September 22, 2004 4:24 PM   Subscribe

Redemption and the Power of Man. In Christianity, redemption is essentially an act of divine grace, the salvation of a sinful humanity that is incapable of saving itself. In Judaism redemption depends entirely on man, who is responsible for his own fate. To what extent did Judaism influence the development of progressive, pluralistic democracy?
posted by semmi (30 comments total)
Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the twentieth century's most influential American theologians, and one of the most eloquent defenders of the concept of original sin:

The utopian illusions and sentimental aberrations of modern liberal culture are really all derived from the basic error of negating the fact of original sin. This error... continually betrays modern men to equate the goodness of men with the virtue of their various schemes for social justice and international peace. When these schemes fail of realization or are realized only after tragic conflicts, modern men either turn from utopianism to disillusionment and despair, or they seek to place the onus of their failure upon some particular social group, ... [which is why] both modern liberalism and modern Marxism are always facing the alternatives of moral futility or moral fanaticism. Liberalism in its pure form [that is, pacifism] usually succumbs to the peril of futility. It will not act against evil until it is able to find a vantage point of guiltlessness from which to operate. This means that it cannot act at all. Sometimes it imagines that this inaction is the guiltlessness for which it has been seeking. A minority of liberals and most of the Marxists solve the problem by assuming that they have found a position of guiltlessness in action. Thereby they are betrayed into the error of fanaticism.

There is, Niebuhr argues, a danger in denying original sin, and in taking a positive attitude toward humanity's redemptive potential.
posted by semmi at 4:26 PM on September 22, 2004

Interesting piece. I've never understood that whole "original sin" thing. It's a crock, i think, calculated to keep people down (and passive).

And this is clearly false: Liberalism in its pure form [that is, pacifism] usually succumbs to the peril of futility. It will not act against evil until it is able to find a vantage point of guiltlessness from which to operate. This means that it cannot act at all. Sometimes it imagines that this inaction is the guiltlessness for which it has been seeking.
I'd just bring up all the many and various ways people have set up and implemented programs and institutions to help others that who have been treated badly, throughout history. education. housing. pensions. labor laws. child-protection acts. justice systems. medical care. ...
posted by amberglow at 5:03 PM on September 22, 2004

Semmi, you switched gears pretty fast from a discussion of the influence of Judaism on pluralistic democracy to a discussion of original sin. Were you trying to lure Jews into what they might have thought was a discussion of cultural influences, and bait-and-switch them into a theological argument?
posted by Faze at 5:11 PM on September 22, 2004

this might be interesting for people:
Judaism teaches that humans are born morally neutral; Jews have no concept of Original Sin, and do not accept it. Instead, Judaism affirms that people are born with a yetzer hatov, (in some views, a tendency towards goodness, in others, a tendency towards having a productive life and a tendency to be concerned with others) and with a yetzer hara, or concupiscence (in some views, a tendency towards evil, and in others, a tendency towards base or animal behavior and a tendency to be selfish.) Thus, all human beings have free will and can choose the path in life that they will take. -- from here
posted by amberglow at 5:14 PM on September 22, 2004

Neat link, amberglow. Sounds rather like the battle between eros and thanatos to me--Freud could be such a rip-off artist from his own heritage sometimes. :-)

Anyway, back to the main topic. I subscribe to the Journal of Democracy, and they've been doing an excellent series in the past two issues about how six different religious traditions deal with (and/or actually influence(d) the concept of) democracy. Comparing the Protestant, Catholic and Jewish essays, in particular, was a fascinating read. Frankly, of the three, I think the essay on Protestantism (by Robert Dudley Woodberry and Timothy S. Shah) made the strongest case for having a net positive effect on the development and propagation not just of democracy of but of modern democratic techniques. If you can get your hands on a copy of those two issues (they're in academic libraries and online here and here if you have a Muse account), they're fascinating to read. I would love to quote that essay at length of here, because it's directly applicable to the subject at hand, but alas, I am at work right now and don't have my issues handy. Sorry.
posted by Asparagirl at 5:36 PM on September 22, 2004

post some of it tomorrow for us, Aspara? (i for one don't have a Muse account, nor do i know what that is) : >
posted by amberglow at 6:01 PM on September 22, 2004

From a historical viewpoint, it could be said that Christianity holds to a sawtooth wave view of history; whereas Judaism sees history as more of a sine wave.

What this means is that Christians view man, out of the presence of patriachs, or Jesus, as creatures in decline. Uplifted by a patriarch, or Jesus, they reach great heights of spirituality and goodness, but it's all downhill from there, until the next one comes around. Like a sawtooth waveform. Right now man is pretty bad and getting worse, until the "second coming" uplifts him again.

However, in Judaism, when times are good, people become bad, which brings about a catastrophic fall. Conversely, when times are bad and people suffer, it brings them back to religion and piety, which eventually brings back good times. Much like a sine wave. For this reason, Jews often try to be cheery when times are bad, because there is nowhere to go but up; and unhappy when times are good, because soon God will punish them for losing their spirituality, forgetting God and misbehaving.

The importance of these philosophies of history should not be underestimated. Much of the friction and misunderstanding between Christians and Jews is based in it. For example, take the issue of redemption.

For a Christian, redemption can only come via someone who is holy imparting it to you from God, or receiving it directly from God. God is being nice to you *first*, and your response is to be good. People generally just don't have it in themselves to be good just by themselves, they need a jumpstart. The best thing to accumulate in life is spiritual "riches". The material world is just a tool to prepare the spiritual world of the future with.

For a Jew, however, redemption comes to a person who *earns* redemption, who does the work *first*, and is rewarded by God later. Maybe not even to them personally, but to their children. Suffer and work now, so you will be happy later. Build a better world and you will have a better world to live in.

Chrisitians might assume that this just means that Jews are "materialistic"; whereas Jews might see Christians as behaving like lazy welfare cases, wanting God to do things for them instead of doing things themselves. But more than anything else, it is just a different way of looking at things.
posted by kablam at 6:12 PM on September 22, 2004

I agree with the last part of what you said, kablam, but that "happy when times are bad/unhappy when times are good" not at all. It's nothing i was ever taught or read or anything, nor does it ring true. Having coping skills, and surviving, and helping others, and trying to make the world a better place is essential to a healthy happy life, if that's what you mean.
posted by amberglow at 6:17 PM on September 22, 2004

Actually it is more of humans now being defective in a moral sense-or, in Biblical language, that humans are dead, spiritually. In Christianity, one looks to God to be fixed, in Judaism-and other faiths as well-one attempts to fix oneself.
posted by konolia at 6:27 PM on September 22, 2004

Some of this analysis of Judaism is a bit too cut-and-dried. True, Jewish children are not taught that they were born in sin (quite the contrary, in fact). However, that does not mean that they are raised without a foreboding feeling of guilt and massive responsibility; not just in taking care of yourself, but in honoring all that has come before you. There are plenty of opportunities to be a bad person/Jew. And the fact that Jews are not taught that they are born with the need to be redeemed shouldn't occlude the fact that their integrity and worth are often judged harshly by their elders, and that they are implicitly taught to judge themselves, as worthy or not worthy of the life they have been given and the tradition that they have inherited.
posted by bingo at 7:04 PM on September 22, 2004

But at the same time, that harshness often spurs people to do good (even when they rebel against it), so is not all bad. It's about higher expectations, maybe?
posted by amberglow at 7:12 PM on September 22, 2004

I should say (even when they rebel against it and do whatever they want with their lives, and not what's expected)
posted by amberglow at 7:22 PM on September 22, 2004

Semmi, you switched gears pretty fast from a discussion of the influence of Judaism on pluralistic democracy to a discussion of original sin. Were you trying to lure Jews into what they might have thought was a discussion of cultural influences, and bait-and-switch them into a theological argument?

Faze: The article is a theological argument, the question about progress is mine, the quote is from the article, and I'm quoting to show that the article is dialectical, and because my pessimistically realistic suspicion is that few people will actually read a long article, rather read themselves, and I wanted to present the contrary view.
posted by semmi at 7:54 PM on September 22, 2004

bingo - but is that a theological aspect of Judaism as a religion or a cultural idiosyncrasy of the Jews as a people?
posted by Krrrlson at 8:06 PM on September 22, 2004

The point is, bingo and Krrlsn, is that although we are taught that it is possible to improve the world, and not just possible but necessary to improve the world, this job (tikkun haolam) is a BIG one. Which can be an oppressive thought.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 9:00 PM on September 22, 2004

amberglow, how exactly is the concept of original sin "calculated to keep people down (and passive)"?

Original sin is at its root an equalizing theological concept. It's a state of being that every person inherits. And for Christians, that's only part of the story, anyway. Original sin is always connected to unconditional grace.

I hope I don't sound like I'm proselytizing. I'm not trying to. Just trying to clarify a bit.

Soloveichik (he wrote the article in question) is clearly a firm believer in the power of humankind to rise to new and better heights. Personally, I hold out a great deal of optimism when it comes to humankind, but I don't see any evidence that we've risen anywhere since the beginning of time. We discover atoms (neat!) and the next thing we know, we've built a bomb. Worse, we've dropped it on countless innocents. I can't confuse technological advancement with positive human development.

One more thing, amberglow. A less important but still valid response to your suggestion is this question: who exactly does the "calculating"? And how do they benefit from it?
posted by jeremy at 9:16 PM on September 22, 2004

The utopian illusions and sentimental aberrations of modern liberal culture are really all derived from the basic error of negating the fact of original sin.

It seems to me that liberals believe that sin lies within each of us and consequently try to create societies and institutions to bring out the best and suppress the worst in all of us. Conservatives appear to believe that evil exists in some people and not in others and therefore try to solve problems by locking up or killing all of the evildoers. They also don't worry about keeping the "good guys" honest. At least in the U.S.
posted by callmejay at 9:32 PM on September 22, 2004

amberglow: this notion of "bad good times" and "good bad times" philosophy is truly intertwined with Jewish culture.

As an example, the almost schizophrenic complement/derision usage in Jewish dialogue: "He is such a rat, may he live to be a hundred."

Another example (while not unique to Jews), is near obsessive fault-finding, or even paradoxical fault creation: the mother gives her son two shirts as a gift, and he tries one on. "What's the matter? Don't you like the other one?"

The idea is both the effort to find the good side to truly *awful* situations, and to avoid too much recognition of good situations as such.

"So how was your tropical cruise?" "The food was pure poison, and in such small portions."

"I heard your house burned down." "Yes, but at least I was able to save my favorite pair of shoes."

It all harkens back to a point of view which is parallel, but not the same as that held by Christians. At best, the two are complementary, and produce a very constructive genesis.

As was once described to me by a Rabbi who taught a course in Judaism, every Jew has another Jew to his left who is more carefree, successful and secular, who he admires and wishes he were like. And to his right, another Jew who is more orthodox, more religious, and looking at him with disapproval, which makes him feel guilty. He spends his time feeling some degree of angst about moving in either direction.

Very few Christians have any religious equivalent to this. They have no scale of greater or lesser orthodoxy, no way of telling who is "more Christian". A character like Ned Flanders in 'The Simpsons' may actually be seen as *less* Christian than Homer Simpson. Most Christians place themselves either in a huge moral grey area; or have a rigid dichotomy of good and evil that permits *no* trespass or else feel they are irrevocably damned to Hell (with a few provisos).
posted by kablam at 9:44 PM on September 22, 2004

kablam, careful about making blanket statements about the Christian experience. I'd submit that most Christians, on all levels of faith, have a very similar experience to the one you describe. Culturally, they may lack the unique traits you lay out, but the idea of having a person to your left and a person to your right representing varying scales of righteousness is kind of a common human experience. Forget faith: apply that image to your job, to sports you play, to art.

As a matter of fact, there area too many Christians who apply a "scale of greater or lesser orthodoxy" to themselves and to everyone around them. They miss the point of original sin (back to the original discussion) altogether. At the root of the Christian faith is the idea that there can be no greater or lesser. Everyone fails to make the grade, but everyone is also offered grace freely.

No doubt, there are strands of the Christian church that promote the idea that we earn righteousness, that we have to work for what we've been given (and subsequently, that some are more righteous than others). But, IMHO, those folks have got it all wrong.
posted by jeremy at 9:59 PM on September 22, 2004

"I heard your house burned down." "Yes, but at least I was able to save my favorite pair of shoes."

-- My condolences on your wife's death. What was wrong?"
-- Ah, she got a cold."
-- Thank God it's nothing serious.
posted by semmi at 10:56 PM on September 22, 2004

kablam, thanks for the sin wave comment...all too rarely is trigonometry used as a graphical metaphor (or would christianity more accurately be modeled with a tangent curve where the messiah's arrival is the asymptote?...arctan?)

the one thing that i always thought of as being a vast seperator of christianity and judiasm (and part of the reason i still think of myself as a jew even though i'm a VERY bad one if i am one) is the difference in focus of doing things for life and doing things for an afterlife. What strikes, is that christians are constantly attoning for a sin so that they may better there afterlife (broad generalization), while jews only have one day of atonement, and that day is spent praying for another year of life. In fact through my lackluster jewish education i don't remember every hearing much of anything about an afterlife. To me this changes the focus of the religion greatly, as jews we're alive to live life and to do mitzvahs. Death is a part of life and those who died are remembered in prayer, but we certainly aren't behaving in a good manner in order to end up with a good seat in heaven (at least i never got that).

So to me the question becomes do jews leave open the door for man's self fufillment because there's no emphasis on an afterlife were you cannot do it on your own (where as to me the christian afterlife implies insists that you have no power over where you end up because that's god's decision)?

oooh, the daily show's on...gotta go, important stuff...
posted by NGnerd at 11:00 PM on September 22, 2004

You shouldn't just use humor to prove that good bad times and bad good times are an important part of Judaism. Those are coping mechanisms developed from millenia of history, and more exaggerations than anything else. They're also very dated stereotypes, and offensive to many. It's like using Jewish-American-Princess jokes to explain Judaism, or jokes about how stingy we are.

And as for original sin: I think if everyone's starting out stained with it (and i would of course say that only believing Christians are), you automatically are at a disadvantage. Believing that you're born a sinner (or being taught that you are) immediately stacks the deck toward sin and a fatalistic acceptance of its inevitability on one hand, and a sort of plausible denial of the responsibility as a living human being to do anything about sin and evil and injustice in the world.
Since you've already been judged before you even start living, and there has already been death connected to it (that whole Jesus thing), and the second coming is pretty much entirely about what you don't do, and not what you do, that reads as passive and childlike to me. I may have the Christian parts wrong, but it's as i see it as an outsider--correct me if i'm wrong. I know that some Protestant(?) sects are about doing good, but even there the value of doing good is more for getting into heaven, or mitigating the original sin, no?

I think it's more about the basic meaning of life, and the fundamental differences the religions use to explain why we're here.
posted by amberglow at 4:57 AM on September 23, 2004

from the first link:Jewish liturgy, too, makes manifold references to our sins; the vidui, the lengthy list of wrongs that we have committed, is an essential part of the prayer services on Yom Kippur, and, for many Jews, throughout the rest of the year as well. Yet the focus is always on the specific actions that we have committed: At no point does the liturgy describe our sins as indicative of a deeper, sinful human state, of a wretchedness inherent in the human condition. Indeed, the first prayer said each morning by traditional Jews begins as follows:
My God, the soul you placed within me is pure. You created it, you fashioned it, you breathed it into me, you safeguard it within me, and eventually you will take it from me, and restore it to me in time to come. As long as the soul is within me, I am grateful to you, Eternal my God and the God of my forefathers, Master of all works, Eternal of all souls. Blessed are you, Eternal, who restores souls to dead bodies.
Note the grammatical tense: Jews do not say merely that the soul God gave man was pure, on that day long ago when the Almighty blew into Adam's nostrils the "spirit of life." Rather, the soul given to each man today is pure.

posted by amberglow at 5:07 AM on September 23, 2004

and this: Rather, the Jews rejected Christianity because Pauline theology contradicted everything they believed about the relationship between God and man, and about man's role in history. Evil, according to the Jews, could not be blamed on a cosmic flaw or original sin, for that would deny man's moral capacity. The messiah had yet to arrive, Judaism insisted, because man had yet to become worthy of his arrival.
posted by amberglow at 5:13 AM on September 23, 2004

Perhaps I didn't frame my question correctly, but I was hoping for feedback from more knowledgeable people in the area, if this ambition for progress (scientific, social, economical, etc.) viewed so highly in Western civilization was/is (initially) fueled by Judaic ideas, as this quality doesn't seem prevalent in other civilizations and their religions.
posted by semmi at 10:15 AM on September 23, 2004

semmi -- Does the name Max Weber mean anything to you?
posted by Faze at 10:51 AM on September 23, 2004

Faze: Only in general terms, my recollection of his approach is that it's "Marxist," ie. concerned with the circumstances that created religions, not the other way around. Could you point me to relevant areas? Thanks.
posted by semmi at 12:03 PM on September 23, 2004

I think Faze is refering to The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.
posted by callmejay at 1:52 PM on September 23, 2004

semmi: Judaism had a novel concept, going way back, that was revolutionary in its time, and from which they still profit today. This is just a single idea, and one of many, but a very potent one:

"A good idea is a good idea, no matter who thought it up."

So much wisdom can be gained from a willingness to both look at what "outsiders", or "other people" are doing, and not dismissing it out of hand, perhaps even learning from it.

No matter what society Jews lived in, they were paradoxically able to keep to their traditions, more or less, and yet learn from the non-Jews around them. For a lot of human history, they were almost unique in doing this. For most people, the automatic *rejection* of other cultures and religions was pro forma; until finally they *had* to learn from them, or be defeated, due to advances in warfare.

Even as late as the Conquest of the Americas, there was still a strong undercurrent that "heathen things must be destroyed"; beliefs and practices that only started to change with "the age of reason."

But all that time, Jews were profiting from the observation of culture after culture, learning new ideas. If these ideas could be integrated, they often were.

Conversely, in some other cultures and religions, just the opposite happened: the purging of outside influences and ideas; and embracing "fundamentalism" and religious learning *at the expense* of secular education. Persia had its philosopher al-Ghizzali, who helped end the Moslem age of enlightenment; Russia still has times when it rejects "Europeanization", in pan-Slavic movements. China had its "water emperors" who wiped out hundreds of years of foreign influences and innovations.
posted by kablam at 4:01 PM on September 23, 2004

It's not just foreigners who do that, kablam--we have an administration and our own fundamentalists doing much the same.
posted by amberglow at 4:34 PM on September 23, 2004

« Older Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going...   |   Neat color selector Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments