Saturday, September 24, 2011

Fallenness as the Human Condition?


A couple of days ago in a comment on the common Muslim dismissal of Christian "inconsistency" -- namely, the charge that Christians are inconsistent in granting legitimacy to a secular sphere when they ought to realize that God is ruler over all -- I wrote the following in response to a point that I recalled in the writings of Seyyed Hossein Nasr:
Yes, I recall his criticism of Christian 'dualism' -- as I think he called it -- echoing the typically Muslim critique of Christianity's 'inconsistency' in distinguishing between the sacred and the secular as two legitimate spheres.

In my opinion, the Muslim critique radically underestimates what Christians call human fallenness. Integralist visions always do underestimate our human capacity for evil and attempt to construct an ideal society subsumed under one big idea. The result is always Hell on Earth.
I suppose there's much more that should be said about this, but I will simply cite a bit from other thinkers who take 'fallenness' seriously, though they use the expression "original sin." Edward T. Oakes, in a November 1998 article for First Things, "Original Sin: A Disputation," accepts that the critics of original sin have a point in their criticism of the negative consequences that at times result from a belief in original sin, but then argues that this very harm is evidence of original sin's validity and that worse harm results from a commitment to what is called "progressivism":
It might sound intolerably paradoxical to say this, but it is precisely the very harm that sometimes comes from the doctrine of original sin that proves its validity. This is a point made time and again by Leszek Kolakowski, the Polish emigré intellectual now at the University of Chicago, author of a three-volume history of Marxist thought and a man who therefore knows something of the harm visited upon the human community by doctrines of progressivism. In his recent book of essays, Modernity on Endless Trial, he shrewdly notes how this third objection to original sin can be turned into a supporting argument . . . .
The "harm" referred that results from belief in original sin varies from a morbid obsession with one's individual guilt to a fatalistic acceptance of injustice in society, and Oakes goes on to cite Kolakowski's concession on this point, along with his observation that the denial of fallenness has even worse results:
The possible disastrous effects of the concept of original sin on our psychological condition and on our cultural life are undeniable [because of its use to keep people “in their place” and not alter unjust social structures]; and so are the disastrous effects of the opposing doctrine, with its implication that our perfectibility is limitless, and that our predictions of ultimate synthesis or total reconciliation can be realized. However, the fact that both affirmation and rejection of the concept of original sin have emerged as powerful destructive forces in our history is one of many that testify in favor of the reality of original sin. In other words, we face a peculiar situation in which the disastrous consequences of assenting to either of two incompatible theories confirm one of them and testify against its rival.
I take it that Kolakowski means that if a belief in fallenness has such consequences as a morbid obsession with personal guilt or a fatalistic acceptance of social injustice, such improper reactions are only to be expected of fallen creatures, but that the consequences of affirming human perfectability are even worse because such an affirmation raises the standard of expectations -- both individual and social -- far beyond what human beings are capable of and results in such utopian monstrosities as the Communist totalitarianism of the Soviet Union, which tried to scale the heights of heaven upon a mountain of corpses. In my opinion, Islamist integralism leads to the same result.

I'm indebted to my friend Bill Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher, for the link to the First Things article. Bill has been discussing several of the logical conundrums confronting those who take original sin seriously, and he would be well worth reading on the subject, though I've had too little time lately to do so myself, being immersed in teaching and editing.

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At 6:04 AM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

Once again, in the Catholic tradition both extreme positions can be found: from nearly-Gnosticism to scientific Messianism.

Unless the two views can coexist in some witty, paradoxical way, as it is the case with much spirituality of the Eastern Orthodox Churches. See e.g. this book.

At 6:15 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Such inconsistency merely confirms our fallenness, that even the Church falls into error . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:17 AM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

"even," or "especially"?


At 6:21 AM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

"So that below, not sleeping, people dream,
Believing they speak truth, and not believing;
And in the last is greater sin and shame.

Below you do not journey by one path
Philosophising; so transporteth you
Love of appearance and the thought thereof.

And even this above here is endured
With less disdain, than when is set aside
The Holy Writ, or when it is distorted.

They think not there how much of blood it costs
To sow it in the world, and how he pleases
Who in humility keeps close to it.

Each striveth for appearance, and doth make
His own inventions; and these treated are
By preachers, and the Evangel holds its peace."

___Dante, Paradiso 29

At 6:26 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You'll have to exegete that passage for me, Dario.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is there a Godwin's Law for communism comparisons? :)

Belief in evolution has lead to all sorts of weird conclusions (e.g. eugenics & laissez-faire capitalism). But these have had no effect on its validity. The flip side of that would be that any negative consequences of belief in original sin have NO BEARING on its reality. That said, I still find the argument here "intolerably paradoxical" and embarrassingly unfalsifiable.

At 6:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Before anyone says it, communism's perfectionism is in no way connected to evolution which does not move toward "higher" life forms or "higher" anything (otherwise, would bacteria or cockroaches still out number humans?)

At 6:57 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Scott F., what I find useful about the 'fallenness' terminology is the fact that it takes human evil seriously by insisting upon its ineradicability.

If we take 'fallenness' to mean this, then the consequences of belief or nonbelief in 'fallenness' being in either case evil does offer some degree of substantiation, it seems to me.

In other words, regardless of what we may believe about 'fallenness', human evil proves to be ineradicable, which is therefore evidence for 'fallenness'.

One could question, of course, why this should be called human 'fallenness' rather than something else, such as human imperfection . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:17 PM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

You'll have to exegete that passage

Just a classic quote supporting the controversy about the "inconsistency" of theology, linked to the twisting of Bible's texts this way or another.

At 5:09 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Oh, okay, I guess I got that much . . . thanks.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:48 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

The progressive advancement of the human race is an important theme in Ahmadinejad's recent UN speech.

At 12:43 PM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

There has been a movement, variously identifying itself as "postmodern" and “progressive," to discredit the "positivist naiveté” and the “inhuman” and “passionless” empiricism of John Locke and the so-called Enlightenment. The culmination of their historicism is to place Locke at the beginning of a period they call “The Enlightenment” and to attribute to this philosopher and to this “period” a significance that is as imaginative as their historiography. Of course, this activity is nothing new, and was in fact patterned in England, beginning with the idealism of Bishop Berkeley; and the attacks against Locke since Berkeley have all pretty much been for the same reason: they aren’t attacking his epistemology or his science, but rather his politics. But I wish here to respond to the more contemporary critics who focus their criticisms (ironically) on progressive aspirations that are very similar to the aspirations they themselves seek to advance—at least they claim to.

Having looked into Locke for some time now, I find the postmodernists’ interpretation and historical narrative dubious. Locke is a shrewd politician, and there is no move he made, no word he wrote, that can be construed as either naïve or positivistic. As well, he does not advocate empiricism, but rather skeptical-empiricism, and skeptical-empiricism remains the characterization we place upon our science today.

Locke’s political acumen and the skeptical-empirical mode of inquiry he champions are outcomes, it is clear to me, of the English and Netherlandish Independent-Calvinist interpretation of the meaning of a fallen universe. Along with Arminius, these Independents had a heretical doubt or two about Calvin’s particular notions regarding grace and salvation, but the “truth” of the fall—properly stripped of mythological rational or apology; indeed, stripped of the theological arguments that had previously done so much to make us aware of this state—remains fundamental to all facets of our modern project. Our very survival depends upon our ability to view the universe skeptically, to discuss our observations of that universe candidly and openly, moreover with a grounded resolve to alter our precarious position in that universe in some “beneficial” manner, and meanwhile to exercise extreme care in the motions of our political activity—which, as exemplified by Locke, is built upon discretion, toleration and consensus.

At 3:07 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Carter, the link to Amadman's speech is lost.

As for Locke, if he's advocating a skeptical empiricism, I'll go along with that . . . so long as there's still room for metaphysical speculations.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:49 PM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Transcript of Ahmadinejad's U.N. Speech

Transcript of Ahmadinejad's U.N. Speech

At 12:06 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

On the subject of Locke and metaphysical speculation:

Rather than "speculation" Locke seeks common ground and consensus. Finer theological points, rituals and church customs are "indifferent matters." What's important is that we all get along together, and to Locke this is the fundamental meaning of the gospel.

"Metaphysical speculation" is categorically theoretical, mythological and poetical.

We must be clear in our concepts, and not confuse theory with fact, myth with science, poetry with philosophy. Much conceptual confusion results when we confuse such modes. Bacon's discussion of the Four Idols is pertinent here.

Recall Hawthorne's conclusion on Emerson: "I like Emerson as a poet, but I want nothing from him as a philosopher."

Finally, recall Milton's epic simile in Book I regarding the Norwegian fisherman that camps out on the whale, thinking that whale was an island. Milton compares that whale to Satan prone on the flaming lake, doesn’t he? It would seem, if you follow me, that the theme of drawing a distinction between myth and reality is central to Milton's project in the poem. But perhaps this is speculation on my part.

At 5:50 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Does Milton make that distinction clear?

I'm all in favor of distinctions, of course, I just wanted to ensure that Locke doesn't forbid metaphysical meanderings.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:43 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Does Milton make that disstinction? I believe so, yes. In fact, I am completely sure of it.

Does he make that distinction clear? Well, that's an interesting question.

Locke forbid? Hmm. Locke doesn't strike me as the forbidding type. Actually, his Discourse of Miracles is a point of departure into metaphysics, but I don't believe it is really that central to to the way he thinks about things. Perhaps his The Reasonableness of Christianity might be what you are looking for.

At 8:01 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

The question we might ask is this: "Does _Milton_ forbid metaphysical meanderings?"

Or, rather, does Milton's Son forbid metaphysical meanaderings? I should say "yes." I think so.

In the Nativity poem, I think the reaction of all the heathen deities to the birth of Christ pretty much settles the question.

Even Blake got this one right. In Blake's epics all is confusion and meandering, and then when the Son appears, everything is set to rights. What Blake got wrong is the nature of the Son as this philosophical exponent. That is, the Son was a lot more reasonable than Blake could admit. One might say that the Son resembled Locke more than he resembled Blake, ahem. Of course, as I have suggested before, Blake was more than a few times very wrong about things, making it up as he went along, playing the fool, and so on.

At 8:13 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I consider intellectual meandering necessary to finding truth. I've been on a decade-long meander through Milton and intend to continue meandering there and elsewhere for quite some time . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:24 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Mmm. Kind of like meandering around lke those poor fallen angels in Book II, discussing mathematics, debating philosphy, exploring mountain ranges in realms where the sun does not shine?

No, Milton's satire is quite clear on the point of meandering, dear Jeffery!

Suffice it to say, those who stand and wait also serve, but those who meander are, well--gasp!--I can't bring myself to pronounce the word!

At 8:47 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yet, Milton did some theological meandering over the course of his life, moving from orthodoxy to his own sort of Christianity.

I guess once he'd found the truth, he didn't want anybody to meander past it . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:23 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...



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