Innocence. Here is a word with layers. Mostly, we tend to think of innocence in a juridical sense, as meaning “not guilty of a specific crime.” But there is also a deeper sense, which we call the innocence of children. What do we mean by that? Surely it means much more than that a child has not committed a crime.
The Catholic Church gives children a seven year grace period, during which we are presumed innocent of sin, regardless of any misbehavior we commit. This may be based on an assumption that a young child cannot form an intent to “do wrong,” even if his/her action is wrong. I suppose this is a practical sort of teaching that acknowledges an innate human revulsion against harshness toward children. But it lays a heavy and perhaps unwarranted burden upon intent – any mother of a two-year old knows that children sometimes do intend to do something that they know is wrong; and just as surely, adults are often held accountable for wrongs they do without consciously intending wrong. So the matter of intent does not divide children from adults in the attribution of innocence.
No. There is something else about “innocence.” I think the innocence of children comes from an inborn conviction about the goodness of reality and the confident expectation of love. It is gradually eroded as we “mature,” and the loss, or corruption, of this inborn certainty constitutes the “loss of innocence” we all seem to experience in greater or lesser degree as we age. It happens through the hard experiences of finding that life is not always fair; that injustice is, in fact, sometimes celebrated as its very opposite. It also happens through being allowed to do wrong without being held accountable – sometimes even with reward, or at least excuse. Sooner or later, we accept that reality really is not implicitly good and loving. At best, good and evil come in shades of gray, and compromise is our only recourse. We aspire only to be “good enough.” We begin to make choices based on that aspiration, and our lives become long internal discourses of self-justification, competition, envy, pretense, excuse-making – in short, sin. And anyone who trusts in goodness is considered immature, even “childish.”
Thus, when Adam and Eve tried to hide their guilt and shift blame for taking the forbidden fruit, they slid out of the primordial awareness of innocence, and into its corruption. When Jesus pronounced Nathaniel a true Israelite without guile, he was recognizing this grown man’s retained innocence, and when he said we had to be as little children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, he meant that our original innocence must be restored in order to find the fellowship with God that Adam and Eve lost.
So let us look at Christianity through this lens of “original innocence,” rather than the more common lens of “original sin.”
We are taught that through Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the Cross, our specific sins are forgiven. This is true, but it is also looking at what happened in the narrow, juridical sense. Might it not be more profound, and more true, to see that the Cross offers us restoration to a state of original innocence, and the opportunity to mature without its loss? Isn’t it so, that to obey Jesus’ teachings is necessarily to act from this place of trust in the goodness of reality – to love our enemies, to forgive, to eschew judging, to be teachable and without pride? Jesus lived this life of uncorrupted innocence, meaning that he retained his trust in absolute goodness and love, and all his actions were based upon that trust. Jesus showed us the reality of who the Father is (the source and guarantor of absolute goodness), and who we are meant to be (his innocent children). His Resurrection shows us that the corruption of innocence we see in this life is not the ultimate reality, that there is a Kingdom over and around us that is far more real and that operates under the Father’s law of goodness and love. In this knowledge we are freed from the illusion of sin’s final authority over us and enabled to believe once again in the intrinsic goodness of Creation and its foundation in love. While we are in the world, his Spirit works in us to cleanse all corruption and restore our innocence, so that we may be fitted for the life we are meant to lead. Because of all this, we can trust in the final defeat of evil and look forward to an eternal life in his Kingdom. This is the Good News.