Does Original Sin “Cause” Hurricane Sandy?

Did original sin cause Hurricane Sandy?  There are, I think, two ways to answer that question.  I’ll leave out of consideration the possibility that the world before the Fall was serene and not “red in tooth and claw” on the natural and cosmological level.  So that leaves two possibilities to consider.

First, yes, original sin “causes” Hurricane Sandy, but only if the doctrine of original sin is expanded far beyond its current anthropocentric contours and given cosmological dimensions.  Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, for all his faults, was the first modern theologian to consider this in a serious way.  He links “original sin” to the reality of contingent being.  In his thought, all contingent being must be created as being-in-becoming:

It [original sin] simply symbolizes the inevitable chance of evil (necesse es ut eveniant scandala) which accompanies the existence of all participated being.  Wherever being in fieri is produced, suffering and wrong immediately appear as its shadow.

So original sin is everywhere from the very beginning:

If there is original sin in the world, it can only be and have been everywhere in it and always, from the earliest of the nebulae to be formed as far as the most distant.

God could not/did not create a perfect world.  God created a world that could only become perfect by changing.  This change implies a movement from imperfect to more perfect.  In the process of change, things, since the first moment of the Big Bang “die:” stars die, plants die, animals die.  All of that imperfection, analogically speaking, can be called “original sin.”  Analogically speaking, since “sin” is only properly so-called when freedom enters the scene.

So in this larger cosmological sense, original sin “causes” Sandy.   Original sin as the “law of imperfection” is at work in the world as the shadow side of contingent being, and so hurricanes will happen.  Of course, with human beings and freedom, sin and evil become explicit.  They are now chosen, and so take on a new dimension.  They become “sin” and “evil” proper in the world.  They become “chosen imperfection.”  But original sin was present before in an analogical sense – as the law of imperfection necessary to a contingently created universe.

According to this picture, nothing changes in the world ontologically after the Fall.  The groaning of which Paul speaks in Romans 8:22 refers not so much to the contingent status of creation – though to that as well – as it does to the ways that the freely chosen imperfection of human beings has added to the suffering of the world.  Many natural disasters are caused by human foolishness or greed.  But human sin does not cause all natural disasters per se.  It only exacerbates them.

Second, original sin “causes” Hurricane Sandy in the sense that, because of original sin, human beings now perceive and experience hurricanes and other natural disasters as “evil” in some sense rather than simply being.  This is a more indirect sense in which original sin “causes” a hurricane.  By this I mean that it “causes” a hurricane as an evil when before it would have not been perceived as such.  According to this perspective, hurricanes and natural disasters always existed, but the first self-conscious beings may not have experienced them as evil.  They may have experienced them as most animals still do: simply as being.  This has a certain historical appeal to it, since the first rational humans may have only experienced a tiny glimmer of separation from their hominid relatives.  However with sin comes suspicion, and just as Adam and Eve realized that they were naked, maybe they also realized that the world was naked.  They experienced its imperfections now as evil.  Hence, in this sense, original sin “causes” the evil of Sandy.

  • A Sinner

    I’m not sure Teilhard was the first to consider “physical” evil this way, though perhaps the first to apply the TERM (confusingly) “original sin” to it too.

    The real problem for theodicy, of course, is moral evil. Without moral evil, as the last paragraph says, physical “evils” wouldn’t cause suffering to humans. “Evil” in physical evil just means the limitation of some good. But since all created beings have limits, “evil” in this sense is structural.

  • Dante Aligheri

    I agree. According to St. Irenaeus (coupled with Bl. John Duns Scotus), Adam and Eve were not created in the perfect state nor was the cosmos – all of which was to be perfected through the original Incarnation and divinization in the Word. Adam and Eve were children, or mere grains of wheat, from the cosmic perspective. The Word is the final end – the “omega” as Teilhard rightly said – towards which all being-in-becoming tends – except for the marring of sin. The Fall, as such, was not a fall from a completely serene state but rather a stumble from the path which would have led to that final state.

    As to your statement that natural disasters become properly evil because we exist to perceive them as such due to our own recognition of mortality and metaphorical “nakedness,” St. Augustine would concur. He wrote: “He leaves not in an unformed state the very least of His creatures that are by their nature subject to corruption, whose dissolution is loathsome to us in our fallen state by reason of our own mortality.”

    Actually, I think Teilhard was on the right track except for a certain naivete in overlooking the immense personal – and not merely aggregate – suffering caused in the evolutionary process. What could have helped was a greater recognition that things were not inexorably on the right path towards God as if this suffering could be justified as means to an end but rather had to be rectified from its tragedy by the historical Incarnation and Resurrection.

  • A Sinner

    For example, Catholic Encyclopedia in 1917 distinguishes between physical evils, moral evil, and metaphysical evil. The third category seems relevant here:

    “Metaphysical evil is the limitation by one another of various component parts of the natural world. Through this mutual limitation natural objects are for the most part prevented from attaining to their full or ideal perfection, whether by the constant pressure of physical condition, or by sudden catastrophes. Thus, animal and vegetable organisms are variously influenced by climate and other natural causes; predatory animals depend for their existence on the destruction of life; nature is subject to storms and convulsions, and its order depends on a system of perpetual decay and renewal due to the interaction of its constituent parts. If animals suffering is excluded, no pain of any kind is caused by the inevitable limitations of nature; and they can only be called evil by analogy, and in a sense quite different from that in which the term is applied to human experience. Clarke, moreover, has aptly remarked (Correspondence with Leibniz, letter ii) that the apparent disorder of nature is really no disorder, since it is part of a definite scheme, and precisely fulfills the intention of the Creator; it may therefore be counted as a relative perfection rather than an imperfection. It is, in fact, only by a transference to irrational objects of the subjective ideals and aspirations of human intelligence, that the ‘evil of nature’ can be called evil in any sense but a merely analogous one.”

    Reading this, “nature is subject to storms and convulsions, and its order depends on a system of perpetual decay and renewal due to the interaction of its constituent parts”…is Chardin really so original??

    Let’s not posit revolutionary leaps in theology when really the ideas are quite traditional, even if phrased in clever new ways.

    • Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

      Chardin’s big step was to redefine original sin to fit the reality that you quote, not do describe that reality.

      • A Sinner

        An interesting thought, I guess, as long as it’s only “by analogy.”

        I remember reading something by Augustine once where he basically said original sin (the human one) was practically inevitable because of human finitude even in original innocence.

  • Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

    “The apparent disorder of nature is really no disorder, since it is part of a definite scheme, and precisely fulfills the intention of the Creator; it may therefore be counted as a relative perfection rather than an imperfection.”

    I don’t think I agree with this. Sure, ultimately everything will fulfill the will of the creator, but that doesn’t mean that nature isn’t full of all sorts of dead ends and false starts and “messiness,” even, I dare to say, from God’s perspective. I think that is either simply the nature of contingent reality, or somehow mysteriously tied up with the fall of Satan in a way that I don’t understand. I’m not sure that calling this “relative perfection” solves the problem.

    • A Sinner

      I’m not sure what’s wrong with metaphysical “evil” outside man’s projecting our ideals onto it. Without that, it’s just matter changing shapes, disassembling and reassembling, like waves crashing against the shore. There is nothing truly evil about flux except from the perspective of the idealism which consciousness imposes on things.

    • turmarion

      I think that is either simply the nature of contingent reality, or somehow mysteriously tied up with the fall of Satan in a way that I don’t understand. I’m not sure that calling this “relative perfection” solves the problem. (my emphasis)

      Exactly. In the “Ainulindalë” section of the Silmarillion, Tolkien mythologically has the Ainur (angels) join in the song of Eru (God) until the highest, Melkor (Lucifer) introduces discord by trying to sing his own theme, rather than harmonizing with the rest in the music Eru has given them. After Eru stops this, he gives the Ainur a vision of what the song actually was–the world. The nastiness, messiness, and such of the cosmos–what Tolkien calls its “marring”–results from Melkor’s egotistic discord. Melkor goes off to cause trouble (now the Devil), and the world proceeds.

      This way due is paid both to the notion that the cosmos was originally good (even if incomplete) and to the observed reality that there seems to have been nastiness afoot even before humans were around. The Song of the Ainur takes place in Eternity, so it’s no contradiction to say that the cosmos was “originally” good (from the Divine perspective, since the music was good) and that it has been marred from the “beginning” from the perspective of us creatures in time.

      I think you need something like this to account for animal suffering. I know that not everyone agrees on this–many would take a Cartesian view of animals as essentially fuzzy automatons with no moral significance outside of their relationship with humans–but I don’t see it that way. The Bible says that God cares for His creatures–“not a sparrow falls without Him knowing it”–and moreover we feel a moral kinship to animals. If we reflect God in a way, that indicates something about how He views them. I just don’t see a beneficent Creator making a universe where creatures die in horrible pain, where fluffy bunnies get ripped apart by coyotes, which coyotes may die of cancer (that exists in animals and predates humans, too), where ichneumonid larvae eat paralyzed caterpillars alive, where whole species die out, etc. C. S. Lewis, in The Problem of Pain intimated something like this, too. The bottom line is that I don’t think it works to dismiss animals and their suffering as irrelevant except as means of making humans more compassionate. They are God’s creatures, too, and they matter.

      • A Sinner

        Oh, and where will you stop? Is plant death a tragedy? Is a rock breaking in half? Is any composite being dissolving and changing form??

        You call it a “Cartesian” view, but Aquinas held it.

        It’s hard to see how any rigorous notion of consciousness could justify your belief. Animals don’t have natural language, for one, and its hard to see how one could have significance without signs.

        Any robust Humanism needs to recognize that Meaning and consciousness are, in a certain sense, by-definition, HUMAN constructs.

        • turmarion

          There’s actually evidence that whales, at least, have names; and the verdict on their relative intelligence (given that a water creature has a vastly different sensory apparatus than a land creature) is still out. Look, the Medievals believed in all kinds of non-human intelligences–mermaids, fairies, selkies, giants, etc.–and occasionally there was speculation on the status of such beings (e.g. whether mermaids had souls or not). If it was not, from a Medieval perspective, repugnant to reason and revelation to posit that God may have created other sapient species and populated Earth with them, I don’t see how it is out of bounds to speculate that whales may be intelligent.

          As to Aquinas, I don’t agree with him or Descartes on this.

          As I said, C. S. Lewis, no dotty and naive sentimentalist, speculated that animal suffering wasn’t part of God’s plan; and Tolkien posited that the universe had been marred before ever humans came on the scene. You may not agree with those positions, which is fine; but that doesn’t mean they’re not worthy of serious consideration.

        • A Sinner

          Dogs get conditioned to respond to their name too, and gorilla brains can be “programmed” to do some sloppy rudimentary sign language. Big deal. It’s a long way between saying that whales in a pod have unique sounds individual members respond to in order to coordinate their social behaviour…to saying they’re conscious.

          As for “it’s fine if I believe that”…it’s not if it’s untrue! If animals are persons than their suffering is equal to human suffering, is just as much a concern in making decisions, and I’d be a vegan. However, I think treating animals as persons is sociopathic, as rather than raising the animals “up” to our level, the psychological effect has been shown in studies of the radical animal rights crowd (an antisocial bunch) to tend to be just a lowering of ones esteem towards humans (ala “a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy”)

          But, at least they are consistent. The “moderate” position that animals are conscious “to a degree” but not persons, or somehow a subhuman person, or that there can be gradations of consciousness or personhood is incoherent. You either are subjectively conscious and experience qualia…or you don’t. Personhood does not admit of degrees. And if we said it DID admit of degrees, such that animals had a “lesser form” (that could occasionally be “traded” for a higher) then that would imply gradations among humans too (with disastrous effects for the defense of the inviolable dignity of the unborn and mentally ill or challenged.)

      • Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

        Yes! Thank you. Very well said. And thanks for the Tolkien reminder. I think we need to theorize more about Satan’s participation in this in order to keep a personal evil in the background.

        • David

          Are you joking? You believe in a personal Satan? I’m literally astounded that someone so happy with Chardin’s work would bring the devil into play, or indeed why anyone would resort to the metaphysically tricky explanation of evil as the inevitable result of process and creation in fieri – such that original sin and evil is by necessity imbedded in God’s system from the very start – if they were already willing to accept some evil as the result of some invisible. I mean, if you believe the existence of devils and such is plausible, your system would be a lot cleaner if you just said all non-human evil was the result of such invisible creatures. As it stands, I think that’s all bunk, which is why I suppose I’m forced to see evil as some inevitable shadow side written into a world that can support imperfect and weak humanity. But unsure why you’d accept both propositions. Apologies if I’ve misunderstood you Father :)

      • David

        Is this a personal Satan? Such that the evil is the result of a decision which could have been otherwise taken by a moral agent? Which I have to say I find problematic on a number of levels, especially if his decision to corrupt the world is judged to take place ‘in eternity’. Or is your reading just that this ‘eternal satan’ as a kind of intrinsic messiness which inevitably creeps into an evolving and imperfect creation suitable to imperfect beings like ourselves? More like the dark shadow of goodness. In which case the Tolkien myth is a nice way of putting it, but maybe not far off de Chardin’s account who seems to see it as a more or less inevitable element of the process, even if note exactly positively willed by the Creator. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding you, I’d appreciate your help and clarification :)

  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    it is too bad I think that Christian philosophy has never really found a way of incorporating the Jewish notion of Tiqqun, or “repairing the heavens.” It would be very helpful, especially psychologically for many Christians.

    Obiter dicta, our Corgi looked insulted when we wanted him to go our in the rain after dinner even prior to the winds gusting up. I am not sure creatures experience things ‘just as being”. His eyes said “Are you kidding?”

    • turmarion

      Well, Peter, if one assumes something like the above-quoted statement, “The apparent disorder of nature is really no disorder, since it is part of a definite scheme, and precisely fulfills the intention of the Creator; it may therefore be counted as a relative perfection rather than an imperfection,” then there is no restoration–no tiqqun–needed, since the universe is OK as it is, and everything bad is from the Fall, i.e., mankind’s fault. Thus the emphasis becomes taking care of one’s own sins, rather than the cosmos.

      Of course, the concept of tiqqun comes ultimately out of the Kabbalistic view that the cosmos couldn’t bear the weight of the emanations (sephiroth) of God’s light, so they shattered, scattering the light throughout the world. Restoration of the world through doing good helps “re-gather” the light, serving God’s plan. Of course, this assumes that a relatively imperfect cosmos was there from the beginning, at least temporally speaking; and unless Christian theology can deal with a world that was imperfect before humans came around, it can’t really embrace a theology of tiqqun ha-olam.

  • Paul DuBois

    I do agree with the quote you sight Nathan. I have thought a lot about suffering lately and the first thing is not to confuse suffering with sin or much less with original sin (Jesus points out that the man was not blind from birth because of sin but so that the glory of God might be shown). Sin can cause suffering, but suffering is not sin. Second, suffering exists because it has to, not because something is wrong.

    The suffering caused by the forces of nature (the hurricane, earthquakes, genetic illnesses and microbial diseases) exist because if the did not we could not exist. If our earth was not still alive (having an active core which produces volcanoes and plate movements) our planet would be too cold for life to exist. The weather patterns that cause hurricanes, tornadoes and flooding as well as droughts are a result of the climate that makes our planet habitable. The genetic diseases we have are the result of the same evolution that allow us to be cognitive of our selves and of God. Without the long process of mutation and change, we would not be here. The microbial diseases result from the same pattern of evolution. Without these natural causes of suffering, we could not exist therefore I would call them part of God’s perfect plan. The fact that we do not see or understand that plan does not effect the plan itself.

    Sin in general is caused by our rejection of God’s plan and our unwillingness to trust in God. That is the part of original sin that is associated with a hurricane, our inability to endure the suffering with the confidence that it is all part of God’s plan and He will take care of us. Jesus points this out when he discusses the way God takes care of the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, so why can’t we trust him to take care of us? This is when original sin entered the world, when Adam and Eve decided to trust temptation and there own logic more than God.

    In the same way the suffering caused by our sin must also exist. God wants us to choose to follow him. If we cannot choose to reject him, than we cannot choose to follow him. This choice (free will) must exist for us to be able to choose God and his grace. Therefore if suffering caused by us choosing to reject a trust in God did not exist, we could not also choose to trust God and his grace. This is the choice that allows us to live with him in glory.

  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    Looking at the comment-field here, I am not sure I understand at all how a woman widowed by a natural disaster in a very poor country, left destitute with far too many children than she should have been encouraged to have by a certain world-wide church, will be helped by the the notion that it is somehow all connected with “the fall of Satan.” In fact, it is in the heartbreakingly personal and crushing facts of poverty caused by unwise pregnancies that the real “evil” in this whole scenario is seen. To whom may that evil be traced, pray tell? Anyways God is, on this view , not practically compassionate enough to really understand this grim reality for the mother of too many children, because in some philosophers’ views he is simply “not big.” Not being thus spatio-temporal by way of “bigness” it seems the really small — like the poor woman with her children — is luckily freed from having her real economic status Divinely and ecclesially considered, but of course will be given lots of love. O felix culpa, indeed.

    • Dante Aligheri

      No, I don’t think you can necessarily trace all natural evil back to the Devil. I do think that, like Fr. O’ Halloran and St. Augustine suggested, that natural processes become evil to the extent we are aware of them. Sin entered the world when our vulnerable consciousness did, a consciousness separated from God and the chance at divine life. We know sin because we know God. I think natural evil itself in some sense has an inscrutable quality that can only be ascribed to God – hence, the wrestling of Job and Abraham: “I kill and I make alive.” Any supreme Deity must ultimately have this quality because He is responsible for all – a truth which the Hindus, Muslims, etc. all recognize. Because God is God, God cannot even be called “good” in the human sense of the term. In some sense, I think to say that God is truly Love is an act of faith, something not immediately evident but revealed, for Christians, in the Incarnation of the Word. I mean, the pagans knew of the divine, rightly feared it, and did not at all see divine benevolence – but rather divine anarchy. You are right. God’s love is not at all inferred necessarily from the world except by the fact we exist and, therefore, in some sense have been willed. Of course, this requires one to be a theist. To say that one God is ultimately over all other gods ontologically, by virtue of his being Creator, is to necessarily attribute this anarchy to Him – which causes the whole host of theological problems we encounter today.

  • Ronald King

    Once again I know nothing about educated philosophical or theological theory/belief on this subject. It appears to me that we are born into a world which is always transforming and thus we experience it as a source of suffering and death. We do not feel safe in this world and our desire is to be free from this suffering and the death we see all around us. The “flood” and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorahh were attributed to humans being sinful and God bringing down His wrath on humanity for their sins.
    It seems to me that we along with all of creation are in a constant state of evolving and are subject to the many forces which transform and shape our reality. How we react to this suffering is what is important. Do we learn something eternal in our suffering and loss or do we attempt to duplicate what we have lost and remain attached to the old way of being which in essence is a greater source of human suffering and death than any natural disaster. We are the hurricanes, the volcanoes and the earthquakes which have caused untold suffering and death throughout history. We are the chaos that we are born into. We are the original sin of missing the mark in discovering the meaning of our lives.

  • turmarion

    Thank for the appreciation of my comment, Father!

    Sinner, forget the animals (that’s a topic that would involve more than I want to go into). Consider the following analogy:

    A contractor builds a house and fills it full of horrible booby traps. There are blades that will suddenly swing out and decapitate you, hidden shotguns that will blast you, canisters of poisonous gas waiting to be released. As long as the house is uninhabited, you could argue that these things are not “evil”, since there’s no one to suffer evil effects from them. They’re just weird aspects of the building. Eventually, someone buys the house, moves in, and evil ensues.

    Now most people would consider that even if the uninhabited house isn’t “evil” in a strict sense, nevertheless the will of the contractor was evil, as he wished to have evil things happen to someone down the road; and to the extent that the booby traps have the potential to kill and maim, they are latently evil, or evil in intent, or instantiations of the evil will of their constructor.

    Even if one makes allowance for the “under construction”, privational, evolutionary status of the cosmos (you have to have plate tectonics, which produce earthquakes, etc.), objective analysis sure makes it look like the universe is full of lots of booby traps (cancer, disease, parasites, etc.) that are far too numerous, targeted (malaria specifically attacks certain proteins in human blood), and gratuitous to be written off as just “how the world is”. To go back to the analogy, there’s a difference between thin walls, bad insulation, and a small yard on the one hand, and trapdoors opening on spiked chambers or cyanide gas, on the other. There’s a reason that the Gnostic teaching that the cosmos is a chop-job done by an ignorant and malevolent Demiurge found an audience. Christians would reject the notion that God was totally uninvolved in the creation of the material world, as Gnostics asserted; but I don’t think it’s out of the pale of orthodoxy to posit some kind of demiurgical–and malevolent–activity on the part of fallen spirits. Heck, the Parable of the Wheat and Tares implies that. Even if one disagrees with it, I can’t see an argument that would make it impossible; and it seems to me rather likely.