Shortly before she died of cancer, Princeton mayor, Barbara Boggs Sigmund, commented in The New York Times that too many people spontaneously judge a cancer victim as somehow responsible for the disease. She ended with the protest: ”We humans would rather accept culpability than chaos.”
That statement is healthily corrective in a climate that too much looks for someone or something to blame. What do I mean?
In many circles today there is prevalent the idea that our personal failures are in fact the result of political failures. Simply put, what this means is that many of the things that go wrong with us, in our marriages, in our families, and in our professional lives, are the result of us, ourselves, first being victimized and wounded by the failure of others.
We fail because, first of all, others have failed us… and those others who failed us were themselves, first of all, failed by a system which victimized them.
Often this insight is summarized in the axiom: the personal is political and the political is personal. In that statement lies the essence of the feminist critique as well as the central insight that is articulated in much of the literature produced by those who are working with victims of poverty, racism, sexual and physical abuse, alcohol, and simple neglect.
Nobody today can credibly comment on the ills that afflict us without knowing and appreciating that personal failures are often the result of someone first being herself or himself victimized.
But there is something important which is usually missing in all this and this must be named, otherwise the prescription that is assigned for our ills will not fully address the disease. Incomplete diagnosis will not lead to sound treatment.
What’s missing? Simply put: a concept of original sin. When Barbara Boggs Sigmund says we prefer culpability to chaos she is pointing this out. We prefer to blame someone or something rather than accepting, at a point, that many of our inadequacies and tensions are implicit in the human condition itself and are nobody’s fault. In essence, that is the concept of original sin.
Unlike previous generations which over-used this concept, we tend not to use it at all—and are poorer for it. Where former generations spoke of original sin as the root of all evil, we blame something else.
Thus, by way of an example, for radical feminism, patriarchy functions as original sin. It is seen to be ultimately responsible for the greed, violence, injustice, competition and bad relationships that plague our lives. In its view, what looks like personal failure and personal inadequacy has, in fact, a root cause far beyond ourselves and our present lives. We are far from what we should be but much of it isn’t our fault. It’s the fault of patriarchy.
This kind of analysis is common in many circles, from social justice groups to those who analyze alcohol and drug dependency. These groups also generally finger a culprit (who usually is guilty!) and make that someone or something carry much of what was traditionally carried by our first parents, namely, responsibility for many of our present frustrations and failures.
And there’s much to be said for this. As Gloria Steinem’s recent book Revolution from Within attempts to demonstrate, only when our personal failures are understood within the context of their root causes (most of which pre-date any personal responsibility) can we develop the healthy self-esteem and self-love we need to live more adequate and happy lives.
But what’s missing in all this is precisely something which the old concept of original sin gave us, namely, an explanation for inadequacy that rested more on chaos than on culpability—and thus gave us permission to live lives of quiet desperation without needing to blame anybody.
Whatever else it meant, or didn’t mean, the classical doctrine of original sin taught that much of what is wrong with us is implicit in the human condition itself.
We can be saved from much misdirected anger by understanding that. A lot of our moral and relational inadequacies, a lot of our pains and frustrations, and a lot of the reason why most of our potential dies long before we do, is best coped with without us blaming anyone.
We do not live in a perfect world and the reason for that has at least as much to do with chaos as with culpability.