Innocence: 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.
No. There is something else about "innocence." I think the innocence of children comes from a universal inborn trust in the goodness of reality and a confident expectation of love. It is more or less 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 practice wrong without being held accountable—sometimes even with reward, or at least excuse.
Sooner or later, we come to believe that reality 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. Anyone who trusts in goodness is considered immature, even "childish," because in our experience, only children are innocent in this way. By the same token, "adult" often means sexually corrupt.
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 adult 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 the act 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 re-mature without its loss?
Isn't it so, that to obey Jesus' teachings—to love our enemies, to forgive, to eschew judging, to be teachable and without pride—is necessarily to act out of innocent trust in the ultimate goodness of reality? Jesus demonstrated this life of uncorrupted innocence, retaining his trust in absolute goodness and love, and all his actions were based upon that trust. In this way, he shows us the reality of the Father (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 law of innocence. In this knowledge we are freed from sin's illusions and enabled to believe once again in the intrinsic goodness of Creation and its foundation in love. And, while we are in the world, his Spirit works in us to cleanse all corruption and mature us in 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.
Susan Prudhomme, author of The Forest and The Wisdom of Ambrose (both OakTara), loves to create imaginary worlds of beauty and challenge, like those in The Narnia Chronicles and The Lord of the Rings, with characters who reflect our own struggles, doubts, and heroism. She has written for Touchstone, Living Prayer, and regularly contributes short fiction to Anam Cara, a journal.