The Immaculate Conception: The Common Thread
Taken together, the basic argument of the nineteenth-century elites was summarized long ago by the author of Wisdom:
For they reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves,
“Short and sorrowful is our life,
and there is no remedy when a man comes to his end,
and no one has been known to return from Hades.
Because we were born by mere chance,
and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been;
because the breath in our nostrils is smoke,
and reason is a spark kindled by the beating of our
When it is extinguished, the body will turn to ashes,
and the spirit will dissolve like empty air.
Our name will be forgotten in time,
and no one will remember our works;
our life will pass away like the traces of a cloud,
and be scattered like mist
that is chased by the rays of the sun
and overcome by its heat.
For our allotted time is the passing of a shadow,
and there is no return from our death,
because it is sealed up and no one turns back.”
All these schools of thought have two basic things in common: rejection of the Christian understanding of God and rejection of the Christian understanding of the human person. And that means, as Paul points out, that in professing to be wise they have become fools (Rom. 1:22). For the common thread that unites them all is what Christian teaching has always regarded as the great sin, the source of all other sin, the thing that made the devil the devil: pride.
Reality only offers us two choices: we can worship God or we can worship what is not God. We do not have the choice of not worshipping, for human beings are so made that they must, sooner or later, give their lives in worship of something (even if the object of worship is just their belly). That’s why, in all these philosophical systems, there is (often in the name of “science” ) the curious combination of a hatred of “religion” (meaning “the God of Abraham” ) combined with the strange tendency to speak in religious terms of Humanity, Progress, Evolution, Destiny, etc. Founded on the basic choice to worship what is not God, the nineteenth-century philosophies sketched above undertook to begin the mass popularization of these ideas:
• The human person is not in the image of God because God does not exist.
• The human person therefore comes from chaos and shall return to chaos.
• The human person is the product of purposeless processes.
• The human person is defined by power, not love.
• The human person is either an oppressor or a victim.
• The human person is an illusion disguising a fathomless abyss of conflicted impulses and irrational desires.
• The human person must kick down the ladder of history and biology by which he climbed and create himself.
• The human person cannot be hobbled by love, pity, and a slave morality that cringes before God.
• The human person improves himself through competition, enmity, and strife as he destroys the weak.
• The human person should seek pleasure in this world, because this is all there is.
• The human person must defeat and destroy anything standing in the way of the quest for pleasure and power.
• It is arrogant for us to think of ourselves as “made in God’s image” and superior to other creatures.
• Since nature is all there is, and humans dominate nature by virtue of natural selection, humans can be said to be the “face” of nature and the most successful humans should, by any means necessary, take their place as the only gods there will ever be, knowing the difference between good and evil.
In short, the nineteenth century saw the beginning of the biggest philosophical and cultural attempt in history to make the case for worshipping what is not God, combined with the largest philosophical and intellectual assault on the dignity and origin of the human person ever known.
And so, right in the middle of this nineteenth-century intellectual assault, the Holy Spirit did a providential thing: He prompted the Church to formally proclaim the Immaculate Conception and hold up for us the image of the most profoundly redeemed human person in the entire universe: Mary. And, curiously, the motivation for the definition—plain old love for Mary without a thought of winning some fight or power struggle—was itself a paradoxical rebuke to the philosophers of pride. For the philosophies of pride were all founded on the proposition that the very first word about the dignity and origins of the human creature is chaos, that the story is nothing but one endless power struggle, and that the final word is death. In contrast, the point of the Immaculate Conception is that the very first word about the human creature is the Word who became flesh, that the story is love and the final word is glory.
For by her creaturely humility and God’s subsequent exaltation of her through the grace of Christ, Mary gives the lie to every proposition upon which the philosophies of pride were founded and reminds the world again that salvation is found not by saying with Shelley’s hero Satan, “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven,”(John Milton, Paradise Lost (bk. I, l. 263)) but by saying “Let it be unto me according to your word.”
All these philosophies of pride promised liberation and, as we shall see, delivered bondage because that was all they ever had to give. Original sin is not something that can be wished away, denied, or shouted down. It is a fact of life that can only be washed away by the blood of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. But the philosophers of pride refused to face that fact. They denied original sin and so paradoxically remained in bondage to it themselves. Trapped in that bondage, they then constructed philosophies that refused to look God in the eye and see him as Father.
Therefore, as Pope John Paul warns, they could not help but see God instead as master. In the very act of denying the reality of original sin, they made its chaos and enmity the foundation stone of their philosophies and rendered themselves incapable of seeing any deeper truth about the human person. And because, for them, chaos was the deepest reality of our origins they therefore, in every case, made conflict, enmity, and warfare between man and God, between species, between classes, and between the sexes— in a word, original sin—the fundamental essence of existence. For each of the philosophers of pride, brute force, power, and irrationality— not love—was the root of our very being. To borrow an image from The Chronicles of Narnia, they knew only the Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time.
In contrast to all this, the Church, in holding up the icon of Mary Immaculate, held up an icon of both our true origin and our true dignity in Christ. For the Deeper Magic from before the Dawn of Time is not sin, but Jesus Christ, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. What needed to be said loud and clear was that we were made in the image of God and that our fallenness, though very real, does not name or define us: only Jesus Christ does. Though sin has defaced the image of God in countless ways, it nonetheless is false to say that we are essentially made of the chaos and dehumanization of sin. We are not mere animals, statistical averages, cogs in a machine, sophisticated primordial ooze, or a jangling set of complexes, appetites, tribal totems, Aryan supermen, or totally depraved Mr. Hydes. We are made by God, for God, and redeemed by God, for God. God has, in fact, joined himself irrevocably to our human nature and raised it up to dwell in the heavenlies with him in the person of Christ Jesus. Because of this overwhelming victory over sin, Jesus, not fallen Adam, is the deepest truth about who man is.
As Pope John Paul II would later point out, the Second Vatican Council stresses these facts when:
speaking of that likeness, it recalls that “man is the only creature on earth that God willed for itself.” Man as “willed” by God, as “chosen” by him from eternity and called, destined for grace and glory—this is “each” man, “the most concrete” man, “the most real”; this is man in all the fullness of the mystery in which he has become a sharer in Jesus Christ, the mystery in which each one of the four thousand million human beings living on our planet has become a sharer from the moment he is conceived beneath the heart of his mother.(Pope John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis, III. 13)
Not one of the philosophers of pride saw man as “the only creature on earth that God willed for itself.” Not one of them saw man as made in the image of God. Not one of them believed man was destined for eternal ecstatic union with God, participating in the glory of the divine nature. In the very act of denying original sin, rejecting God as a cruel master, and claiming to bring liberation, they all reduced the human person to the slavery of being a subhuman means to some other end. And because of this, still less did they see each and every human being as an encounter with Jesus Christ in disguise, as Jesus teaches in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt. 25:31–46).
And so, in a surprising but perfect move of the Holy Spirit, God reminded us again of our dignity as human creatures by showing us just how radical our origins and our dignity are via the icon of Mary. To a world based on the assumption that sin and enmity were the most basic facts about us (even as it tried to deny the reality of sin), the Holy Spirit insisted that Jesus Christ was a greater savior than that. In the paradox by which we lose our lives in order to gain them, the Holy Spirit insisted on the age-old revelation that since Jesus saves us from sin, sin is quite real and quite deadly and we must face that reality in order to overcome it, not deny it and remain imprisoned in it. But that was not the end of the paradox. For the Spirit likewise insisted that in Mary, we were definitively shown the truth about the human person who belonged to Jesus Christ. We were shown the model disciple who was preserved from sin in the totality of her being, as a sign for the rest of the Church of the absolute cleansing from sin that we too shall experience. Sin, said the Holy Spirit, is neither the first nor the last word about us. The philosophers of pride were wrong. Realizing this was like being hit by a ton of bricks. For I realized that I had long operated on the same basis as the nineteenth century philosophers of pride. When I had insisted, despite the lack of biblical evidence for her sinfulness, “She’s human so she must be sinful,” I had been saying exactly what the philosophers of pride did: that sin is what constitutes our humanity. But the whole point about Christ is that his Godhood has enabled him to be fully human. In other words, the Incarnation means that the more human you are, the more you will be like the fully human Christ, who is without sin.
This can be a surprise, even for some Evangelicals, to hear, resulting from an unfortunate mistranslation of Paul and a tendency in some sectors of Christianity to identify nature (especially human nature) with sin. Many Evangelicals are now used to speaking of the “sinful nature” or (worse still) the “sin nature” of human beings since some biblical translators have opted to translate the Greek word sarx (“flesh” ) that way. Because of this, the idea has taken root among many Evangelicals that sin is what constitutes our humanity: that to be human is to be essentially sinful.
But, in fact, to speak of a “sin nature” is like speaking of a donut composed only of the donut hole. It is sensible to speak, as Paul actually does, of “the flesh” as a good thing made by God that has become corrupted by the fall and by our weakened will, disordered appetites, and darkened mind, so that it is at odds with the Spirit. But it’s never sensible to speak as though a nature can essentially be composed of sin itself. For God is the author of all nature, and therefore all nature, no matter how corrupted by sin, remains rooted in the goodness of the Creator. If it were not, it would cease to exist since existence itself is a good. In short, evil is always parasitic. It cannot create. It can only twist and distort what God has created.
This does not mean that sin is unreal. It does not mean everybody is saved or that hell is impossible. Indeed, it is precisely because creatures have real choices and real power gifted to them from God that they are capable of really and truly damning their own souls by willfully rejecting God’s grace if they choose. But despite this fact, the most basic fact about man is that, in the person of Jesus Christ, he has penetrated hell, conquered death, and ascended to heaven. Jesus, not Adam, is both the first and the last Word about who and what we really are. So something had to give in my insistence on “if human, therefore sinful,” or I inevitably wound up insisting that Jesus, being the most human person who ever lived, was also sinful.
The way out of this impasse was to recognize that creation is not corrupt. Corruption is corrupt. Sin is the norm for the human race because it infects the whole fallen human race. But it is never natural. Indeed, sin is always anti-natural: It does not constitute our humanity, but destroys it. The most sinful people who ever lived have not ended as “fully human” persons. Instead they typically end as hollowed-out shells of themselves, desiccated remains of human beings. Conversely, the saints, in becoming holy, have become more human like their Lord, the most human person who ever lived. All the Immaculate Conception means is that Mary was the most fully human creature ever saved by Jesus.