The original sin that just won’t go away

I promise this will be my last post about anything to do with evil. Only happy subjects from now on. But I did just finish a fascinating book by Daniel Boyce called Born Bad: Original Sin and the Making of the Western World. In very brief summary, Boyce traces the history of the doctrine of original sin throughout the history of the western church (apparently the eastern church doesn’t have the doctrine) and he concludes by saying, particularly in Protestant denominations original sin is in the decline, but in secular western thought, such as Freud, Dawkins and Pinker, it is alive and well, albeit without God involved.

First the surface level things that I liked. I liked that he is an Australian author, an academic who has turned his research interest into something accessible for everyone (something I’m a little jealous of). Secondly, especially considering the subject matter was religion, I found the book blessedly free of anachronistic judgements. He is very generous towards Christian thinkers who were products of their time rather than conforming to our modern day values.

On the other hand, like most books with a central revolutionary idea, his argument was a little overstated. One minor irritation was his lumping together the two manifestations of this doctrine – that we are all born guilty of Adam’s sin, or that we all sin from birth and are all condemned for our own sin. Nevertheless, these ideas have much in common and it doesn’t detract from his argument too significantly.

Turning to the interesting part, there were two ideas I was particularly impressed by. The first is the way that original sin keeps being reinvented, and it can be used in radically different ways. For example, the medieval Catholic Church used the doctrine of original sin to argue the necessity of the church for baptising children born guilty. Then, the early reformers used original sin to argue almost the opposite – we are all equally sinful and so there is no privileged priesthood. It’s fascinating how a single idea can be used in so many ways. The second fascinating idea was the influence of western Christian philosophy on modern day popular secular thinkers. No matter how much modern day secularists want to claim God is dead, they still have Christian theology built into the framework of their thought. We claim to be objective, eg Dawkins and his pseudo scientific evolutionary biology, but don’t realise how dependent we are on what comes before. Ironically, the trend in academia leans more towards nurture than nature at present, but the ideas that focus on our inherent evil from which we need redemption are the ones that have taken hold of the popular imagination. This is not just about taking jabs at popular atheists, because Christians, particularly those who claim to rely only on the bible for their doctrine, also need to take note of our (often unconscious) dependence on what comes before us.

Speaking of Nazis…

Speaking of Nazis….  I recently read Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil by Hannah Arendt for the first time. I had heard/read quite a lot about the book before reading it: I first heard of Hannah Arendt when reading about Heidegger – apparently she was Heidegger’s mistress in her university days (of particular interest because Heidegger was accused of anti-semitism and Nazi sympathies, and Hannah Arendt was of course Jewish), and Heidegger was an influence in Arendt’s own philosophy. I knew she was best known for coining the phase ‘the banality of evil’, and arguing that evil stems from mediocrity, only good is extraordinary. Her book on Eichmann/the Eichmann trial itself also prompted a very famous psychology experiment called Milgram’s experiment ( in which ordinary people are instructed by an authority figure to electrocute a subject  (and they normally do as they’re told. Although of all the demographics tested, Australian females are the least likely to be obedient apparently so that gives me comfort).

I had also seen the eponymous movie about her (well worth a watch). But, nevertheless, finally reading her book was a profound experience. Firstly, it is filled with immense detail about the processes and coordination of the transportation of the Jews to concentration camps and to their deaths. The attention to detail and Eichmann’s desire to ‘do his job well’ is deeply disturbing in its own right, in any retelling, yet also fascinating in the way that only evil can be I suppose. However, the message of book, so surrounded by controversy, was also so much more complex, more interesting than my earlier understanding lead me to believe. The possibilities and impossibilities of her ideas prompted far more questions than answers, particularly as her reflections were bound up in issues of ongoing anti-semitism, Zionism and the state of Israel (another interest of mine).  By no means do I have the time or expertise to give an account here but I recently came across a (very long) article about Hannah Arendt which covers much more of the complexity and controversy than I ever could.

One part of the discussion in this article particularly caught my eye, something that I had not thought about before. It’s in the context of critiques of Arendt’s claim that evil is not extraordinary. It’s along the lines that, as we seek a new foundation for morality in the postmodern world, the holocaust/genocide has become one of the few absolutes.  The article explains it better:

For Arendt’s harshest critics, however, no amount of Kantian references or arguments can buttress the thesis of the banality of evil. It threatens something too vital, too fundamental. It puts at risk one of the 20th century’s most precarious moral ideas: the notion that despite no longer having an objective or shared foundation for our sense of what is good or right or just, we do know what is evil. And because we know that, because there is no dispute that genocide is not merely an evil but the ultimate evil—the summum malum, as the political theorist Judith Shklar would have called it—we can build our politics and morals with some assurance that we are doing the right thing, or at least not the wrong thing. Since the 1970s, the idea of a negative foundation for morality has assumed an increasingly prominent place. Not just in academic political theory—where it is called, variously, “negative liberalism” or “political liberalism”—but in the larger world of politics and punditry.

The Holocaust, it’s clear, is Exhibit A for those who would make such an argument. As a Boston Globe columnist wrote in 1994, after the opening of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC:

In an era of moral relativity, the Holocaust museum serves as a lodestone. Here there is no rationalization…. Here is an absolute. And in that absolute of Evil, maybe, the prospect of an absolute Good…. We live amid the ruins of “the modern”—the era in which Western man discarded age-old standards and creeds and placed his faith in science…. The Holocaust museum offers a basic moral foundation on which to build: a negative surety from which to begin.

Lonely and Beautiful Axemen

I thought I should restore some gender appreciation balance to this blog by making my first post about a male novelist. As I pondered this, I suddenly realised nearly all my favourite novelists are female: Iris Murdoch, Virginia Woolf, AS Byatt, Margaret Atwood, Marilynne Robinson. After racking my brain a little, the only shining light of a male novelist I could come up with is Knut Hamsun (I have since thought of the slightly more obvious favourites of Dostoevsky, CS Lewis, Hardy and Dickens but never mind!). So Knut it is.

Knut Hamsun, for the uninitiated, was a Norwegian author from the first part of last century. His novels (I’ve read Pan and Growth of the Soil) are about man’s relationship to the land, and to nature, about remoteness in the Norwegian highlands, about simple living. The main characters are the sort of men who live alone, carry axes and grunt a lot.

Doesn’t sound appealing? Well, somehow it is. The novels are beautifully written and make you feel very connected to the remote and wild Norwegian landscape. They appeal to some primitive instinct within me that knows we are reliant on the soil for survival and so we are somehow intimately connected with it.

Depending how much you know about Nazi ideology, it may or may not surprise that Mr Hamsun had leanings in this direction. Although the repugnant racism is not present in the novels I’ve read (as far as I can remember), the nationalism, and the idealization of the worker and nature is, almost to the point of pantheism. Apparently he wrote a eulogy for Hitler in which he said, “He was a warrior, a warrior for mankind, and a prophet of the gospel of justice for all nations.” The Norwegians had the good sense to put him into a psychiatric institution.

This gets me thinking however about how a novelist can have politics I abhor, write on a topic that would not normally interest me (a man wandering the woods with an axe?) but yet the novels remain powerful and beautiful.

Ladysplaining explained

Welcome to our inaugural blog post! We promise [little more than]* occasional reviews of what we’ve been reading, watching and cogitating upon recently, a bit of friendly dialogue, and the lofty [ideals]** of correct apostrophe usage and split infinitive avoidance at all times.

The name for our blog is inspired by a recent article by Annabel Crabb in The Monthly.

Therefore it seems fitting that the topic of ladysplaining is the subject of our first blog post. Annabel’s analysis of man- and lady-splaining resonates profoundly. One of the many things your [humble]*** bloggers have in common is that we are [seeking to succeed]**** in male-dominated professions. So mansplaining is certainly not a new concept.

However, there is much we still wonder about the subject and Ms Crabb’s article has prompted a few reflections and a few questions**** from each of us (see below in the comments!)

[Translation into man-speak:

*the best ever ** reality ***esteemed ***brilliantly succeeding ****Ladysplain-style]