Original Sin: Final Post, William Stringfellow on Sin & Salvation

Here in my final post about a Malthusian vision of Original Sin I want to conclude with some thoughts about salvation that fit well with the ideas we've been tossing around.

What I want to walk through is William Stringfellow's unique vision of sin and salvation. As I review Stringfellow's ideas, quoting from him extensively, I think you'll find that his view of salvation is remarkably complementary to the Malthusian view of sin I've been working with.

To start, let's review where we are. My argument has been that the human predicament is essentially being trapped in a Malthusian situation. Framed another way, we feel biologically vulnerable in a world governed by death. This vulnerability prompts a variety of "sinful" responses: Acquisitiveness, rivalry, and war, to name a few of the things we've talked about.

In this view, Original Sin is less about human depravity, pride and selfishness than it is about being trapped and pushed around by Malthusian forces: Death shoves around our survival instinct, causing us, in a Malthusian pinch, to put self above others. If this "trap" is the source of sin then what does salvation look like? It's not going to take the form of penal substitutionary atonement, where some human guilt or stain is managed or eliminated. Rather, salvation has to free us, spiritually and psychologically, from the forces of death in this world that tilt our biological natures toward self-interest and self-preservation.

With this review in hand let's turn to the ideas of Stringfellow.

Similar to the view articulated in this series, Stringfellow focuses his attention upon death, and not human depravity, as the major "moral power" to be reckoned with:

Death, after all, is no abstract idea, nor merely a destination in time, nor just an occasional happening, nor only a reality for human beings, but, both biblically and empirically, death names a moral power claiming sovereignty over all people and all things in history. Apart from God, death is a living power greater--because death survives them all--than any other moral power in this world of whatever sort: human beings, nations, corporations, cultures, wealth, knowledge, fame or memory, language, the arts, race, religion. (p. 66)

This emphasis fits my Malthusian model: Death (via Malthusian threats) morally dominates us. We become enslaved to death. We serve death in a foolish attempt to outlast it.

How do we become enslaved to death? To understand this one has to come to grips with Stringfellow's view of the Powers and Principalities. For Stringfellow, a demonic power is any created thing, idea, or image that captivates us and commands serivce and sacrifice from us:

According to the Bible, the principalities are legion in species, number, variety and name. They are designated by such multifarious titles as powers, virtues, thrones, authorities, dominions, demons, princes, strongholds, lords, angels, gods, elements, spirits…

Terms that characterize are frequently used biblically in naming the principalities: “tempter,” “mocker,” “foul spirit,” “destroyer,” “adversary,” “the enemy.” And the privity of the principalities to the power of death incarnate is shown in mention of their agency to Beelzebub or Satan or the Devil or the Antichrist…

And if some of these seem quaint, transposed into contemporary language they lose quaintness and the principalities become recognizable and all too familiar: they include all institutions, all ideologies, all images, all movements, all causes, all corporations, all bureaucracies, all traditions, all methods and routines, all conglomerates, all races, all nations, all idols. Thus, the Pentagon or the Ford Motor Company or Harvard University or the Hudson Institute or Consolidated Edison or the Diners Club or the Olympics or the Methodist Church or the Teamsters Union are principalities. So are capitalism, Maoism, humanism, Mormonism, astrology, the Puritan work ethic, science and scientism, white supremacy, patriotism, plus many, many more—sports, sex, any profession or discipline, technology, money, the family—beyond any prospect of full enumeration. The principalities and powers are legion.
(pp. 204-205)

Using the language of the Old and New Testaments, Stringfellow calls the Powers (see his list) "false gods," "demons" and "idols." That is, the Powers demand "sacrifice" from us, leading to a kind of "demonic possession":

People are veritably besieged, on all sides, at every moment simultaneously by these claims and strivings of the various powers each seeking to dominate, usurp, or take a person’s time, attention, abilities, effort; each grasping at life itself; each demanding idolatrous service and loyalty. In such a tumult it becomes very difficult for a human being even to identify the idols that would possess him or her… (p. 211)

But it is important to remember in Stringfellow that sitting behind the Demonic and the Powers is Death. Death is always the the real moral force:

…history discloses that the actual meaning of such human idolatry of nations, institutions, or other principalities is death. Death is the only moral significance that a principality proffers human beings. That is to say, whatever intrinsic moral power is embodied in a principality—for a great corporation, profit, for example; or for a nation, hegemony; or for an ideology, conformity—that is sooner or later suspended by the greater moral power of death. Corporations die. Nations die. Ideologies die. Death survives them all. Death is—apart from God—the greatest moral power in this world, outlasting and subduing all other powers no matter how marvelous they may seem for the time being. This means, theologically speaking, that the object of allegiance and servitude, the real idol secreted within all idolatries, the power above all principalities and powers—the idol of all idols—is death. (pp. 207-208)

So when we serve a Power we participate in death:

[The Power] is in conflict with the person until the person surrenders life in one fashion or another to the principality. The principality requires not only recognition and adulation as an idol from movie fans or voters or the public, but also demands that the person of the same name give up his or her life as a persons to the service and homage of the image. And when that surrender is made, the person in fact dies, though not yet physically. For at that point one is literally possessed by one's own image. (p. 196)

To summarize, the demonic evil of life is the power of death sitting behind all those things that capture our attention, efforts, and allegiances. Death is the prime moral power.

Given this view, for Stringfellow salvation and resurrection means being set free from the power of death in this life:

Resurrection, however, refers to the transcendence of the power of death and the fear or thrall of the power of death, here and now, in this life, in this world. Resurrection, thus, has to do with life and, indeed, the fulfillment of life before death. (p. 112)

As I mentioned above, Malthusian pressures shove around our survival instincts, causing us to behave immorally. In Stringfellow's view that amounts to demonic possession. Consequently, resurrection implies, as Stringfellow notes, being set free from the fear of death in this life, in this Malthusian world:

[Christ's] power over death is effective not just at the terminal point of a person's life but throughout one's life, during this life in this world, right now. This power is effective in the times and places in the daily lives of human beings when they are so gravely and relentlessly assailed by the claims of principalities for an idolatry that, in spite of all disguises, really surrenders to death as the reigning presence in the life of the world. His resurrection means the possibility of living in this life, in the very midst of death's works, safe and free from death. (p. 202)

How, you might be asking, is this possible? How are we set free from the thrall of death while we move in the midst of death's works? I'll give two examples of an answer from Stringfellow. Both examples illustrate what we've been talking about in this series. That is, our tether to death is our survival instinct. That is death's moral power over us. But the Christian and the church have, and here is the paradoxical part, died to the idea of their own death. Christians are dead to the survival instinct. Christians are to be, to use the death row phrase, "dead men walking." In the words of Jesus, Christians pick up a cross, the symbol of death, to find a new life, a resurrection life. In the words of the Apostle Paul:

We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

Here is Stringfellow on how this "death to the survival instinct" shapes the church:

Now that mark that verifies the integrity of the church as institution and sets the church apart from other institutions--the state, the university, the Pentagon, General Electric, et al.--as the exemplary or pioneer or holy institution is the freedom of the church from primary and controlling concern about her own survival. Survival of the institution is the operative ethic of all institutions, in their fallenness. The church is called into being in freedom from that ethic of survival and where renewal or reformation in the church happens for real, that very freedom is being exercised and the church is viable and faithful. (p. 147)

This might still seem abstract, being free from death in the midst of death, but Stringfellow gives a wonderful biographical example of how he died to the Power of Career in his early years of education:

I had elected then to pursue no career. To put it theologically, I died to the idea of career and to the whole typical array of mundane calculations, grandiose goals and appropriate schemes to reach them. I renounced, simultaneously, the embellishments--like money, power, success--associated with careers in American culture, along with the ethics requisite to obtaining such condiments. I do not say this haughtily; this was an aspect of my conversion to the gospel… (p. 30)

And this brings me to the conclusion, to Stringfellow's ultimate vision of salvation and resurrection. By being freed from the Malthusian forces, by dying to the Powers of Death, we become free to be truly human. I am no longer a Malthusian animal, a survival machine. I am human:

I believed then, as I do now, that I am called in the Word of God--as is everyone else--to the vocation of being human, nothing more and nothing less. I confessed then, as I do now, that to be a Christian means to be called to be an exemplary human being. And to be a Christian categorically does not mean being religious. Indeed, all religious versions of the gospel are profanities. Within the scope of the calling to be merely, but truly, human, any work, including that of any profession, can be rendered a sacrament of that vocation. (p. 31)

Note: All page numbers refer to:
A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings of William Stringfellow

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

15 thoughts on “Original Sin: Final Post, William Stringfellow on Sin & Salvation”

  1. It is remarkable how similar your conclusion is to this post by Kevin Edgecomb. Similar too to Hebrews 2:14. The results I think go further than we expect. It is not for nothing that the creed calls the Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.

  2. Dr. Beck,

    I have been following your work for some time on this subject and now I can't contain myself any longer...this is BRILLIANT theology, just the way I like it: provocative, original and in dialog with the best insights from other disciplines. I have been thinking about sin for a long time on these lines, based on the work of Marilyn Adams whom you cite, as well as Bob Goudzwaard, et al., "Hope in Troubled Times".

    I'm still not convinced, though, that the Malthusian explanation accounts for all manifestations of sin. My envy of people whom I perceive to be more talented than me, or my excessive confidence in my own abilities, or my struggles with lust, for example, do not seem even indirectly related to my survival instinct, though I suppose you could say that it's part of generally being held captive by the powers of death.

    Also, I've noticed before in your series on William James and elsewhere that you are skeptical that an 'empirical trace' of the supernatural can be detected. If that is the case for various 'mundane' paranormal phenomena, how much more so for the alleged resurrection of Jesus?

    Here's the problem: if indeed Christ has been raised from the dead, thus 'trampling on death by death' and freeing us from its power, then we are indeed free to become fully human and exhibit the kind of world-denying, self-sacrificial love and courage that Jesus and the martyrs showed. But if not, then we are as Paul says 'of all men most to be pitied', and the best way to live in a Malthusian world IS simply 'every man for himself'. So could you say something perhaps about the confidence we can have in Jesus' resurrection? What do you think is the basis and grounding of that confidence?

    Thanks again for your great work. This stuff should be published in book form.

  3. Of course, as soon as I hit submit I found your reference.

    Love reading your stuff.



  4. This has been a marvelous series with a fitting endpoint. What are missing - and I do not lay this at your feet, but at OURS - are a rationale and a means of translating this from the personal and ecclesial to the national. By laying down my life before a bully, I may provide a saving example to a few. But at the national scale, things are much different, and surrendering to evil simply cedes land, resources, and something like spiritual momentum - the hollow eyes and souls of Treblinka - to evil.

    Hegemony can be viewed as a means of combating evil as well as a means of furthering it. It is like a sharp knife; in the hands of a compassionate surgeon, it is a tremendous force for good, but in the hands of a thug, the only thing that can stop it is another one, brandished by a rival of good essential character.

    Congratulations on some great writing here. Much of it coincides with, and then significantly furthers, a train of thought I've just been toying with for the last couple of years. If interested, posts titled "The Ethical Environment of Post-Peak Oil" and "The Missing Ecological Link" capture the big-ticket ideas I have in mind (qbsblog.wordpress.com).


  5. Your scenario limits other viewpoints, it seems to me, as it touts exclusive claims of supernaturalism within one speicific religous tradition. And it reinforces it with "charismata" and calls it "God's spirit".

    We live in this world, period. So, we must come to understand it's meaning individually, as there are no universal meanings, other than what the human heart desires, which is freedom and justice.

    You call freedom a deliverance from the "fear of death", which is our desires. Desire is not a problem, it is the use of desire, or the preversion of desire. We cannot live without desire. It is only when desire become addiction that it becomes "sin" and that is individually determined, because of weaknesses, either biological or moral, or psychological.

    You call our freedom some religious belief...which delivers us from "this world". This is superlative supernaturalism, which is to deliver us from naturalism's "curse". I don't see this world as evil, necessarily, or any thin in this world as evil. It is what we do with it that makes it evil, but even then, it has to be personally identified as evil, unless it subverts law...and then there are those times when social reformer have subverted the law for higher ends...

    So, while your rendition is nice for those who want to continue to believe in a God that exists outside of this world and "intrudes" into it or asks us to "come out of it" (holiness), then it doesn't make sense in the "real world" as it is based on faith alone..

  6. As to qb's response, yes, I also believe that we cannot stand by and watch our nation's freedom's go "up in smoke". Evil calls for resistance. And evil is not "educated" by other's "nice, and polited and kind-hearted" good intentions. No, evil must be resisted in full force and it is war...in some form.

    In a book called Bold Love, Dan Allendar calls the abused to hold firm even at the costs of a lawsuit, so that "evil" is exposed and is held accountable. Accountability is necessary for evil to be subverted. So, we cannot just tout that evil hasn't understood supernaturalism "delieverance"! No, evil is real and does harm to human beings in the real world and workplace. It is to be taken seriously and not as a matter of "learning" experience!!!

  7. Dr Beck helped articulate (much better than I) a point I brought up a few posts ago. The prevailing soteriological model of the Christian church (free-will or election) ultimately presents God AND salvation as a finite or limited resource.

    Such a "gospel" not only fails to free us from death (earthly life), but actually embellishes the Malthusian fear by introducing ETERNAL TORMENT as an extended driver.

    The other day, I listened to a CD in which a Christian apologist presented a case of how Evolution / Darwinism has infected our educational AND church systems.
    Doctrinally speaking, he had no problem with partial salvation.

    Then it hit me like a truck - the church's predominant soteriological model, which appears to be Malthusian in nature, provokes a "SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST" approach concerning our spiritual position with God AND salvation - escalating the stakes to eternal wins/losses.

    The apparent fruit of this model manifests itself in a "gospel" that promotes religious marginalization, nationalism, AND ethnic/cultural superiority. The Old Testament doesn't help regarding assignments from God Himself commanding Israel to wipe out entire nations/peoples/races.

    Sounds like a type of Darwinism to me!

    Another problem with the prevailing "gospel" is that it fails to articulate any assurance that the "fall in the garden" or angelic rebellion will NOT BE REPEATED in God's "final resolution". That's where I agree with the question of those who feel that our individual personal depravity remains a factor to some extent. Even prosperity (dare I say eternal bliss with Christ) does not seem to guarantee immunity from our tendency of "Original Sin".

    I have thoroughly enjoyed this series and am sad to see this series come to an end. I am grateful for Dr. Beck and EVERYONE's thoughts on this matter. I apologize for not writing as well as all of you. Thank you all again for bearing with my take! You are literally the only people I know at this time in which I can enjoy such enriching fellowship on such matters.

    Gary Y.

  8. Dr. Beck,
    I join with others who thank you for this groundbreaking inter-disciplinary approach to finding new and old answers to our common Christian faith for a new millenium. Youe willingness to share these ideas with your audience is so incredibly helpful.
    Reading your blog set my mind to fruitful thoughts.

    Pastor Don in AZ

  9. Wow, those Stringfellow excerpts are good stuff.

    Gary, I think that's an interesting turn -- that teaching limited salvation might further aggravate mimetic rivalry. From just my own experience, I can immediately think of a half-dozen ways that this plays itself out.


  10. Dr. Beck,
    I have read your blog since my brother, Jonathan Camp, pointed me to it a year or so ago. Your wrestling has often challenged me and sometimes been healing for me. And I often go in search of the book you happen to be blogging about at the time. This series has been intriguing. Stringfellows' conclusions remind me of the CS Lewis idea of unique human personality either being eaten/consumed/subsumed by idolatry, or through death in life fully and individually incarnated into who she is(Weston vs. Ransom in Perelandra, Screwtape, phantoms vs. solid persons in The Great Divorce, "Weight of Glory"). In my Lewis class, I tell the students that if we see each other in 10 years, I hope they are "fat" individuals--more fleshed out in their unique personalities.
    Thanks for being a heavyweight here...

  11. Thank you all for the supportive compliments. Your encouragement is appreciated. I intended to do just one post on this subject (the very first post) but your e comments kept me going and, who knew?, nine posts emerged.

    I followed that link to Kevin's blog. The convergence is very striking.

    That's a good question. I'm going to stay with Stringfellow's analysis. To quote some more from him:

    To the Christian conscience, all ideas of immortality...are anathema. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not concerned with immortality but with the resurrection from death; not with the survival of death either in some "afterlife" or in the memorialization of life after death. The gospel is, instead, distinguished by the transcendence of the power of death here and now with the precincts of life in this world. (p. 247)

    Thanks for pointing me to your posts. Very interesting work.

    Thank you so much for the amount of time and effort you've put into reading and commenting. To be honest, I'm often at a loss as to how to respond. Not that I don't think you make very good points, but I frequently wonder how, exactly, each connects with my project. Regardless, thanks for being such a thoughtful and passionate reader.

    I agree with Matthew. That is a fascinating take that deserves a careful analysis. If someone else in the world of blog doesn't take up the topic I'll try to circle back to it at some point.

    Dave, Pastor Don, and Cathryn,
    Thanks for leaving a note. I'm so glad you found the series interesting.

  12. I very much enjoyed this series, and have an order in at my local library for an interlibrary loan on Stringfellow's book.

    The issue of Original Sin has bothered me since my sophomore year in college (1968).  And while I left the church at age 25, I am still searching for a new idea on this topic.  I found it here, and want to thank Dr. Beck for his excellent blog.

  13. Interesting stuff, but I have to say I'd find it more enjoyable if you actually answered the question implicit in all of this: if the crappy, death-driven nature of the world we live in automatically causes original sin, does this not mean that creation itself is always fallen from the beginning? So that God's creation is distorted from the beginning? In which case... what's your theological explanation of that? Evil built in from the very beginning?

    Or if you'd reject that creation is fallen from the beginning, and it's just the 'first humans' bad choices which cause us to be born into a sinful society... well, I'd just have to reject that as nonsense, given that a)presumably the first humans were born into similarly rubbish proto-societies of apes or whatever, and b)if we dropped some newborns off on their own on a desert island, I doubt any of us would serious expect them to to potentially be without sin.

Leave a Reply