Truth Relativized (by time)

Are human beings sinful by nature?

According to philosophers and theologians, this question is an anthropological one, one which many traditional Christians (with a “low anthropology”) will readily answer in the affirmative.

However, if one affirms the innate sinfulness of humanity in this way, one is overlooking a crucial development of history (and thus of temporality). For surely any theologian worth her salt would not deny that man’s sinfulness is the result of what Christians call “the Fall.” But what is the Fall if not an event which (in some sense) has taken place in the world in and through time, an event which (in some sense) has come into being at a specific point in time, but which has no effect at all on the state of affairs which preceded it?

In other words, one can, with at least as much theological integrity, hold that human being is not sinful by nature, insofar as when God created man in his pre-lapsarian state, he was utterly righteous, utterly just, completely devoid of any defect at all.

Now, what is the point of all this, and why bring it up? I am attempting to write a doctoral dissertation on Joseph Ratzinger’s book The Theology of History of St. Bonaventure, in which the Pontiff Emeritus holds that, for the Seraphic Doctor, the logos of history is “first philosophy” (my wording, my gloss). For Ratzinger’s Bonaventure, that is, one cannot know truth, one cannot know what is real, apart from the revelation of certain “events” and their meanings–events which purportedly have taken place in the course of the history of the world. For example, that “in the fullness of time [Lat. plenitudo temporis] God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law” (Gal 4:4).

It seems clear to me that this position–held by Ratzinger’s Bonaventure–is a version of philosophical historicism. It is an example, that is, of the intellectual position which holds that “being gives itself in time,” that, when it comes to human knowing, there are no “timeless truths” or “permanent things,” that one cannot know what is real apart from temporal events and developments, and their valid interpretations. (What constitutes such validity is beyond the scope of this brief article, as indeed is the question “what is time?”.)

The question “are human beings sinful by nature?” is a helpful “prompt” for reflecting on the temporality’s necessity for truth.

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