Literary Witness 2

Kings In Exile

By David Mills

The reality that we are in some way fundamentally bent and twisted and that we chronically malfunction no matter how often we’re repaired is one we don’t hear about nearly as often as we need to. I have sat through many sermons that left this out, which made the good news sound somewhat pointless, like a doctor walking into a room full of Olympic sprinters and proclaiming the uses of geriatric medicine.

The writers we are looking at here believed in Original Sin and wrote about it a great deal, and their recognition of the fact gave their writing some of its unusual depth.

Of all of them, J. R. R. Tolkien had the most obvious sense of Original Sin. The Lord of the Rings is such a powerful book because it tells us about a world in which Original Sin is always at work, and therefore the brightness and simplicity of the average fantasy is replaced by a melancholic (though hopeful) insight into the ubiquity of sin and failure. That’s why he included the late chapter “The Scouring of the Shire” and why the Elves must leave Middle Earth even after the Ring is destroyed.

Indeed, the Ring itself shows how Original Sin works. Frodo inherited it, but the mere contact corrupted him and using it, giving in to it, corrupted him even more. It led him to act against his own obvious good, in challenging Sauron to a battle that could only end in agony for him. He had to be delivered from the Ring by grace, of a sort, and could only be fully healed in the next world.

In the same way, Dorothy Sayers ruthlessly dismissed the vague humanistic and secular schools of her day, who were continually surprised to find that “science and education and toleration of opinions, and enlightenment and so forth” kept ending in violence. The reason was obvious, she wrote: “increased knowledge and science and power have only enlarged the scope and opportunity for both good and evil, not altered man’s nature, which remains what it was — capable of choice because its will is free; capable of and indeed inclined to make the wrong choice, because it centres itself on man and the relative rather than on God and the absolute.”

She also noted, practically, that “None of us feels the true love of God till we realize how wicked we are. But you can’t teach people that — they have to learn by experience.”
Original Sin is a matter of choosing ourselves over God, which we find ourselves doing not once but over and over and over. “We try, when we wake, to lay the new day at God’s feet,” C. S. Lewis wrote, but “before we have finished shaving, it becomes our day and God’s share in it is felt as a tribute which we must pay out of ‘our own’ pocket, a deduction from the time which ought, we feel, to be ‘our own’.”

“Thus,” he continued, “all day long, and all the days of our life, we are sliding, slipping, falling away — as if God were, to our present consciousness, a smooth inclined plane on which there is no resting.”

Ronald Knox observed although all good things come from God, “Sin is the only thing . . . that man has invented for himself.” He made the interesting suggestion that we call Original Sin “Original Guilt” instead. “Sin, in the mind of the common man, is something which he commits himself; whereas guilt is something he may get involved in through no fault of his own.” He gave the example of the war guilt of the German people (he was writing after World War I).

Oddly enough, perhaps, Chesterton was the most cheerful of the lot, and also the one who wrote the most about the Fall, and by extension the doctrine of Original Sin. Or perhaps not oddly. Belief in Original Sin “is not only the only enlightening, but the only encouraging view of life,” he wrote. “It holds, as against the only real alternative philosophies, those of the Buddhist or the Pessimist or the Promethean, that we have misused a good world, and not merely been entrapped into a bad one. It refers evil back to a wrong use of the will, and thus declares that it can eventually be righted by a right use of the will. Every other creed except that one is some form of surrender to fate.”

It explains a lot about the world that no one else can understand, he goes on to say. I can only quote the end, but it is a good quote with which to end. Belief in the Fall explains “that sublime sense of loss that is in the very sound of all great poetry . . . which cries against all prigs and progressives out of the very depths and abysses of the broken heart of man, that happiness is not only a hope, but also in some strange manner a memory; and that we are all kings in exile.”

David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. This column appeared in the March/April 2009 issue of Lay Witness.

A description of Benedict’s comments can be found here. The quotations are taken from The Letters of Dorothy Sayers (vol. 2) and The Emperor Constantine (Sayers); The Problem of Pain (Lewis); Retreat in Slow Motion and In Soft Garments (Knox); The Thing (Chesterton).