I’ve recently been reading a superb article on the thought of St. Augustine by one of my former professors: the magnificent—in the literal sense of “one who does great things”—John Cavadini. The article is entitled “Spousal Vision: A Study of Text and History in the Theology of Saint Augustine” and appears in a recent edition of Augustinian Studies (42:1/2, 2012).
Don’t let the title fool you; it sounds as though the article might be a little dull, right? But the truth is, although it’s clearly a scholarly article with all the necessary footnotes and secondary sources (academic journals basically demand these, and you won’t get published without them), it also sparkles with wisdom in every line. Allow me, if I may, to point to just one really wonderful insight that Prof. Cavadini gleans from the thought of that greatest of the early Church Fathers, St. Augustine.
Sin and self-sacrifice
One sometimes hears the claim that the biblical story of the fall is “sexist” because it lays the ultimate blame on Eve, the one who takes the forbidden fruit and eats it. St. Augustine, however, with greater wisdom, sees more deeply into the text.
If you read the biblical account more closely, you’ll notice that Eve is fooled by the devil himself, the “great tempter,” but Adam is not. Adam merely listens to the report of his wife. Thus, according to Prof. Cavadini (and St. Augustine), the really crucial moment in the story—the actual fall—occurs when Adam “deliberately decides—despite not being deceived—to disfigure by sin the spousal fellowship he and Eve had already been given by God.” How does he do this? By imagining in his pride that he has only two options open to him: either (A) abandoning his wife and leaving her in her sin or (B) joining her in her sin. It does not exactly speak well of him that he chooses the second. Was he not already, in fact, predisposed to the sin, eager to join in as Augustine himself had joined in the pointless stealing of some pears when he was a teenager, not because he wanted to enjoy the pears, but simply so as to remain in their sinful company?
But even more crucially, was there not a third option open to him—one that never even occurs to him? What doesn’t even enter his mind is the thought of sacrifice—that “he could sacrifice himself for his wife in order to save her from the devil who had obviously fooled her (albeit through her own pride), instead of letting her stay in his thrall.” Instead he thinks only of blame, on the one hand, or collaboration, on the other. And of course, having collaborated with the sin, he proceeds to blame his wife anyway, “expecting that God would judge her and vindicate him,” sacrificing their true companionship, their spousal union in God, for a cheap substitute: a companionship based on the sharing in sin, rather than one based on a mercy that is willing to sacrifice in order to purify both parties from the damage of sin.
“That Adam had some alternative is clear,” writes Prof. Cavadini, “from the contrasting story of the second Adam. Christ did not abandon us, and, though he joined us sinners, he did not enter into a fellowship of sin with us. He was prepared, in mercy, to sacrifice his own life for Eve, now in the person of the church, the new Eve (which presumably includes the old Eve). Adam had the chance, it would seem, to somehow ‘save’ Eve by his own compassionate mercy, but he preferred to take advantage of Eve, committing himself to the complacent truncation of the imagination, the ‘myth’ of the false alternatives. Part of his construction of these false alternatives is revealed in the story he tells God in order to explain what happened. As Augustine sees it, Adam blamed Eve, expecting that God would judge her and vindicate him. … This is a ‘false compassion’ that displaces ‘the true compassion of self-sacrifice.’”
“Adam, in following Eve into sin,” continues Cavadini, “enacts a simulacrum of mercy justified by a myth. Moreover, in ratifying and consummating Eve’s original sin, Adam transformed it into original sin in the strict Augustinian sense. Original sin is the son of Adam, namely the willing of and the creation of a fallen solidarity.”
Wisdom for our time
Consider the wisdom we might gain for our current struggles if we listened to Augustine’s insights on the biblical story of the fall. Rather than reading the story in terms of “whose fault is it?”—the very tendency that got Adam into trouble in the first place (“It was the woman, the one you gave me!” he tells God, as though the blame should fall on everyone else but on him)—instead, we might begin to understand the story as revelatory of ourselves. Consider for a moment how often we, like Adam, create this same “myth” of false alternatives, indeed even as we’re reading the Book of Genesis itself. It’s all about ascribing guilt, not about self-sacrifice and redemption.
How do we respond to the sin revealed in others? Do we not often enough construct for ourselves a similar mythical dichotomy: total rejection or total acceptance? Either we reject the sinner utterly, absolving ourselves of any responsibility for his welfare, casting him out into the darkness to fend for himself until perhaps he finds his way back by begging for our (not God’s) forgiveness; or we embrace the sinner with a “false compassion,” creating a “fallen solidarity” with him in his sin, perhaps even creating for ourselves what we have desired all along: an opening to follow him into similar sins of our own.
The notion that another person’s sin might call for sacrifice on our part is a thought that rarely even occurs to us. I frequently explain to my students that the New Testament notion of “redemption” is based on an Old Testament tradition according to which the Jewish people were called upon to “buy back” their blood relatives out of slavery. (Our word “redeem” comes from the Latin roots re + empto, which means literally to “buy back.” In a related vein, some of you may recall the Latin phrase, caveat emptor, which means “Let the buyer beware.”) The notion was that, if one of your blood relatives had incurred a debt that he couldn’t repay and was thus “sold into slavery,” it was your responsibility to pay the debt. It was in these terms that the Old Testament Jewish people understood what God had done for them by rescuing them from their slavery in Egypt and what this act signified about God’s relationship to them. They had committed the fault and were, as it were, “sold into slavery.” God “redeemed” them—bought them back out of their slavery—suggesting by this act that He was treating them as though He was considering them to be His “blood relative,” personally responsible for them.
St. Paul was later to take up this same concept to describe what Jesus does for us. We have incurred the debt by our sin and have been “sold into slavery” to sin. Jesus pays the debt we incurred and thus buys us back—He “redeems” us—from of our slavery to sin and death.
When I am presenting this material, I always ask my students pointedly whether they would be willing to pay back a debt that had been incurred by one of their relatives. Since I teach at a very multi-cultural university with first-generation college students whose parents come from Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia, I will usually have a few students who come from close “extended” families, who will shake their heads yes. “Obviously,” they say, “you would have to.”
That reaction, however, is definitely not that of the majority. More often, students will insist, “No way,” while a few will hedge a bit and say, “It depends.” “Depends upon what?” I ask. “It depends upon how they incurred the debt,” is the usual reply. “I wouldn’t pay it if they incurred the debt doing something stupid.” “Think about the fall and about our own sinfulness,” I tell them. “Did we incur the debt nobly or stupidly?” Thinking about our obligations and responsibilities to others takes on a whole new cast of mind when one takes as one’s paradigm God’s self-revelation in Christ—when, with St. Augustine, we re-read and re-think the Old Testament story of the fall in the light of the New Testament’s revelation of Christ’s sacrificial death for our redemption.
So, a young unmarried girl comes to her parents and announces, “I’m pregnant,” or a young man delivers the news, “I’m gay.” Now what? Do we create the myth of the false alternatives: total rejection or total acceptance? Either kick them out of the house and shun them, on the one hand, or embrace them with a “false compassion,” creating a “fallen solidarity” with them in their sin, on the other? Might we perhaps be called upon to ask ourselves whether there is a “third way”—Christ’s way? Do I deny the sin and enter into fellowship with it? No. Do I cast the sinner out of the Garden, look to God and say, “It wasn’t me”—as though God hadn’t made each of us responsible for others the way He made himself responsible for us? “Am I my brother’s keeper?” we ask, to which—if people aren’t clear about the upshot of the story of Cain and Abel—the correct answer is: Yes, you are.
Do we leave people in their sin? No. Do we throw them away like so much trash (which, to be honest, is to leave them in their sin in another way)? No. Instead of those two reactions, might we, imitating Christ, entertain a third possibility? What can I do that would be redemptive of this situation? What sacrifices am I called upon to make now?
Parents of a pregnant, unwed daughter will certainly experience suffering and shame. But then again, what do they imagine their daughter may be experiencing? How many parents of unwed teens secretly wish that their daughter would simply abort the baby, quietly, perhaps without even telling them, so that they can absolve themselves of responsibility without having to bear that particular cross?
How many parents of children who announce that they are “gay” wish the whole problem would just go away? “Either keep all this disgusting stuff to yourself or just leave.” Is there another way? It wouldn’t be easy, and it’s not guaranteed to work or to bring you praise from all your friends and neighbors, but how about entering into the suffering? How about saying: “I cannot agree with your moral judgment on this matter, not because I want to be ‘judgmental,’ but because I think that the course you have decided upon is harmful to you. And it is precisely because I love you that I can’t say yes to that course of action. But by the same token, it is precisely because I love you that I won’t simply cut you off.
“If you are willing, we need to re-double our efforts at communicating with each other. There will undoubtedly be plenty of missteps in this process, plenty of occasions for miscommunication and hurt feelings. Clearly I cannot deny my Catholic convictions as a necessary prerequisite for entering into dialogue with you. If you ask that, you are asking something I cannot give. But I am resolved to persevere for as long as you are willing to accept me as a Catholic with all that being Catholic entails. You may wish to stone me for holding the Catholic principles I do. But that is entirely up to you. For my part, I can pledge that precisely because of those Catholic principles, I cannot simply reject you. I know that I too am a sinner who has been ‘redeemed’ by Christ and who continues to struggle to be faithful to that marriage of Christ with my soul. Thus, although I cannot claim to be altogether ‘like Christ’ in the way I fervently hope to be, I know what I am called to be and to do.”
Christ reveals man to man himself
If we read the story of the fall in the light of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice, it would cease being just a story—just another “myth” that justifies our own desire for self-justification—and it would become what it meant to be: a revelation of what it means to be like Christ, fully human because fully in the image and likeness of God. As Pope John Paul II was fond of repeating, quoting one of his favorite passages from the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes, 22):
The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.
Thank you, St. Augustine, for your wisdom. Pray for us. Thank you, Prof. Cavadini, for your insight into the thought of St. Augustine. Keep teaching us. Thank you, Pope St. John Paul II for your continued guidance. Pray for us.
(Editor’s note: This article was originally posted on February 18, 2015.)