What Good is the Order of Fallen Being, Anyway?

Jeremy Smith posted a trenchant comment to one of my essays here, Liberals Anonymous. In that essay, I said:

Liberalism errs about the order of being, and so disagrees with the world. It’s poor policy to argue with the universe, no? Yet that is just what liberalism does …

Jeremy made a really excellent point:

But the world is fallen. Nature is fallen. The UNIVERSE is fallen. … Not just liberalism, but Christianity itself “disagrees with the world.” “The order of being” of the world is also fallen. The world is not the final authority.

He’s perfectly correct, of course. “My Kingdom is not from this world.” What then is all this traditionalist talk about how the Good Society conforms itself to the Order of Being? Ought we not to live away from this world, and toward Heaven?

Yes.

But this is just what the world is doing; that’s the only reason it still manages to constitute itself a world from one moment to the next. If in order to continue in being the Fallen world were referring only to its own depraved past, and relying only on its own creative resources to cobble together a future, it would devolve almost instantly into chaos, as disparate creatures went each like sheep to his own disparate way. So it would dissolve. But it doesn’t dissolve. So that’s not what it’s doing. What the heck is going on, then?

Let’s unpack this.

The essence of the Fall, and of the creaturely turn toward sin, is the turn away from God as the superordinate source of order, in favor of something else. All sin then partakes on the one hand of pride, and on the other of idolatry. Each is ultimately an epistemological error. Pride errs in lending too much confidence to creaturely works of prehension; idolatry errs in its judgements about what is truly most important. Idolatry follows upon pride almost inevitably. Acts of sin carry these errors of knowledge into practice, actually realizing them. And when an error is realized in an actuality, so that it becomes an ineluctable fact of history, all other creatures – from quarks to seraphim – are thenceforth forevermore forced to reckon with it, and compensate for it. It’s a huge cost of participation in a Fallen world; a total pain in the neck, and – so far as our own poor creaturely powers are concerned – insuperable, when push comes to shove. We’re basically doomed. Such are the wages of sin.

Absent a Divine Fix, the result of creaturely self-reliance for a causal order is disastrous. For creatures operate perforce from a parochial perspective. No creature can therefore be competent to a comprehension of all things sufficient to a suggestion of a path forward, by which disparate creaturely events, each with its own peculiar take on things, may be coordinated to generate a coherent causal order.

But, thanks be to God, the Divine Providence is thus competent. To the extent then that there is a coherent causal order, it cannot be due to the operations of creatures, but only to the flux into the creation of the Divine Will, and, importantly, to the preponderant obedience of creaturely occasions thereto.  

We may conclude that, while it is indeed Fallen and depraved, the created order is not utterly depraved, either in whole or in any of its parts. For, the utter depravation of a creature is just its utter annihilation; so long as a creature exists, it has and expresses at least that most basic good of mere existence, upon which all other excellences depend for their realization.

And creation is basically good, after all; creaturely existence is wonderful. We complain, but only about defects and derogations of creaturely life. If the Fall meant that the created order was just garbage, through and through, we wouldn’t complain. No one complains about a defect in a piece of garbage. Indeed, if the world was throughly garbage, we wouldn’t even exist to complain in the first place, because a totally bad world would totally fail to exist. Complaining, then, moaning and groaning – i.e., pain – is and can only be a feature of an actual existence that is basically delicious.  

The orderliness of the created order, then, however truly messed up it is, reflects truly the beauty of God. A creature’s disagreement with the created order is therefore compounded of two sorts of disagreements: a disagreement with the disagreeable depravation of God’s good Will for us, and a disagreement with that Will.

And, obviously, God’s Will preponderates at every occasion over any depravation thereof. How could it be otherwise? I mean, he’s God, right?

So a creature’s disagreement with even a depraved order of being is mostly a disagreement with God.

All right, so how does this high-falutin’ stuff connect with the reactionary’s practical mundane predicament? It means that in conforming ourselves and our societies to the ancient human social and biological order, to the natural order, the organic order that gave us rise, we do very well. It means that a disagreement with, e.g., the nisus to reproduce our Fallen humanity in this Fallen world, or with any of the many practical policies that support that reproduction – as patriarchy, social order, custom and law, tradition, heterosexuality, antipathy toward perversion thereof, the dutiful care and education of the young, true faithful and honest religion, attention to duty, loyalty to duly constituted authority, and so forth – is a disagreement with being as such, and with the Divine Will.

Not that we may be cocky about this, of course. That would be pride: Babel all over again. But at least we may avoid the worship of Death, and the cult of Moloch.

There are two further things I would say. First, if we abjure the Fallen world in favor of Pure Heaven, or some image of Heaven, we run the grave risk of committing the Gnostic error. Pride, yet again.

Second, the continued coherent existence of the world, in its crazed career toward the eschaton, should be all we need to convince us that, thanks to the Incarnation and Passion, the world is already effectually redeemed. To the extent that it exists at all, this rotten old good old world is the forecourt of Heaven; that’s the only way it could exist in the first place. Its causal coherence tells us that God has not given up on it; and the fact that he has not given up on the world just is the fact that he has already redeemed it, completely, so that it is bound in its every instance for Heaven. God cannot fail of his purposes for us and our world, except by our disagreement with them. Whatever is, then, has a due shot at immortality. No good thing need be lost, or – given mere Omnipotence – ever can be.

Only the wicked bits will be calcined away, to dust. But these are just the bits that had in any case already bound themselves to non-being.

But wait! Is it not the case that only rational souls can attain immortal theosis? Yes. But recall – we all know this – that we rational beings are procedures of the whole created order. Our bodies, our minds and acts, come from everything, and contribute to everything; this is just Mach’s Principle, and Whitehead’s dictum that “each atom is a system of all things.” The most parsimonious term for it is “love.” The world is an integral operation. It is a communion. So, “No man is an island” means that the salvation of one bit of the world is the salvation of the whole shooting match. The resurrection of my body therefore involves the resurrection of everything that has contributed thereto. Only as a member of a more or less Earthly system, after all, could my body be really my body in the first place, or my mind mine. If I am ever redeemed, so is my whole past.

Let’s do live toward Heaven, then; and recognize this earthly life as its antechamber.

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4 thoughts on “What Good is the Order of Fallen Being, Anyway?

  1. Mr. Smith’s objection seems like the kind that can only seem compelling outside a Catholic moral theological system. The Devil is fallen, after all, but this fallenness expresses itself in his rejection of his own (good, because angelic) nature. Human nature remains the mode of human goodness, even if our ability to act perfectly according to it is hampered by our inability to possess fully the supernatural gifts we foolishly squandered through original sin.

  2. Kris, First I want to say that it is with joy that I am responding this evening. I do still disagree with you. And I suppose there is always a certain pleasure in self expression. But that is not the joy I feel. What I am getting at is: how often do people really confront and think through the real issues like this: real issues that are difficult, and that people easily get upset about, and that people don’t like to think about and largely perhaps wish would go away? Well, in my experience, not very often. So I am also honored that you have responded but also overjoyed!
    The question is: how can we understand the idea that the world is something good which has fallen? A world from which God’s ordering activity has not been utterly withdrawn, and yet at the same time, a world which is fundamentally disordered, and a world which cannot be said to correspond to God’s intention for it? Easier to call the world utterly depraved, or on the other hand to drop the idea of the Fall as outmoded. Aquinas’s basic outlook is the one that makes the most sense to me. But I have not worked through all the details of his theology of the Fall. So what I am expressing I hope is a more or less informed seeking–in some says somewhat less informed, in some ways perhaps more. But from what theological study I have done, it is very clear to me that these are really difficult questions.
    This makes me want to dig into Luther, Calvin, and Aquinas more.

    Is one position this: that death itself represents the sovereignty of God? Is death as an essential aspect of the order of this world somehow justified as a punishment? So that the world is not really disordered? But then why did God choose to redeem anyone? I think these are the questions that plagued someone like Calvin. And I think they are worth taking seriously. And these thoughts should be compared with the idea which I think is to be found in the Catholic catechism that God desires the salvation of all the creatures he created.
    From what I know about Thomism I think it is clear that it distinguishes between nature and grace. There are other theologians, I think especially Reformed theologians, who I think tend to challenge this distinction. These are topics worthy of reflection that I want to pursue more. But if we do make a clear distinction between nature and grace, we are distinguishing between the order in nature representing God’s continuing fundamental preserving and ordering power, and on the other hand, the overcoming of sin and death through Christ which redeems humans from sin and its consequence death. One ambiguity here, it seems to me, lies in what we mean by “the order of nature.” From one point of view, death and decay are natural necessities and in that sense part of the order of nature. But how do they relate to God as the one who sustains us in being and brings to nature the continuing positive order of life? I’m not sure anyone can answer this question. But must we not also say that for God, death and decay do not have the necessity they seem to us to have insofar as we are within nature and limit our horizon to the merely natural one? And is it not a fairly fundamental idea in Christianity that the actual order of nature in which death and decay are “natural necessities” was not the order that God intended in creation? Or are we to say on the other hand that death and decay are the expression of God’s just wrath over sin? But if that is so, why did he redeem us? I am interested in learning more about what Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin say about this. But I do not believe that it is possible to give a clear, objective, definitive answer to this question that we can justify either to our minds or our hearts. It is from this that we experience the limits of our minds and hearts. It is at this point that life gives birth to a kind of despair whose only outlet is faith. (Didn’t Luther speak of this sort of despair?)

    So to move on from the question of what death means in the order of nature, I’ll ask what political power means in the order of human society. That we have powers must be traced back to the creative, ordering, sustaining power of God. Any kind of power: physical strength and health, intellect, language, group identity, cooperation. Social organization is a kind of power without which the others would mean little. So the existence of cohesive societies and structures of obedience must indeed also be a gift of God–not by some sort of miracle, but rather because the capacity to create them could only be given by God. The problem with power though is that it is by its nature something to be used toward an end. The end toward which power is used can be good or evil. One’s motives in pursuing one’s ends may also be good or evil. Selfishness, greed, lust for power itself are common motives for the exercise of all sorts of power. When humans use power out of these motives, their activity is parasitic upon the good. Power hungry individuals need cohesive societies to exploit. That cohesiveness is itself a good. The point I am getting at is that while social order is good, it is often used for evil ends by evil people. And often used for very morally ambiguous ends by morally self-contradictory people. And the very structures of society themselves become twisted and perverted by the influence of the selfishness, greed, and lust for power of not only the oligarchs who wield the most power, but by everybody. (And I want to emphasize again that I do not therefore conclude that power, authority, and ordered obedience are therefore merely expressions of the lust for power. No, I regard them as goods upon which the lust for power is parasitic.) My objection to your position is that it seems to me to take insufficient cognizance of the fact that the order of society is only ambiguously good: ambiguously, because the real good those structures represent is consistently fed upon and perverted by those who simply love power for its own sake. And there is no time at which this has not been so.

    • Jeremy, once again I am going to intersperse my replies in an excerpt of your comment:

      Is one position this: that death itself represents the sovereignty of God? Only in that death is the inevitable result of rebellion against the sovereignty of God. If finitude declares war on infinity, it is going to get swallowed up. Is death as an essential aspect of the order of this world somehow justified as a punishment? Yes; but not as punishment so much, although it is effectually that; more as inevitable result according to the Law of Compensation. So that the world is not really disordered? It is disordered by comparison to what it might have been had creatures never rebelled. Given the ineradicable fact that they have, it is perfectly ordered in compensation thereto. But then why did God choose to redeem anyone? Because no finite amount of sin, however great, rises even to the proportion of 1/∞ of God’s omnipotent capacity to vanquish it; to compensate for and redeem it. God redeems the world in order to perfect it, because it will be better that way than if he had not, and he cannot but will, and – whether with our cooperation or without it – achieve the Good.

      From one point of view, death and decay are natural necessities and in that sense part of the order of nature. But how do they relate to God as the one who sustains us in being and brings to nature the continuing positive order of life? They are part of the order of Fallen nature, but are not necessary. They are contingent upon the Fall.

      But if we do make a clear distinction between nature and grace, we are distinguishing between the order in nature representing God’s continuing fundamental preserving and ordering power, and on the other hand, the overcoming of sin and death through Christ which redeems humans from sin and its consequence death. These are not disparate acts of God. Creation, sustenance, and redemption of the world are different aspects of a single divine act. But must we not also say that for God, death and decay do not have the necessity they seem to us to have insofar as we are within nature and limit our horizon to the merely natural one? And is it not a fairly fundamental idea in Christianity that the actual order of nature in which death and decay are “natural necessities” was not the order that God intended in creation? Or are we to say on the other hand that death and decay are the expression of God’s just wrath over sin? Yes; not in the sense that God gets all huffy because we have disobeyed his orders, but because disagreement with infinite power feels to the sinner like divine wrath. But if that is so, why did he redeem us? So that we could be happy.

  3. “For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.”

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