A Contemporary Conception of Original Sin

So I was reading Brothers Karamazov for the third time the other day, and once again I was caught up by the Grand Inquisitor chapter. To this day I still think The Brothers Karamazov is the most all-encompassing work of fiction of all time. To me, it explores pretty much all of the fundamental existential questions.

Anyways, it occurred to me on this reading that the parable of the Grand Inquisitor can be interpreted as a re-conception of original sin. The whole point that Ivan tries to make in that particular story is that by virtue of existing, man is already complicit in evil. Unless, of course, one removes himself from the world through suicide, which Ivan seriously contemplates.

But to me, Dostoevsky’s own argument goes against Ivan’s, because the author himself argues that one cannot simply “escape” from the world and be morally clear. Rather, existence in the world is something that cannot be denied or wished away, and thus the moral complicity of participating and contributing to a world of evil can only be redeemed through belief in Christ. But all of this is cast in a distinctly non-miraculous, secular symbols and characters.

This just sounds like original sin to me, since by virtue of being human, one has already sinned. This complicity with evil is something inherent to existence, and thus to redeem oneself from original sin, in this particular conception, is to still embrace a Christ-figure, albeit one that is not explicitly cast as a Christ figure, i.e., Alyosha.

Which got me thinking about my own complicity with things that I would find morally objectionable otherwise. Personally, I agree with Dostoevsky in that one, just by the virtue of his own existence, has contributed to things which he would reject in principle. I have a moral objection against the killing of innocents, and yet every tax dollar I pay to the US government will be used, in one way or another, to finance a war that will inevitably kill innocent civilians. Or every time I buy clothes from China, I’m inevitably supporting a regime that denies human rights to its own citizens.

I’ve heard all the counter-arguments too. And yes, it is true that I might be too self-conscious for my own good, and that it might be true that I’m simply bothered by liberal guilt, and it’s even possible that even if I do not do these things, someone else will. But even knowing all of this, it does not help me rid of this feeling that I somehow contributed, no matter how minutely, to things which I find morally objectionable. Thus, I have become complicit in evil.

But then what is to be done? The choices are stark? After all, how can one completely remove oneself from the world, especially in the 21st-century when everything and anything are connected globally. As Thomas Friedman is wont to say: the world is flat. Thus, even from a practical point of view, removing oneself from the world to such an extent as to make oneself non-complicit with evil is impossible. But then what is left, if one does not buy into the notion of religious salvation?

Are we then only left with a hyper-consciousness, guilt, and anguish at the realization that all of us have contributed and will probably continue to contribute to things we find to be evil? To me, this pervasive, all-encompassing moral complicity is the analog to the Christian idea of original sin. After all, no one is innocent, and we are burdened with original sin simply by virtue of being human, since to be human is to interact with the world. Here I agree with Aristotle when he says that those who do not live within the polis must either be a god or beast, but not human.

Thus, original sin, in its modern trapping, is, to put it reductively, globalization.

That’s enough bullshit for the day, or two.


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