In Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” members of an urban gang consider the source of their problems. They sing it all to their favorite cop, Officer Krupke.
Here’s their first theory. I’ll call it “Krupke, 1”:
Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke,
You gotta understand,
It’s just our bringin’ up-ke
That gets us out of hand.”
Many of us take the same approach: it is actually our parents’ fault, not ours.
What’s under the rug? Same stuff we swept there last time.
I’m hard pressed to think of exactly when any of my issues actually started. I end up saying
I’ve always been like this.”
So what do you say about things that have always been there — things that look suspiciously like sin? Maybe you want to blame somebody else:
If this is how I’ve always been then God is behind it — not me.”
Comedian Flip Wilson used to take the opposite approach, saying
The DEVIL made me do it!”
(That was back when I was a kid watching “Laugh In.” You can look it up on YouTube.)
I know: I’m dating myself. While I’m doing so, I’ll mention one other theories articulated in Bernstein’s song “Gee, Officer Krupke.” Let’s call it “Krupke 2”:
Officer Krupke, you’re really a square;
This boy don’t need a judge, he needs an analyst’s care!
It’s just his neurosis that oughta be curbed.
He’s psychologic’ly disturbed!”
So what is it? God? The devil? Our environment? Our illness? Something pervasive. Something, please, other than US.
I want to look at the Heidelberg Catechism’s take on the question. Even if you don’t agree with all of the Catechism’s assertions, it is a great conversation partner. If you set your assumptions and experiences alongside this classic summary of biblical Christianity, I think you’ll be more and more able to make sense of both.
(I started blogging on this influential Reformed theological standard last year in honor of its 450th anniversary. I’m still at it — it’s all about learning to “speak Christianity” fluently in an era where for most people it is an unfamiliar language.)
So here’ the relevant passage in full:
7 Q. Then where does this corrupt human nature come from?
A. The fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in Paradise. This fall has so poisoned our nature that we are all conceived and born in a sinful condition.”
So the blame goes in two directions.
First, there are our “first parents.” Genesis 3 tells the story: Adam and Eve broke the one rule they’d been given, and the jig was up. Death entered the world, life got hard, and paradise was in the rear-view mirror.
Second there is us. We are born into life with a “poisoned nature” and there we are — stuck with it. It is our nature.
Back in the early 5th century, Augustine and other theologians came to think of this as a kind of genetically carried disorder. (Of course they didn’t have the words or concepts of genetics, but work with me.)
They were trying to make sense of two things:
On the one hand, they had biblical texts like Psalm 51:5 and Romans 5:12 (which are both cited in the Catechism’s footnotes here, by the way.)
Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.”
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned—”
On the other hand, they had their own experience. Augustine found that he just couldn’t stop doing things he considered sinful, even when he wanted to.
The Catechism explains the classic answer in a classic way: Christians have always found the story of Adam and Even in the Garden evocative and illustrative. We tend to find it a head-smackingly helpful description of how our own sin happens, how sin is universal, and how sin has damaged us as a species.
Personally, I find it helps to root the problem in the nature that I (and you, and everybody else too) have inherited. It doesn’t take me off the hook. It does, however, help me know that in my misery I have some very good company — and that God is fully aware of my problem.
I’d love to hear from you in the comments: How does it help or hinder your Lenten reflections to think of human nature as damaged?
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