By the end of the 19th Century there was so much hope and optimism in the air, one could easily have concluded that the very notion of original sin was a relic of an ancient past. Within 30 years or so, original sin would make a valiant comeback — so the 10th chp of Alan Jacobs, Original Sin. [Our next book for Friday is for Friends will be Kathleen Norris, Acedia and Me.]
Can a person believe in original sin and be an optimist? (Of course, this depends on what we mean by “optimist” but take the first sense that comes to your mind.) Is the self-image culture a deconstruction of original sin?
The 19th Century was the age of progress and the successor to the vast and wide development of all sorts of theories of happiness, all of them within the grasp of everyone for all time, but it had its share of critics. Like Dostoevsky, and one can’t bring up the Russian novelists without succumbing to their moods of despair over human nature. Jacobs also sketches William James. But Jacobs does not agree with the many who think optimism took a hike when WWI arrived.
His focus though is Rebecca West and her 2-volume Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. This piece of non-fiction sketches at one point the focus of the Eastern Orthodox church on “the evil part in man” and the Western’s on “our universal corruption.” West sees then a two-headed calf, which when fed in one mouth led to the food being spit out the other mouth — and she sees in the 2-headed calf a parable of the West. Solzhenitsyn, too, saw the profundity of human corruption — and he became Orthodox. West, on the other hand, finds herself staring at an Augustinian humanity with no theology to relieve its fury. All she found was humanity corrupted.
In contrast to West, who saw humanity corrupted and found no way out, Whittaker Chambers championed the path from Communism to Christianity as the solution to a robust concept of original sin. He was joined by many, including in his own way Reinhold Niebuhr.
Indeed, original sin figures prominently in the history of culture.