Social Conflict, Original Sin, and the Libertarian Ideal

I’ve been in a reflective mood lately, quietly observing the commotion taking place around me as if I were a visitor from another planet moving unnoticed through the frenzied crowds. I’ve watched the news, read the morning newspaper, and lurked on social media as if I were sifting through ancient documents hoping to make sense of bygone era. The question that guides my search is this: What is the passion that animates contemporary society, the unexamined, deep-down belief shared by nearly all people? What is the ideal that gives meaning to modern social movements and counter-movements and drives people into the streets or into voting booths?

The Freedom Ideal

I’ve concluded that the bedrock belief that excites modern people into action is this: True Freedom is the right and power to will and do as one pleases. For modern people, herein lies true human dignity. Any restraint on this right and power limits freedom and hence slights dignity. And since we desire and act for our happiness, any restraint on our freedom also limits our happiness. I think analysis would reveal that this belief drives all modern social change and resistance to social change. As an ethical ideal, it goes almost unchallenged in our culture. Rhetorical appeals to freedom resonate powerfully in the modern soul. And any rhetoric that seems to restrict freedom will be rejected as reactionary and evil.

The Grand Arbiter

Of course, everyone realizes that civilization would be impossible without limits on freedom. One person’s desires and actions inevitably conflict with those of others. This conflict gives rise to another type of rhetoric, the rhetoric of civilization. The rhetoric of civilization calls for limits on freedom for the sake of freedom. Notice that even the rhetoric of civilization appeals to the modern ideal of freedom. So, I think I am correct to contend that for the modern person the ideal of freedom is basic and civilization is a means to that end.

Hence the major function of the modern state—supposedly a neutral and impersonal arbiter—is to harmonize the completing desires and actions of those who live within it. Each person, as a center of unlimited freedom, is by definition a competitor of every other person. Other people are limits or means to my freedom, dignity, and happiness. And everyone looks to the state to resolve conflict.

But of course the state is not a neutral and impersonal arbiter. It’s not a justice machine that always finds the perfect balance between freedom and freedom. The ideal of civilization is always embodied in a particular government and governments are staffed by politicians. And modern politicians get elected by promising to expand or protect freedom. That is to say, modern political rhetoric appeals either to the ideal of freedom or the ideal of civilization as means of persuasion. On the one hand, everyone wants maximum freedom for themselves and responds positively to promises of expanded liberty. But, when people come to think their freedom is being restricted by the actions of others, they respond appreciatively to the rhetoric of civilization.

Social Conflict

The conflicts we are experiencing today in society among various parties and interest groups are nothing but manifestations of the false and unworkable belief at the root of modern culture: True Freedom is the right and power to will and do as one pleases. Each party jockeys for the political influence necessary to draw the line between freedom and freedom favorably to their own desires. And each uses as occasion demands the rhetoric of freedom or the rhetoric of civilization to persuade public opinion. We can see clearly why it is unworkable. But why is it false and how did our civilization come to accept a false and unworkable ideal?

Original Sin

The doctrine of original sin was one of the first orthodox Christian doctrines rejected by architects of the 17th century Enlightenment. Jean-Jacques Rousseau summarized the Enlightenment attitude when he proclaimed, “Let us lay it down as an incontrovertible rule that the first impulses of nature are always right; there is no original sin in the human heart….”(Emile or On Education, 1762). It’s not difficult to see why the Enlightenment had to reject the doctrine of original sin. It contradicted its understanding of freedom as the right and power to will and do as one pleases.

What, then, is the Christian doctrine of original sin? I cannot explain the whole story at this time but here is what it says about human capacity: Human beings are born into this world desiring, seeking, willing, and determined to pursue what they perceive as their private interest in ignorance and defiance of the truly good and right. You can see why the Christian doctrine of original sin offends modern sensibilities. It implies that even if human beings possessed the right and power to do as they please—which they do not—they still would not possess true freedom. According to the New Testament, you are not free in the truest sense unless you are free from the sinful impulse to will only your private interests. The doctrine of original sin asserts that our free will needs freeing from wrong desires and for the truly good and right. And we can acquire this freedom only as a gift of the Holy Spirit.

Now let me bring this essay to a sharply pointed conclusion. For 300 years our culture has been animated by a false definition of freedom taken as the highest ideal of human life. From a Christian point of view, the modern definition of freedom is false because it claims falsely to be the true and highest form of freedom. But Christianity asserts that there is a higher freedom, freedom from the innate impulse to pursue one’s selfish interests as the highest motive for action. And here is the sharpest point of the sword: judged by the Christian understanding of freedom, the modern ideal of freedom—the right and power to will and do as one pleases—comes very close to the definition of original sin! Ironically, in its denial of the doctrine of original sin, the Enlightenment made the fact of original sin its ideal and animating principle. As the Apostle Paul, Augustine, and many other theologians observed, sin is often punished with more sin.


4 thoughts on “Social Conflict, Original Sin, and the Libertarian Ideal

  1. nokareon

    Your analogy strikes deep to the heart of the progenitor narrative of the entire Bible. In the beginning, God himself walked with humanity, and this direct knowledge of him was the Good for humanity, the standard of good and evil. However, the significance encoded in the symbol of humanity seizing the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is the declaration that humankind would be a law unto itself—its own determiner of what is good and what is evil. From Nimrod to Augustus, Nazi Germany to mass school shootings, this seizure of autonomy and self-aggrandizement has played out throughout history over and over again to detrimental effect in every society.

    I wonder if you would assent to calling freedom in Christ—the freedom from simply doing what one wants to the freedom to do as one ought—a type of *virtue ethics*. I find that conceiving of Christian living as a mode of virtue ethics, like a cruciformed Aristotelean Nicomachean Ethics, is a very profitable approach for a Christian’s vocation as a pocket of new creation on the earth.


  2. Dick Hotchkiss

    Dear Ifaqtheology (Ron Highfield?)

    I was sorry to read of your chagrin regarding this topic, but I do absolutely share your frustrations (putting it mildly), and agree wholeheartedly. One wondered if you had by any chance read the 19th century Chamber’s essay entitled “Progress and Stability”. It kind of talks about this aspect of society in a Ruskin ‘Five Lamps’ manner. The needfulness of (ancient) happiness and where it comes from, and our place in a ‘civilized society’. But more poignantly, have you read Bishop RC Ryle’s book “Holiness” chapter one entitled “Sin”. I can find no other better… Please have a look if possible and let me know what you feel? This book is described as the second best book ever written, and I cannot disagree. And almost finally, chapters 1-5 incl. of Carl Gustav Jung’s 1959 (English) “Aion”. Part 2 Vol 9 Collected Works. See the last two paragraphs of chapter 5 if nothing else (unfortunately I can’t quote them) but Jung explains what can go wrong with ‘free will’: he particularly mentions “the will” , “the self” and the important process of “individuation”. These first five chapters are a ‘tour de force’ of historical Christian pseudo-psychology that in no way compromises God or Christ, as many uneducated folks claim. It is my personal belief that Jung was a believer, quoting scripture frequently he never criticises it, and even apologizes several times. I don’t agree with the syzygy concept (it is unecessarily complicated) but I can fully appreciate where it comes from and how useful it is. I do however agree with what he says about “the world being torn into opposing halves” not the least of which because Jesus said that was his own mission (viz. “I come not to bring peace, but emnity between…”). Best Regards Dr J Smalhouse


    1. ifaqtheology Post author

      Dr Smalhouse:

      Thank you for this intelligent and well-informed comment! I have to admit that I have never read the Chambers essay. But I shall! I will also note the other works, and as I gain access, take a look.

      Ron H


  3. Dick Hotchkiss

    Dear Sir Please forgive me, I’ve misquoted a reference, the correct book is-

    Chambers’s, Papers for the People. Edinburgh (publ. CHAMBERS) 1850. Vols 1-5. Vol 1. Essay 4 “Education Of The Citizen”. (topic as quoted, progress, order and stability).

    I have been been able to find this digitally available free on-line. And believe it might serve you. Regards &c.



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