated self-regard and attempt to manipulate circumstances and others for selfish self-preservation and self-aggrandizement? As such, sin is life lived under the fear of self-annihilation, as the author of Hebrews suggests. If this is so, nothing short of the Resurrection could free humanity from the grip of sin and death. Neither the eat, drink and be merry ruse of the shallow worldlings, nor the morbid stoicism of the “realist,” nor the death-romanticism of the nihilist finally avails.

Rather than throw in completely with what Meyendorff argues is the Eastern Church’s position, I would rather want to find common ground, and it is not far to seek. Sin darkens the mind and shrinks the soul; it contracts the horizon, imprisoning the spirit. Sebastian Moore once said that death as the ultimate horizon lets sin make as much sense as sin can make. But then sin has the effect of making death the ultimate horizon. It blinds the sinner to the very eschatological horizon that would, Moore implies, render sin senseless were it to be visible.

So “the power of sin” and “the power of death” form a kind of moebius strip from the mesmerizing tangle of which we humans are incapable of extricating ourselves.

It has long been said, and it is being said more frequently lately, that the Church flies on two wings, constituted by the Eastern and Western traditions. It seems to me that this is exemplified by the two distinct approaches to that crucial passage in Romans, if only we can allow these traditions to mutually enhance one another.

(A version of this was originally posted on in January 2007)

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on Sin & Death – a moebius strip

We Saw His Star In The East

Of all the liturgical feasts in the Church calendar the feast of the Epiphany of the Lord seems to me to most reflect the mission of the Cornerstone Forum. For it is on this day the Church celebrates the light of the Gospel that shines forth from the Incarnation into the world; a world of wise men and mass murderers, of poor shepherds and harried inn keepers. The light that manifests this mystery of God in the form of a human being draws some to seek the source of this light, while others seek to snuff it out. Those who follow the light are enjoined to go into the world and make disciples of everyone. (Our friend Vonn Hartung has created a beautiful serigraphic image (above) of the Wise Men following the Star.) The reflection below was first posted by Gil Bailie on our old blog in January 2006.

In the Lord’s Prayer we pray that “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” In the highest heaven, the will of God is simply God. But God is not simply God; rather God is Triune God. In heaven, the will of God is pure unobstructed mutual self-donation. This kenotic selflessness is foreign here on earth, where we fallen and sinful and mortal and willful creatures live. We are deformed by sin and self-regard, by fear. The will of God was done on earth once however; and it was done the only way it could have been: by God, by the Incarnation, by a human manifestation of Trinitiarian self-gift. Christ, “though he was in the form of God,” lived in humble submission to His Father’s will; but He did that preicsely because that’s how the Trinitarian God lives; that’s how we who are made in God’s image are meant to live; that’s what will actually make us happy, however cruciform our happiness might necessarily be.

In Christ the form of God took on human form, and Christians are instructed to con-form to this Christological form. The Epiphany is to continue with Christians themselves, with all our faults and failings, manifesting as best we can some clumsy Christological hint of the mystery of a God-centered life, the Life that is Trinitarian in heaven and Christological here on earth.

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on We Saw His Star In The East

Impatience . . .

“It is better to bear uncertainty than to talk oneself into a decision that has no permanence. Genuine readiness already contains the seed of faith; untruth, on the other hand, that self-deception that pretends to views it does not really hold, and the violence with which we force ourselves to a creed which does not root in the heart, already contain the seeds of destruction.” — Romano Guardini

Posted in Blog | Tagged , | Comments Off on Impatience . . .

Custody of the Eyes

In a recent reflection (again) in the Magnificat, a remark by the Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper caught my eye, if you’ll pardon the pun (which you won’t have noticed until you read what Pieper said):

The cultivation of the natural desire to see assumes the character of a measure of self-preservation and self-defense. And then studiositas (diligence) means especially this: that a person resists the nearly inescapable temption to indiscipline with all the power of selfless self-protection, that he radically closes off the inner space of his life against the pressing of unruly pseudoreality of empty sights and sounds – in order that, through and only through this asceticism of perception, he might safeguard or recoup that which truly constitutes man’s living existence: to perceive the reality of God and of creation and to shape himself and the world by the truth that discloses itself only in silence. (Magnificat, Christmas 2006, p.95-6)

Such observations bring to mind Dante’s depiction of the envious in the Purgatorio with their eyes wired shut to prevent them from lusting after the gaudy baubles of the world (made alluring by the fact that others desire them or seem pleased that they do), the parenthesis being a Girardian elaboration on the theme. But it also reminds me of something I read a few weeks ago in a recently published book by my friend Ann Astell entitled, Eating Beauty: The Eucharist and the Spiritual Arts of the Middle Ages. Ann is a medievalist and a deeply faithful woman, and her erudition and insight grace every page of her remarkable book. I found her treatment of the theological anthropology of Bernard of Clairvaux especially fascinating.

For Bernard, Ann tells us, the first sin is curiositas (curiosity) and the cure for it is humility.

For St. Bernard the starting point is always the reality of the fallen human condition, which is characterized by an ingrained curiositas and concupiscentia, defects that are two sides, as it were, of a single coin. Both constitute a disordered relationship to the other person, whom we are called to know and to love. Curiositas, an undue preoccupation with the affairs of others, constitutes a defective aspectus (attitude of mind or regard). Concupiscentia, a distorted (emotion, passion, drive) of longing, desires the other inordinately and craves what belongs to the other. Curiositas is cura (care or concern) grown wrong; cupiditas is the misdirection of love that results from it … [67-8]

As flagrantly as our age urges the renunciation of traditional Christian virtues, especially in its trivialization and vulgarization of sexual intimacy, that attack on virtue is made possible because we have become inordinately preoccupied with others, and we have fallen under the mimetic spell of countless models. Adam’s inattention consists, writes the poet Denise Levertov, of:

his confused attention to everything,
impassioned by multiplicity, his despair.
Multiplicity, his despair …

For St. Bernard, the “principle reason why the invisible God willed to be seen in the flesh” was this:

He wanted to recapture the affections of carnal men who were unable to love in any other way, but first drawing them into the salutary love of his humanity, and then gradually to raise them to a spiritual love. [Astell, p. 86]


The soul at prayer should have before it a sacred image of the God-man, in his birth or infancy or as he was teaching or dying, or rising, or ascending. Whatever form it takes, this image must bind the soul with the love of virtue and expel carnal vices, eliminate temptations and quiet desires. [85]

In case you’ve been tardy in coming up with a New Year’s resolution. That’s Bernard’s suggestion.

(This was first posted on ‘Reflections on Faith and Culture’ Dec 2006)

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Custody of the Eyes

New Year Letter

In 1940 when Europe was being ravaged by war a 33 year old W. H. Auden penned his ‘New Year Letter’ to a friend. The poem’s length and copyright prevents its being reproduced here. However, Gil Bailie spent a few weekly sessions in January 1990 reflecting on this long poem full of erudite references to historical, literary, political and religious subjects. I thought it would be appropriate to make this audio presentation available at this juncture before resuming work on Gil’s series on Shakespeare’s plays.

These talks will be edited and made available here on our webstore in the coming months. Our donors will receive the recordings in CD and/or MP3 format as they become available. Please consider supporting our efforts by becoming a donor and receiving our complimentary monthly audio materials. Visit our Donations page for details.

Here is a snippet from the end of Part 1 of New Year Letter:

Though language may be useless, for
No words men write can stop the war
Or measure up to the relief
Of its immeasurable grief,
Yet truth, like love and sleep, resents
Approaches that are too intense,
And often when the searcher stood
Before the Oracle, it would
Ignore his grown-up earnestness
But not the child of his distress,
For through the Janus of a joke
The candid psychopompos spoke.
May such heart and intelligence
As huddle now in conference
Whenever an impasse occurs
Use the Good Offices of verse;
May an Accord be reached, and
This aide-memoire on what they say,
This private minute for a friend,
Be the dispatch that I intend:
Although addressed to a Whitehall,
Be under Flying Seal to all
Who wish to read it anywhere,
And, if they open it, En Clair.

Thank you for visiting our website. We pray for a peaceful and truthful New Year.

Posted in Blog | Tagged , | Comments Off on New Year Letter

Kairos, Courage, Love

In his Trojan Horse in the City of God, Dietrich von Hildebrand wrote of the way a particular historical situation compels Christians to speak a perennial truth with special forcefulness. The Greek term for such moments is kairos, what von Hildebrand terms “the call of the hour.” At such moments in history, von Hildebrand writes “the historical thematicity makes the promulgation of certain truths especially urgent.”

Such a moment, for example, was the coming to power of National Socialism in Germany. The condemnation of totalitarianism and racism was called for at this very moment. Though these things were evil as such, and would have been evil in any historical period, condemnation of them was made thematic by the fact that National Socialism assumed power in 1933. Before then, the bishops had indeed condemned National Socialism, and membership in the party carried the penalty of excommunication. Unfortunately, however, the German bishops in 1933 failed to uphold this condemnation at the very hour when an even more solemn condemnation was called for. [76-77]

Condemning the Church for its failures (real and imagined) in confronting Hitler has become something of a cottage industry, a hobby of those who would not dare utter a politically incorrect word in the safety of the faculty lounge. But it is these same critics who loudly insist that the Church’s position today on abortion and other moral issues represents an unwarranted interference of religion in political life. One simply can’t have it both ways.

All of this only makes von Hildebrand’s insights all the more prescience, inasmuch as he expressed them in a book published in 1967. They are conspicuously relevant to two neuralgic issues in our cultural life today: abortion most especially and the deconstruction of the traditional family. From a Christian point of view, what distinguishes these issues from all the other pressing moral concerns of our day is that they involve overt challenges not only to the unbroken Judeo-Christian moral tradition but to the anthropological reality which that tradition brings to religious fulfillment.

In addition to the standard human fecklessness, von Hildebrand argued that “an antipathy to the condemnation of secular ‘orthodoxies’ and religious deviations characterizes the mentality of our time.”

Condemnation and the unmasking of errors is widely seen today as something hostile to love. [78]

Christians confronted with the moral quandary of a kairos moment, will find what von Hildebrand calls “a false irenicism” attractive, as many bishops have.

Instead of helping to convey the true message of Christ, our effort to adjust to the mentality of the other may so transform that message that acceptance of it no longer requires a conversion. [82]

What might be analogous today to the situation that the German bishops faced at Fulda in 1933? It seems to me it is the question that the Catholic bishops face concerning whether politicians who profit politically from their self-identification as Catholics but who are unwavering supporters of abortion on demand and who actively oppose the Church on a sundry of sexual morality issues should be allowed to publicly parade their mockery of Catholic moral doctrine by presenting themselves for the reception of the Eucharist. This is not “using the Eucharist as a political weapon” any more than it would have been to refuse communion to the officers of the Third Reich. The savagery of the latter may have been less hidden by pseudo-medical apparatus and less plausibly justified by moral obfuscations and a dissembling vocabulary than that of the former, but it is the former that has set the record for the slaughter of the innocent in our age.

To repeat:

Unfortunately, however, the German bishops in 1933 failed to uphold this condemnation at the very hour when an even more solemn condemnation was called for.

(Originally posted in December 2006 on

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments Off on Kairos, Courage, Love

Christmas Blessings

We wish all a blessed Christmas. As our families and friends gather around to celebrate an event that none of us fully fathom, let us take time to hear again the words of the angel host,

“Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”

“Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”

Posted in Blog | Tagged | Comments Off on Christmas Blessings

The Crutch of Disbelief

Many people believe either that Christianity is nonsense or that any form of it that would be recognizable to the Christians of the past is too out of step with the age and too politically dangerous to be tolerated. They believe these things, not because they have given much thought to them, but because it is a huge comfort to them to believe them, a crutch, a cozy little belief that helps them make it through the day and sleep at night untroubled by anything more serious than how to derive as much pleasure and comfort from life as possible and to make it last as long as they can.

If Christians were as patronizing as their contemporary critics often are, they might decide not to disturb the warm blanket of comfort in which many non-believers wrap themselves. But, alas, there’s too much at stake for that kind of indifference. Our children and grandchildren will have to live in the world that is being shaped in large measure by these reductionists. And, anyway, sooner or later the exigencies of life shatter our comforting myths, even and especially our comforting agnostic ones.

As the poet Philip Larkin put it: “What remains when disbelief is gone?”

The great French theologian, Henri de Lubac, has an answer, one worth keeping in mind when thinking about this issue – (I raised this in the earlier post about a Quetzalcoatl sculpture in San Francisco). De Lubac writes:

As soon as man ceases to be in contact with great mystical or religious forces, does he not inevitably come under the yoke of a harsher and blinder force, which leads him to perdition? It is what Vico called the age of ‘deliberate barbarism’, and that is the age in which we live.

(The Drama of Atheist Humanism, p. 90.)

(Note: this was first posted December 2006 on the ‘Reflections on Faith and Culture’ site

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Crutch of Disbelief

To make an end is to make a beginning

For years I have found the Church’s liturgical calendar more helpful than the secularized Gregorian calendar in reckoning my place in the temporal order. The liturgical seasons have an effect on me that may be slightly more subtle than the effect of the earth’s four seasons, but which nevertheless works at a deeper level.

This being the case — and with considerable thanks to the way the liturgical cycle resonates in the monastic liturgies at St. Joseph’s Abbey — I’m keenly aware of the transition now underway from Ordinary Time to Advent, today being the last day of Ordinary Time and tomorrow being the first Sunday of Advent.

The theme of the last weeks of Ordinary Time is the Apocalypse, the end time, Christ’s Second Coming, the Final Judgment. Both the scriptures and the prayer life of the Church often speak of this end time in terms at the same time ominous and expectant. Christ, we are repeatedly assured, will “come in glory,” revealing the grandeur that was hidden from all but a few (at the Transfiguration, for instance) when he lived among us.

I have a slightly different take on this theme. For I imagine that the “glory” revealed by the Second Coming will not be the worldly glory that comes easily to mind when we hear references to it in the scriptures and liturgy. As I think of it, if anything Christ will come in an even more humble state; the difference between his earthly life and his second coming will be that at his second coming what will be revealed is precisely the glory inherent in his humility. The judgment that will fall upon all who behold him will be to fully realize that the first will be last and the last first, that humility and glory are one and the same thing.

The last Sunday in Ordinary Time in the Roman lectionary is the Feast of Christ the King, at which it is important to remember that His kingdom is “not of this world,” not only because it is eschatological, but because it is the inverse of worldly kingdoms.

jckingThus it is that the apocalyptic theme on which the Church’s “Ordinary Time” concludes is an appropriate prelude to the Advent theme, which is so magnificently expressed in the Lucan infancy narrative with its contrast between Caesar (“the divine”) Augustus arrayed at the center of his luxurious Empire with the pomp and worldly glory of his powerful office, on one hand, and the helpless infant born in a cow-shed in the remote and culturally inferior (by Roman assessment) backwater of the Empire, on the other. This is the beginning of the first coming, but it is harbinger of the Second Coming as well.

In East Coker, T. S. Eliot wrote:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

Happy Advent.

(this is was first posted on our old blog Dec 2, 2006)

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on To make an end is to make a beginning

The Obedience of Faith

“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Matthew 6:21

That, it seems to me, is the synoptic analogue for Paul’s references to “the obedience of faith” in his Letter to the Romans (1:5; 16:26). As for the Johannine echo: it’s at John 1:38. Jesus turns to the approaching disciples of John, catching them off-guard, and asking abruptly: “What do you want?” Everything depends on the answer to that question — our ethical lives, our attempts at virtue, the plausibility of our hopes, everything. We are desire; the question is only: what is the object of our desire?

Having been the source of consternation to both the theological conservatives (so-called) and the (so-called) ecclesiastical progressives, Henri de Lubac is a steady and reliable theological compass. He has a marvelous passage about the “obedience of faith,” which he contends is something entirely different from “the faith of obedience.”


The latter, placing the individual in a position of purely external submission to authority, delivers him over, through his fault, to a tyranny from which he can escape only by insubordination or which he can tolerate cheerfully only through indifference. Then, as Fenelon says, “the practice of faith only amounts to not daring to contradict the incomprehensible mysteries, a vague submission to which costs nothing.” Whoever is satisfied with this is caught up in a sterile, parrot-like discourse. He “does not meddle with dogmas,” as he sometimes likes to say, but he does not live by them either. He may be a perfect conformist, but he does not know what it means to be a Christian. Obedience of faith, on the contrary, is interior; obedistis ex corde, says the Apostle. [Romans 6:17]

Only this latter obedience, de Lubac insists, “deserves to be called a theological virtue.”

The Christian Faith, p. 238-9.

(this is was first posted on our old blog Nov 28, 2006)

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on The Obedience of Faith