The fall

Alienans adjectives modify nouns by denying them: artificial leather is not a kind of leather, baby language is not a kind of language, a dead plant is not a kind of plant.

One under appreciated alienans adjective in Christianity is fallen since it speaks to some corruption or brokenness of human persons. This leads to ambivalent answers about our humanity. By way of comparison, we can raise the question whether I have strawberries in the fridge if all the strawberries are rotten. In one sense the answer is an obvious yes, and is contained even in the terms of the question, but in another sense the answer is just as obviously no. If all my food is rotten, I don’t have any food.  To call humanity fallen thus raises the problem of in what sense we are human, so that it might be truer to say that we were once human or that we resemble humans.

Fallenness is not a way of denying humanity as a species but of describing a defect in operation, so fallen man is more like hobbled leg or dull knife than rotten strawberry or baby language. The basic experience of fallenness is therefore struggle in operation, e.g. of having to push back against desire, finding ourselves powerless against habits or dispositions, having our best intentions for improvement continually miss their mark, coming up short when we look for insight about what to do or how to act, etc. For all the depth and complexity of the life of non-human animals, this sort of moral struggle has no meaning to them.

It’s impressive that on any account of moral goodness most human beings come up short: secular moralists can’t help noticing by how many persons still worship or fall prey to other irrationalities; religious moralists see either most of the world unconverted or most of their adherents as indifferent and uncommitted; utilitarians are bothered by the widespread majority beliefs about intrinsic good and evil; virtue theorists wouldn’t praise most persons as virtuous, etc. It’s as though the one thing we can agree about the moral life is that most persons aren’t living it. This would be intelligible if “moral” meant an ideal to which the average person is, well, average, but our moral critique of humans goes beyond this. It’s hard to set up any adequate set of moral standards that doesn’t condemn most of the human race. If this is right it would be a fresh defense of Chesterton’s claim that original sin is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved, making fallenness is just as much an axiom in secular morality as it is in Christianity.

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