News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Excursus: Original Sin and Politics

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Excursus: Original Sin and Politics

In response to the following comments by Dr. Sinthome@Larval Subjects,

All of this, of course, is a variant of the theory of original sin. There are certainly secular and theological variants of such a position. Social conservatives will often remind us that man fell as a result of pesky woman (personally I like it when women try to get me to do things I’m not supposed to do, but that’s me), and that for this reason it is sheer arrogance or pride (sin of sins!) to imagine that we could improve this world. Tend your garden, be devout, and wait for the next. Secular variants might make some appeal to human nature or innate biology as that which renders us intrinsically inimical to such arrangements. Nevermind what ethnography might show about alternative economies and social arrangements. “Nonsense!” screams the self-assured biosociologist. Of course, those bio- psychologists and sociologists never bother much with ethnography or anthropology– After all, humans are biologically identical regardless of when and where they live, demonstrating that human nature is the same in all possible universes.

The rhetorical dimension of these arguments are clear enough. By appealing to a fundamentally flawed nature, we bar any attempt to transform society a priori. All social transformation is necessarily doomed to failure and horror because humans are necessarily flawed and horrible. Often I’m inclined to agree. Between what I’ve heard from my patients– you do learn a thing or two about people in analysis –and what I’ve observed, we’re a pretty vile lot. Nonetheless, I am not convinced by claims that such social transformations are doomed to horror. I do, however, find myself wondering whether psychoanalytic political theory does not end up unwittingly repeating this narrative of human nature. Is not the psychoanalyst saying precisely the same thing when he claims that there’s an irreducible real, that there’s always the swerve of drive, that we’re always duped by the unconscious? As a result, is not psychoanalysis an inherently conservative ideology? The question isn’t rhetorical.
I wrote: As to your comments on original sin, drive, and the political: a Kierkegaardian religious understanding of this would suggest that you can’t have a free and just society until there’s equality. Given sinfulness, though, and human finitude, that is impossible. Only God has the ability to see each in an equal way, without socio-cultural accretions occluding one’s view.

On the other hand, through an awareness and continuing awareness of sinfulness and the attempt to stay on guard vis a vis that sinfulness, one can begin to follow the commandment to love neighbor and enemy. This only occurs, of course, when one realizes that given other circumstances and contingencies I would or could indeed be in the same situation as that other. Yet, it’s only with an awareness of something that provides a transcendent horizon, where nothing is ever final and ultimate in this life except death that I can find the motivation to realize the ethical and moral imperatives of that awareness.

Death is the horizon within which all things in some way gain a proper perspective. Kierkegaard doesn’t so much see death as a drive, as he does as a shirking of responsibility in one regard, an easy way out in another. This lines up with one aspect of despair, but only the passive despair that despairs of ever being oneself. Because we can’t be who we are, especially who we think we should be, then we want to die.

Westphal in his book on God, Guilt and Death, marshals Freud and Kierkegaard, throwing in Heidegger to boot, to examine the relationship between the transcendent desire to be who I am–eg, a good person, a fulfilled person–and the facing of death. In face of that, there’s a form of resentment that forms and humans begin to take out their resentment on themselves and others. Using this framework, Westphal analyzes Freud’s atheism in terms of his father’s sheepish responses to antisemitism.

Westphal has noted in another work that Kierkegaard’s political attitude begins from within the notion that all is questionable and nothing is absolute. He calls it Religiousness C, which is a form of ideology critique that takes to task any ideology that might set itself up as absolute and beyond question. At the same time, the motivation behind such critique is the awareness of sinfulness and that this brings with it an identification with the persecuted other.

Others have taken the Kierkegaardian insights in secular directions: early Marcuse, Heidegger, Sartre, Habermas, and Matustik. Most demythologize sinfulness and replace it with supposed secularized cognates. Matustik is the most consistent and most Kierkegaardian.

In her analysis of how Heidegger (mis)appropriated Kierkegaard, Patricia Huntington notes that Heidegger de-ethicizes Kierkegaard’s category of authenticity. He turns it into an ontological category, eschewing the ontic, and by doing so identifies the authentic self with an ethical substrate borne by culture and social institutions, as well as wayward ontologies. In doing this, Huntington, argues, Heidegger abstracts authentic being and thereby identifies coming to know myself as who i truly am with fate. In this regard, only some are born to be great and true selves, while others are minions of the great They.

Kierkegaard does not ontologize authenticity in this way, aware as he is that sinfulness is an individual event of personal history. The task of regaining a true self is never identified with that realm of historical sin which he recognizes as original sin and which, it seems, Heidegger inappropriately identified as a form of necessary historical unfolding.

I would suggest that the Xtian Right makes the same category mistake that Heidegger did. That is, they ontologize original sin, thereby making the problem of modernity a problem of ethos. Therefore, you want to change what’s wrong with America or the world, you must change the ethos. They do not follow, obviously, Heidegger’s route of destruktion, but instead do so via various strands of natural theology, whether Thomistic or Calvinist/Lutheran.


Unlike thinkers before or after him, Kierkegaard understood the compelling nature of thinking through problems about what it means to be a human being. He also understood the passion that is faith and how it can bring peace and understanding in a world where all values and traditions have become empty.

For Kierkegaard, sinfulness is a state in which we are prone or motivated to sin. This state psychological in the sense that sinfulness occurs when we relate ourselves to others and the world through thoughts, desires, and behavior. The way we desire something determines how we think about others and what we do in the world to accomplish those things that will bring us happiness.

In Christian theology, the main source of human unhappiness is original sin. According to this way of thinking, the reason we can't be happy is because we are prone to sin; this means that we ultimately short-circuit all those things that might bring us happiness. Supposedly, this goes back to the original man, Adam, and his mate Eve. When they ate of the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil, which God said not to do, they sinned and were kicked out of Eden, or Paradise.

It is this original sin that some theologians say stains our personalities from birth. We are born in original sin. We are genetically engineered, so to speak, to sin, according to this view. There's some type of psycho-genetic disposition hardwired into us to do evil.

Kierkegaard disagrees with this theological understanding of sin. The origins of sin begin and end with each person. We are not hardwired to do evil. We are, though, born into a world of sin. This is the result of sins by people that have accumulated over time and in history.

For Kierkegaard, the springboard for individual sin occurs when people are afraid to face and oppose this world of sin. The world as we know it conditions who we are. While genetics plays a large part in who we are, so does the influence of society, culture, family and so on. But there is something built into the human spirit that can see the deception and hypocrisy, the evil in the world. This is what Kierkegaard calls the Nothing.

The Nothing is where we see our freedom to be who we are. It is the "possibility of possibility." We see an infinite world of possibility and we are dizzied by the things we see and could be. The world, ourselves, and those around us change and become either larger or smaller in comparison to this great world that could either be or not be. That it will be--for us at least--depends on our letting it be in one way or another.

In crises such as adolescence and other significant stages in personal growth, we realize that we have the freedom to either accept or refuse to accept society's rules and customs. We are not predetermined in the whole-sale way that some scientists might say we are. We are not simply biological cyborgs with "wet computers" as brains.

We have the natural capacity to form a distance from our environments and societies. We do not need to be what society or family or friends say we have to be. Indeed, we can to a very large extent shape and mold the very material conditions that life has thrown our way. Biology and genetics are materials to be used in fashioning a self that exhibits independence and joy.

But there is an inherent anxiety that accompanies this process. It's a risky endeavor fashioning a self from nothing. It takes courage and hard work. It takes standing up to people whom you love and respect and perhaps telling them that their way of looking at the world is either not your way or perhaps even wrong.

This creates anxiety, because people find support and safety in the rules and restrictions imposed by their societies. But by not thinking about whether these rules and customs are right or wrong, I simply join the crowd like everyone else. I do not form any relationship to the world except one that everyone else agrees with. They are not mine. Potentially I can wander aimlessly through life, never facing life's problems honestly and authentically. Life's problem is no problem as I let what others think provide the answers.

For Kierkegaard, this is an abuse of the freedom we have to choose responsibly. This type of choice is important, because if I don't do this then I am not acting ethically; I am not using the freedom to be who I am responsibly. In doing this, I also cannot be the type of human being who knows what it means to live as an individual. I only know how to live in a crowd. But crowds are notoriously amoral entities.

An ethical and moral environment is one wherein people associate with each other as individuals. For it is only as individuals who have understood themselves separately from the sinful world that they can come together to address the injustices created by that sinfulness.

The demonic arises when you reject the freedom to act in a free and responsible way, ethically, to the situations that life throws your way. The freedom to choose makes you anxious because there are no textbook answers to the way that you should respond to events. There's no recipe book on how to act ethically. If you have not cultivated the individual awareness that not only are you motivated at times by self-deceit and unconscious desires and motives, you will take the easy way out and run away from the problem.

This outlandish, if not absurd, claim comes in Kierkegaard's book on original sin, sinfulness, and the demonic. The work is a psychological look at how people gain an awareness of themselves as individuals. In doing so, they must face their freedom to be who and what they are.

As I have argued (following Kierkegaard) a main form of despair is the person who is aware they have an eternal side to them but who want to reject it and instead make something out of themselves that spites God. This person is in defiance against God because they are not happy with their place in life or with their

The reason that many who make the argument for the President's courage and going against public opinion sometimes invoke Kierkegaard's name is because he seems to assert something of the same kind. That is, the individual, one who really believes in what they are doing because they know it is right and true, will do everything in their power to accomplish that. Yet, as Kierkegaard noted, it is only within the confines of religious belief and the relationship that someone has with God that this view makes sense.

Following what either others tell you to do or giving in to self-deceit. The Christian way of life, according to Kierkegaard, is to recognize this sinful disposition and to inculcate a way of encountering the world that is ethical because responsible. Responsible because self-critical, self-critical because I have identified the freedom that comes from critical awareness of the socio-cultural norms that breed injustices and inequality.

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