Theologians have scoured three questions so thoroughly that it’s hard to imagine there’s anything left to say, yet they come up frequently in conversation because each person experiences them anew, and few church going Christians read much theology.
What does it mean to say we are a fallen people? What do chance and coincidence have to do with the plan everyone says God has for our lives? How are we called to follow Jesus? So, I’m taking a shot at this, not for theologians, but for ordinary Christians who wonder.
Let’s start with The Fall. Augustine got us hung up on Adam and Eve way back in the fifth century, and shame on him. It led to centuries of Christians blaming the pair for humanity being kicked out of paradise, and having to endure the hardships of life as we know it. ‘We’re victims of their sin. It’s not our fault, it’s theirs.’ At least that’s how some have understood it. Are we all among the fallen because of them? Maybe not.
It should not come as a surprise that the story of Adam and Eve is not an historical event. It’s a metaphorical explanation of human nature in which each of us aspires to be our own god. Individually and collectively we create a variety of other gods we endow with human strengths and weaknesses, and create religious rituals to manipulate them. The ancient Greek poets recognized that gods, made in our image, have selfish egos, don’t play fair, and are not easily manipulated. We keep doing it anyway.
It isn’t that we would all be innocent but for Adam and Eve. It’s that we each, as if for the first time, repeat their story in our own lives. In that sense, the evidence of our fallen condition is in our history of wars, cruelty, injustice, and feeble attempts at being good people living good lives. A sociologist recently interviewed on NPR observed that people in relatively small circles of friends and neighbors can be extraordinarily generous and kind to one another. But in the larger context of region or nation, prejudices erase most of their good will toward others who are not our people. It’s a pattern indicative of our fallen nature.
The point is, yes, The Fall is real. We are a fallen people, and we can’t blame anyone but ourselves. Leave poor Adam and Eve out of it. Failing to recognize that prevents us from being honest about the reality of our situation. Calvin was at least partly right; we are a depraved lot, and there is no part of us that isn’t corrupt in some measure.
Holy scripture tells the story of our fallen condition in brutal honesty, but it also lays out the way God has established for us to move away from it. We are not condemned, but given holy guidance. It’s available to all. No one is excluded, and none is predestined to condemnation. To the contrary, the abundance of God’s grace for humanity, and presence with humanity, is the whole point of scripture’s unfolding that reaches its fulfillment in Jesus. If it appears we’ve failed to make much progress in the last two thousand years, it’s because we commit the original sin over and over again. It also means we can’t blame the devil for all the evil in the world. It’s of our own creation. If we can create a spirit of good will and good times, we can create a spirit of bad will and evil times, and we have. Each act of violence and betrayal, from the most trivial to the most unthinkable, adds to the inventory of evil that reverberates across the centuries and into our daily lives. It permeates every thing and every age, and it comes at us in unpredicted ways from unexpected directions.
If there is the dark of evil, there is also the light of good. It would be going too far to equate it with the yin and yang of Eastern philosophy, but the basic idea is similar. If we have created evil that echoes across the centuries, we have also created good that echoes across the centuries, and it too comes at us in unpredicted ways from unexpected directions. The popular memes about random acts of kindness are an example. But there’s more. Scripture testifies that God, who created light and said that it was good, and who, in Jesus, is the light that darkness cannot overcome, engages with the world we live in to bring good to us in unpredicted ways from unexpected directions. For lack of a better word, we call them miracles, but it’s misleading. We’ve come to think of miracles as rare events of awesome mystery overcoming natural law and impossible odds. Sometimes they are, but on the whole, they’re frequent, many, and often go unrecognized because they come to us through the agency of other human beings.
Which brings us to chance and coincidence. The universe is filled with randomness, events that happen by chance, which, if they are beneficial to us, are called coincidences. There is no plan behind them, nothing intentional about them. The virus that gave me a cold didn’t pick me out from among all others, and I certainly had no intention of getting in its way. That’s the way it is for many of the so called bad things that happen to us, and it conflicts with the oft repeated claim that everything happens for a reason. I think for most people it means someone somewhere has made a decision that causes an event to happen. It’s partly true. Although many things happen for no reason, that is, no one acted with intention to do something, it’s also true that most events in our daily lives have some degree of intentionality behind them. For example, we spend time at the ocean shore, and I was thinking about things happening for a reason as I watched some tourists get knocked down by the shore break. The waves roll in and break on the shore, as they always do, without intention. It’s just what waves do. Tourists, on the other hand, come with intention to enjoy the shore. With a degree of poorly thought out intention, they get in the way of the shore break, and find themselves facedown in the wet sand. No one intended it to happen, but it wasn’t a matter of pure chance either. It’s a mildly comical example that avoids the many others with more tragic consequences you may have already thought of. The point is that chance, coincidence and intention are all mixed up in events that come at us in unexpected ways from unexpected directions.
Where does God and his plan come in? If we have the freedom to engage the world about us for good and ill in ways that intersect with random chance, how much more freedom does God have to do the same? I cringe every time I hear someone say that God has a plan for you, or that nothing happens without God ordaining it. The testimony of scripture is about our freedom to act on our own volition without God’s interference. But it also testifies to God’s freedom to engage with us as guide and guardian to the extent we are willing to allow it. Finally, it testifies that our fallen condition is not fatal. God does have a plan, and has executed it in Christ Jesus. We are rescued from our fallen condition on the other side of death. In the meantime, as followers of Jesus, we can begin walking into our eternal life now, if we pay attention to what God has told us in plain everyday language about living with intentionality to love God with all our everything, love our neighbors, and love each other as Jesus has loved us. If there’s any question about how to do that, Jesus has given specific directions nicely summarized in Matthew 5-7.
Following in the way of Jesus doesn’t make us perfect, won’t prevent events of chance from happening, and can’t stop us from being or causing hurt, but it is the way for us to be agents of good in the world, agents through whom miracles happen, and it is on the sure and certain way to abundant life.