Just when those of us schooled in progressive schools of thought had become confident that the old schools of thought were dead, that old doctrine we love to hate — original sin — begs for reconsideration.
Progressives of every stripe view original sin as toxic waste material best left behind in the guarded cemetery of bad ideas. Whether secular humanist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, animist, atheist, agnostic or whatever progressive school of thought, the idea of progress in one form or another has united us against the nay-saying disparagers of basic human goodness.
Then along comes the American election of 2016 and the year that leaves us in shock. January 20, 2017 the nation’s first African-American President handed the Oval Office and the nuclear codes to the primary funder and spokesperson of the Birther-movement determined to erase all things Obama.
Suddenly the reign of sin and death has made a comeback. The sins are ‘original’ both in the old sense of infecting the entire body and freshly creative beyond imagination.
The idea of “sin” itself — not just “original” sin — had fallen into disrepute, a relic of unenlightened religious orthodoxy until it started to best describe the behaviors of the Oval Office. The arc of the new American administration and Congress looked anything like a rainbow.
“Sin, guilt, neurosis; they are one and the same, the fruit of the tree of knowledge.” Sound like unenlightened orthodoxy paraphrasing the story of the Garden of Eden?
It was Henry Miller, whose Tropic of Cancer and other books were blacklisted by American publishers as obscene, who looked deeply into himself and the human condition, sounding like the Genesis writer. Or, God forbid, St. Augustine of Hippo or John Calvin.
Neither Augustine nor Calvin meant by original sin or total depravity that life is without an underlying goodness. Like Miller, they pointed to something that is as without explanation as the sudden appearance of the serpent in the Garden of Eden story: our inexplicable proneness to evil and slothfulness in good.
J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the bomb, lamented, as though peering ahead to 2017-2018 when two little boys in the White House and North Korea would call each other names while playing with nuclear matches:
- Despite the vision and farseeing wisdom of our wartime heads of state, the physicists have felt the peculiarly intimate responsibility for suggesting, for supporting, and in the end, in large measure, for achieving the realization of atomic weapons. Nor can we forget that these weapons as they were in fact used dramatized so mercilessly the inhumanity and evil of modern war. In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.
- Physics in the Contemporary World, Arthur D. Little Memorial Lecture at M.I.T. (25 November 1947)
The old biblical serpent is never far away. The vulgarity of sin and death is the story of our time.
Eating from the ONE and only tree of all the trees from which we cannot eat without bringing on our own destruction — the forbidden Promethean kind of knowledge that divides the world into good (us) and evil (them) — we now wonder how the Seven Deadly Sins not only sit upon the throne of the enlightened democratic republic we thought we knew but infect all who, quite originally, only see evil outside ourselves.
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall….” – Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”
- Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, January 18, 2018