Past (and present) imperfect

In an intriguing article in The Baffler, Jessa Crispin looks at the concept of ‘original sin’, on the occasion of a new book by Stephen Greenblatt (The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve) and a recent one by James Boyce (Born Bad: Original Sin and the Making of the Western World).

I haven’t yet read either book, but I found that the article made some good points.

I should say that it goes rather off the tracks toward the end where it luxuriates a bit in the John-Gray-school of cultural pessimism (abandon all hope, ye who enter here…):  after all, in raising questions about notions of progress (which is something it seems that Crispin wants to do) it’s not, of course, necessary to discard them.

Nonetheless, the piece makes  a cogent point about the uses to which the concept of ‘original sin’ and the biblical Adam-and-Eve story in which it emerges can be put. There are many such uses, and it seems that Greenblatt and Boyce trace one of them, namely, that of original sin as a form of oppressive  irrationality.

However: there are many other versions of ‘original sin’, and any properly historical argument should take them into account, even (or, indeed, especially) the ones that go directly counter to it.

I ran across versions of this concept over the last six years or so in the course of my current research on Christian social thought in the mid-20th century.

For instance, the image of the inherently ‘sinful’ nature of humankind was a frequently employed element in influential Christian reactions to totalitarianism and what seemed the terminal crisis of western-liberal-capitalist-democracy in the 1930s and 1940s.

This might sound at first  like a typically ‘reactionary’ stance; however, the idea was typically employed by those anti-totalitarian churchmen and Christian thinkers (many of them clearly ‘on the left’ at the time) who saw in the concept of ‘original sin’ not a literal depiction of the creation of humankind but rather a way of asserting its fundamental and inescapable imperfection.

Adam and Eve may not have been seen (literally) as the first man and woman in such views, but their story was considered to contain  a useful warning for the actually existing men and women  who were, in those years, trying to work out a way to defeat totalitarianism and maintain freedom and social decency.

Many of those  who deployed the notion of ‘sin’ in this context did so, in fact, on the assumption that it granted Christians a more ‘realistic‘ vision of the world than many of the competing worldviews of the day: whether, on the one hand, Fascism, Communism or National Socialism — with their common idealisation of a ‘new man’ and a perfected earthly society — or, on the other, secular liberal democrats guided by a more gradualist (but no less, in their view, progressivist) vision of utopia.

What original sin thus taught, so went the lesson, was that a sustainable democratic politics had to be built upon a realistic view of human nature and an awareness that it was not, ultimately, fully malleable. It was primarily an argument against ‘utopianism’ of all kinds.

It was employed as a way to avoid either a dangerous social perfectionism or a hopeless pessimism.

In my research, I was struck by how strongly (and how often) the assertion of ‘human nature’ — a concept we today generally associate with evolutionary psychologists than preachers — featured in overtly Christian arguments about the social order. And it was often employed with the aim of resisting totalitarianism and enabling a social politics that one can argue was (at least moderately) ‘progressive’.

An important example of this thinking comes from Archbishop William Temple’s The Church and Social Order, which was something of a runaway hit in war-time Britain when it was published by Penguin in 1942.

As Temple (who was regarded as left-wing and who was — before his untimely death in 1944 — in favour of moves toward what would become known as ‘the welfare state’) put it:

‘Political issues are often concerned with people as they are, not with people as they ought to be. Part of the task of the Church is to help people to order their lives in order to lead them to what they ought to be. Assuming they are already as they ought to be always leads to disaster. It is not my belief that people are utterly bad, or even that they are more bad than good. What I am contending here is that we are not wholly good, and that even our goodness is infected with self-centeredness. For this reason, we are exposed to temptation as far as we are able to obtain power. The Church’s belief in Original Sin should make us intensely realistic and should free us from trying to create a Utopia. For there is no such thing as a Christian social ideal to which we should try to conform the society we are in as closely as possible. After all, no one wants to live in the “ideal society” as depicted by anyone.’

(I’ve left my copy in the office, so I can’t give page numbers, but there are excerpts available here [pdf].)

One of the other most influential formulations of this view — though far from the only one — comes from Reinhold Niebuhr’s classic text, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, published in 1944. (For a good introduction to Niebuhr, see this discussion.)

Niebuhr wrote:

‘The thesis of this volume grew out of my conviction that democracy has a more compelling justification and requires a more realistic vindication than is given it by the liberal culture with which it has been associated in modern history. The excessively optimistic estimates of human nature and of human history with which the democratic credo has been historically associated are a source of peril to democratic society; for contemporary experience is refuting this optimism and there is danger that it will seem to refute the democratic ideal as well. A free society requires some confidence in the ability of men to reach tentative and tolerable adjustments between their competing interests and to arrive at some common notions of justice which transcend all partial interests. A consistent pessimism in regard to man’s rational capacity for justice invariably leads to absolutistic political theories; for they prompt the conviction that only preponderant power can coerce the various vitalities of a community into a working harmony. But a too consistent optimism in regard to man’s ability and inclination to grant justice to his fellows obscures the perils of chaos which perennially confront every society, including a free society. […]

But modern democracy requires a more realistic philosophical and religious basis, not only in order to anticipate and understand the perils to which it is exposed; but also to give it a more persuasive justification. Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary. In all nondemocratic political theories the state or the ruler is invested with uncontrolled power for the sake of achieving order and unity in the community. But the pessimism which prompts and justifies this policy is not consistent; for it is not applied, as it should be, to the ruler. […]

The consistent optimism of our liberal culture has prevented modern democratic societies both from gauging the perils of freedom accurately and from appreciating democracy fully as the only alternative to justice and oppression. When this optimism is not qualified to accord with the real and complex facts of human nature and history, there is always a danger that sentimentality will give way to despair and that a too consistent optimism will alternate with a too consistent pessimism.

(Again: I don’t have my copy to hand, but  I grabbed this passage from an online copy available here.)

There are strengths and weaknesses, of course, to this kind of ‘middle-way’ thinking, which was something of a trademark within the group I looked at in my research. But whether this argument is true or not is a separate issue from the one, which is more at the heart of Crispin’s article, of fairly accounting for the varied uses to which such religious allegories has been put in different eras of history.

And I think — much more so than I would have, say, a decade ago, before I spent years wrestling with the worldviews of people with whom I certainly don’t entirely agree — that there is something to her conclusion:

‘Religious concepts like original sin help us understand this about ourselves, and offer suggestions on what to do about it. If, then, we place original sin outside of its Christian context, we can still use it to understand this brokenness, this illness that exists in us. There is no amount of external maneuvering that can wash us clean of this inborn stain. We can only acknowledge it, try to reckon with it, and then struggle to choose to behave differently. Religion is simply one context in which to accomplish this.’

It’s important not to forget, of course, that there are also better angels to that human nature.

But otherwise, I think this is a pretty wise statement to which I can only add: amen