Original Sin and the Apple

Sometimes I wonder if it’s human nature to feel like Eve.

If I’m told, “you really shouldn’t have another bite,” I want to eat it. It gets worse if it’s from a thin person, because I resent their slenderness. If it’s from a big person I ignore it because, what do they know?

Unsolicited advice?  Why not respond, “thank you, but I intend on doing the exact opposite.” It’s instinctive. Instead, the person who encourages us to rebel, to take matters into our own hands, that’s the person really on our side.

Admittedly, when I get the advice, the warning, the friendly feedback, I take a breath and remind myself the person has my best interests at heart. I consider if there is any truth in what they say. I play with the alternative – what if I took the advice? What if I ignore it? Continue reading “Original Sin and the Apple”

Theory of Moral Sentiments 1:2-6

[This is part of my steady series of reading Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, one page at a time.]

What is sympathy?  The source is our ability to conceive or imagine the same emotion as someone else.   We flinch when we see someone else get hurt.  One itches, another itches.  One yawns, another yawn.  “Grief and joy affect the spectator with … painful or agreeable emotion.”  Smith also calls this “fellow-feeling.”

Even stories:  “Our joy for the deliverance of those heroes of tragedy or romance who interest us” – the bystander imagines the sentiments of the sufferer.

Smith distinguishes between pity, compassion and sympathy.  Pity and compassion are concerned with suffering, while sympathy is a more general term for all “fellow-feeling.”  “Sympathy” is Smith’s word that is Girard would say represents the mimetic nature of the human mind.

Norway and Christian Extremism

The man who killed at least 68 people was apprehended.  He confessed to the killing.

The headline by the New York Times called him a Christian Extremist.

Plenty of pundits are offended at this insinuation.  Some even blame Muslims for pushing him over the brink.   But while we search for some kind of motive, some sort of identity, a way to understand this act, so beyond any kind of sympathy, we’ll find any logic to his act slip away.

Some will blame conservatives and conservative thinking.  But few conservatives would do such an act.  Like others, some will be callous about he murders.  But they would not pick up a gun, search for a camp and start shooting.    It may be that the Manichean element in our political discourse contributes to the ease by which one justifies the casual ending of an enemy’s life.   This is usually not enough.  You may think of someone as wrong while not thinking of them as an enemy.

His attachment to Christian fundamentalism was thin.  He didn’t consider himself religious – it doesn’t look like he attended any church in Norway.  He mocked the liberal religion of the Church of Norway.  More likely, they were soft and pliable, too flexible for his ordered and righteous mind.  He was much more at home in the land of certainties, in right versus wrong, and assured he was on the right side.  It is only when one is so sure of one’s complete righteousness, one can demonize those who think differently.

But there are other ingredients for this lethal combination.  Was it video games? Probably not.  Was it simply white nationalism?  Not really.  He did have a rigorous sense of Norwegian identity, with the resentment of being displaced oozing from many of his comments.

But finally, none of these ideas will be satisfactory.

And our dissatisfaction with any clear answer, perhaps, is one reason we call such acts “evil.”  They seem beyond the notion of human sympathy that is a crucial part of our everyday experience.  They are inexplicable, and seem to arise from nowhere.    Did not a part of his mind react when as the children ran from him? Did not a part of his mind demand that he stop, and feel some sort of wound as the children he was murdering?  How was it possible that these would be slaughtered like farm animals?   Even a hardened conservative can find themselves weekping at the loss of a loved one.

And yet, I feel guilty that anything about my faith would have contributed.    But what was it?  Nothing recognizable to me.  Still, the easy way, perhaps, is to assume there was no connection.  There may not have been.  My feeling of murderous rage has usually been contained toward yelling at the computer screen, or the occasional bout of helplessness – rage not at any particular person, but toward institutions – banks, airline companies.  But yet we are responsible, in some way, for those who take on the same identity that we do.

But the prime minister of Norway said it well – that such an act would not diminish their commitment to and open and peaceful country.  This is, perhaps, the only response we can give.  That whatever happens to us, we will not be bound by the fear and hate that enters our lives, causes its terrible damage, and desires us to respond in kind.   We remain faithful that the world need not be like this, and that there will be a time when we will not be afraid of each other’s differences, but have the strength to relish them rather than be scandalized.

On seeing pleasure and pain in others

I.  On the Propriety of Action; Section I O the Sense of Propriety; Chapter I.1 Of Sympathy.

When we see people in pain or joyful, we feel.  We may not get any direct benefit from their emotion, but we “derive sorrow from the sorrow of others”and  are interested in the their fortune.  This description of “sentiment” is seems to describe an empirical reality as such that it is universal, although some may feel it with “most exquisite sensibility,” and “The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society is not altogether without it.”

This is Smith’s understanding of sympathy – not necessarily approval or disapproval, but that we feel what others feel.    I am riveted by sentimental You Tube videos; I enjoy the winning of my favorite team; I am sad when a family member faces a disappointment.  Girard might consider this obvious as well, for we do imitate one another.  He might add that we learn from one another how to by sympathetic.

Are we blank slates?  Or is this innate?  Pragmatically, until babies can survive on their own, perhaps the question is moot.  We have to learn to survive from someone, so perhaps we are built to be excellent imitators of both action and emotion.  Still, are the captains of finance sympathetic to the needs of the suffering?

Adam Smith and the Theory of Moral Sentiments

I’ve decided that over the next year I’m taking on a new project:  reading Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments.  I first read parts in Divinity School, when it was praised by my professor of ministry.

Over the last three year’s I’ve also been a part of a study group that has been focused on Mimetic Theory and the writings of Rene’ Girard.   Both Adam Smith and Rene-Girard are helpful in understanding culture, I suspect; Adam Smith didn’t have an understanding of “mimetic theory” but does discuss “creative imagination.”

I’ll be taking it in very short segments, and although I hope to do this daily, I’ll be satisfied with three posts a week, one per section.