Friday, August 1, 2008

Original Sin: A Cultural History by Alan Jacobs (Chapter 2)

In chapter 2 of Original Sin, Alan Jacobs discusses the life and thought of Aurelius Augustinus--St. Augustine of Hippo.

Augustine is widely considered one of the most brilliant minds in western history--certainly the most brilliant of his day. Although his mother was a Christian, Augustine thought little of Christianity and left home to study the philosophies of his day. He was drawn to Manichaeism, a dualistic faith that saw life as an endless tension between the powers of good and evil. When the top Manichaean minds were unable to answer his remaining objections to their faith, he left, discouraged.

Plagued by the question, “What is wrong with us?”, Augustine eventually turned to the faith of his mother. While wrestling with his thoughts one day, he heard a child singing “Tolle, lege,” “Take it and read.” He opened the Scriptures to Romans 13 in which Paul wrote, “Let us live decently as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in discord and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to arouse its desires.” In Christianity he found the answer to his questions.

Jacobs writes that Augustine has been inaccurately portrayed as sexually promiscuous in his youth. Augustine says that he struggled with “lusts of the flesh” and “carnal” desires, but Augustine uses these terms in a general sense of “desires that make us do what we don’t want to.” Augustine may have been frustrated with his sexual indiscretions, but a straightforward reading of his works doesn’t demand that. (Augustine says that he lived with a concubine for twelve years before his engagement, at which time he dismissed his mistress according to the customs of his day. Unable to live chastely, he took another mistress in the time between his engagement and marriage. One of the reasons why Augustine was unable to completely cut off ties with his mistress was that he loved her and only sent her away to honor the marriage that his parents had arranged for him. Although Augustine was frustrated with his lack of self-control, he doesn’t say that he lived an unbridled sexual life.)

Jacobs argues that Augustine’s question was not, “Why was I so bad as a youth?” but “Why am I unable to live the way I want to live?” He saw the answer to this question in Romans 5, according to the interpretation now called “the Augustinian view” (as described here).

Jacobs’ discussion of Augustine reminds me of an online conversation I had with some folks on I think the discussion started with Tim Keller’s book The Reason for God and whether our sense of justice was evidence for the existence of God. Some commenters argued that it was not, saying that altruism could be the result of evolution (i.e. it is beneficial to the group that we treat each other justly, so those with a sense of justice survive natural selection). Others argued, like Kant, that justice was “reasonable,” so that someone with an evolved sense of reason would naturally be just.

I offered a response to these ideas that, while nobody seemed to find it convincing, was not refuted. Until someone shows me where I am wrong, I am sticking to this as a modified version of the argument for God from justice.

It is not so much our belief in justice that “proves” God, but the combination of our belief in justice and our inability to carry it out. Why is it that everybody believes that things should be just and fair, and yet nobody is just or fair? Evolution cannot answer this question. It is not the gazelles that think they should be faster than the lions who survive, it’s the ones who actually are faster than the lions. In the same way, belief that things should be just doesn’t help a group unless people actually are just.

In the same way, justice may be reasonable, but why are so many reasonable people unjust? Is it just because they can’t make the logical connection between their actions, or is there something else at play?

In my opinion, it is tough to explain our desire for justice and our inability to carry it out from evolution or from reason. It is better explained with theism. Augustine asked the right question: “What is wrong with us?” Like Augustine, I think that Christianity provides the most satisfactory answer to this question—sin.

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