Sunday, November 9, 2008


Is there anything in human life corresponding to the ancient notion of sin; and - a closely related question - is there anything corresponding to the notion of redemption? The atheistic Existentialists could not believe in sin, since there was no God-given essence of human life from which to depart into a supposedly reprobate state. If they were going to be strictly consistent, they would have had to assert that any type of human life is as good as any other, or as bad, for there is no way of judging between them. But they did not do this. On the contrary, they made it their business to provide a means of choosing between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ human lives. They called these ‘authentic’ and ‘inauthentic’ human lives. The notion of ‘authenticity’ as used by the atheistic Existentialists covers up much that is of a potentially theological nature. ‘Guilt’ is a concept much used by the atheistic Existentialists, and guiltiness - for what else is sin? - is attributed by them to the whole human race and to every individual in it.
So if there is no essence of human nature and no standard, therefore, by which to measure departures from the optimum human life, how can any judgement be made at all, how can any distinction be made between the type of life led by one individual or another? How can I be true to myself, i.e., ‘authentic’ if there is no structure to that self to which I am to be true? The answer is, of course, that very much is smuggled in to the notion of ‘authenticity’, so much, in fact, that human nature begins to acquire something very much like an essence after all. The need for commitment (to some self-selected cause, surely, rather than to one’s own nose-pickings, say?) is already the beginning of a definition of what constitutes the human essence. But much else follows in notions such as ‘concern’, ‘bad faith’ etc. These notions are in fact impossible without assuming a fundamental feature of human nature, even if that feature be no more than an infinitely malleable set of strategies – for example, humanity’s potentially intimate relatedness to the whole of the surrounding cosmos, starting with its immediate environment and the things and people within that.
In pronouncing human nature lacking in essence, the atheistic Existentialists (by which is meant the Nietzschean and post-Nietzschean branch of Existentialist thought as opposed to the Kierkegaardian branch) were anxious to do one very important thing: they were concerned to get away from the over-claustrophobic and ultimately death-dealing definitions of human nature dreamed up both by traditional religion and by reductionist science. But it must be said that they ended up insisting too much. To characterise the essential features of human nature by words such as ‘freedom’ and ‘nothingness’ is very laudable, since it avoids getting one’s own human nature into a straight jacket; but in fact nothing of importance has been said, or everything has been too briefly said. The words ‘freedom’ and ‘nothingness’ are left completely undefined for a very good reason: they seem to allow to humanity every possibility. They also avoid those richly fecund but vague God-words and soul-words, with their essentialist baggage attached. But in the nothingness and the freedom, God and the soul are still lurking, though not necessarily in their essentialist forms. The loud protestations of the atheistic Existentialists are no more than an abolition of the anthropomorphic God of popular Christianity with his very human designs on the universe.
‘Inauthenticity’ or bad faith is in fact sin and ‘authenticity’ or being true to oneself is in fact redemption. Let us make no bones about that. Inauthenticity is getting one’s humanity wrong, authenticity is getting it right. And we mean here absolutely wrong and absolutely right, wrong and right in the context of the whole universe, not just wrong and right in the context of a tiny, parochial corner of it. The atheistic Existentialists, while protesting the absence of absolute standards of right and wrong wanted nevertheless to universalise their notions of authenticity and inauthenticity. It is obvious from their choice of vocabulary - just look at La Chute by Camus and the self-condemnatory moral outrage of its ‘juge-pĂ©nitent’ - that the concept of sin was uppermost in their minds and therefore, by implication, the concept of redemption.
The atheistic Existentialists knew all about the relation between the soul and God. Sartre knew in great detail about the soul’s desire to become God - that was the fundamental ‘uselessness’ of the human’s driving passion – but they were resistant to attributing metaphysical reality to such a God and for one very good reason: they would have had to proceed to some sort of definition, whereas they wished to preserve the infinite indeterminacy of the ‘freedom’ and ‘nothingness’ of the soul. Now these attributes are nothing if not divine, since they suggest infinite potential, infinite capability.
Existential guilt is a feature of non-knowing. We don’t know who or what we are for the simple reason that ‘knowing’ implies for us almost the same as ‘seeing’ or ‘touching’. We wish to know ourselves in as unambivalent a way as we know our own artefacts, the things we make ourselves. We wish to define ourselves in terms only of what we can perceive about ourselves. This is evident in our wish to see ourselves as only a brain, a brain on legs, endowed with various support mechanisms, but essentially a brain - a handfast object which can be seen to function like a machine, taken to pieces like a machine and, perhaps, put together like a machine.
Yet we know that if we do this, if we define ourselves as the brain we now understand, let us say, as fully as we understand our pocket-calculator, we know that we will not have got to the bottom of ourselves because of the problem of the nothingness of our self. That’s the problem: we are essentially indefinable, infinite nothings. Our consciousness is strung between complete nescience, complete nothingness, infinite unknowing, on the one hand, and the desire for god-like complete certainty about ourselves and everything else, i.e., omniscience, on the other.
We want to define ourselves in terms only of ourselves and our own experience of ourselves, ourselves as objects of sense-experience. However, the self-referential problem which that creates is insuperable. The brain which knows itself is already beyond itself and it cannot therefore be the brain alone which knows itself. Imagine the absurdity of this: a computer powerful enough to design and manufacture other computers more powerful than itself that would redesign and remanufacture itself to be more powerful and do yet more complex things. The human ego in its desire to understand itself is guilty of similar absurdities in the way it thinks about itself. The human being aware of his nothingness, his infinite indefinability, can do only two things: he can choose to know himself completely and absolutely, as a brain, for example, and accept the absolute sterility of that position; or he can define himself in terms of something else, something greater than himself: the unknowable intelligent universe, or the unknowable God, for example.
Guilt is precisely not knowing who or what one is, seeing no sense or meaning in oneself or one’s world and being unable to commit oneself to any view either of oneself or of one’s world. One is therefore left without any identity at all; and in a creature for which identity is paramount that creates anxiety. One is no-one; yet one is conscious of being someone. That creates anxiety and the anxiety generates guilt. One is in a state of sin because of one’s lack of definition, one’s lack of identity. One can define oneself in terms of prevailing fashions, conventions, moral codes, religious beliefs and so on. But this would only compound the guilt because one would be becoming what one is not, one would be inauthentic. One can define oneself in terms of one’s nothingness, but that is only to compound the guilt, which arises from lack of identity. One can claim that one knows oneself fully, as a brain or some other mechanism resembling one of our artefacts, but the guilt remains because such strategies ultimately fail to convince.
The solution to guilt is therefore the Kierkegaardian ability to see oneself as subsidiary, partial, finite, imperfect and as being entirely dependent on the superordinate being which is the universe one doesn’t and can’t understand but which gave rise to one in the first place. One can see oneself as being entirely dependent upon the source of one’s life and intelligence (neither of which one can understand); and one can attribute to this source all the perfections which one lacks: complete self-understanding, complete power over one’s self, complete knowledge of the universe (which cannot be less than the ability to reproduce the universe, or re-create it) and so on until one has given it all the traditional attributes of God.
The essence of sin is to consider the personality, one’s own or that of another individual, in terms of functionality alone; this is analogous to Kant’s thoughts about treating human nature as a means and not as an end in itself; that is to say objectifying and dehumanising the human. The functional man or woman is wholly interchangeable with another person whose function is the same, just as machines which do identical tasks are interchangeable. Since functional persons are interchangeable, they have no distinct identity beyond the function. Their value, hence, is entirely determined by the efficiency with which they perform the function. If a task is to be done and two functional persons are available to do it, the choice between them is simple: it depends on efficiency alone. The less efficient functional person is therefore dispensable, disposable and can be thrown away.
Thus do guilt or ‘sin’ and redemption arise in every situation of human life.

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