Opposites attract, Part I

I’ve been trying to reconcile two things that I don’t think can be reconciled, which means, really, I guess I’ve been trying to figure out what it means that these two things can’t be reconciled.

You’ve probably heard of PNAC — the Project for the New American Century. The think tank desribes itself as “A neoconservative organization supporting greater American militarization, challenging hostile governments, advancing democratic and economic freedom, and promoting American hegemony in the 21st century.” According to its founding Statement of Principles, from 1997, PNAC advocates:

… a military that is strong and ready to meet both present and future challenges; a foreign policy that boldly and purposefully promotes American principles abroad; and national leadership that accepts the United States’ global responsibilities.

All of which recalls the optimism and idealism of the opening decades of the previous “American century.” This is intentional — the group’s very name is unabashedly idealistic and many of the policies they advocate, including wars to end war, seem to come from that era, the high-water mark of such idealism.

The strange thing about PNAC’s idealism is that it doesn’t seem at all chastened by history. Early 20th-century idealism didn’t fade just because it was a fad that had run its course. It was blown to smithereens by the carnage and destruction of World War I and its aftermath. It’s scientific and religious foundations were refuted and autopsied by Heisenberg and Niebuhr.

Let’s linger on Niebuhr a moment. Reinhold Niebuhr was probably the most important American theologian of the 20th century. If you’ve never read him, I highly recommend Moral Man and Immoral Society and The Nature and Destiny of Man (esp. Vol. I of the latter). Those titles suggest Niebuhr’s greatest strength as a theologian, which was not his insight into the nature of God, but into human nature.

People unfamiliar with theology are sometimes surprised to realize how much of it involves the study of human nature. This constitutes the larger half of the discipline’s subject matter. It is also, unlike the study of the divine, much easier to corroborate by observing, measuring and studying the subjects in question.

We Christians believe certain things about God: God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, infinite, immortal, eternal, holy, unchanging, infallible. But we also believe certain things about humankind, namely that we are none of the above. Niebuhr’s great contribution was exploring what this means for human society. What it means for finite, fallible, mortal, sinful humans to go about the business of politics, international relations, war and peace. Niebuhr’s outlook came to be called “Christian realism.” This shouldn’t be confused with the more cynical forms of realpolitik that followed. Niebuhr’s outlook was “realist” because, above all, he refused to accept a view of politics or international relations so idealized or idealistic that it required the participation of humans who were, somehow, something other than finite, fallible, mortal and sinful.

Niebuhr’s political philosophy is perhaps best summarized in a short prayer he wrote, which has since become very well known in a different context:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.

We can, and ought to, change some things. Other things we cannot change, including human nature. The “American century” idealism of the early 20th century was based, Niebuhr argued, on a false view of human nature — the idea that human nature was perfectible, that human virtue could be sufficient as a check against human power, that human knowledge could be better than partial and fragmentary.

Niebuhr’s “Christian realism” was thus one important theological reaction to and rejection of this idealism. But this was not the only theological reaction. We’ll get to another, very different, one in Part II.

  • Duane

    As for the others, I stand by what I said, mainly because it is quite apparent that you do not understand what the Original Sin is.
    As compared to the enlightened Catholic version? I only posted what I was taught on the subject growing up in a fundamentalist/evangelical Christian church and school: original sin/born into sin/total depravity/automatic damnation.
    You said you came here to learn about American evangelicals. ;)

  • Chelsea

    I was baptized a Roman Catholic in early third grade, and what I was told was that if you aren’t baptized before you die, you go to purgatory. That’s just what I was told, anyways.

  • bulbul

    I only posted what I was taught on the subject growing up in a fundamentalist/evangelical Christian church and school: original sin/born into sin/total depravity/automatic damnation.
    And I only reacted to your statements about “unconditional depravity” by showing that the world’s largest Christian denomination in fact does not believe in any such thing. If we add the Orthodox, then the majority of Christians don’t believe in any such thing.
    If you want to add “original sin/born into sin/total depravity/automatic damnation” to the list of American evangelical bullshit beliefs, why don’t you say so? I’m right there with ya :o)
    You said you came here to learn about American evangelicals. ;)
    That ain’t the only reason I’m stayin’ :o)

  • Duane

    I only posted what I was taught on the subject growing up in a fundamentalist/evangelical Christian church and school: original sin/born into sin/total depravity/automatic damnation.
    And I only reacted to your statements about “unconditional depravity” by showing that the world’s largest Christian denomination in fact does not believe in any such thing. If we add the Orthodox, then the majority of Christians don’t believe in any such thing.
    If you want to add “original sin/born into sin/total depravity/automatic damnation” to the list of American evangelical bullshit beliefs, why don’t you say so? I’m right there with ya :o)
    You said you came here to learn about American evangelicals. ;)
    That ain’t the only reason I’m stayin’ :o)
    Fine, you win. I’m going to bed.

  • bulbul

    Fine, you win.
    Yoo-hoo!!!
    I’m going to bed.
    Good night.

  • hk-reader

    I used to not believe in original sin, but then I had children.
    As I see it, original sin is that within us that directs us away from G-d and love and towards are own selfish desires. I don’t know if it is with us from the moment of birth, or develops in the first year or so. From infancy (or at least toddler-hood) we are all angry, envious, greedy, gluttonous, prideful, and slothful (lustful? OK – maybe that develops in puberty).
    This does not mean that we do not also have sparks of the divine (as Isaac Luria might have put it) or a “light within” (as George Fox put it).
    I really like the analogy that Bulbul made between original sin and the second law of thermodynamics.
    Having also studied a little Chinese philosophy, we can also look at Mencius’s (Mengzi’s) theory of human nature. He posited that we are all *born* good with the 4 seeds that can develop into the four virtues if they are cultivated. If they are not, if they are neglected, then we lack virtue.

  • McJulie

    But all major branches of Christianity do in fact have the doctrine of Original SinNo they don’t. Evangelical Protestants do not have a doctrine of original sin. That’s why they don’t engage in infant baptism.

  • wintermute

    I don’t claim to be an expert on Evangelical Protestantism, but from my flawed understanding, they believe in something pretty damn close to original sin.
    Not being an Evangelical Protestant is, by itself, enough to get you condemned to Hell. Sometimes people tell me this is because it’s physically impossible not to be a sinner, and Jesus only died for Evangelical Protestants, which makes his coming seem rather mistimed. When I press people on a whether or not a hypothetical athiest who never commited a single sin (think Gandhi, but without the worship of false idols) would go to heaven, they generally admit that not being an Evangelical Protestant is an unforgivable sin, by itself. So, everyone, regardless of their own morality, is condemned to an eternity of torture, unless they get “saved”, because man is inherently sinful.
    Sounds a lot like Original Sin to me.
    The only real difference is that they have an escape clause for children: Before you’re emotionally capable of deciding whether or not to pay into God’s protection racket (somewhere between 9 and 15 years of age, apparently), you get a free pass into heaven (which of course, means that your average abortionist delivers more souls to heaven than your average church). I don’t think that that contradicts Original Sin, but rather adds a proviso to it.
    The above is just what I have gained from talking to members of my wife’s (Southern Baptist) church, and her family. IIRC, they’re premills. If anyone feels this isn’t representative (or is flat out wrong), please feel free to correct me. It all sounds very alien to me, and I’m half-way convinced no-one could believe something so silly, so I may well ahve it all backwards.

  • McJulie

    “Original Sin” is not the concept that humans are inherently sinful, which evangelicals believe in spades.
    Original Sin is a more specific concept, like Transubstantiation, and it has to do with… well, it sounded like “sin cooties” when my raised-Catholic husband explained it to me. Adam and Eve sinned and then that fundamental sinniness has been passed on to every human ever since on down the line, except for Mary Mother of God. If you’ve ever heard of the concept of “Immaculate Conception” it refers to Mary’s conception being without Original Sin.

  • Duane

    I’m shocked, just shocked. All of this is going into my notebook.


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