The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Original Sin and Free Will

Novelist, poet, screenwriter and composer Anthony Burgess in his second volume of memoirs explained the reason why he rejected the doctrines of the left and held to a form of conservatism “If I was a kind of Jacobite Tory, like John Dryden and Samuel Johnson, this was because socialism was positivist and denied original sin.” (1) His reasoning is both excellent and sound. The doctrine of original sin is an essential component of both orthodox Christian faith, such as the Roman Catholicism in which Burgess had been raised, (2) and philosophical and political conservatism. (3) Early twentieth century critic T. E. Hulme identified it with classicism in the arts. (4) It is also empirically verifiable, an unusual trait among religious and political doctrines. People do not have to be taught to do wrong, it comes naturally to them. Nor do they ever cease doing wrong and become morally perfect – at least in this life.

Original sin is not a popular doctrine. It is, as Burgess wrote, denied by socialists and others on the left. It is also rejected by classical liberals, who are often perceived as being on the right in North America. One author, whose writings are quite popular among classical liberal republicans, made the dogma the focus of the attack of the 1070 page polemical novel for which she is most remembered. In this novel, the creative, industrious, elite of a United States saddled with oppressive socialism, take up the prerogative assumed to belong to manual labour, and quietly go on strike. In their absence everything falls apart. Towards the end, the leader of the strike, John Galt, goes on the air with a tedious broadcast in which he lectures the world about the evils of selfless altruism and the virtues of selfish individualism and humanism. In this harangue he condemns what he calls “the Morality of Death”, a code which “begins by damning man as evil, then demands that he practice a good which it defines as impossible for him to practice.” “The name of this monstrous absurdity” according to John Galt “is Original Sin”. (5)

These words placed by Ayn Rand in the mouth of her implausible hero describe how the doctrine of original sin looks to those who hold to her set of beliefs – that there is no God, that the human spirit is noble and pure and contained entirely within the individual, that collectives like the nation, community, and even the family are parasitical, and that human reason is an all-sufficient guide to truth and virtue. In the absence of God and His grace, the idea that mankind is fallen, fundamentally flawed, and incapable of perfecting himself, must make any demand for goodness, justice, and virtue seem horribly unfair. This, however, merely raises the question of whether the problem is with the dogma of original sin or with the humanistic and materialistic presuppositions that strip the dogma of its necessary context.

As an element of orthodox Christian theology, the doctrine of original sin comes from the Holy Scriptures, the writings accepted by the Christian Church as being God’s direct revelation to the community of faith, having been written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In the Scriptures the doctrine is formulated by St. Paul in the fifth chapter of his epistle to the Roman Church in a passage that makes reference to the account of the Fall of Man in the third chapter of the book of Genesis. In the twelfth verse the Apostle states the doctrine succinctly:

Wherefore , as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.

Liberal individualism is a stumbling block to both the understanding and the acceptance of this doctrine. If you start with the liberal premise that man is fundamentally an individual and that all social collectives are artificial constructions that are secondary to human nature, St. Paul’s words will not make sense. It will sound like the Apostle is asserting that all individuals must suffer for the crime of one individual. From a liberal individualistic perspective this would appear to be either a gross injustice or an invitation to export one’s personal guilt onto another – “it’s not my fault I robbed that bank, I did it because Adam ate the forbidden fruit”.

The liberal individualist’s premise is observably wrong, however. Human beings do not start out as individuals and later join groups. They are born into families, communities, and nations, social collectives which existed before they did. It is their identity as individuals that is a later development. Liberal assumptions about individuality do not match up with the reality of the world we see around us. They are also completely foreign to the worldview of someone like St. Paul. The doctrine of original sin, as he stated it in the epistle to the Romans, is an assertion about collective man.

This is suggested by the very name given to the first man by the book of Genesis. In English we use the word man in different ways. Sometimes we use it to refer to an adult male human being as opposed to a female. Other times we use it as a collective term to encompass the entire human species, male and female. Used in this sense, it is interchangeable with “mankind”. Other languages often have at least two words that can be translated man, one which has the same range of meaning as the English word, another that can only ever refer to males and which often has the connotation of “husband”. In ancient Greek anthropos meant “man, mankind”, whereas aner meant “man, husband”, in Latin the equivalents were homo and vir respectively. In ancient Hebrew, the word that meant “man, mankind”, corresponding to anthropos and homo in Greek and Latin, was adam. (6) It is no coincidence that this is also the name given to the first man. When Genesis speaks of the creation of Adam, it is not speaking only of the creation of an individual, but of the race known in Hebrew as adam and in English as man. Likewise, the account of the Fall speaks of more than just the personal transgression of our first parents. The fall of Adam is the fall of adam – of collective man or mankind.

Therefore, the idea that you or I as individuals are unfairly suffering the consequences of the sin of another individual, Adam, or the idea that you or I can export the guilt for our personal sins back onto Adam, is foreign to the concept of original sin as it is presented in Scriptures. Adam is not just a specific individual but a collective to which we all belong and as members of that collective we all participate in Adam’s sin.

Although it is not spelled out, the idea of Adam as a collective embracing all mankind is very much present in the fifth chapter of Romans. St. Paul makes reference to the fall of man here for a specific purpose. It is not to establish the universality of human wickedness. He had already done that earlier in the epistle in order to demonstrate the impossibility of justification by works and the need for justification by grace. At this point in the epistle he introduces the concept of original sin in order to build a contrast between Adam and Christ. He declares the former to be a figure, i.e., a type or illustration, of the latter (v. 14). In this comparison, Adam and Christ each represent collective man. In Adam’s case, he represents the collective that bears his name, the race of which he is the progenitor, mankind. In Christ’s case, He represents the body of which He is the head, in which all believers are united with Him and each other, by the Holy Spirit through baptism, i.e., the church. The point of the comparison is to show that as far reaching as the impact of Adam’s sin, which brought sin and death upon all men, was, the impact of Christ’s obedience and righteousness, bringing grace, the free gift of justification, and everlasting life, will be even greater. (vv. 17-18)

This, by the way, is the answer to those who charge the doctrine of original sin with being a dreary and pessimistic doctrine. It is pessimistic only towards man’s efforts to achieve salvation and justification for himself. Towards these it goes beyond pessimism, outright declaring the impossibility of man redeeming himself. “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight:” St. Paul declared, “for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20) The Apostle was speaking of justification in the theological sense of being declared righteous by God, now and ultimately at the final judgement. Translated from the theological into the political, this denial of the possibility of justification by the works of the law becomes a denial of the possibility of progress, not in the neutral sense of improvement but in the loaded sense of our achieving a kind of salvation on earth through social, economic, technological and political reform. For what is the doctrine of progress, with which liberals, progressives, socialists, communists, and leftists in general are enamoured other than the idea that man, set free from the shackles of tradition and religion and “enlightened” by the unleashing of reason and science, can build for himself Paradise on earth? Towards this idea cynicism, scepticism, and pessimism are appropriate responses. (7)

Towards the idea that there is hope for man, however, the doctrine of original sin as presented in its original context is anything but pessimistic. St. Paul’s entire point was that Christ is greater than Adam, that Christ’s obedience is greater than Adam’s sin, that the grace, the free justification, the everlasting life which Christ brings to man far surpasses the sin, guilt, and death which is Adam’s legacy. In orthodox Christian doctrine, Christ through His death, burial, and resurrection, broke the power of sin, death, and hell, triumphing over these ancient enemies of man once and for all. The Christian gospel does not just promise that this victory will come at some unspecified point in the future – it proclaims that it has already taken place. That the blessings of grace, which Christ came to bring to man, far exceed the curse of sin and death that has been upon man since Adam, has time and time again found wonderful expression in the lyrics of Christian hymnody. Think, for example, of the words “He comes to make His blessings flow/Far as the curse is found” in Isaac Watts’ “Joy to the World” or of Julia H. Johnston’s hymn which speaks of “grace that is greater than all our sin”.

Ayn Rand, speaking through her character John Galt, opposed the idea of free will to the doctrine of original sin. Most opposition to the idea of original sin has come from the belief that it is incompatible with free will and therefore moral responsibility. Pelagius, the fifth century monk whose name has become synonymous with the denial of original sin, believed the doctrine to be both fatalistic and harmful to moral character. He taught that by sinning, Adam set a bad example which his descendants voluntarily follow, although retaining the ability not to do so.

Others have held that the doctrines of original sin and the necessity for salvation by grace do not contradict the idea that man has free will and is thus morally responsible for his actions. St.Augustine of Hippo, for example, was the primary opponent of Pelagius, yet he also wrote to Valentius defending the idea of free will. (8) The Augustinian position of affirming original sin and salvation by grace on the one hand and the moral necessity of free will on the other has been regarded, by the western church at least, as being the orthodox position.

A great deal depends here on what we mean by free will. If we define free will in such a way that any constraint upon our freedom to choose nullifies free will then of course it is incompatible with original sin – and a host of other things including the sovereignty of God, the rule of law, and respect for other people. This kind of absolute free will is desired only by madmen. On the other hand, it is apparent that opposite that Scylla is the Charybdis of defining free will so loosely that it is devoid of any real meaning.

A simple definition of free will is the ability to make choices for which we can be held morally accountable. From this definition it is apparent why there is perceived to be tension if not contradiction between free will and original sin. If our being held responsible for our choices, so as to be justly rewarded for our right actions and punished for our wrong actions, requires that we have the ability to choose between right and wrong, how can we be said to have free will if we are in a fallen condition due to original sin so as to no longer be able to not be sinners?

One possible answer to this is to follow St. Augustine in pointing out that original sin is not an external coercion of the will but an internal corruption. It is not that some force outside our will prevents us from making right choices and forces us to make wrong ones, it is that our internal inclination has been bent by original sin towards making wrong choices and away from God and the good. To expand upon this we could add the observation that we are creatures of habit, that once we have made a decision, whether good or bad, we are more likely to make the same decision again and that this likelihood increases the more often we make the decision. We ordinarily recognize that this does not nullify our responsibility. We would consider the judge who accepted “I did it once, now I’m hooked, I can’t stop” as a legitimate excuse and let the offender off to be an incompetent fool. Original sin operates in a somewhat similar way. Our race’s initial choice to rebel against God, generated in each of us an inclination to continue to do so.

The Apostle Paul would appear to have a different answer to this question however. If we continue to read in the epistle to the Romans from where he introduced the concept of original sin in the fifth chapter, we find that in the sixth he describes our relationship to the sin that indwells us as one of slavery or bondage. This would seem to be an acknowledgement that original sin has indeed damaged our free will. God, however, through His grace and mercy given to us in Jesus Christ, has set out to undo the damage done by man’s sin. This includes the damage done to the freedom of our will. Those of us who have been baptized into Jesus Christ, he declares, have been baptized into His death and resurrection. What this means for us, St. Paul explains, is that we are to consider Christ’s death to be our own death to sin, breaking its slavery over us, and setting us free to submit to God and serve righteousness rather than sin. The grace of God brings the restoration of free will to fallen man. (9)

This might raise the question of why the restoration of free will is considered to be a good thing. Was not free will the source of the problem in the first place? Man was given the choice between obedience to God and immortality on the one hand and sin and death on the other and chose the latter, bringing all sorts of misery upon himself, enslaving himself to sin and death. If God, motivated by His love, mercy, and grace, decided to redeem mankind from the mess he had gotten himself into, why return him to a state of free will and the choice between following the sinful inclinations from which he has been liberated and obeying God in righteousness?

The problem with this question is that free will was part of the original creation and is therefore something that is good in itself. It is not free will but the abuse of free will that is the origin of sin. Free will is not just the ability to choose evil, but the ability to choose good. The latter cannot exist without the former.

This brings us back to Anthony Burgess, with whom we began this essay. The writer who grounded his rejection of progressive politics on its inherent rejection of original sin, in his most well known novel offered a defense of free will, a belief in which was also the result of his Catholic upbringing, on precisely the grounds that removing the possibility of choosing evil also eliminates the possibility of choosing good. In A Clockwork Orange, the main character and narrator, Alex, the leader of a gang of “ultraviolent” teenage hooligans, imprisoned after an evening of rape and murder, becomes a test subject of a progressive government experiment in which an aversion to sex and violence is created with pain inducing drugs. If you have read the novel or seen Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation you are undoubtedly aware of how the process works. The point is that Alex is turned into a model citizen by the removal of his free will. This turns out to have major drawbacks.

Once Kubrick’s film had made the novel famous, Burgess was besieged with requests for explanations of the story, its violence, its title, and the weird lingo, a combination of rhyming slang and Russian, that many of the characters use. In his response he would always point to the theme that had inevitably been overlooked – that free will is an essential component of any real choice of the good. (10)

(1) Anthony Burgess, You’ve Had Your Time: Being the Second Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess, (London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1990), p. 140.

(2) John Anthony Burgess Wilson, who wrote under his two middle names, records his Catholic upbringing in his first volume of memoirs entitled Little Wilson and Big God. As an adult he would describe himself as a “lapsed Catholic”. The influence of the doctrines and ideas of the Church in which he was raised is evident in his books, especially his later ones.

(3) One major traditionalist conservative thinker who contested the idea that original sin is essential to political conservatism was Michael Oakeshott in his essay “On Being Conservative”, published in Rationalism and Politics and Other Essays. This is because in this essay, Oakeshott took a minimalist approach to the definition of conservatism, describing it as an attitude rather than a body of belief, and not because Oakeshott saw man or his society as perfectable.

(4) Indeed, Hulme made the doctrine the essence of the distinction between classicism and romanticism. He wrote “Put shortly, these are the two views, then. One, that man is intrinsically good, spoilt by circumstances; and the other than he is intrinsically limited, but disciplined by order and tradition to something fairly decent. To the one party man’s nature is like a well, to the other like a bucket. The view which regards man as a well, a reservoir full of possibilities, I call the romantic; the one which regards him as a very finite and fixed creature, I call the classical.” T. E. Hulme, “Romanticism and Classicism” in Speculations: Essays on Humanism and the Philosophy of Art (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1924), p. 117. In the next paragraph he wrote “One may note here that the Church has always taken the classical view since the defeat of the Pelagian heresy and the adoption of the sane classical dogma of original sin.”

(5) Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (New York: Signet Classic, 1957, 1996), p. 938.

(6) The Hebrew word meaning “man, husband”, corresponding to aner and vir, is iysh.

(7) A couple of conservative authors have recently written books espousing the value of such pessimism. These are John Derbyshire in We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism ( New York: Crown Forum, 2009) and Roger Scruton in The Uses of Pessimism and the Dangers of False Hope (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).


(9) This, in Christian ethics, is the highest and truest freedom available to man on earth – liberation from the sin that enslaves him from within. In the classical ethics of Plato and Aristotle, vices are habits that are formed when man allows his reason and will to be enslaved by his appetites and passions. Instead, the philosophers declared, man should strive for virtue by ruling over these instinctual drives. To facilitate this is the end for which government and its laws are established. Both Christian and classical thought clash at this point with modern, progressive thought. To the modern, progressive, way of thinking, human freedom is threatened most, not by some internal enslaving factor, be it Adamic sin or animal passion, but by the external restraints of custom, tradition and authority. Freedom, the modern progressive insists, lies in the unshackling of human desires and what the church calls “sin”, from the repressive bonds of religion and law. That the “freedom” valued by the modern progressive, might be most likely to be found within a society that is the exact opposite of “free”, one in which the lives of its members are planned by the state from birth to the grave, was a theme brilliantly explored by Aldous Huxley in his Brave New World, a novel that seems today to have been almost prophetic.

(10) If it be objected that the perfected saints in glory do not sin, it should be noted that what has been removed in glorification is not free will, the power to choose evil, but the internal desire to do so – the exact opposite of what the Ludovico Technique did to Alex in Burgess’s novel.

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