I went to my first county fair during the summer between sixth and seventh grade. My friend’s parents took us, and we boys headed immediately to the midway to scope out the rides. The first one we tried was “The Rotor,”a large cylinder that spun like a top. The spinning created a centrifugal effect which “pinned” riders against the wall.
Moments after the ride ended, I was throwing up in a trash barrel. Should I ever be elected to Congress, the first bill I introduce will state: “Whereas, it is a matter of public health; and whereas, it is in the interest of the general welfare; and whereas, national security could be threatened, all centrifugal force rides shall be banned within these United States.”
Half the Congress would line up to co-sponsor the bill.
The centrifugal effect pushes objects away from the center. This is the opposite of centripetal force which pulls objects toward the center. In fact, the centrifugal effect only exists when centripetal force is in play.
In theology, there is a spiritual dynamic that is roughly analogous to centrifugal force. Theologians have traditionally spoken of it as the fall of humanity or the fall of Adam, but I suggest that the concept of a centrifugal spiritual force might offer fresh insights into this classic doctrine.
When theologians speak of the fall, they usually picture it as something that happened long ago, when the representative human chose to disobey God. To speak of his “fall” is to evoke the image of a tragic incident that occurred in the deep past and is now completed. The “fall” itself is over, but humanity was broken in the landing.
This image, I think, conveys the important truth that humanity’s movement away from God began at a particular point in time but it fails to adequately bring out the idea that our distance from God continues to increase. The Bible doesn’t suggest that humanity has fallen and can’t get up. It suggests that humanity hasn’t yet landed and is still moving away from God.
When I rode “The Rotor” all those years ago, I felt stuck to the wall. Try as I might, I was unable to move toward the center. Neither could anyone else. No one was strong enough to overcome that centrifugal (“center fleeing”) force. Apart from outside intervention – say, cutting off the power – we were all stuck.
Sin – rebellion against God – not only caused humanity to fall; it caused us to get stuck. “Still in your sins,” was how St. Paul put it. None of us is capable of freeing ourselves and moving to the Center – toward God. Theologians employ the concept of depravity to express this human inability. But sin’s effects go further still, for its centrifugal force is still in play.
The theological term “depravity” helps us understand the damage sin causes within individuals, but it falls short of picturing the way sin distances the individual from God and from others.
A thought experiment may help us here. Imagine a “Rotor” ride in which the floor not only drops away, but the walls continually – eternally – expand and recede. This would simultaneously increase people’s distance from the center and from each other.
This image helps us grasp what is happening in society. As people move away from God they also move away from each other. C. S. Lewis captured this dynamic in “The Great Divorce” by picturing hell as a place where people are forever increasing the distance between themselves and others.
Because we’ve always lived under these conditions, we don’t see it as strange. People distrusting and even hating each other feels normal. People doubting God’s goodness – even his existence – is “just the way it is.” But, as Cornelius Plantinga put it, it is “not the way it’s supposed to be.”
Apart from outside intervention, a re-union with God and real communion with people is impossible. The forces in play are just too strong. But Christians believe that intervention has already happened and that those forces have been disrupted by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. God is unsticking people from “The Rotor”of sin and bringing them to himself.
(First published by Gannett.)