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LEC 5: “The Christian Doctrine of the Fall: Corruption, Noetic Distortion, and Reification”
September 10, 2014 richardstevenpark

LEC 5: “The Christian Doctrine of the Fall: Corruption, Noetic Distortion, and Reification”

Posted in Forum Post, Lectures

Today we will be looking at the Christian doctrine of the Fall and (perhaps somewhat unexpectedly) the sociological notion of reification, splitting the lecture into these two parts.

The Christian doctrine of the Fall

The Christian doctrine of the Fall of humanity tells us about the condition in which we find ourselves: as alienated from God and addicted to sin. Our guilt has separated, estranged, alienated us from our own good, our Creator; our corruption we are perverted in our minds, polluted in our hearts, and prone to choose what is wrong, i.e., what is bad for us. (Plantinga is particularly helpful here; cf. 54ff.) Focusing on the corrupting effects of the Fall, Plantinga considers three key effects of the Fall:

(A) Three important effects of humanity’s Fall

First, perversion involves “turn[ing] God’s gifts away from their intended purpose” (54). The example he gives is the prostitution of one’s mind: God has given to some (more than others) a mind which possesses incredible business acumen; yet this mind can be used for misdealing, fraud, or other perverse purposes.

Secondly, the polluting effect of the fall of humanity is seen clearly when one “introduce[es] into [an event or relationship] something that doesn’t belong to there (55).  A helpful example here might be the dating relationship which often precedes marriage: When a couple is dating and this dating becomes very intimate elements of sexual intimacy may be introduced to such an extent and in such a manner which pollutes this otherwise pure relationship. Dating (especially in group settings) is good: it usually helps persons, preferably in the context of community as well as parental and pastoral counsel, have an insight into the person whom they’re considering for marriage. And sex is good: it is a part of God’s created order which he called good. But two good things, when added together in the wrong context or at the wrong time, can be bad. The good of relationship and the good of sexual intimacy have been polluted. Sin has this effect.

Thirdly, punishment in the form of addiction to sin is also an effect of the Fall of humanity. This may seem an odd thing to say: that punishment is an effect of fallenness. Normally, we might want to think of punishment as the cause of fallenness: that is, because humanity chose to turn away from God, humanity was punished and therefore fell. But here when we speak of punishment as an effect of the Fall, we are talking about the way in which, given our having chosen not God, we have been given over to our perverted and polluted desires and ways (Ro. 1.21-32) such that we now second-naturedly (against our original nature) continue to choose what is perverted and polluted: sin has a punishing effect in virtue of our being addicted to its corrupting character. A particularly poignant example of this idea of punishment as addiction comes from C. S. Lewis’ illustration in Mere Christianity:

“The Germans, perhaps, at first ill-treated the Jews because they hated them: afterwards they hated them much more because they had ill-treated them. The more cruel you are, the more you will hate; and the more you hate, the more cruel you will become – and so on in a vicious circle for ever” (Lewis, Mere Christianity, 131-132).

At first the Germans killed the Jews because they hated them; later they hated them because they killed them. Sin has a punishing effect which comes in the form of addition to itself; this vicious cycle is a result of the Fall.

Or as the Apostle Paul puts it:

“For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (Ro. 7:19-20).

The guilt which distances us from our God and the corruption which destroys us within and with others are self-presenting realities that no rightly thinking person would deny. But the problem is that because of our fallen nature we are (all too) often not thinking rightly; that is, we do not see things as they really are, as God sees them. Self-deception is not just a psychological description of a mental disorder: it is a real problem for all of us to some extent or another (Jer. 17.9-10). In brief, we are alienated from good and addicted to evil.

(B) The specifically intellectual effect of the Fall

There is a specifically intellectual effect of the Fall that I would like to touch on, if for no other reason than the fact that we are in a university in which intellectual exercise counts for a whole lot, to put it mildly.

To discuss this point, there are two concepts or Christian doctrines that may prove helpful: the Doctrine of the Transcendentals and the Doctrine of the Total Depravity. Let’s take each in turn.

Simply put, the Doctrine of the Transcendentals suggests that there are certain descriptions of objects (persons, things, ideas, etc.), which apply to every object. Specifically, the descriptions or properties of goodness, truth, and beauty can be applied to everything from animals (e.g., a good dog) and plants (e.g., a beautiful rose) to mathematical principles (e.g., a true theorem) and moral facts (e.g., harming the innocent is evil). Arguably, nothing exists which isn’t good or evil, true or false, or beautiful or distorted. To be sure, there are gradations of goodness, truth, and beauty – indeed, this truth is what’s beautiful about this doctrine (!): that is, every baby could be more morally good (or evil); some religious traditions are truer (or less true) than others; every sentence could be written more (or less) beautifully than others (including this rather lengthy and clumsy one!). In short, these properties, which apply to every existing object, transcend the objects which they describe, and are thereby called “transcendentals.” Goodness, truth, and beauty are the standard transcendentals (originating in Platonic thought and developed further by Christian medieval theologians).

How is any of this philosophical jargon related to the “foundations of Christian thought”? Answer: by way of the doctrine of the Fall. Let me explain.

Because of the noetic (Grk. nous = mind) effects of the Fall, humanity is inclined to distort or distrust God’s ways, his word, and the world which he created. (See Gen. 3.1-6; cf. 2.15-17.) God’s ways reflect the purest form of goodness and his goodness toward his us, his creatures; his word – whatever he says – is truth which can be trusted; and his world (including the heavens) declares his glory, or tif’eret, which is Hebrew for “beauty.” Yet, in our postlapsarian state, we misperceive what is good, true, and beautiful, and therefore also misrepresent instances of goodness, truth, and beauty in and to the world around us and to ourselves. We utter (sometimes knowingly, other times unwittingly) falsehoods; we make bad art; we treat others and ourselves wickedly. In short, immorality, lies, and destruction abound in us and in the world.

Sometimes these instances of ugliness are the result of deliberate intent; other times they are the result of accident; still other instances result from a sincere effort to bring about what is good (or true or beautiful), but simply doesn’t pass muster. In other words, because our minds are corrupted by the noetic effects of the Fall, the world is filled with ills resulting from fabrication, failure, or finitude, or some admixture of these.

One important implication of this point about the doctrine of the Transcendentals and the doctrine of the Fall is that we, who are in Christ, have as a fundamental calling on our lives to redeem and reconcile all things according to the way in which God saw as good (2 Co. 5.17-21; cf. Gen. 1.31). In other words, we are to bring out and bring about goodness, truth, and beauty (GTB) in the world. We must produce artifacts, construct political structures, and lead lives which contribute to the net GTB in the world. Redemption simply means restoring the value of something as originally made. That is a fundamental call for those in Christ.

What, then, about the second doctrine, the doctrine of Total Depravity, in relation to Doctrine of the Fall? Simply put this doctrine suggests that, on this side of eternity, humanity will never be as good as it could be since “evil contaminates everything”[1]; at the same time, we must keep in mind that presence of divine grace, coupled with the work of divine redemption, means that humanity will never be as evil either. In the words of Augustine, the city of God and the city of man “are entangled together in this world [saeculum]” until the final judgment at the eschaton.[2] Or, as Jesus describes it, there are both wheat and tares in a given field, and until the “harvest [at] the end of the age” (Mt. 13.39), we will not know which is which. We must take seriously the depravity of humanity – and therefore not negotiate with terrorists, for example – while also recognizing and thanking God for the presence of divine “common grace” which keeps the universe and history running.

So: while we take seriously the doctrine of Total Depravity and the effects it has on fallen humanity, we also know that there is truth to be found in other worldviews and world citizens.

The sociological notion of reification

This discussion about the wheat and the tares, the city of God and the city of man, brings me to the next (and final) point of this lecture which has to do with the notion of reification. The point here is that, given the reality of a fallen world, when we set out to redeem it with GTB, we would do well to recognize the sociological impact made by certain instances of GTB (or its opposite: evil, falsehood, and degradation [EFD]). In layperson’s terms, what in the world are we talking about here? Well, let’s define our terms.

To reify (Ltn. rēs = thing) an object means to perceive a given human construction or cultural phenomenon as a bare fact or nonnegotiable aspect of reality. For example, whether we enter into a government building (or an entire political system for that matter!) or encounter the game of baseball (or even the baseball itself!), and if we perceive the building or the baseball as something more than a human construction which exists as a function of a collective recognition that it exists, then we reify that object.[3] To put simply (if roughly): acting as if some social-cultural (or political) object is unchangeable or nearly so is to reify that object. Some examples may help.

When one is purchasing food at the grocery store (rather than simply walking away with it); when a basketball player draws a foul; when a Nazi officer claims to have been “just taking orders” – in all these instances of cultural-social life, a process of reification is taking place (some more fatal than others of course). Grocery stores, basketball games, and military operations all require a degree of reification in order to exist and function the way they do. Arguably, every single human society engenders and encounters reification.[4] This discussion seems fine and fairly trivial, even if unusual. So what does it have to do with the doctrine of the Fall, and of thinking theologically through the whole of life? The answer has largely to do with media.

Because media – whether the new, social media, or traditional forms such as radio, theatre, news broadcasts – because they have a particular immediacy about them, we tend to reify what is being communicated, especially when they are emotionally charged.[5] This isn’t to say, however, that all reification is evil; certainly not: buying (healthy) food at the store is usually good and necessary. What I am suggesting is that media tends to reify ways of thinking (worldviews) into one’s mind and more broadly into culture; so when it comes to redeeming the world for Christ’s glory and our good, it is crucial to create cultural goods which exhibit and exude GTB.

By the way, not all non-Christian music falls under the curse of EFD. In other words, not all so-called secular music is profane: there is often something redemptive (to greater or lesser degrees) in secular songs. To restate what was said earlier: truth – and beauty and goodness – is to be found wherever God’s grace has allocated it; and his grace is allocated throughout the universe. Again drawing on Augustine: “[L]et every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to its Master.”[6]

So, in connecting this notion of reification to our first lecture wherein we discussed the three Is of Christian theological cultural analysis, I would like to point out three Rs which are important to keep in mind when considering the sociological explanations and effects of a given social phenomenon or artifact: viz., the way in which certain media not only reflect a given culture, but also reinforce the perceived values and views of that culture, and in turn reify these perceptions as reality.

[1] Plantinga, Engaging God’s World, 60.

[2] See Augustine, The City of God, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Marcus Dods (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1886 [ca. A.D. 416-422]), Bk. 16, Ch. 26; Bk. 1, Ch. 35.

[3] Berger defines reification as: “Reification is the apprehension of the products of human activity as if they were something else than human products—such as facts of nature, results of cosmic laws, or manifestations of divine will” in Peter Berger, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Garden City: Doubleday, 1966), 33.

[4] For an excellent treatment of reification from a philosophical point of view, see John Searle, Making the Social World: the Structure of Human Civilization (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2010).

[5] To note, traditional media (songs and films) tends to have a greater tendency toward reification than new media mainly because the former are uni-directional whereas the latter are interactive.

[6] St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Bk. 2, Ch. 18, Sec. 28.

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