Reinterpreting what Bonaventure writes about The Fall and Original Sin
Any evaluation of Bonaventure and other medieval scholars will of course take on the board their world view in which the Genesis 3 story is viewed as a kind of history of something that happened. Despite this it is possible to evaluate such theology in the context of what humanity is intended to be and how we have deviated from an intended path and the consequence of that deviation.
Likewise Bonaventure and other medieval scholars believed in something of the original disobedience as in some way transmitted from generation to generation. If historically no actual event happened in a true historical sense then there was nothing to be transmitted therefore must we see the idea of Original Sin as related to a consequence of a tendency of deviation from a divinely intended course.
Reinterpreting Bonaventure’s account
Bonaventure begins his account of the Original Sin in Breviloqium by noting that God had given humanity the capacity of choice, to choose other than God’s goodness. Although the state of humanity was intended for God’s goodness even so we have the capacity to go against it. In this respect humanity has developed as a free agent with the freedom of choice and this very freedom has included the capacity to deviate from God, the divine goodness and to take on choices and motivations that actually go against the divine intent.
In God’s plan we should have become a contemplative being nurtured in divine goodness but we have failed to take that course. It is a God’s freedom given to us that we abuse when we choose contrary to the divine purpose. Our failure to continue to grow into the divinely intended being has stunted and deviated our being. This failure to choose the right and the good contaminates all our current motivations. In Bonaventure’s view our entry into this chosen state of rebellion is not like God’s causing of things in the world because it is not Efficient it is Deficient.
The Genesis story is concerned with a precept of discipline and the temptation to transgress it and God allows this, but this is consistent with the divinely given freedom to choose. The first step is the distrust if what God has revealed. Through means of inspiration in the community and in the inner character of our mind we may know the rightness of God. The divine way has been revealed and known to humanity in various ways, even as an inner sense of what may be right, but we freely choose to disregard it. The inherent agencies within nature and within our minds are allowed to interfere with our development as moral beings and allow the turning away from the intended path of growth. There is a failure to listen to in the inner voice of the divinely given conscience towards the life of love. All aspects of our mind are perverted by this choice against God. Our motivation becomes focused to self-interest rather than the higher aspects of our potential. This deviation is our continued sin and leads to further acts of sin and rebellion.
Bonaventure then uses an argument that God with perfect foresight and justice cannot tolerate any kind of disorder in the universe.
I cannot agree with this on three grounds.
First it seems a very feudal view of God and is not altogether in accord with the revelation in Jesus Christ in which Jesus appears compassionate and reaches out to those who have strayed. Jesus met moral disorder with love, although retaining severe criticism for those who considered themselves morally superior and exclusive, even so wanting their repentance.
Secondly it would also not be right for God to give freedom of choice and then be intolerant to disorder that came about from that freedom.
Thirdly the world that we are discovering has always had some elements of disorder resulting from quantum events and randomness. Disorder has always existed alongside order as part of the natural processes. There is freedom incorporated into the universe and disorder is result and consequence of that freedom that also stems from God’s original self- emptying love that lets it change and evolve.
Death did not start with Man
Likewise in the light of modern science we can no longer say with Bonaventure that death is result of an original sinful act by some past human ancestors or that physical death is a punishment for our sin either. The ending of organic life through disease and predation has been part of the pattern of life since it was first established in existence on earth. Of course death may serve as a spiritual metaphor of the separation of ourselves from a divinely intended life but it cannot be viewed as an actual event or consequence of humanities failure to develop a properly intended moral life and existence in divine communion. Death is not something inflicted by God as punishment it has always been part of the incompleteness of the fabric of the universe.
Loss of Original Justice
Bonaventure writes about losing an original justice and that this led to a loss of peace of mind, and body. It is hard to pinpoint a time of such original justice unless it is derived from a state of innocence before conscious self-knowledge and chosen motivations. It is better to say in an evolutionary context that humanity in evolution has not attained the fullness of the intended state of divine being in communion and has thus been prone to moral weakness, ignorance, malice etc. By remaining in a self-centred state with intention towards limited immediate self-concerns and with a limited self-good we lose true peace of mind and body. We have self-inflicted diseases etc and are losing the glory of our intended communion within self, with God, family and neighbours and the rest of creation.
Transmitted Original Sin
Bonaventure then explains that something of the original disobedience, the Original Sin, born from selfish and fleshly desire is transmitted through the generations and goes into considerable detail how this comes about. However from our modern perspective since there may have been no historical single event of disobedience there is nothing to be transmitted in the sense the Bonaventure means and explains.
A better explanation of something called Original Sin, is our deviation away from God’s plan that we be Beings in Communion and that our selfish tendencies have been and are passed through culture from one generation to another. It is arguable that some of this is also inherited psychological behaviour but we should not stick to that view too strictly. Selfishness can be overcome by intentions of will. However the point is made that particular inordinate desires against the purpose of God continue through succeeding generations. Things inherent in evolved human nature continue to taint all nature and motivations.
The value of reading Bonaventure in the light of evolution is therefore to be reminded of our potential and Intended Being and therefore what we have lost along the way by not growing to this potential. Although we cannot follow Bonaventure’s interpretation of the Fall as a historical event we are reminded of the warping of our instincts and thinking towards self. We have misused the freedom to choose things and choose to self-satisfaction rather than the higher goodness and communion. We have lost our intended peace that would have come as beings in communion. We have separation from each other and God and even separation from our truest nature. As well as the unfortunate natural diseases that make up the free cosmos we have also self-created and self-made diseases of mind and body.
Humanity continues to carry these faults from generation to generation. Some of it we have inherited in culture and some of it is still of our own making and choice. Until we seek to return to our true origin in God and as intended Beings in Communion with the Word we keep repeating this ancient tendency. It is from this sad legacy that we need rescue and salvation.
(Based on traditional prayer)
Have mercy upon us Lord
For we have erred and strayed from the way and the path you intended for us
We have followed too much the devices and desires of our undeveloped nature
We leave undone those things we ought to do
We do those things we ought not to do
Our minds are far from your intent for our Goodness
Lead us back to the path we should choose
Rescue us from our wrong and folly
For you are the God of Love and Mercy