A few years ago, I disappointed a Christian friend with my answer to his query: Are humans basically good or basically bad? I answered that it depends on what “basically” means. If the question refers to our species in its first created state, we’re basically good. He considered my answer contrary to Scriptural passages such as the prophet Jeremiah’s statement that “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt.” It didn’t seem to help when I reminded him that I had said the answer depended on what “basically” means and that Genesis says the results of six days of creation – including Man – were very good.
Aquinas analyzes the issue helpfully by pointing out that Man was good in three ways at the moment of creation: (1) he was good as all things are in that they exist and have good formal properties, (2) he had a natural inclination to good actions, and (3) he had an “original justice,” a state of grace. Sin entirely erased the third good and diminished the second, but it did nothing to the first. We still demand wonder and awe in that we exist at all, in that our bodies reward researchers with marvelous discoveries and yet still hold mysteries, and in that we produce Hamlet, the pyramids, shadow puppets, proofs of the Pythagorean theorem, and sailing ships, to name just five random samples of our productivity and ingenuity.
My recent reading in St. Thomas’s Summa Theologica concentrated on the theology of sin. It included that analysis of the ways in which sin did and didn’t destroy Man’s goodness, and it covered the comforting doctrine of venial sin. Any sin represents a disorder in our nature (the sensitive appetite overruling reason, for instance) and in the right arrangement of goods (pleasure above health, for instance). Any sin involves an inordinate enjoyment of an inferior good; as Thomas puts it, when we sin we “turn to” a good and enjoy it for itself, a good that should direct us to God. Turning to the inferior good means turning our attention away from God, but some sins also involve rejecting God as the ultimate good. Venial sins, on the other hand, invert some goods without upsetting God’s place as the end of life. We sin this way sometimes, for instance, by simply ignoring God. No one, Aquinas points out, can constantly refer every action and thought consciously to godly service. the question is, do I have a habit of turning to God? Mortal sin destroys that habit and venial sin doesn’t.
These consoling ideas suggest that I add a nonrandom example of human achievement. Surely Aquinas’s Summa demands our admiration. Just don’t admire it inordinately.