Analytic Theology

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Original Sin

April 4th, 2011 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

DAVID KRONEMYER: From a soteriological standpoint, the main problem with the Christian doctrine of original sin is that it is not powerful enough to account for the profound alienation people experience as a result of the human condition.  The Genesis tale of the fall of man comprises a series of events, which, in retrospect, don’t seem like that big of a deal.  The serpent lured Eve to taste the apple, Eve gave it to Adam, the tree of knowledge beckoned.  It’s difficult to derive from this relatively benign sequence all of the consequences of the human condition, including phenomena such as the reality of suffering; the presence of evil; the intimation of mortality; and the impossibility of truly knowing, in an epistemological sense, whether there is a transcendent God.  It particularly is perplexing considering the relative insignificance of man vis-à-vis the cosmos.  God created man, however, Genesis sets forth no indication that man was meant to have the incredible power of splitting the universe in two (good versus evil; sin versus innocence).

It also is difficult to extrapolate from it the concept of “personal sin,” that is, some way in which I, as a specific individual, transgressed divine commands and moral laws, as a result of which I require personal salvation. If there is original sin, how is it transmitted down through the generations? Is it acquired simply as a result of being born as a human, or passed along like a cultural meme?  Neither alternative seems particularly fair.  Then, at the other end of the temporal spectrum, how is it that Jesus (who, after all, had a mortal aspect) acquired the power (whether divine, or otherwise) to eradicate everybody’s sin, simply as a result of his death? The demise of one discrete being, no matter who he was, seems insufficient to counter a problem of this magnitude, not only for the past, but for all time into the future. While Augustine has a lot to say about original sin, he does not really engage with these sort of analytical issues.

Both Heidegger and Sartre attempted to confront this issue – Heidegger indirectly but thematically, and Sartre specifically.  Heidegger characterized Dasein as the only being for whom the meaning of its own being is an issue.  “Being” is what it is for anything “to be,” and what it is for Dasein to be in particular.  Heidegger was no theologian.  In his later work, he critiqued the prospect of what he called “onto-theology,” that is, monotheistic religion, because it obscured Dasein’s quest for the meaning of Being.  Although he frequently is characterized as such, Heidegger was not an existentialist.  His primary concern was the minutiae of being-in-the-world; the way Dasein relates to objects (such as rocks), tools or instrumentalities (objects used for the accomplishment of some objective), and other persons.  Some commentators (e.g. Dreyfus) translate Heidegger’s concept of these interactions as “coping.”  This is not quite right, though, because it imports a sense of resignation or futility to these activities, when in fact they comprise the central modality of Dasein’s project of existence.  A more accurate translation is that Dasein attunes or comports itself with experiences and phenomena it encounters in the world, using strategies and techniques it adopts as a result of the way objects and people are situated and present themselves, and the uses and responses they suggest.  Although not typically associated with clinical psychology, Heidegger’s concept of attunement particularly is useful for understanding Axis II personality disorders – which might best be characterized as a misfire of this attunement process, when it becomes out of calibration with facts and states of affairs in the world.

Sartre, on the other hand, is a true existentialist.  His primary concern was the sense of alienation or “angst” people experience as a phenomenological reality, when confronted with the impossible task of assigning meaning to the events and situations comprising the human condition, as per above.  It certainly is possible to understand Sartre’s existentialism sui generis. Contextually and conceptually, though, it makes more sense to consider it as a response to Christian theology’s narrative of the human condition. For Sartre, God’s main problem is his transcendence; the impossibility of ever being sure a divine presence exists. Although this starts off as an epistemological argument (lack of certain knowledge), it ends up as an ontological one (there is no such being).  As a result the human condition is hopeless, and the only possible response to it is one of despair.  Sartre may have been less frustrated had he come across, or been able to articulate, a means of direct access to the divine – something akin to Descartes’ lack of doubt in the reality that he was a thinking being.  If knowledge could replace belief, then it wouldn’t be necessary to have faith.

The only candidates for certain knowledge that religion has come up with are unsatisfying.  They primarily are experiential, such as radical mysticism.  One doesn’t derive the necessary knowledge from contemplation of icons, or by reading sacred texts.  It’s difficult to theorize your way out of the human condition, including, for example, the reality of death.  Sartre’s predicament really is an exercise in binary logic.  Since there’s no certain knowledge, and faith doesn’t lead to it, the only credible alternative is despair, or futility.  Is there an intermediate zone between faith, knowledge and despair?  Put slightly differently, given the impossibility of knowledge, is faith anything more than the absence of despair?

One way to understand Sartre simply is to substitute Heidegger’s concept of “Being” (that is, not the being of particular things or persons, but rather what it is for something “to be” in general) for the Christian concept of God.  If there were a monotheistic deity, it would be pure Being, or the cause of Being, or have all the attributes of Being.  If such an entity were epistemologically accessible, then Sartre would be able to solve his dilemma.  Although they struggle with this maneuver, and do not articulate or complete it successfully, this seems to be the project of later existentialist theologians such as Tillich.  It also seems to underlie the project of Gnosticism, understood as a form of proto-Christianity.