Many years ago, in the parish where I was pastor, there was a particularly challenging group of boys in the Eighth Grade of the parish school. That group of boys routinely defied the guidance of the school faculty and administration. Those boys weren’t “bad” children; rather, they had an inadequate capacity to judge appropriate limits for their behavior. One day, I was called to intervene when the boys’ behavior reached a new low.
The Eighth-Grade boys had been boasting loudly that they were so clever, competent, and skilled that they should be allowed to leave Eighth Grade immediately and thereby carry on unencumbered with their special, gifted lives.
I was happy to agree with them that they were special, unlike any previous or future Eighth Grade class. I went on to say that I had never encountered an Eighth-Grade class quite like them. I asked them, in as serious a tone as I could muster, “Do you really want to be able to leave school permanently today?” All responded with a resounding, “Yes!”
“Okay,” I said, “You are dismissed from school. I proclaim that you never have to return to this school or any other. You are free to pursue your special paths through life.”
In the brief, stunned silence that followed my pronouncement, I interjected a question. I asked them to consider their prospects for employment. I asked those newly emancipated Eighth Graders if they thought they were ready to take on the responsibilities of an adult’s life. Before they could formulate responses, I asked one further question. I asked if they would want to have teenaged, Eighth Grade dropouts for parents.
I was familiar with most of the parents of those students; for the most part, the parents were professionals, business owners, and others who had been unusually successful in their careers. I was familiar as well with the material benefits that those parents were able to provide their sons – material benefits that were the direct result of the parents’ successful careers.
When the boys realized that I was asking if they would be willing to forfeit all the material benefits they derived from their parents’ successes, the room fell silent. Before they could restart their boasting, I added, “If you don’t want to live in poverty and want, don’t do that to someone else, for example, your own son.”
I don’t know if that conversation had any lasting effect on those Eighth Graders, but for a brief moment, they were confronted by the intractable nature of their personal limitations – an experience repulsive, not only to Eighth Graders, but to everyone.
The Fall of Adam and Eve, narrated in today’s first reading, is very often described as the result of the sin of self-sufficiency. When the serpent offered them the possibility of becoming like gods, they jumped at the chance. (Gn. 3:5) The forbidden fruit promised autonomy from God and god-like power. This description of the sin of Adam and Eve might be an accurate one, as long as we keep in mind an important qualification to the statement. Adam and Eve might well have been tempted by the prospects of self-sufficiency, but self-sufficiency was never a realistic possibility for them.
There are moments when we can claim legitimately to be in control of our lives. The choice of an education, a career, a spouse is entirely under our control. On a regular basis, however, reality intervenes. When our health fails, when a loved one dies, when things go horribly wrong in the world, we are confronted by the intractable reality of human limitation.
Because everyone knows that the reality of life in a finite universe is always ready to poke holes in our proclamations of self-sufficiency, we feel compelled to make ourselves into gods even though to do so is complete nonsense. Because life is so fragile, we feel compelled to claim, like those Eighth Grade boys, that we’re invincible and capable of perfection in every aspect of life. We feel compelled to do so precisely because we know it’s not at all true. The real nature of the sin of Adam and Eve was not merely their desire for autonomy from God, it was their self-destructive willingness to believe an obvious falsehood. Yes, it’s true, they sought self-sufficiency, but only because they first sought to deceive themselves.
Christianity’s belief in a God who offers perfect reconciliation and eternal peace is often criticized as being a fairytale-like falsehood. Not all criticisms of organized religion are as well-reasoned as Karl Marx’s assertion that religion is the drug of choice of those who allow themselves to be oppressed, but all such criticisms point to the improbability of the beliefs of organized religion. While there is an extraordinary act of trust required to affirm Christianity’s beliefs, there is an even greater degree of self-deception required to reject those beliefs.
Contrary to the opinions of Christianity’s detractors, to be reconciled to God and neighbor doesn’t require that we forfeit our freedom or self-determination. Rather, it requires that we abandon our acts of self-deception. The putative freedom that Adam and Eve thought they could attain without God wasn’t really freedom at all; it was instead something far less than is possible or desirable for human existence.
If you are one of those who think of organized religion as a fairytale that promises false comfort, ask yourself if your personal strengths and abilities extend far enough to elude death or even to overcome the daily limitations of human nature. The belief in unencumbered freedom and complete self-reliance constitutes a fairytale that has no happy ending.
If, on the other hand, you know someone who holds the above opinion about religion, don’t try to talk them out of it. As the old saying goes, talk is cheap. If you’re concerned about another person’s life, allow them complete freedom but give them a credible example of what complete freedom looks like. True and lasting freedom is to live at peace with God and people.