Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 87 (November 1998) 7-8.
It is a pleasure to recommend to readers Father Edward Oakes’ masterful essay on original sin elsewhere in this issue. My own pleasure in reading it was augmented by the reflections, both personal and political, it triggered in me.
It was the doctrine of original sin that made me, in my youth, an agnostic. I was a freshman at Valparaiso University taking a required course in basic Christian doctrine. (The main text for the course was C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.) I thought I knew Christian doctrine fairly well, but the instructor’s discussion of Augustine and original sin early in the semester threw me for a loop. He wrote on the blackboard—I remember it vividly—the words "Sin" and "sin." Our lower-case sins, he told us, derive from our inherited upper-case condition of Sin, and it is that condition that is at the heart of the human problem of alienation from God.
The distinction between Sin and sin intrigued me—the vividness of the memory attests to that—but the more I pondered it the more it disturbed me. For if I was, quite literally, born in Sin, how could I be responsible for it? If the wrongs that I did proceeded inevitably from the nature of my fallen being, then what had previously seemed the ineffable grace of God in Christ in saving me from the deserved consequence of my deeds became the superfluous action of an arbitrary, indeed quite absurd, deity. I should be grateful for being rescued from a situation for which I had no moral responsibility in the first place? I should love a God who created me a sinner and then "saved" me from being what he had made me? I wrestled with all this as best I could but found no resolution. I finally concluded that, at its very heart, Christianity made no sense.
Well, not "finally," as it turned out. My journey back to Christian faith—including a full acceptance of the doctrine of original sin—was long and convoluted, too complicated to detail here, but it followed the intellectual arc Fr. Oakes’ essay lays out. Pascal’s conclusion was, in the end, my own: "Certainly nothing offends us more rudely than this doctrine, and yet without this mystery, the most incomprehensible of all, we are incomprehensible to ourselves." Mysteries of faith remained, but my true "finally" was that, at the deepest level of thought and experience, Christianity made more adequate sense of life than anything else on offer.
Fr. Oakes rightly cites Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) as the foremost American expositor of original sin and its consequences. Niebuhr was essential to my own intellectual development, but I first encountered his thought indirectly. I knew little about Niebuhr when, as a graduate student, I ran across a critique of his "Christian realism" in the postscript to the philosopher Morton White’s The Revolt Against Formalism. It was a curious experience: I read the critique and promptly decided—without having first read Niebuhr—that, theological questions aside, White was wrong and Niebuhr right about the nature of politics. It took some years more for me to conclude—having read him in the meantime—that Niebuhr’s account of the paradoxical truth of original sin held the answer to my late-adolescent objections to the doctrine. I came slower to his neoorthodox theology than to his politics. (You didn’t have to be a Christian to buy into Christian realism: many secular intellectuals in the postwar period styled themselves "atheists for Niebuhr.")
Christian realism rested, in brief, on certain assumptions: that the imperfections of the world stem from fallen human nature; that the realities of self-interest, aggression, and the human will to power have to be reckoned with; that to improve the world it is necessary to work with those forces and not dream of obliterating them. Though the perversities of fallen humanity can, with considerable effort and ingenuity, be manipulated in the direction of the common good, they cannot entirely be overcome. Thus the anti-utopian imperative at the heart of Niebuhr’s politics.
As the meeting place of power and morality, politics was inescapably for Niebuhr an arena of tension, ambiguity, and uncertainty. The central problem of politics is power, the inevitable temptation of people—most especially when acting collectively—to use whatever advantages are theirs to further their own interests over those of others.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Niebuhr’s argument for democracy differed so radically from that of most on the religious left in his day. For them, democracy rested on the possibility of human perfectibility. Niebuhr, by contrast, famously insisted that while it is humanity’s capacity for justice that makes democracy possible, it is humanity’s inclination to injustice that makes democracy necessary.
Niebuhr’s version of liberal democracy—whether directed to domestic or international concerns—rested on the concept of the balance of power. A serious politics requires at all times elements of deterrence, of checking power with counterpower. Realism, Niebuhr said, means that you achieve the common good not just by unselfishness but by the restraint of selfishness. Since power is never in stable equilibrium, so neither is politics: it is an ongoing process, not an achieved end. There can be no dream of perfect justice. Politics has to do with the relatively better, or even the lesser evil.
Liberals like to remind conservatives—and they do so quite properly—that Niebuhr remained throughout his life a man of the left, that his gradual journey away from the socialism of his youth never took him beyond the New Deal. He never gave any evidence of repudiating the regulatory or welfare state. If he was in the end a sober, tough-minded liberal, he remained nonetheless a liberal.
That’s true enough, but it doesn’t settle the question of Niebuhr’s legacy. His theological perspectives can doubtless be made to comport with a number of political positions, but it seems clear that at whatever point on the political spectrum they are applied, their influence will inescapably tend in a conservative direction. It is no accident that neoconservatives are more likely to cite Niebuhr than are liberals. Liberals recall him in program, but not in spirit.
Niebuhr inspired a brilliant moment in liberal history—he was a leading intellectual and political force in the supersession of the 1930s Popular Front by the non-Communist left after 1945—but the post-1950s development of the left suggests that Niebuhr’s was a moment that never formed itself into an enduring mood. Certainly the voices of contemporary liberal Protestantism, and of liberalism in general, recall more of the earlier Social Gospel he so sharply challenged than of Christian realism.
In fairness, it must be conceded that modern American conservatism has little of the Niebuhrian spirit itself. Ronald Reagan, the most successful conservative the country has ever known, was at heart a cockeyed optimist, and his untroubled confidence in the limitless possibilities of American civilization was untouched by Niebuhrian reservations. The fact that Niebuhrians fare badly at either end of the political spectrum suggests that, for most Americans, the politics of original sin is an alien notion.
Maybe that offers a useful lesson. Maybe all Augustinian Christians—which Niebuhr certainly was—need periodically to remind themselves that even in the (relatively) good earthly dwelling that America provides, we have here no abiding city.