SCENE 1. ORIGINAL SIN: A DIALOGUE WITH REINHOLD NIEBUHR

Amidst the whirlwind of immediate events it is sometimes worthwhile to heed the advice of the White Rabbit in Alice and Wonderland: “Don’t just do something. Stand there!”  This is such a time, to just stand there…and think…and in the process seek what wisdom our forebears may have embodied in ancient legends that would be of value today.  In so doing it seems reasonable to start at the beginning…with their story of Original Sin.

During an early stage of what has become this Pacificus Enterprise, in the mid 1950s, I wrestled with the primal question: What message was really being conveyed by the Judaic Old Testament legend of the Forbidden Fruit in saying that partaking of fruit from the Tree of Knowledge constituted ‘Original Sin’? 

Then one day I found the answer — in passages from John Milton’s 17th-Century classic, Paradise Lost, the geatest epic in the English language.  In great excitement I wrote a favorite mentor of mine in philosophy and theology, Reinhold Niebuhr, who has been considered “by common consent the leading native-born theologian in the United States in the 20th Century…[who] brought a prophetic dimension,, a sense of transcendent criticism, judgment, and grace, to American theology and religion.” [The  1996 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia]  The passages from Milton and substantial excerpts from Dr Niebuhr’s long reply of December 1955 from Union Theological Seminary (next to and affiliated with Columbia University) are provided in the Conclusion of  PRINCIPIA IDEOLOGICA, and the reader is urged to read them.  For present purposes the following excerpts will suffice.

MILTON

But knowledge is food, and needs no less / Her temperance over Appetite, to know / In Measure what the mind may well contain, / Oppresses else with Surfet, and soon turns / Wisdom to Folly, as Nourishment to Winde.

 _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _      

But apt the Mind of Fancie is to roave / Unchekt, and of her roaving  is no end; / Till warn’d, or by exerience taught, she learne.

NIEBUHR                                       

It was so nice to have a letter from you and to prolong the discussion which we had on Christmas Day.

You say,  “Man’s woes stem not from an original sin, but from perpetually recommiting this sin, in perpetually overreaching, in intellectual excesses, in insisting on and creating Ultimate Answers and Total Systems.”  Of course, I perfectly agree with this and merely remind you that this is everywhere the modern interpretation of ‘original sin’…But what is univesally recognized now is that the term  ‘original sin’ means the perpetual inclination to overreach oneself, and incidentally not only in intellectual excesses but in the will to power, and so forth…Milton combined classical with Calvinist insights.  He therefore made the devil a rather appealing figure, which is to say like Prometheus.  And as I stated on Christmas Day I think the difference between the Promethean myth and the myth of the Fall is that in the Promethean myth man has to defy God in order to be creative.  But in the myth of the Fall he is challenged to be creative but is reminded that there are limits to the creativity of a creature.

…certainly one of the great revelations of our era has been that secularism from Jacobinism to communism can produce the same excesses which dogmantic religion produced through the ages, and against which the earlier secularism revolted.

I write you at too great length, I am afraid, because you have touched one of the main themes of my thought for the past twenty years.

With cordial personal regards,

Sincerely yours, /sig/ Reinhold Niebuhr

Union Theological Seminary / New York / December 29, 1955

Mankind has cultivated well the trees of Life and Knowledge, as he was challenged to do, but in the process Mankind also corrupts knowlege — with falsehood, fallacy, and error. Some of the corruption is in the form of secular and religious excesses, in overreaching.  But, worse, some of that corruption is malevolent.  Such corruption — malignant secular and religious excesses — forms a repetitive pattern, causing recurring cycles of tyranny, aggression, oppression and war.

We must at last, having been repeatedly warned and by experience taught, learn ancient and theological wisdom, and apply it, with the newly emerging tools of the Pacificus Enterprise to do so, cooperatively where feasible, adversarily where necessary.  Doing so will inherently, in the proces, build a new dimension in world affairs, and give birth to a New Era. 

For, now Mankind has the means to learn how, on the way towards and ultimately in the resultant New Era — that Novus Ordo Seclorum declared in the obverse side of the Great Seal of the United States, as can be seen on the back of a dollar bill — to recognize, disdain, and defend against malignant ideologies in all their forms, to know the absence of WARRE as defined by Hobbes’ in Leviathan,* and thereby enjoy PEACE — for the first time.

* Quoted in Home Page and Scene 3, The Sword. 

  

 

Copyright  (c) 2009 by Stephen Edward Seadler

 

 

 

 

 

 

Custom Web Applications

Advertisements

%d bloggers like this: