What is more…

an excercise in getting to the point

Tag: Sin

Love & Justice (5) – Niebuhr’s Nature & Destiny of Man, vol. 1.

For this post I would like to do something a little different than usual. I want to compare Reinhold Niebuhr’s general structure of theological anthropology, with special attention to his doctrine of sin, with work done in the sociology of knowledge by Peter Berger and Arnold Gehlen. As I hope to make clear presently, Niebuhr’s anthropology tracks very closely with Berger and Gehlen’s conception of man’s condition in modernity. The basic question I would like to pose is this: does this fact indicate that Niebuhr’s theological anthropology is conditioned by his location in modernity? Or, if it is indeed a true description of anthropology, then what implications does Berger and Gehlen’s description of modernity have for the modern person’s prospects for overcoming sin?

I will begin with Gehlen and Berger. According to Arnold Gehlen, compared to other species in the animal kingdom, human beings are particularly unfinished at birth. They do not have a developed instinctual apparatus to guide their behavior. They do not know when they are in danger, when their existence is threated, or how to protect themselves. Because of this fact, humans must build institutions—patterns of thought, behavior, and social relationships. These institutions do for human beings what instincts do for other animals in the world; they provide a framework for the social defense against the contingencies of nature. According to Gehlen, human experience is essentially divided into two parts: (a) the background part of our experience that is taken-for-granted, and (b) the foreground part of our experience, in which we think, reflect, ponder, and deliberate. In traditional (pre-modern) societies, most of human life took place as background; it was mostly taken-for-granted. With modernity we have the movement of more and more of human experience into the foreground. Things that were previously taken-for-granted now become a matter of choice. Berger, building on Gehlen, has pointed to the way in which this proliferation of choice changes the way in which each person relates to their own self. The proliferation of choice increases the existential anxiety as each person must calculate their own “life-plan,” simultaneously relating to a plethora of possible future worlds. The plurality of choices is, according to Berger, an inherently destabilizing force. Further, there are fewer and fewer stable institutions in modernity than there were in traditional societies. Religion, which once serves as a cohesive social factor, is now something that one chooses, based on “religious preference.” One must choose, a condition Berger refers to as “the heretical imperative.”[1]

Let us move to Niebuhr. According to Niebuhr, humankind is made both in the image of God, and as a creature of God. This means three things, in particular. First, humans have a spiritual dimension characterized especially by “self-transcendence.” Second, humans are weak, dependent, and finite creatures. Third, evil in human beings is a consequence of their “inevitable though not necessary unwillingness to acknowledge [their] dependence, to accept [their] finiteness and to admit [their] insecurity” (150).[2]  Humans are “insecure and involved in natural contingency,” and, instead of trusting God to take care of them, they “seek to overcome insecurity by a will-to-power which overreaches the limits of human creatureliness” (178). The problem is an inability to hold together self-transcendence and finitude under the trust in God. “Since he is involved in the contingencies and necessities of the natural process on the one hand and since, on the other, he stands outside of them and foresees their caprices and perils, he is anxious. In his anxiety he seeks to transmute his finiteness into infinity, his weakness into strength, his dependence into independence” (251).

The parallels between Niebuhr, on the one hand, and Gehlen and Berger, on the other, are striking. Both stress the condition of contingency and vulnerability that humans find themselves in. Both also stress the fact that humans are able to transcend their own immediate lived-reality and imagine alternative possible realities. Finally, both stress the anxiety that inevitably comes along with this combination of factors. The difference is that, for Gehlen and Berger, the confluence of contingency and freedom has been greatly expanded because of the facts of pluralism and choice. For Niebuhr, freedom and finitude are basic characteristics of the human situation, made clear in both the biblical narrative and in our experience of history. The answer to the anxiety that Niebuhr offers are theological virtues of faith, hope, and love—each of which comes to us as both a requirement and an ideal, but never as a fully achievable reality (271). Berger and Gehlen, are more diagnostic, and less interested in offering any “solutions” or theological explanations of the anxiety that results from contingency and choice.

The question I am left with is the following: if Gehlen and Berger are right about their description of the movement of more and more human experience from the background into the foreground (what they call “deinstitutionalization”), then what does this mean for Niebuhr’s theory of sin? A skeptic might reply that this demonstrates that Niebuhr is falling into the trap of being overly influenced by the spirit of the times. His theological scheme is merely a “projection” (Feuerbach) of the modern condition, or an instance of “natural theology” (Barth), in the bad sense. Or, alternatively, it may be the case that Niebuhr’s description is, in fact, both biblical and true to experience. If this is so, then it might be the case that Gehlen and Berger are pointing to an aspect of modernity that would intensify the “temptation to sin” that Niebuhr so eloquently describes. Perhaps the modern person finds herself in a unique situation, in which the anxiety of freedom and finitude is heightened, and her proclivity to sin in order to escape or deny this condition is also heightened.


[1] See especially Peter Berger, The Homeless Mind, chapter 3 and The Heretical Imperative, chapter 1.

[2] Reinhold Niebuhr, Nature and Destiny of Man. All in text references are from this work.

A Sweet (and Stinky) Song…

"Excuse me... Oh my, I am so embarrassed!" - St. Augustine

This week in my Augustine class we are focusing on Augustine’s mature view on the relationship between the human will, human desires, and the body (in particular his views on sex and marriage). In short, Augustine’s account of the fall of Adam and Eve in Paradise goes something like this: Adam and Eve were in the garden and they had everything they needed. They were completely obedient to God, and as a result their souls were rightly ordered (loving the most lovable things) and their bodies were rightly ordered (in subjection to their souls). What this presumably means is that they had complete control of their desires, and they also had complete control of their bodies.

Then something bad happened. Adam and Eve ate the forbidden apple, broke the command of God. Not only did they break the command, but their act “was a despising of the authority of God” [Civ. Dei. XIV, 15]. They wanted independence from God, they wanted to re-order their loves and desires and act accordingly. Therefore, as a punishment, God said, “Go for it! But don’t say I didn’t warn you beforehand.”

As a result, humankind “who by keeping the commandments should have been spiritual even in his flesh, became fleshly even in his spirit; and as in his pride he had sought to be his own satisfaction, God in His justice abandoned him to himself, not to live in the absolute independence he affected, but instead of the liberty he desired, to live dissatisfied with himself in a hard and miserable bondage to him to who by sinning he had yielded himself” (i.e. Satan) [Civ. Dei. XIV. 15.]

The result of sin was a disordering and a dis-integraging of the human–or in Augustine’s words “what else is man’s misery but his own disobedience to himself… our flesh, which was subjected to us, now torments us by insubordination” [Civ. Dei. XIV. 15].

So what does all this have to do with sex and marriage? Whereas before the fall, according to Augustine, men and women would be moved to marital bliss (if you know what I mean) simply by as an act of the will (similar to moving your hand to turn on a light), now they have lost control of that faculty. “Even those who delight in this pleasure are not moved to it at their own will… but sometimes this lust importunes them in spite of themselves, and sometimes fails them when they desire to feel it, so that though  lust rages in the mind, it stirs not in the body” [Civ. Dei. XIV. 16.] (it happens to the best of ’em). This is the basis for Adam and Eve’s “shame” in Genesis 3. It was not simply nakedness or sexuality that was shameful, those things were created good by God and are to be appreciated. Augustine knew this. Therefore, for him, instead, they were “ashamed of the disobedience of their own flesh, which witnessed to their disobedience while it punished it” [Civ. Dei. XIV. 17.].

As a result of striving for control, we have lost control. The great irony is that in our pursuit of freedom, we have sold ourselves into slavery–we no longer have control of our bodies, our loves, our even our own desires. And yet, Augustine sees an analogy to how things ought to have been in the way…

“…that some men are differently constituted from others, and have some rare and remarkable faculty of doing with their body what other men can by no effort do, and, indeed scarcely believe when they hear of others doing. There are persons who can move their ears, either one at a time, or both together. There are some who, without moving the head, can bring the hair down upon the forehead, and move the whole scalp backwards and forwards at pleasure. Some, by lightly pressing their stomach, bring up an incredible quantity and variety of things they have swallowed, and produce whatever they please, quite whole, as if out of a bag. Some so accurately mimic the voices of birds and beasts and other men, that, unless they are seen, the difference cannot be told. Some have such command of their bowels, that they can break wind continuously at pleasure, so as to produce the effect of singing…” [Civ. Dei. XIV. 24.].

Apparently, these are the types of things that we can imagine Adam and Eve being able to do in the garden before they lost control of their bodies, and they became dis-ordered beings. So much for Augustine’s mature view on the soul, desires, and body!