Recovery of Original Sin–An Antidote?

This book is a resolute call for the recovery of the doctrine of original sin. As such, it stands more or less in a line with Karl Menninger’s Whatever Became of Sin? (1973) and Neal Plantinga’s Not the Way It’s Supposed To Be: A Breviary of Sin (1995), though curiously neither of these seminal titles is cited in this 2003 publication. And of course, his emphasis on original sin puts him theologically in the good company of Luther, Calvin, Barth, and Niebuhr, not to mention St. Augustine and St. Paul.

But what is unusual about Blessed Are the Cynical is Ellingsen’s attempt to apply this ancient doctrine specifically to contemporary American culture. It is a courageous effort–he actually wants original sin to take a central place in the collective American consciousness. He contends that “America will work better, be more blessed, when we address social dynamics with a healthy dose of cynicism, with caution about the motives of our leaders, media gurus, institutions, and ourselves” (p. 13). By “cynicism” in that sentence (and by “cynical” in the title of the book), Ellingsen means “realism” or “pessimism” about basic human nature. Since the term “cynicism,” however, conveys the nastier overtones of scorn and mockery, Ellingsen could be challenged about the appropriateness of that word for his purposes and, therefore, for the book’s title. On the other hand, “blessed are the cynical” is obviously catchier than “blessed are the realists,” or “blessed are those who are pessimistic about human nature,” so perhaps the author simply deferred to the marketing department.

Professor Ellingsen teaches at the International Theological Center in Atlanta and in that context has developed a special interest in a “contextualized theology” for Americans. He developed this theme in an earlier book titled, A Common Sense Theology: The Bible, Faith,and American Society. Now Blessed Are The Cynical simply carries forward this thematic interest. An American contextualized theology obviously requires analysis of American culture, and much of this book is occupied with such an analysis.

In the introductory chapter Ellingsen argues, à la Christopher Lasch, that what especially characterizes our culture is narcissism. (He does not deal with the question of whether or how this condition is unique to American culture.) Self-centered individualism is our fatal flaw. In psychological terms, ours is a therapeutic, “feel good” culture in which people are preoccupied with “finding themselves” in order to gain self-esteem and self-fulfillment. Modern psychology has encouraged us to turn inward to find these precious jewels. But it isn’t working. Our misguided efforts only blind us to the essential truth about ourselves (original sin), and lead us to further isolation and loneliness. Already in this opening chapter Ellingsen cites a large array of factors in American society that illustrate our narcissism and conspire against our deeper well-being; for example, consumerism, mall shopping, advertising, the Internet, movies, suburban living, the media, and–lurking behind most of these–free-market capitalism itself. All of these both reveal and exacerbate the individualistic, self-centeredness of Americans.

What is the “root cause” of America’s social ills? The German Enlightenment! Ellingsen writes, “The Enlightenment, the mother of psychology and its related dynamics, presupposed a very optimistic view of human nature” (p.32). It also encouraged a spirit of “unbridled freedom.” The best way to counteract the deleterious impact of the modern Enlightenment on American culture is to recover the ancient doctrine of original sin with its much more pessimistic, but also much more accurate, assessment of human nature.

Having thus set the stage in the introduction, Ellingsen moves on to a lucid, historical review of the doctrine of original sin, or “the Augustinian understanding of reality” as he calls it, followed by an exploration of the roots of the American constitutional system. He argues that this system, so fundamental in American society, rests philosophically on two pillars: namely, the Augustinian, pessimistic view of human nature combined with the more optimistic Enlightenment view. These two forces have existed in healthy tension with each other through the years, but unfortunately, in modern America, Enlightenment optimism has become dominant at the expense of Augustinian realism. The author is at his best in these first two chapters.

Most of the remaining chapters, five in all, are an extension of the introductory chapter, each containing a more detailed analysis of the main areas of American society: politics, economics, religion, sex-marriage-family, and, finally, education. Within each of these chapters, Ellingsen treats, however briefly, a large number of current social problems–at least forty in all–including such huge issues as racism, crime, ecology, and labor exploitation, as well as lesser ones like free agency in professional sports, new worship styles in churches, and political correctness, ending each chapter with an “Augustinian corrective.”

His assessment of American trends is unrelentingly gloomy. If the cynical are blessed, Ellingsen will receive his reward. This material makes for very interesting reading, but it is nonetheless a hazardous undertaking to cover so much territory in 110 pages, for it cannot be done without making sweeping generalizations and, at times, thinly documented assertions. These chapters, in other words, are likely to make social scientists cringe. The chapter on American schools, for example, begins with this statement: “The well-documented decline of the American educational system is common knowledge” (p.159). However, the best current studies of American schools, those of the Rand Corporation, have concluded that while some schools in urban areas are suffering, most American schools are doing a very good job and have not deteriorated over the past fifty years. (Cf., the Rand publication, Student Achievement and the Changing American Family: An Executive Summary, 1994.)

So I confess to a measure of uneasiness about this book–uneasiness about the attempt to analyze so complicated a phenomenon as “American culture” in a hundred pages or so, and even a little uneasiness about the suggestion that St. Augustine can fix it. And yet, to paraphrase Garrison Keilor, a book touting original sin can’t be all bad! Indeed, Blessed Are the Cynical makes for eminently worthwhile reading, for in it Professor Ellingsen deals provocatively with an intrinsically interesting subject, and performs a valuable service in his call for an American resuscitation of the Augustinian (and biblical) assessment of human nature. For this he is to be commended, yea, even blessed.

John H. Primus is a Christian Reformed pastor and Professor of Religion and Theology, emeritus, at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.