Of all the pitfalls of biblical illiteracy — and they have been increasing for decades in Western culture – is a tragic ignorance of the pervasiveness of the concept of original sin. I am not a theologian. I am not going to proselytize. Rather, I would like to address a notion that imbues our culture and drives the concept that everyone is good — in spite of what Solzhenitsyn experienced at the Gulag — that all will succeed, and that any shortcomings of human nature, behavior, or ability are driven solely by parenting, malfunctioning social institutions, environment, lack of training, and poverty: In short, nothing beyond the physical or social, nary a sliver of metaphysical circumstance of even microscopic dimensions, regarding the human condition.
As I watched, with millions of other viewers last week, Ken Burns’ rendering of the early/mid-twentieth century Roosevelt family’s impact on the world, I was reminded that in times of want and trial human nature, in its depravity and its precious God-ordained glory, is most clearly expressed.
Original Sin is the concept that charges humanity’s fallen state to Adam’s account, for a moment of weakness in the Garden of Eden — challenging for the rational, modern, scientific mind to come to grips with.
Where is the Garden of Eden? Brooklyn maybe, Warm Springs, Cambridge, or Cairo?
This idea of Original Sin is evident in almost every corner of Christian faith, supported by Augustine, St. Paul, Martin Luther, and John Calvin to name a few. In addition, many Orthodox Jewish teachers also adhere to the idea. Michelangelo memorialized sin’s impact on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It is seldom found in non-western faith systems.
Traditional Christian belief suggests there is only one escape from Original Sin: the exercise of free will and the acceptance of God’s grace and mercy, through the birth, death, and resurrection of His son Jesus Christ. In a nutshell, while man is flawed he is yet free. The only true freedom a man or woman has is the exercise of his or her will, and she or he can do so in a way that liberates him or her from the curse of Adam’s iniquity. Sounds like a sermon rather than a reflection on university life.
And, what does any of this have to do with university life?
Entitlement ensnares sundry segments of our society. I was reminded, immersed in Ken Burns’ stunning work, of the inappropriateness of tagging Roosevelt as the father of entitlement; he was 6,000 years too late. The burden of entitlement that pollutes universities by suggesting that everyone should be admitted regardless of past experience, performance, or accomplishment and that all should succeed, is everywhere pronounced and undermines not just the intellectual solvency of universities, but also leaks into the larger community, bankrupting both the institutions and the people the institutions purportedly serve.
The contention that the university will make you happy because you are educated is as misguided as any ill-configured thought of the 19th or 20th century. But, it is real and buoyantly decreed by university and political leadership for the electoral and constituents’ benefit – held out as a carrot — that universities offer a guarantee. The cost of non performance-based entitlement creates a burden that universities and society will be unable to sustain in anything like its present form in the long term.
Everybody deserves a chance to perform. Everybody. However, nobody deserves a guarantee and complicating an already confounding calculus is this simple truism, no two people are the same, save all have a free, flawed, will.
I will not here lay the burden of all of this on an apple that Eve presented to Adam. I might privately, but that is my business. I will however say that an attachment to the concept that all people are good will not withstand even simple scrutiny. Read the daily newspaper, even one suited for little beyond the bottom of a bird cage (easily found), peruse any website; listen to a cable outlet, or major commercial media outlet. People do not appear to be fundamentally good, an explanation of why is found in Genesis. Not the British Invasion rockers of the late sixties, or the Korean Invasion auto makers of the early 21st century, but a 6,000 year old book that lays out the foundations for the exercise of free will, and in turn, eventfully and painfully, a free society.
Unbridled human nature is uncomfortably referred to by theologians as “total depravity.” In universities such thinking is banned as thick-skulled, fact-less, unscientific, ignorant, and stupid. Too bad, as all current explanations of people behaving badly fail.
Education should respond to will and ability while contentment in any manifestation should be left for the deeper reaches of an individual’s soul. Flawed though they may be by total depravity, individually and collectively, acknowledging this ancient truth is the beginning of reasoned clarity.
And that is the job of the university.