The Origin of Imperfection
Eden is under attack or perhaps more precisely, belief in Eden is under attack. Eden itself has been lost to us in the depths of time. As an account of human origins, Eden works on several levels. It is the perfect place for a perfect beginning and paints a picture of our innocence during the time of grace before we acquired knowledge of good and evil.
For Catholics, the pristine garden also points to the person of Mary, the Mother of Christ: pure, holy and full of grace. During the Annunciation, the young Mary agreed to becoming the Mother of God, the genesis of a new Eden in Jesus Christ that would redeem humanity from its own folly.
The scientific accounts of human origins are less clear-cut. However, significant harmony exists between the scientific account of human origins and the biblical account of one human family living today, which both relate in their own unique ways the story of human existence, migration, struggle and co-operation.
The paradox of human life is that goodness exists alongside darkness. The progression of early modern humans did not occur in a protected space of purity. Bad things undoubtedly happened. Mistakes were inevitably made. Poor choices led to unfortunate outcomes. Yet, amidst this darkness, humans still learned to communicate better, to make music, to share meals, to desire goodness, to celebrate some understanding of love and to appreciate spirituality.
It is these positive developments that allowed early human families to live together in larger groups, form communities and lay the groundwork for early civilisation. It is entirely unconvincing that these ‘good’ things occurred by chance. It is more likely that our species woke up to the presence of God and learned to express thanksgiving for goodness. Certainly, the development of religion throughout the globe attests to this reality.
Yet, religion did not banish every problem. Humans continued to carry the capacity for wrongdoing and selfishness within us. This has blighted our potential right up to the present day.
Within modern society, there are those that find it difficult to identify with any religion due to problems (both real and perceived) with bureaucracy, abuse of authority and other forms of failure and abuse. While it can be difficult to overcome these challenges, an equal challenge for any individual is maintaining a humble righteousness, a moral balance, a spirit of self-sacrifice and a sense of wonder or awe in the absence of religion,
Human organisations are ensnared by human failings. By belonging to a religion, we acknowledge that we journey with people who do not always conform to perfect standards of purity or behaviour. We acknowledge this reality in ourselves as well. In other words, religion gives us a self-awareness at both the individual and communal levels, which cannot be found elsewhere.
Catholic philosophers and theologians throughout the ages have shared significant insights about the human condition. The conclusion might appear bleak to modern eyes, but from any honest evaluation of history or modern society or even our own lives, it is not so difficult to believe in the truth that we are fallen. As such, we often diminish the image of God within ourselves and each other.
The startling truth is that evil creeps in through the corruption of human desire. This original sin is the origin of significant suffering in the world. It is a stain that has been inherited down through the generations.
The Church is not simply a human institution. If it were, it would not have lasted and flourished through two millennia of human turmoil. But, just as Christ is both human and divine, his Church is both human and holy. It is this holiness that sustains the Church as the body of Christ and makes Christ’s gift of salvation available to all who seek it.
It would be naïve to think that all practicing Catholics are perfect, but it would also be naïve and self-defeating to believe that the human flaws that undermine the Church somehow makes the entire Church unworthy of our support. By going to Church, we acknowledge that we are all made holy in Jesus Christ and are called to be saints. How is this possible?
The Church is so much more than the sum of her parts. As flawed individuals come together in mutual respect, worship and thanksgiving, the possibilities for transformation open up beyond our rational understanding. Put simply, we are made complete in communion with each other and with God. Our individuality is not perfect, but our diverse gifts become the beating heart of the Church. This is where a deep sense of wholeness is to be found.
If this sounds surprising, just think about how Christ takes each one of us into his body and transforms us from mere mortals with real limitations into children of our Heavenly Father made holy through everlasting union with Christ in the Holy Spirit.
We can only really know Christ from within the Church because this is where we remain open to significant spiritual truths, including our need for knowledge, wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, piety and a deep reverence for God, It is only through community that the work of the Spirit bears rich fruits: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Without the community of the Church, we can easily become lost. When we insist that we are not in need of salvation as some uninspired ideologies suggest, we become blind to the heavenly gift that is the Church. Such pride makes no sense as any exploration of human origins from scientific accounts to biblical accounts acknowledge the complexities and challenges of human existence.
The community of the Church is not perfect, but it does offer us repeated opportunities to look within our own hearts as an avenue for deep discovery. The truths of reality cannot simply be learned from the pages of a pamphlet or even from a book. There is no quick fix. Faith is both profoundly experiential and deeply relational.
Not only do we have our fellow parishioners to help us, the ones we like and even the ones we might find it hard to like, we also have the Saints and scholars that have existed throughout the long history of the Church.
The spiritual wisdom of the Saints helps us to understand our own spiritual experiences and weed out false interpretations that may just be the result of our own inclinations so that we can focus on and cherish the experiences that are truly divine in origin.
It is easy to fall into idolatry, the worship of money or power or fame or even security. But equally, it is easy to imagine a God that thinks as we do, wants what we want and acts as we do. The three pillars of Catholicism from the Bible to Sacred Tradition to the Teaching Authority of the Church often remind us that we cannot reduce God to our own identities. Reason alone cannot help us to understand the wisdom of Church teaching. It is only though faith and reason that we come to know the truth.
Whether or not we remain open to the scientific accounts of human origins, the biblical accounts of human origins or the harmony of both accounts, the development of modern humans does not paint a picture of complete perfection. Whatever way we look at our distant origins, the key point is that we are imperfect and that much of our lives even in today’s world is about coming to terms with and striving to overcome our flawed nature, whether as individuals, as a society or as a faith community.
Throughout history, God has desired us to know that we are inextricably connected to others. We cannot be who we are truly meant to be without communion with others, with all the give and take, the self-sacrifice and the responsibility that comes with living in community.
It is fitting that the Son of God entered our world where he elevated the simple joy of meal-sharing. Meal sharing began as a basic survival strategy for early humans but developed into a family tradition that shaped the bonds that bind us together. Christ transformed meal-sharing through a divine instruction in the form of the Eucharist just as he transforms all creation.
The joy of communion that unites us to God, to each other and to all creation is celebrated throughout the sacramental and liturgical life of our community. This privilege is a blessing where imperfection can be overcome and true fulfillment can be found.