Sin isn’t the human condition; it’s the explanation for the human condition. Without knowledge of sin, life makes no sense at all.
I first got a glimmer of this when I was a sophomore in high school. The occasion was the first live play I had ever seen: a production of Macbeth in a high school gym in Bergenfield, New Jersey. The humdrum setting took nothing away from the theatrical power of Shakespeare’s tale of betrayal, witchcraft, insanity, and murder. I was completely caught up in it. I was right there as the disasters of Act V unfolded: the unholy vision, Lady Macbeth’s madness, her suicide, and Macbeth’s soliloquy of bitter despair as bloody doom descends on him:
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Mind you, nobody talked like this in the snug pre-Vatican II, East Coast, Irish-Catholic cocoon that I grew up in. Nobody thought like this either, as far as I knew. But that night I realized that some people did. Art worked its magic and caused me to understand a couple of things. I understood how Macbeth would think that life was meaningless, and through him I glimpsed the landscape of a world without God and without a purpose, without an explanation of why things are the way they are. But I also understood something Macbeth didn’t: his wicked deeds had caused this bloody catastrophe. Things looked bad because he had made them that way.
Time passed, my education continued, and I learned that Macbeth’s attitude was pretty much the prevailing view of 20th-century intellectuals. I read Albert Camus (“the one truly serious philosophical problem is suicide”) and James Joyce (“history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”). I read Jean-Paul Sartre (“We want to anesthetize ourselves; we do not want to realize that underneath all of this there is nothingness. When we realize that, the only proper attitude is despair and tremendous anxiety.”).
This picture changes considerably when we learn that the world is a sorry mess because it’s alienated from God. We’ve lost our way. We’re wandering in the wilderness, trying to find our way home. Amazingly, sin becomes a source of hope. It explains why things fall apart, why we do things we hate, why we struggle to do the right thing, why we suffer at the hands of people doing the wrong things. Sin shows us that history is not simply a nightmare and that we don’t need to stare into a void with tremendous anxiety. Things don’t have to be this way. We can hope for a better world because this world isn’t the world that God intended. Sin shows us that life as we know it isn’t a meaningless tale told by an idiot. Rather, our lives are broken, and they need to be fixed.
I wasn’t taught about the hopeful side of sin during my years of religious education. Many of the nuns and brothers who taught me in school had a bleak view of the human condition. They tended toward the opinion of St. Augustine, who thought that humanity was a massa damnata—a huge mass of doomed souls, rebellious and ignorant, headed for hell. In the Augustinian view, God bestows the graces of salvation sparingly. Ignatius saw it differently. He understood how pervasive sin is, but he also saw how freely God bestows his grace. In the Exercises, Ignatius describes God bathing us with blessings, like the sun shining on the earth, like a fountain flowing with an endless stream of water. All is grace—even sin is grace.