Jesus Names Us, Not Sin

In late July, Mel Gibson publicly imploded in a drunken, profanity-laced rant against Jews.  Much ink was spilt over the question of whether we are truly ourselves when we are smashed.

I think the real question is whether we are truly ourselves when we are sinful.

As a good child of a contemporary culture, I was raised to believe that what people say when they are plastered, or insanely angry, or deeply afraid, or otherwise stripped of their normal rational faculties is Who They Really Are. We talk that way all the time. “I thought he was a good man until the mask came off and I saw the ugly Truth”. That sort of talk is natural as breathing for us.

That’s because, as Cardinal George has observed, in America everybody is a Calvinist, including the Catholics. We believe that the fall is identical with nature, and therefore believe that when you see a man in sin, you see him as he “really” is. Goodness is the mask, corruption is his true nature.

I was corrected in this false and heretical belief years ago by my favorite priest in the world (and former pastor), Fr. Michael Sweeney, now president of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology. The reality is quite contrary. Sin is the mask. It is not what names us but what makes us anonymous. Sin, because of the fall, is normal. But sin is never natural. It does not constitute who we are, it destroys who we are. It is only when the human person takes his place as the redeemed creature God made him that we begin to truly see his face and know his name.

If you believe contemporary culture, then Gibson is a liar when he says he does not believe what he said, because only the subrational outbursts of the drunk, the panicked, and enraged–in a word, of the sinful–can be regarded as Truly Revelatory.  The sinner is the Real Man.  The penitent is just faking it.  We must see through the Mask of the “person” supposedly “made in the image of God” to the subrational beast composed of tangled desires, fears, hatreds, and appetites beneath. This is, of course, a measure we emphatically do not want anybody to apply to us, considering the horrible things we’ve caught ourselves thinking and even doing in unguarded moments (you know what I mean, don’t try to kid me). In our own lives, we are deeply grateful for the fact that nobody, including God, measures us by the chaotic and selfish impulses scrambling around down there in the id, but instead respects us enough to know that it is what we choose that matters. We’re even more grateful that they judge us by what we choose when we are at the top of our game.

But a good deal of our culture does believe that sin names us, and this has consequences far beyond what we happen to think of Mel Gibson, because it goes to the very root of a Christian anthropology and our view of Man. A Christian anthropology has to begin with what Man is as God sees him. And the answer God gives to the question “Who is Man?” is “Jesus Christ”.

Our man-made anthropologies virtually all attempt to answer that question by looking at what fallen man is doing and then deducing an answer from that. Fallen man is having a war right now, so some pagan philosophers confidently declare that “War is the natural state of man”.  The Virgin Mary was human, says another pagan thinker, so she must have been sinful, because that’s what it means to be human.  It’s only natural to be selfish, says another pagan, and so it’s good to destroy the weaker in favor of the stronger.  Still another notes that man experiences various disordered appetites such as gluttony or the desire for same-sex intercourse.  And so, we are assured that gluttony and homosexual acts are “natural”.  In each case, nature and sin are identified with one another.  Once this is achieved, all that remains is to decide whether Nature is sinful (and therefore bad, as Calvinist enthusiasts for Total Depravity hold) or whether Sin is Natural (as leftist homosexual apologists and rightist Exponents of the Glories of War hold).

For the Christian, Man is a creature who has undergone death and resurrection and now sits at the right hand of the Father. If you want to know what a human being truly is, look at Him. Those members of his body who are still on earth and still undergoing divinization are still capable of sinning and betraying the truth of who they really are. But that is what sin is: a betrayal of who we are, not a revelation of who we are.


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