Under normal circumstances, we'd have an insightful review of the new Batman film waiting for you. But these aren't normal circumstances. Father Steve Grunow offers his thoughts on the horrific events of Aurora, Colo., our grappling with modernity, and what original sin and the cross can teach us.
Today was the day that two members of the Word on Fire staff were scheduled to offer their reflections and ruminations regarding the final installment of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy. I told our intrepid writers that they should hold off given the horrifying events that happened in Aurora, Colo. The story is now ubiquitous: a lone gunman opened fire on a crowded theater of moviegoers who had gathered to see the film. Many lives were lost. Many more have been irrevocably altered forever.
There has been in the past few days no shortage of commentary concerning this heinous crime. I spent much of the weekend surveying what people were saying and paying careful attention to what Christians were saying via blogs. I pored over sermons from priests and ministers who chose to address the tragedy in the preaching as texts became available online. Ross Douthat’s piece in the New York Times struck me as important. A commentary by Jeffrey Weiss posted on "Real Clear Religion" made me think.
Yesterday, the alleged perpetrator of this terror was arraigned. His self-presentation seemed to me to be a paradigmatic representation of what Hannah Arendt described in the banality of evil. This is the fiend? A slender young man whose non-descript features were offset by clownish red hair? From the looks of him, he could be anyone. Over at the Patheos.com Catholic Portal, Elizabeth Scalia and Joanne McPortland had insights that are worth pondering.
In the emotional heat of the current moment, the violence in Aurora seems an abeyance from a relatively peaceful status quo, an interruption of ordinarily safe routines. But deeper thinking exposes that assumption as incredible. Was it just two weeks ago that I read about a congregation burned alive in their church in Africa? How many people are already dead in Syria? One doesn’t have to go across the world to come to terms with the truth—it hits closer to my home. The gun-related deaths in Chicago are hovering around 300 people this year, and still climbing.
What happened in Aurora is one citation in a long list of atrocities, horrors that are happening with frequency and regularity. There is enough goodness in the spaces in between these terrors to keep us from despair, but the terror remains real—and closer than we might think.
There is a mysterium iniquitatis that haunts the human condition and cannot fully be explained. The doctrine of original sin identifies the problem: there is an evil—that is, a deprivation of the good—that is inchoate in all of us and that remains latent despite all our attempts to get it out by its root. This deprivation of the good is in us from the beginning. For those whose minds have been conditioned by the progressive ideologies of modernity, original sin is absurd. In the modern construal of the human person there is no such thing. We are, as one popular song said over and over again, “born innocent.”
In respect to modernity, the problem of our inhumanity is a consequence of social conditioning. Change the conditioning and the problem should disappear. Further, modern ideology would have us believe that we are right on the cusp of finally getting it right, if and only if we would all just cooperate with the right kind of social theory or political ethos. The events in Aurora compel us to question any and all projects of human perfectibility. We just don’t really know what will work, or even what to try. There is no consensus. Despite our magisterial certitudes, what we don’t know eclipses what we do.
Authentic Christian spirituality insists, to paraphrase John Updike, that the truth about our condition will be discerned through the shadow that God casts over everything, which cannot be explained. Original sin and its effects are an explanation grasped at in the shadows that God casts, but also they grasp at us in everything that goes wrong, in all that we have done and failed to do. Taken in its full doctrinal articulation, what original sin says about us doesn’t let us off the hook. It can’t be used as an excuse. We remain responsible. As such, the doctrine of original sin remains as hard to believe as it is difficult to understand. The claim that original sin is a pat answer to deeply problematic questions is absurd. It begs more questions than it answers.
There have been many requests for Father Barron to say something about what has happened. He is travelling all this week and is averse to sound bites. I asked him over the weekend how he might respond and he looked at me with that searching glance that comes across his face when he has much to say but doesn’t want to be glib. At times we have to let the cross speak to us. The temptation is to interrupt what the Lord Jesus has to say. But it is better that we listen. I know that much of what has been spoken or written about over the past few days is helping us to cope with an event that resists explanation. The amount of verbiage that continues to return us to Aurora has become a cacophony.
The truth about what happened is a crucible through which we must all pass. But I think that when the dark night falls, our witness to the Light becomes all the more pressing and urgent.
We Christians are, after all, not just witnesses to the Paschal Mystery. We are participants in it.
Father Steve Grunow is the Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.