I've been wanting to write something with deeper significance for my 200th post. I've been working on this for a couple days and haven't wanted to post anything else because that would then have been the 200th post. I've been meditating on the consequences of the fall in the world, and I'm not talking about sinful and immoral actions or thoughts. I'm just thinking about negative effects in creation that Christianity attributes to the effects of the fall. A number of events in the near past have brought me to these thoughts, and I'll mention some of them as I go. When most people raise questions about God and evil, the issues I'm considering right now are among the foremost in their minds. (After all, evil actions are done by evil people, who then take the blame. The sort of badness I'm thinking of for this post is often even classified under the category of acts of God.)
I have a friend who has been told that it's almost impossible for him to have children, with two different problems making even artificial insemination such a long shot that it's not worth the money. I have no idea what anguish this has been for him, though I know it's been very hard for him and his wife. Christians have generally considered reproduction not a necessary condition for a good marriage (or even for sex in serving one of its natural purposes -- what Pope Paul VI called the unitive function). Still, it's at least one of the purposes, and most people place a high value in having children who are genetically their own offspring. Hardly anyone would argue that for people in similar situations something has gone wrong from how it's supposed to go, and the consequences are severe for the people who have to deal with them for the rest of their lives. I put this example first because it's such a clear case of something everyone would describe as nature gone wrong. Would I say something is wrong with my friend? I wouldn't say so in any pejorative way, and I certainly don't see this as reason to say an infertile man is less of a man or an infertile woman is less of a woman. Still, something has gone wrong for such a condition to develop. Something's not working the way it's supposed to work.
Two other issues related to sexuality come to mind, both which have made appearances on this blog in the recent past, and I would say similar things about both of them. I've previously posted my thoughts on why I think the existence of homosexuality is a negative effect on creation given how God intended marriage and sex. The ethical issues are somewhat independent of this, but all you'd have to grant to see this in the same category as the other conditions in this post is that it's unfortunate that anyone would have attraction for people of the same sex. Not everyone will grant this, I'm sure, but perhaps even some people who find nothing morally wrong with homosexual relationships and sexual behavior can agree that it's unfortunate that people would be attracted to those with whom one in principle can't have children biologically (which isn't the same as with infertility). Both creational and evolutionary explanations of sex take reproduction to be at least one purpose of sex.
The second is the phenomenon of intersexuality. This came up in a previous post (which had initially been about other things, but see the comments by Wink), and I had to take some time to formulate some thoughts on it, which I'm not done doing, but I have something to say about it, namely that it belongs in this list. This condition involves people who have two X chromosomes and a Y chromosome or an X chromosome and a defective Y chromosome that doesn't develop properly. In both cases the result is someone who, technically speaking, is genetically male. However, phenotypically you will get traits anywhere between developing as a normal woman (due to the Y chromosome not affecting any sex traits whatsoever) to a normal man (with the extra X chromosome having minimal effect or the defective Y being defective in a minimal way). Those extremes are people we know what to do with. We'll call the first kind females and the second kind males, even though all have a male genotype.
When it gets disturbing to most people are the cases where some phenotypically female characteristics develop but other phenotypically male characteristics develop. These are the people most properly called intersexual. (A hermaphrodite is a creature that has working sets of both male and female sex organs. Plants can be hermaphrodites. People can't. Intersexuals don't have two working sets of sex organs.) We tend to think of males and females as mutually exclusive (though that's not so for plants, but with humans it is literally true on the genotypical level). Does an XXY person who develops genotypically count as male or female? In terms of effects on the person, she's female. What about someone who has both male and female sex characteristics? If one is predominant, we might think that wins out. Is there a middle range where the person is both male and female or somehow neither? This is something about which I don't know what to say at the moment. I do think it's a tragedy that this might happen to someone. I'm not saying someone has some lower status from being an intersexual, but there's something bad about it. Christians can explain that by saying it's a negative effect of the fall. It's unfortunate and contrary to the creator's purposes in designing male and female. This isn't how it's supposed to be, and I can see people who don't even believe in a creator who had intentions for the universe would want to say something has gone wrong for someone to be this way.
In a very different area my son's social, communicative, sensory, and motor problems (related to some sort of autistic or autistic spectrum disorder) give us a fairly clear case of human neurology not working the way it usually does. Do we want to say something is wrong with my son? Political correctness has discouraged such talk. He's just different. He learns in different ways from how most kids his age learn, and he isn't learning to do some things most kids his age do (or in some cases he isn't learning to do them well). There's a neurological reason for this. Something in his brain hasn't developed as well as in most people's brains. Connections between different parts of his brain aren't as strong, for one thing. Probably some parts of his brain don't receive the inputs they're supposed to receive. This "supposed to" language reflects our sense that there's a normal way it's supposed to work, and autistic spectrum disorders involve some of that going wrong. This isn't supposed to happen.
I have some sense of some of those issues on a smaller scale. On some of the autistic spectrum tests I test closer to the autistic spectrum than to the average person, though still technically within the normal range. I have some difficulty putting things into words when it describes my deepest feelings, values, and responses to the world and to daily life. It's a lot easier to write than to say. Sometimes it's easier if I've spent a lot of time thinking about it, but I don't normally think about my inner states. I experience them, but I don't reflect on them very much. A friend of mine who may well be the best spiritual mentor I've ever encountered once described me in a way something to the effect of not being very proficient in the nuances of emotional vocabulary. That's probably pretty accurate. Sometimes I don't recognize how frustrated or excited I am until someone points it out to me by seeing the effects. I'm not thinking about my excitement or frustration. I'm just being excited or frustrated. I definitely don't use nuanced words to describe how I feel. I rarely would describe myself as depressed, elated, anxious, resentful, discouraged, proud (in either the good sense or the bad sense), disturbed, joyous. I do sometimes think of myself as upset, disappointed, excited, happy, frustrated, satisfied, or occasionally overwhelmed, but I don't generally use words to say such things about myself. (I had to use a list of emotional vocabulary just to come up with these words.)
Now someone who may well know me as well as anyone else on this earth and who is willing to be objective about this insists that he doesn't think I fit the Asperger's criteria. The tests I took did confirm this, but they put me remarkably close compared to what the average person scores. I do think I'm more toward that end of the spectrum between Williams syndrome and low-functioning autism than I am to the average person in the middle (see my Manly Man post for more on that spectrum). Here is how the spectrum would go, ignoring relative differences:
high-functioning autism and Asperger's
the ideal Vulcan or the Stoic sage (who deliberately suppress certain emotions but are probably better able to understand those of others than the autistic spectrum would allow)
the average philosopher, mathematician, or physicist
the average male
the average human
the average female
the average artist or poet
Given my position on the scale, it's helpful to look at what experts say about Asperger's. Maxine Aston, who wrote Aspergers in Love, says that people with Asperger's syndrome have two problems. First, they have trouble understanding other people's emotions. They don't know how to identify with other people's experiences, and they have a lot of trouble even identifying someone's emotional state from looking at facial features. Second, Aston at least thinks people with Asperger's have some sort of deadened emotions. She thinks they have emotions (whereas some people have thought otherwise) but don't have the extremes of emotions that other people have. This is one reason I put Vulcans and the Stoic sage on the list above. Vulcans try to suppress what the Stoics called the passions, the extremes of emotions that lead to negative consequences in life. Star Trek writers misleading say that Vulcans have no emotions (which is demonstrably false -- Spock finds many things fascinating) or that they suppress their emotions (which is only partially true -- they suppress certain emotions -- the ones the Stoics called the passions).
Now I don't know how I could possibly approach the issue of whether I have emotions but don't have them to the same degree as others do. I would say that I don't seem to react the same way as some others do, but often I tend to think of that as a sign of maturity rather than having a deficiency. Given that I do tend to get flustered, insulted, angry, or confused at times, and that people all the way out to the autistic extreme also do, I would say that Aston doesn't know what she's talking about when she says this. The problem probably isn't in the depth of emotion. It's in what brings it out, how easily certain emotions are brought out (and how more difficult others are to bring out), and especially how easy it is to read others' emotions and know the right response. I'm much better at the last thing than the people Aston describes in her book. I do have more difficulty with each of these things than some people do.
I've been dwelling recently on what the spiritual significance of all this is. Can someone who is severely autistic appreciate the gospel? Many higher-functioning autistic people (at least the ones without additional cognitive problems such as mental retardation) seem to understand most of what others say (except metaphorical language with some difficulty with indexical terms like pronouns) but not be expressive themselves. On this issue it's as if they're extreme introverts. That doesn't seem to me to be enough of a deficiency to fail to understand the gospel, but it does seem to lead to problems in adopting its message for oneself, at least in terms of the appropriate emotional response. I posted a while back about the difficulties of intellectuals in appropriately responding to God's mercies. It turns out to be a discipline much like the discipline of prayer or scripture reading. It takes work. Once the proper items are brought to mind, the reminder of how we should feel about it is present. That's often enough for me, particularly if someone takes me through a scriptural passage reinforcing those emotions by expressing them. It's less likely that I'll get the same result just by reading the passage myself without doing some of the things that I mentioned in my post on this, and even that it has to be after having developed the disciplined use of such meditations on what God has done for enough of the recent past that I'm ripe for this passage now to bring out such an effect. For someone who's further along on the spectrum enough to count as autistic, I don't know what it must be like.
One fact makes this sound very bad spiritually for autistic people, and another one lessens that conclusion a great deal. First, the Christian gospel is quite clear that intellectual assent to a bunch of propositions is not sufficient for the kind of trust in Christ required for being in Christ. Can someone who is autistic have the kind of additional emotional response necessary? It's hard for me to have sometimes in ordinary life. How much harder is it for someone with more extreme neurological disabilities in this area than I have? However, we must remember that the trust or faith presented in the Christian scriptures as necessary for salvation is a God-initiated gift. That's what grace is. It doesn't minimize the role of the human being in believing, in trusting, in having faith. Yet God gives that gift, and I have no doubt that he can initiate that work in the life of someone who is severely hampered in proper emotional responses.
I've digressed a little here to reflect on my life and the potential difficulties of my son in how he will related to God, but it makes clearer how bad this neurological problem really can be. There are plenty of other effects of autistic traits, mostly in social and relational areas. However, this is the one that most worries me, since I've seen less severe effects of similar problems in myself. That's incredibly unfortunate. It's something that I wish were not true of anyone, especially the more severe effects in people who are autistic. That's not the way it's supposed to be, just as the other effects of autism are not in line with the way people are supposed to develop.
Romans 8 is the best remedy I can think of for whatever negative thoughts come about through reflecting on any of what I've been talking about (and these are just four ways my own thoughts have gone of late -- there are plenty of other issues that would do just as well). Creation eagerly awaits the glory of the transformation God will bring, just as we who belief in Christ are already being transformed from one degree of a kind of glory to a greater degree of being Christlike. When I pray for being transformed into the image of Christ, I have a few additional things to pray for that someone on the other end of the spectrum doesn't have, and this is essential for my prayers simply because the things I have a harder time doing are things that I ought to do. I'm sure people on the other end have different things that are similar enough to say the same thing about. Not all of the conditions I described here are like that. Infertility can be the subject of one's prayers but not as clearly for moral progress in one's life. I'm not sure what to say about intersexuality and what an intersexual Christian should pray for. Still, all things will be made as they should be. The creation will be set free from its bondage to decay and corruption, and all creation is groaning, longing for that day.
Paul goes on to say that we don't know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes with groanings too deep for words, which most Romans commentators connect with the creation's groaning, as if the Spirit expresses the same content as the creation's groaning in the form of prayers, in ways language perhaps can't express. This reassures me when I don't know what to pray about these matters.
I Corinthians 15 talks about the same restored reality God will bring but from the perspective of death, which is an even clearer effect of the fall, since it's the one effect God even pronounced before they ate the cucumber (or whatever fruit it was -- why assume it was even close to an apple?). This leads me to reflect on the death of my brother Joel a little over six years ago. Two reasons probably contribute to why I was affected in less obvious ways than most people would be. One is the stuff I discussed above. I was able to go through the grieving process much more quickly, partly because of that. The other element, though, is that I was fully convinced of the truth of what Paul says in I Cor 15 and Rom 8. Death is dead. It's been killed, as Paul says, alluding to Isaiah 25 of old. We still see people die, but those in Christ will be raised on the last day.
The passage about death most relevant for this post, however, is John 11. Jesus, at the prospect of Lazarus' death, weeps. It's the shortest verse in the Bible but demonstrates so much about what Jesus is all about. He knew full well what he intended to do. His weeping wasn't over Lazarus' loss, since he would have him back shortly. It was over the presence of death in the world, the most problematic element of the effects of the fall and the reason the gospel message is so incredible. Jesus was more in touch with those effects of sin in the universe than anyone else, and he responded in the only morally appropriate way -- with tears. He sometimes healed other effects of sin, though at times he didn't. His mission was primarily to heal the problem itself and not its effects, and for that we can rejoice, looking forward to the future reconfiguring of all reality to remove the corruption and decay that I've been talking about. Come, Lord Jesus.