The “I’m not Hitler” problem, Original sin, emotional vs. intellectual knowledge
Tag Archives: Original Sin
We have a natural tendency to mess things up. We can’t help it. Even when we think we are doing good we very likely are in the midst of mortal sin, or at least the next royal mess. Everything from bringing democracy to the middle east to expanding healthcare, from trying to comfort a friend to advising daughters on boyfriends. Intentions are rarely bad. And we can imagine a universe where this goes well. We just don’t happen to live in that universe. We don’t get to make clean choices and pick between good and evil. We don’t see that well. Most of our choices are actually between bad and worse. Welcome to the triage center known as a fallen world. And just because we didn’t intend to, doesn’t let us off the hook. We are morally culpable – sometimes to the third and forth generations.
Sometimes two great plays lead to a limp off loss in the World Series.
But unlike Boston, whose only recourse is game 4, we have Hope. The law is not the final word. The righteousness of God is by Grace.
There is a big word for you. Ontology is the statement of origins. Teleology is the statement of endings. The ontological argument is the argument for the existence of god* that boils down the unmoved mover – it all had to come from some where. Teleology is the opposite. It all has to go somewhere. The teleology of an embryo is to become a baby (sorry if that makes pro-choice a little uncomfortable). Religiously we say things like Jesus Christ, the alpha and the omega. The ontology and the teleology.
So why is Parson Brown stumbling around in Philosophy class? Well, Roger Olsen has written a man-bites-dog essay about denominations. All being good post-moderns we hear the world denomination and go “eww”, right? Dr. Olsen confesses his undying love for them, hence man-bites-dog, very interesting. And in the middle of it he says this.
I recently interacted with a well-known ecumenical theologian who has been intimately involved with the World Council of Churches for many years. He expressed the hope of someday seeing one worldwide Christian denomination. I don’t share his hope. He portrayed the existence of multiple denominations as evidence of “brokenness” in the body of Christ. I don’t see them that way. At least the plurality of denominations does not have to evidence brokenness in the body of Christ.
Now, let me first say that my gut loves this article and what it says. It is not that I have undying love for denominations – I don’t. What I do like are clear statements of belief – like this one, the Epitome of the Formula of Concord. As Lutherans we say we “believe, teach and confess” a bunch of things. If you don’t agree, you might still be a Christian, but you are not a Lutheran. For example, if you believe that “God is unwilling that all people repent and believe in the Gospel” you might make a perfectly good Calvinist. When you are worried that your are one of those people God has it in for on your death bed, come back to Luther and make a good confession. That puts me more in the Traditions wing. But, the lingering question comes from John 17:20-23. Jesus wishes that we are all one.
Is that a statement of ontology, we all have our being in Christ? Is that a statement of teleology, we all will be joined in one church? An enduring strain of Christianity longs for that prayer as a teleological reality. If we were not such sinners, the church would be one structure here and now. And there is truth there. There is one church – I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church as the creed says. But is there any way to see the results of the reformation as a good thing as Dr. Olson clearly does?
If I was going to attempt to answer yes, I have to see Jesus prayer as one of ontology. We all have our foundation and being in Christ alone. I am so used to thinking of Jesus’ prayer as being unanswered in the here and now and taking it as teleological that I’m not sure. It is easier to think in terms of a messed up world. That is probably why I’m a Lutheran and Dr. Olson is an Arminian. He can escape original sin while I can’t.
* – the god of philosophy is not the revealed God of the Bible.
The modern world has bought into Rousseau’s noble savage. We tend to think we are pretty good by nature. That the bad we do is the exception. But that is not what the Christian Church teaches.
Here is Luther in the Smalcald Articles (Part 3 Article 1).
1] Here we must confess, as Paul says in Rom. 5:12, that sin originated [and entered the world] from one man Adam, by whose disobedience all men were made sinners, [and] subject to death and the devil. This is called original or capital sin.
2] The fruits of this sin are afterwards the evil deeds which are forbidden in the Ten Commandments, such as [distrust] unbelief, false faith, idolatry, to be without the fear of God, presumption [recklessness], despair, blindness [or complete loss of sight], and, in short not to know or regard God; furthermore to lie, to swear by [to abuse] God’s name [to swear falsely], not to pray, not to call upon God, not to regard [to despise or neglect] God’s Word, to be disobedient to parents, to murder, to be unchaste, to steal, to deceive, etc.
3] This hereditary sin is so deep [and horrible] a corruption of nature that no reason can understand it, but it must be [learned and] believed from the revelation of Scriptures, Ps. 51:5; Rom. 6:12ff ; Ex. 33:3; Gen. 3:7ff
If we accept the teaching of the church on human nature, what separates us from James Holmes, or Dylan Kliebold or any of the ever growing list (the Anchoress has an example from 1928) is much less than what separates us from what we like to think we are.
Luther captured it doctrinally, but one of the great 20th century artists captured is poetically…
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” ― Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn
This does not excuse or justify the sinner. The law is good and right and should be upheld. The primary purpose of the state is to exact that and protect us from ourselves. (Rom 13:3-5) But, none of that saves. It just places us all into the hands of death…where Christ placed himself for us. That work of Christ, trusting the Father’s justice, does justify us and creates in us a clean heart. Only when we are ready to destroy our heart, and have it replaced with the heart of Christ, can we be justified.
From WSJ – “Why We Lie”
Not too long ago, one of my students, named Peter, told me a story that captures rather nicely our society’s misguided efforts to deal with dishonesty. One day, Peter locked himself out of his house. After a spell, the locksmith pulled up in his truck and picked the lock in about a minute.
“I was amazed at how quickly and easily this guy was able to open the door,” Peter said. The locksmith told him that locks are on doors only to keep honest people honest. One percent of people will always be honest and never steal. Another 1% will always be dishonest and always try to pick your lock and steal your television; locks won’t do much to protect you from the hardened thieves, who can get into your house if they really want to. The purpose of locks, the locksmith said, is to protect you from the 98% of mostly honest people who might be tempted to try your door if it had no lock.
David Brooks is like the one eyed man in the land of the blind.
The people who pioneered democracy in Europe and the United States had a low but pretty accurate view of human nature. They knew that if we get the chance, most of us will try to get something for nothing. They knew that people generally prize short-term goodies over long-term prosperity. So, in centuries past, the democratic pioneers built a series of checks to make sure their nations wouldn’t be ruined by their own frailties…Neither the United States nor the European model will work again until we rediscover and acknowledge our own natural weaknesses and learn to police rather than lionize our impulses.
I say one eyed man because David Brooks understands the law. Not the civil law, but the natural law or the religious use of the law. He understands 1 John 1:8, “if we say we have no sin the truth is not in us”. Many politicians of the left and the right think that if only we could implement out program we would get it right. That is a form of denying the truth. Because as St. Paul says all the law does is increase sin. (Rom 5:20). But David Brooks only has one eye. That part after the ellipsis in the quote gives it away. He thinks that just acknowledging original sin or our inclination to break the rules will restore good government. Now turning from complete falsehood to truth might lead to better government, but it might just as well lead to another rash of “men of iron” who would seek to impose that better way. Since all men are rule breakers we need that “strong ruler” to keep them in line. That thinking lead to Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and every homicidal dictator of the 20th century left and right. Hitler won elections. Stalin was popular.
The second eye is the gospel. Those founders understood that law only leads to sin. They also understood that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness had political dimensions, but were largely spiritual in nature. For a democratic government to survive required citizens of private virtue (4 Cardinal: Prudence, Patience, Fortitude and Temperance; 3 Theological: Faith, Hope and Charity). And the only way to sustained private virtue is conversion and the indwelling of the spirit. You can have the best system set up with complete understanding of the law, but absent private virtue it will come to naught.
What the democracies of the west are reaping is the coming to naught. Virtues are not built and practiced because the Spirit has been denied. The Spirit has been denied because the Spirit testifies to Christ alone. And we do not want Christ. We can do it ourselves. We can perfect our democracy and our safety net and our war machines. We do not want the grace. Especially a grace given from a cross. Empire always looks better than the cross, until you live in it or under it as the case may be.
Here is David Brooks echoing our Thursday Morning Bible Study.
I said something like “I never really had that much of a problem with evil, I believe in original sin.” Here is Mr. Brook’s explaining it in light of SSGT. Bales. And catch the last paragraph. That daily struggle, think the series on Spiritual Practices. Which I’ll have #3 tomorrow. Until then, David Brooks.
According to this view, most people are naturally good, because nature is good. The monstrosities of the world are caused by the few people (like Hitler or Idi Amin) who are fundamentally warped and evil.
This worldview gives us an easy conscience, because we don’t have to contemplate the evil in ourselves. But when somebody who seems mostly good does something completely awful, we’re rendered mute or confused….
In centuries past most people would have been less shocked by the homicidal eruptions of formerly good men. That’s because people in those centuries grew up with a worldview that put sinfulness at the center of the human personality…
According to this older worldview, Robert Bales, like all of us, is a mixture of virtue and depravity. His job is to struggle daily to strengthen the good and resist the evil, policing small transgressions to prevent larger ones. If he didn’t do that, and if he was swept up in a whirlwind, then even a formerly good man is capable of monstrous acts that shock the soul and sear the brain.