Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Original Sin, Human Wickedness, and the Western World

James Boyce, an obscure professor of geography at the University of Tasmania, has written a book on original sin that Michael Dirda calls "brilliant and exhilarating." For Boyce, original sin has been one of the key ideas of the western tradition ever since Augustine, with profound effects on our culture:
Boyce stresses that the principal tenet of Christianity in the West isn’t, as many believe, the Judeo-Christian moral code. “Salvation did not come from being ‘good’ or worthy.” From the beginning, Christianity “was grounded in a deeply personal emphasis on the broken self, and a corresponding reliance on an external divinity to provide salvation.”
In recent years theological sin may have faded in the western consciousness, but to Boyce the same idea keeps resurfacing in other ways: Hobbes' grim view of humanity outside civilization, Freud's subconscious, the selfish gene. A sense that we are rotten at our cores is a key part of both our psychology and our worldview.

I wonder. It is certainly true that in the Christian tradition a sense of the sinful self is a key religious trope, and from Augustine to Martin Luther to Oscar Wilde personal religious narratives are often saturated with a deep sense of sin. But is this notion universally relevant? On the surface, I don't see any major impacts to our civilization from the wrestling with personal sin. Of course a self-searching Christianity has been a major part of life for millions of people, and I don't want to dismiss that as irrelevant; I am looking for an impact on the broader outlines of our civilization.

The only way I can see original sin casting a broader spell is through Christianity's impact on western individualism. As I have written before, some historians now see the origin of the west's extreme individualism in Christian meditation. Whereas paganism and Confucianism put their emphasis on ritual acts, within Christianity there has always been a strong tradition of intense internal reflection, especially reflection on sin. I am intrigued by the notion that this contributes to western individualism; after all, it is quite extreme within the range of human variation, so it needs some explanation. Could it be original sin?

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

I dunno - the concept of original sin certainly seems to have had a profound psychological effect on people in a manner that could push them either toward or away from individualism, depending entirely on a given individual.

You are somehow guilty of a crime committed by someone else long ago in the dawn of time, you are powerless to change the fate of punishment that awaits you, and the only one who can spare you is the nebulous deity who ever so conveniently speaks through the Church? Talk about psychological programming designed to control people! If you're told all your life that you're a worthless, wicked, unworthy lout who owes your salvation from eternal damnation entirely to forces beyond your control, you're going to have something of an inferiority complex.

But therein lies the uncertainty of the effect.

Some individuals will respond to such a sense of worthlessness by becoming compliant and conformist. If salvation comes only from the divine, then you'd better do whatever the divine - or at least the elite segment of society which claims to speak in the name of the divine - tells you to do. Since you're worthless and powerless, you should accept your lot in life and behave. Individualism is deviancy which will anger the divine, and you will burn for it!

But other individuals respond differently to feelings of inferiority. They will rebel against it, desperate for agency. Those who internalize their feelings of inadequacy develop superiority complexes - aggresively trying to place themselves above others in an attempt to negate such feelings. And other individuals even reject the message of inferiority entirely, embracing counter culture notions that fly in the face of the majority doctrine.

Overall, I'd imagine that the notion of original sin actually served to dampen the spread of individualism in Europe over time, simply because most individuals did not reject their cultural indoctrinations.

I still stand by the notion that commerce was the primary motivation for the development of individualism. The more homogenous a society, the less individualistic it is - but trade requires cooperation between differing peoples, whose values and cultures still must be at least somewhat accepted despite said differences. It is far easier for an individual to act outside of their own native grouping when in regular contact with others who are different and yet still accepted.

Christianity inadvertantly promoted individualism in times of great cultural exchange - primarily whenever the religion was spreading outwards, being transmitted from people to people, place to place. But once it became established in an area, once the local heirachies became settled, the dominance of the organized Church exerted an opposite effect, discouraging individualism. This tendency was disrupted to a certain extent in areas of continued cultural exchange, creating certain regional centers of greater individualism than others, but I believe the overall trend was suppressive.