Ed Simon on original sin for a secular age.
Save a few prayers for poor Pelagius, footnote to theological history, whose name mostly endures as an adjective of denigration among the orthodox. Save a few prayers for poor Pelagius because he is but a lowly sinner, like the rest of us, even if he thought he wasn’t (or, more correctly, thought that all of us weren’t condemned to be). And save a few prayers for poor Pelagius, not just for his dual exile from both Church and country, and not just because what scant record there is seems to indicate that he was a morally unassailable fellow, but also because he was author of a doctrine which seems so reasonable and humane in its inaccuracies.
Pelagius, a fifth-century patristic thinker from the cold shoals of a Britain that was rapidly descending into chaos, is often contrasted with his theological opponent, the far more influential Augustine. For Augustine all of us were born with the stain of original sin on our white souls, and the descendants of the Latin Church (whether Catholic or Protestant) have largely agreed. His Celtic adversary however (whom he described as “saintly”), with perhaps a bit of paganism clinging to his theology, insisted that we are born into the world innocent of sin, and there is no reason that without vigilance we can’t hold on to that innocence. For these sorts of claims Jerome, another contemporary theologian, insisted that Pelagius was “stuffed with Irish porridge.” In Augustine’s understanding we were corrupted from womb to tomb, but for Pelagius perfected sinlessness is there for those who want it. His disciples, who are almost never self-identified, are those who argue that humans themselves are not fallen but can in some way be perfectible in the here and now—through our own efforts.
Since the fourth century when they engaged in dueling diatribes against each other, Pelagius has seemingly existed only as a foil to Augustine, who in an appropriate demonstration of original sin’s pettiness helped to have Pelagius fully excommunicated from the Catholic Church, which they were both devoted to. Pelagius, who lived a life of the utmost austerity and who once admonished, “We ought not to commit even very light offenses,” and Augustine, who was a spiritual genius with terrible Greek, non-existent Hebrew, and who never in his lifetime was privy to a complete copy of the Bible (yet whose commentaries on that book are sublime). The pair are sort of an ironic inverse, “Goofus” and “Gallant,” and the irony is that it is the whoring, thieving, sinful Augustine with his stolen pears and his bastard child who more completely embodies the paradoxical message of Christianity, not the steadfast, ascetic, and pious Goofus that was Pelagius. “Pelagian” was normally a slur, at least until most of us became Pelagians and forgot the heresy itself. The heresy is an innately attractive idea for obvious reasons; it has none of the dour, gloomy raininess of the heart or drizzly November of the soul that we associate with some black-clothed, prickly Puritan in a drafty New England room, or with a black-robed Jesuit mortifying himself with hair-shirt and whip of cords after preaching to natives who will bring his welcome martyrdom. But Pelagius’ doctrine wasn’t simply an “I’m OK, you’re OK” worldview; no, far from it. Since Pelagianism regarded the role of individual works so highly in personal salvation there was little room for error (and, as Augustine would claim, no room for the saving grace of Jesus Christ). It was said that unlike Augustine, Pelagius conducted himself with the utmost morality, with the neurotic scrupulosity of those who are sure that any indiscretion will condemn them to hellfire. Though it’s not a problem once you get rid of hell (or assume that everyone is going there but you).
In modern parlance, liberals assume that everyone is good and rational but just hasn’t read the right Mother Jones article or heard the right NPR broadcast yet. Conservatives adopt a more pessimistic attitude, however, for they assume everyone to be bad – everyone but themselves. Indeed for as much as the exuberant fundamentalist likes to blame the liberal relativist or the New Age pluralist for the abolition of belief in sin, it is the reactionary himself who is arguably most responsible for incubating our new world, where the charge to responsibility is treated as anathema. I have in mind the anarcho-capitalist, the libertarian, those who idolize the myth of the “self-made man” when the only Man who can make Himself is not of this world. These ethical pip-squeaks have erroneously imagined that anyone can pull himself up by his bootstraps, or by his jackboots as the case increasingly seems to be. Let us not pretend that there is anything “Christian” in a worldview that lets children without insurance die or that is fine with men and women starving to death in the richest nation in history.
How do we explain such a tremendous self-regard that it would condemn anyone who looks, thinks, or acts differently than its holder, especially when this self-regard is often dressed in the sickening language of piety? Its adherents are parishioners in a heretical church, where a prosperity gospel begets the delusion of perfectibility. Belief in original sin keeps one honest, because you know you at least share a propensity to error with everyone, no matter how low. The market-fetishist forgets that the only universal pre-existing condition is fallenness. They say things like, “Why do I have to repent or ask for forgiveness if I don’t make mistakes?” Contrast that to the humility of Augustine’s “non possum non peccare,” or “I cannot not sin.” Say what you will about Augustine, I’d rather have someone with an awareness of his own inborn shortcomings occupying the highest position of power than someone who believes he never makes mistakes.
Pelagius’ view, once you discount the neurotic moral austerity it actually requires, is congruous with how most of us wish to see ourselves – as basically good. Who admits to being bad, save for in the bromides of repentant justified sinners, or in the crocodile tears of politicians caught with their pants down (and that’s very last-century these days)? We’ve come a long way from Puritans scouring the dark corners of their heart and putting pen to paper in acts of confession, or scrupulous Saints mortifying themselves for contrition. Pelagianism is unofficially the central heresy of our modern age, across the ideological spectrum. When Pelagius writes, “The best incentive for the mind consists in teaching it that it is possible to do anything which one really wants to do,” do we not see the self-regard of the libertarian whose unfounded faith ultimately leads to nihilism? But we also see the danger on the left of always assuming humans tend towards that which is more just, free, and good. We are humans, and so we must be on guard against that which is human. A humanism which trusts too much in the innate goodness of people is a humanism which will ultimately fail the people.
For as appealing as Pelagianism may be, or at least as appealing as the cartoon version of it may be, a cursory reflection shows its theology to be a mirage. Contrast Pelagius’ “I say that it is possible for a man to be without sin” with Augustine’s bluntly honest “I became evil for no reason. I had no motive for my wickedness except wickedness itself. It was foul, and I loved it. I loved the self-destruction, I loved my fall,” and ask yourself: which seems a more accurate description of human nature? Pelagianism may be a comforting myth, but watch children cruelly tease and fight one another (John Calvin called infants “seeds of sin” for a reason) and see how firmly you hold to the progressive given that “Children must be taught to hate.” They seem to know how to hate pretty well already. It was a theologian, the celebrated Reinhold Niebuhr, who once claimed that “The doctrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith,” and it was the psychologists Stanley Milgram and Philip Zambardo who proved that assertion with chart, data, and observation. Good people will brutalize underlings if given the chance, or electrocute strangers if told to by an authority. They proved what we can all observe with our eyes and what is confirmed by our experience: a deep malignancy seems programmed into the human soul. Evil may be banal, but it also comes easily.
A fundamental enough thing to remember, one would think, less than a century after Hiroshima and the Holocaust. The Romanian poet Paul Celan captured the dichotomy of humanity perfectly in “Todesfuge” when he described the German camp commander who at nightfall could lovingly write of “the gold of your hair Margarete” and then step outside where he “whistles his Jews off has them spade out a grave in the ground” and “orders us play up for the dance.” Much can be made of the fact that the culture that produced Goethe and Bach also produced Hitler, but original sin and evil aren’t German problems, they’re human ones. Of course we’re all human, we love our families, and we find joy and beauty in the world. Those facts don’t eliminate the existence of sin in our world; our empathy makes an awareness of that fact all the more crucial if we’re to resist oppression and injustice. That of course starts with the individual. The fact that I have written this encomium for belief in original sin on a computer built from the tin, tantalum, and tungsten, minerals which fuel brutal insurrections in the African nations were they are mined, and that the coffee that I am drinking right now was harvested by the exploited labor of workers in Indonesia or Honduras, or that the clothes I am wearing were made in Malaysian or Indian sweatshops—none of these facts invalidate my claim or make me a hypocrite. No, rather my collaboration with such systems only more fully confirms my point.
The political-theological is the personal, as one might say. So, now, return to Augustine and Pelagius. Envision, for a moment, the world which birthed these two contraries, both, as all of us, products of their world (some call that insight social theory, but Augustine came to the same conclusion with a different vocabulary). Pelagius, proud son of the Britons, where Roman legionnaires had brought government and a Christian missionary had brought God. By the end of his life he would find himself chastised by the eternal Church. If he had returned to the “green & pleasant land” of his home he would have found it recently abandoned by civil authority; the Romans had left of their own accord, too weakened to bother defending their interests in the British Isles, ultimately leaving the Romanized Celts to Anglo-Saxon invaders in the coming centuries.
Now think of Augustine in the scorching brown Tunisian backwater of Hippo, completely aware that the social contract was fraying, that Rome was nearing its end. The boundaries of the imperial project may have been contracting, but as Gibbon explained, a great nation is only ever the victim of suicide, not murder (even if the Romans themselves feared a pernicious eastern influence). As decadent inequality rose and a sense of civic engagement fell, as aqueducts and roads crumbled, and as the arc of history only ever bends towards ultimate death, the sentence of Rome had been written when Romulus murdered his brother. Rome’s chaos was, to Augustine, a demonstration of the intrinsic existence of humanity’s total depravity. Hippo would eventually fall to the Goths (technically Christians themselves, albeit Arian ones), Augustine dying shortly before they would destroy the city. He who wrote thousands of pages, The City of God and Confessions and a stream of sermons, he who arguably wrote the first autobiography to convey any sense of the individual, perished in a world that had become so broken that we don’t even know exactly how that life ended. Faced with the same dying world, Pelagius reacted with a consoling optimism about the goodness of humans, Augustine with an awareness of man’s ever-present propensity for evil. Both, in their own ways, weren’t wrong to react the way that they did.
So what use does original sin have today, after so many ideologically utopian children of the Enlightenment have rejected Augustine in favor of the perfectibility of society and man through reason, whether through socialism or libertarianism or fascism? What use do we have for the arguments between Augustine and Pelagius? They were both refugees from an age when everything solid dissolved as a morning mist, and where truth and fiction were confused for one another. Theirs was an era when a total civilization that had defined the values of the wider culture for centuries teetered on the edge of collapse because of its own selfish myopia. An age in which the public witnessed the ascendancies of effete, yet paradoxically rabble-rousing emperors who decreed from decadent and ugly golden gilt palaces with no sense of their own absurdity, and any shame or humility. For them, the universe contracted in on itself, Pelagius’ Britain separated from Europe. To make the parallels any more obvious would be heavy-handed (and we mustn’t be that).
To be heavy-handed may not be a sin, but what is, is the absurd avarice which leads to the denial of evidence that an Antarctic ice shelf bigger than Rhode Island is about to break off into the ocean due to human-generated climate change, even as the former CEO of Exxon and the current Secretary of State, as well as his boss, the leader of the “free” world, both deny that global warming is real. Sinful is that the eight richest men in the world have a combined wealth equal to the bottom half of the entire planet. Sinful is that black mothers and fathers have to wonder if their children will be murdered, and the knowledge that the perpetrators of those murders will often not be brought to justice. Sinful is that for a shamefully large percentage of the Republic the assertion that “Black Lives Matter” is somehow debatable. Sinful is that humans who are incapable of ever being pregnant feel free to force woman into pregnancies that may kill them, either physically, spiritually, economically, or emotionally. Sinful is that we live in a culture that feels entitled to describe whole groups of humans as “illegal.” Sinful is that so many men feel it their birthright to violate the bodies of women whether those women consent or not. Sinful is that Christian Pharisees feel free to deny their Muslim brothers and sisters the right to pray. Sinful is that a generation of children has been sacrificed to the Moloch of the firearms industry because some people have a hobby. Sinful is that so many reject the covenant of the commonwealth, of democracy, and are traitors to the democratic charge; so we remember that Dante tells us that the bottom circle is reserved for the traitors. Sinful is that the armies of intolerance and bigotry are waiting at the gates as surely as the Goths marched into Carthage.
The Greek poet Constantine Cavafy predicted as much when he wrote, “Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.” Do not mistake all of my glib God-talk for evidence of some deep faith (hypocritical or otherwise). I’m as agnostic as the rest of you faithless academics. And whether we have use of the God hypothesis or not is one question, but that we have to use the sin hypothesis strikes me as pragmatic truth. Much has been made of late about the language of engaged cultural studies, with its vocabulary of “privilege,” “entitlement,” and “intersectionality,” a language which found itself migrating from the academy into regular political discourse and may have played a role in the defeat of liberalism in public opinion and at the polls. We’re told that nobody appreciates being told that he has privilege, and that’s true.
Most people don’t appreciate being told that they are sinners either, though it comes down to pretty much the same thing. To benefit from things not of your own accord that were bought with the labor and pain of others is by definition a sin. But simply because people don’t like to hear certain truths doesn’t invalidate those truths. There is some truth to the claim that the terminology of cultural studies, especially when watered down by popular media, lacks in rhetorical power. Positivist inflected sociological terms don’t exactly sound like Gabriel’s trumpet. What is discussion about privilege but an acknowledgment of original sin translated into the disenchanted and anemic language of sociology? But trying to engage justice without language of the sacred (and note that this is not the same as the language of God) is to remove the most potent rhetoric that we have. John Milton explained that “Law can discover sin, but not remove,” just as surely as the language of identity politics can also discover sin, but often does little to alter it. That injustice, inequity, and bigotry are legally enshrined is manifestly a type of sin. I do not mean to suggest that fire-and-brimstone preaching will prove any more useful at the ballot box than cultural studies does; far from it. Yet I do think that the words we choose to describe the dark wood we find ourselves in are important, and any exorcist knows that you have to utter the demons’ proper names to cast them out.
What we need is an engaged, radical, “left Augustinianism.” We must recommit ourselves to the knowledge that a deep, irrational, immoral malignancy can influence politics. Both Marx and Smith, to varying degrees, inherited an Enlightenment faith in progress, where they believed that the individual was a rational agent. Now examine the behavior of those who are fully aware of, say, the apocalyptically pernicious effects of climate change on the world, yet who pursue financial gain by encouraging that very same climate change, and ask what is rational about such behavior? What does Rex Tillerson benefit by denying the existence of global warming, and in fact by drilling for oil exposed by the rapidly melting polar ice caps? One can psychologically and rationally understand the bank robber, but what of a man like Tillerson? What benefit does he have in losing his soul for a few billion barrels of Arctic crude? Does he need the money to pay for a nicer swimming pool? Men like him are already richer than Herod; they could retire to lives of inconceivable wealth and luxury. And as individual human comfort and material happiness are by necessity capped at a certain physical limit, how can we say that people such as him manifestly benefit by the movement of imaginary numbers on bankers’ computer screens? No, the vocabulary of rational profit motive is inadequate when profit motive irrationally pushes us to the brink of collapse; a better language is that of the medieval schoolman. The best language to describe individuals like the former CEO is the language of greed, of avarice, of sin. It is consumption beyond reason, beyond mere logical explication. And we abandon a crucial aspect of our intellectual inheritance if we’re not willing to use that language.
Because it’s never just economics, stupid. Sometimes it’s the dark corners of the human heart too. And sometimes the darkest corner of the human heart is also economic. But that’s a positivist word; the one that the monks used, avarice, is often better. Let the secular draw from the wellspring of theology as suits the interests of justice. Let us engage a humanism that is also aware of the limitations of the human, of sin. Reason alone is toothless, even with all of the right information many of us will still do the wrong thing. This isn’t about God, or someone dying for our sins. This is about people, and that people are capable of great evil can be easily confirmed. Acknowledging the presence of selfishness, cruelty, greed, rage, intolerance, and, in a word, sin (or evil) is that which makes the existence of good all the more obvious. Even if sometimes good only exists as a dim shaft of blurred light in our dark cell. I have written before, in seeming opposition to my argument here, that we must never stop sailing to Utopia. And I still believe that. Sailing toward what we pray is the direction of paradise must always be our charge, but thinking that we can ever arrive is the gravest error. Augustine said, “Give me chastity, but not yet,” to which I add, Give us utopia, but not yet. We once were lost, and still seem to be lost, perhaps with little hope of being found, save for the fellowship of others that gets us out of the prison of our skulls. If we’re able to leave those prisons long enough, we are sometimes gifted that grace which relieves the tensions of sin and isolation even a little bit And that little bit is enough to save the world. Our word for that concept is “love.” The first charge in a new Augustinian radical left is understanding that revolution has to begin inside first, and the paradoxical admission that in powerlessness there can often be great power (something Augustine knew, that Calvin knew, hell, that the Zen Buddhists know). Seneca wrote, “We are all sinful. Therefore whatever we blame in another we shall find in our own bosoms.”
Sin, like life, is not our fault – but it is our responsibility. For we must understand that though we are fallen and though we are born between shit and piss, that we are all the more glorious for it. And as Pascal wrote, though we are but reeds, we are of course thinking reeds. A true humanism which embraces our fallenness necessitates it.
Ed Simon is a scholar and freelance writer who covers literature, culture, and religion. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, Aeon, Atlas Obscura, Nautilus, Religion Dispatches, Killing the Buddha, and The Revealer, among other places. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon and at his website edsimon.org.