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.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Mr. Obama's War

Fall is almost upon us, the kids are heading back to school, the farmers are in the fields taking in their harvest, and the air is full of the sound of rattling sabres. For two and a half years now, Syria has been wracked by civil war as jihadist insurgents have sought to unseat the Ba’ath government of Bashar al-Assad. As this sort of thing happens all the time in the Middle East until now few people have seen much of a need for the rest of the world to involve itself in Syria’s internal power struggles. Then, on August 21st 2013, something happened to change that, something which has world leaders outraged and US President Barack Obama determined that he will not go down in history as the only liberal Democrat President since the beginning of the twentieth century other than Jimmy Carter not to get the United States into a major war. (1) Over the Labour Day weekend, Obama announced his belief that America should bomb Syria and his intention to ask for approval to do so the reconvening houses of Congress.

What happened on August 21st that has the president of the meaningless slogan of change and the empty rhetoric of hope beating his ploughshare into a sword and setting aside the olive branch of Irene so as to take up the spear of Mars?

Well, according to the August 30th press release from the White House, the Syrian government launched rockets into the Kafr Batna, Jawbar, ‘Ayn Tarma, Darayya and Mu’addamiyah in the Ghouta suburb region of Damascus. These rockets are supposed to have contained chemical weapons such as the sarin nerve toxin and to have killed over a thousand people including children.

There seems to be a strange sense of déjà vu attached to this story. The villain, an authoritarian Ba’ath government, is accused of using WMDs against its own people, therefore providing the excuse whereby the hero, the president of the United States, can justify his intervention by way of blowing things up and killing even more people. Where have we heard this story before?

It would appear that the United States is preparing for the military equivalent of a cheap Hollywood sequel.

Wars always have their supporters and their detractors, their hawks and their doves. Pacifists, who for religious or philosophical reasons are opposed to all wars on principle, have also been around for a very long time. During the Cold War, however, a new type of peacenik entered the scene who was neither a traditional pacifist nor merely an objector to a particular war. Instead, his shtick was to always condemn the United States in particular or Western civilization in general as the aggressor in every conflict and to always takes the side of the enemy. Declaring himself a realist, he affected to find a commercial motive behind all American/Western military action and to treat that as sufficient proof of the righteousness of the other side. Although Soviet infiltration undoubtedly played a part in creating this new type of peace activist he has survived the collapse of his patron and has continued to oppose all American and Western military action in the decades since the Cold War ended. It is to no credit to him that more often than not that military action deserved opposition and it is more than a little ironic that if any American president could be said to be his president, i.e., the president who represents who he is and what he stands for, it is the man currently beating the drums for war in Washington D.C.

That irony, I am afraid, will not be enough to put a smile on the faces of Syria’s Christian minority. Ten years ago, when the American government against all common sense and reason went into Iraq and deposed Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s Christians paid a terrible price for George W. Bush’s decision to bring the blessings of liberal democracy to their country. Should the United States take out the Assad government the same fate will befall Syria’s Christians as yet another Middle Eastern country falls under the control of jihadists.

Not that such considerations are likely to affect Obama’s decision. A little over a year ago he told the press that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” which, if crossed by Assad would mean that the United States would intervene in the civil war. By making this remark he thereby informed the Syrian insurgents of exactly what they would have to do to get the United States to enter the war on their side, i.e., stage a chemical attack and blame it on the government.

The White House has dismissed this interpretation of the events of August 21st, saying “We assess that the scenario in which the opposition executed the attack on August 21 is highly unlikely” (2) just as Obama is now trying to pass the responsibility for his remarks off on everybody else by saying “I didn’t set a red line; the world set a red line.” (3) Dr. Srdja Trifkovic, the Rockford Institute’s foreign affairs expert, however, has made a compelling case that the attack was, in fact, a false flag perpetrated by the insurgents. He argues that Assad had no reason to use chemical weapons because he was winning the war and every reason not to use them because UN chemical weapons experts had just arrived on the scene. The insurgents, however, had plenty of reason to conduct a chemical attack and try to pin it on Assad and have a history of attempting to fake such incidents to garner world sympathy. (4)

These arguments make a lot of sense – certainly a lot more sense than the Obama administration’s case for bombing Syria. The Russian government maintains that the rebels were behind the attack and claims that it presented evidence to the UN earlier this year about the Syrian rebels having used chemical weapons – sarin gas specifically – in Khan al-Assal, a suburb of Aleppo last March. (5) Alternatively, there are reports that the Syrian rebels have actually admitted being responsible for the attack in Ghouta, claiming they had mishandled chemical weapons given them by the Saudis. (6)

Even if Assad’s forces were proven to be behind the chemical attacks, however, it would make little sense to bomb Syria in response. “We don’t want you to use chemical weapons to kill your own people so to punish you for doing so we are going to kill even more of your own people by dropping powerful explosives upon them.” What kind of insane reasoning is that?

There are those who maintain that Obama has to bomb Syria in order to save face and maintain American and Western credibility. Oddly, this position always seems to go hand in glove with the counsel of haste – bomb first, ask questions later, the longer you put it off the more credibility you will lose. What will happen to American credibility, however, if Obama bombs Syria and it is later conclusively shown that the rebels were behind the chemical attack?

What happened to American credibility ten years ago when the hidden weapons of mass destruction for which the Bush administration had pled an urgent necessity to depose Saddam Hussein failed to materialize?

When the Cold War ended, the first president Bush announced the dawn of a “New World Order”, in which a coalition of the free nations of the world, led by the United States, would police the world against aggressors. The first test of this new Pax Americana was the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. The Americans ended that occupation in Operation Desert Storm with a broad international coalition behind them. Since then, every subsequent American administration has followed the precedent set by the first Bush and continued his policy of using American military might to police the affairs of the nations of the world. With each successive administration, the coalition of nations standing behind the United States has shrunk as international support for her leadership has dwindled.

Today, Obama can count on the support of our own Prime Minister, Stephen Harper and of French President Francois Hollande. British Prime Minister David Cameron would like to support Obama but the British Parliament has said no. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wishes to see the Americans take out Assad and Turkey is taking a similar line. There is notably less support for bombing Syria today than there was for invading Iraq ten years ago.

In fact it is difficult to see why Obama has even this much support. Bombing Syria will not accomplish anything other than more death and destruction and could create worse problems in the form of a larger conflict with Iran and Russia. Should the United States use its military might to depose Assad, as Israel’s Netanyahu wishes, the new government is unlikely to be an improvement, except perhaps from the perspective of Islamic fundamentalists.

Of course it remains to be seen whether Obama will actually do anything. When he announced that he was seeking Congressional approval for the air strikes he made it clear that he believes he is within his constitutional rights to order such strikes upon his own authority. Whether or not that is actually the case, having sought Congressional approval, he is unlikely to order the bombings if such approval is withheld. He has scheduled an address to the American nation for next Tuesday, in which he will explain why he believes bombing Syria is the right thing to do and why Congress should give him the approval he seeks.

Perhaps in that speech it will suddenly become clear that bombing Syria is the thing to do, that it ought to be done without delay, and that all objections are moot and pointless. Perhaps the American president will provide incontrovertible evidence that the Assad government was actually behind the chemical attack of August 21st, that he did not actually stick his foot in his mouth when he gave that “red line” ultimatum last year, and that if bombs do not immediately fall upon Damascus Assad’s agents will unleash sarin gas in Washington DC, New York, Tel Aviv, Ottawa, London, Toronto and Paris.

For some reason I am not holding my breath in anticipation of that.

(1) Woodrow Wilson got the United States into World War I, Franklin Delano Roosevelt got them into World War II, Harry Truman into Korea, John F. Kennedy Jr. and Lyndon Johnson got them into Vietnam, and Bill Clinton got them involved in the various ethnic conflicts of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, including the Kosovo War of 1999.