If you’ve been following the logic of the three preceding pieces on Original Sin, it should be clear that there is no necessary moral difference between being naughty or nice. Being nice means for the most part being well socialized, which has the moral equivalence of being potty trained. Being nice is what we are trained to do in order to get along with others, and I’m all for potty training and getting along. But there’s nothing metaphysically good about being nice; it’s just convenient.
I’ve become a fan of the Fox Tuesday evening TV show “House”. The main character, Gregory House, is a legendary medical diagnostician, and he is not at all "nice," and he is not at all interested in "getting along." At first glance he seems to be just another arrogant doc. But after watching the show for awhile it becomes clear that he is a Diogenes figure, a ruthlessly honest man searching for other honest men and women, and not usually not finding anyone who qualifies. He sees through every subterfuge, every charade, every supposedly noble justification that masks ignoble motives. His basic assumption about human beings is that they are full of shit, and he’s right. For me that’s another way of saying that we’re all under the influence of original sin.
Is House a good man? No, but he is an honest man. Morally, he is neither here nor there. He has yet to be won over. He is not nice, but neither is he deluded, which puts him on the threshold of goodness. He is nauseated by any manifestations of cheap grace and sentimentality, but the 9/20 episode suggests that he is capable of recognizing and honoring goodness when it is the real thing.
The story involved a little girl with an inoperable tumor which was going to kill her within the year. She was the poster child for courage in the face of suffering and death, and House was having none of it. At one point he says to Wilson something along the lines of “Why is it that all these children are courageous? If they are all courageous, then none are courageous.” Courage, if it is real, has to be something that transcends the cliche about the plucky, terminally ill child celebrated by Oprah or Katie Couric.
He hypothesizes that the child really has no emotional grasp of the reality that she will die and that she will suffer terribly before she does. Or even if she does understand, that the illness has affected her brain in such a way that she does not have the normal fear response. So he takes it upon himself to make sure that she does understand, and that she doesn’t have to go through with it, and that it could end right now by refusing to go through a hellish procedure required to buy her a little time. Without going into the details, she proves him wrong, and in the end he reluctantly acknowledges that there is something going on with her he can’t quite fathom. He has brushed up against the true goodness that lies behind the cliche, and he is moved by it.
So the point is that it’s possible not to be full of shit, because this kid wasn’t. Sometimes what appears conventionally nice is in fact truly good.
In the Christian mystical tradition going back to Pseudo-Dionysus and Bonaventure, the path toward God comprises three stages: Purification, Illumination, Union. House represents the first stage—having the ruthless honesty to recognize that we’re mostly full of shit and that we need to be purged. House is a purgatorial figure in this sense—a monk wrestling in his cell with the devil. He is more progressed than the other docs around him because he sees more shrewdly and clearly than those around him. Illumination is the gradual process by which the substance of truth and goodness fills the space that was formerly occupied by all the shit. And union is what becomes possible when all the shit is purged and the shattered image cleaned and restored. Then we will have fully realized that which we were created to become, and then we shall see face to face. Most people are like me, mostly full of shit with occasional moments of illumination.
Martin Luther, who knew a thing or two about shit, insisted that we humans were simul iustus et peccator, at the same time saved and sinner. I think he got it half right. He was describing accurately our existential condition insofar as we have awakened to the fact of grace, and how it breaks into the shit-filled world that is our souls. And that therefore our condition as humans is both to be half full of shit and half full of grace, so to say.
But I don’t think there’s always an even balance between the two. In each of us there’s more of one or the other. I think there is a tipping point and the balance can shift, and that shift is effected at least in part by our effort. So sure, sola fide and sola gratia—it all starts there, but you got to do something with it. You’ve got to be fruitful.
Lutheran-style Protestantism easily leads to the kind of "I'm not ok; you're not ok--but it's ok" complacency that is so typical of mainsteam Christianity. And I think sola fide Protestantism emphasizes too much the idea that there has to be this conversion moment, this eureka, I’ve found Jesus moment. I think some people have such moments, but mostly it doesn’t work that way, and it doesn’t have to.
But even if it does, even if you have an experience that knocks you off your horse, what difference does it make if you don’t do anything with it? If it just results in your joining up with a bunch of Jesus freaks and spend the rest of your days congratulating one another on your great good luck, and nothing comes of it--you still remain mostly full of shit with no prospects for improvement. It seems to me that there's an awful lot of what passes for evangelism is little more than recruitment into the Christian Complacency Club--my definition of hell. I’d rather hang with House.
(Ed. Note: See post "Shrewd as Serpents, Guileless as Doves" that comes at this from a reflection on Steinbeck's East of Eden.)