Friday, November 6, 2009

“I Am Evil Because I Am Human”

The frightening statement above is a translation of Iago’s Credo in the second act of Verdi’s Otello. The aria is frightening. Iago is unapologetic about his efforts to destroy Otello, Desdemona and Cassio because Iago was passed over for a promotion.

Iago’s actions seem insufficiently motivated in comparison to their gravity. He is a monster and the simple explanation “I am evil because I am human” seems completely unsatisfying.

Yet Iago’s statement is nothing more or less than a proclamation of original sin, one of the basic tenets of Christianity. His evil is simply a consequence of The Fall. (As painted here by Michelangelo)

Original sin has never been an easy doctrine for Christians to accept. It has been particularly difficult to accept that babies dying before they were baptized would be sent to Hell. In the middle ages, the doctrine arose of a third place for the after life, Limbo, which was neither Heaven nor Hell, but some middle ground where babies who were unbaptized but too young to sin would be sent.

As far as I know, the idea of Limbo is no longer accepted by any theology, but it’s still difficult to accept the idea that those who do not deserve punishment, except for their inheritance of Original Sin, should be sent to Hell.

As recently as 2007 in a treatise titled "The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die without Being Baptized", the Roman Catholic Church still holds out hope for the salvation of babies.

Our conclusion is that the many factors that we have considered above give serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptized infants who die will be saved and enjoy the beatific vision. We emphasize that these are reasons for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge. There is much that simply has not been revealed to us. We live by faith and hope in the God of mercy and love who has been revealed to us in Christ, and the Spirit moves us to pray in constant thankfulness and joy.

What has been revealed to us is that the ordinary way of salvation is by the sacrament of baptism. None of the above considerations should be taken as qualifying the necessity of baptism or justifying delay in administering the sacrament. Rather, as we want to reaffirm in conclusion, they provide strong grounds for hope that God will save infants when we have not been able to do for them what we would have wished to do, namely, to baptize them into the faith and life of the Church.

It is only slightly easier to accept the idea that no explanation is needed for Iago’s evil beyond the unaltered human condition. We don’t need to inquire whether he was abused as a child or mentally ill. No complex psychological explanations are necessary to explain Iago. We need know only that he is human.

I think accepting Iago’s Credo is difficult because it does not correspond to our experience in life. I’ve known people whom I did not much like and some who were pretty bad at bottom, but I’ve never met anyone who was truly evil—although I’ve seen some people on the news who certainly seemed that way. I think it is in our nature to seek understanding and that we find it disturbing when we do not.

Iago, just like the fate of newborn babies, is disturbing because it is both outside of our experience and violates our sense of the proper order of the world. Sadly, though, just because something is outside our understanding does not mean it is not true.

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