Original Sin: Part 8, Worm Theology and Malthusian Guilt

Associated with the Fall and Original Sin was the onset of guilt and shame in the human condition:

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden.

Generally, particularly in Protestantism, the guilt of sin is neurotic and internal, a hand-wringing about our total depravity. This emphasis has been called Worm Theology. When I was growing up my first exposure to worm theology was in the old hymn Alas! and did my Savior bleed:

Alas! and did my Savior bleed
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?

Does the extrinsic, situational, contextual and Malthusian view of Original Sin we have been working on in this series in any way reconfigure the experience of guilt and shame?

I think so. I think a Malthusian guilt shifts away from worm theology--a rumination upon our depravity--toward a guilt associated with our consumptive existence. That is, our guilt is less associated with our inherent sinfulness than with the fact that we have to consume resources to exist as biological creatures.

This idea might be hard to grasp, but I think William Stringfellow describes it well:

To affirm that we live in this world at each other's expense is a confession of the truth of the Fall rather than an assertion of economic doctrine or a precise empirical statement. It is not that there is in every transaction a direct one-for-one cause and effect relationship, either individually or institutionally, between the lot of the poor and the circumstances of those who are not poor. It is not that the wealthy are wicked or that the fact of malice is implicit in affluence. It is, rather, theologically speaking, that all human and institutional relationships are profoundly distorted and so entangled that no person or principality in this world is innocent of involvement in the existence of all other persons and all institutions.

Marilyn McCord Adams frames the issue like this (emphasis her own):

Virtually every human being is complicit in actual horrors merely by living in his/her nation or society. Few individuals would deliberately starve a child into mental retardation. But this happens even in the United States, because of the economic and social systems we collectively allow to persist and from which most of us profit. Likewise complicit in actual horrors are all those who live in societies that defend the interests of warfare and so accept horror-perpetration as a chosen means to or a side effect of its military aims. Human being in this world is thus radically vulnerable to, or at least collectively an inevitable participant in, horrors.

I think Stringfellow's phrase "we live in this world at each other's expense" is the simplest way of expressing Malthusian guilt. That is, as a consuming biological creature embedded in social structures my existence creates poverty, scarcity, injustice, and, yes, even death and starvation. As both Stringfellow and McCord Adams point out, we don't do this harm directly. But self-reflective people are aware of the long causal chains that are implicated in poverty. They live with the guilt that we live in this world at each other's expense.

There are a wide variety of responses to Malthusian guilt. One response you see a lot on theology blogs or in theology conversation is to inveigh about capitalism and Empire, sprinkling in a lot of references to Yoder, Hauerwas, and Žižek. The irony of this is that to blog about Yoder, Hauerwas, and Žižek one has already been deeply tainted by the evils one is writing about. You are sitting at a computer and have a theological library at your disposal. You also have the leisure time to write about capitalism. And then there is the price tag attached to those college degrees.

This is not to say that attacking capitalism, Empire, or Constantinian Christianity in America is inherently wrong. It's just that we engage in those attacks from a compromised position. We live in this world at each other's expense. This reality doesn't nullify the ethical critiques but it means that those critiques must consistently circle back to revisit and acknowledge their own complicity and hypocrisy. As Alan Jacobs has written, the doctrine of Original Sin recognizes a "democracy of sinners." There are planks in our own eye obscuring our vision.

Another common way of dealing with Malthusian guilt is by becoming a Bobo. Bobo is short for Bourgeois Bohemian, a term coined by David Brooks in his book Bobos in Paradise. The bobo is someone fully enjoying consumerism (bourgeois), still defining themselves by what they buy. But the bobo gives a moral or aesthetic spin to their consumerism (bohemian). It is a higher more elevated more moral consumerism. In my world, the bobos are Mac users who drink a lot of Fair Trade coffee.

Now there is nothing wrong with Macs or Fair Trade coffee or showing me your red iPod. I'm writing on a Mac right now and drinking coffee. It's just that I think a lot of the bobo dynamic is about dealing with Malthusian guilt. That is, we try to deal with the guilt associated with our prosperity by giving our purchases an ethical spin. Rather than feeling guilty when spending so much money on coffee I can buy Fair Trade and feel moral and ethical. I can even get self-rightously smug about it.

Past anti-Empire blogging and the bobos I think the most morally consistent response to our Malthusian world is a Christian version of freeganism. But this seems to be a lifestyle for young people. I doubt many would opt for it. I, for one, don't think I'd force my family, because of my moral convictions, into freeganism. Regardless, even the freegans can't get wholly clean. They come about as close as you can get, but even that lifestyle will have its inconsistencies and hypocrasies. Further, it's parasitic, requiring a background of consumption to work. And finally, from a theological stance, Christian freeganism strikes me as a kind of works-based righteousness, an attempt to save oneself from the sin of complicity through a Herculean act of will and effort.

To clarify once more, my aim here isn't to attack critiques of capitalism, Fair Trade activism, or movements toward simplicity. It is, rather, to think about how a Malthusian guilt might be implicated in (partly) motivating some of these activities.

In summary, I think we see Malthusian guilt at work in the world in a variety of different ways. And it's very different compared to classical Original-Sin-worm-theology guilt. It is, rather, a vague sense of guilt that my mere participation in a consumptive existence contaminates me and implicates me in the Fall. And like traditional notions of Original Sin I can't work myself out of the hole.

Next Post: Part 9 (Conclusion)

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9 thoughts on “Original Sin: Part 8, Worm Theology and Malthusian Guilt”

  1. Ouch.

    I take solace in the fact that, at least at the moment, I am not drinking coffee or on a Mac.

    More seriously, it is so refreshing to read someone (=psychologist) who names why we do the things we do.

    Do you equate "fallenness" with Original Sin? Is your "Malthusian world" construst another name for fallenness, or would you distinguish between the two?

  2. Hi Brad,
    I'd say the notion of Original Sin I'm working out here, in experimental fashion, fits with a notion of fallenness or brokenness. That is, I'm talking about non-optimal aspects of existence and working though how those non-optimal facets of existence create or facilitate moral brokenness.

  3. But it seems that the idea of original sin, as distinct from Malthus, is different because it's part of a pernicious little feedback loop. The negative connotations of the words "fallen" and "broken" and "sin" encourage what you're calling worm theology, which favors a strong -- and metaphysical -- understanding of original sin. It ends up as a double whammy: "You are inherently sinful, but that doesn't make you any less guilty for being so."

    Regarding mimetic rivalry in your earlier post, I wonder how that interacts with an anthropomorphized deity? Talk about making God in your own image ...

  4. Hi Matt,
    But I'm using fallen and broken to apply to the world (and not us) in its Malthusian guise, which shifts blame off of humans. It rejects a worm theology and reframes the issue in theodicy terms. The question goes from "Why am I such a worm?" to "Why is the world such a worm hole?"

  5. I guess I can at least take solace in the fact that my anti-empire blogging hasn't resulted from a costly PhD education in Theology. I am MUCH less informed than that. [g]

    At any rate...I have been following this with great interest - and I happened to hear a podcast today that fits in with some of what you are doing here. If you are a fan of Radiolab, you may have already heard it, but you can find it here: http://blogs.wnyc.org/radiolab/2009/02/09/morality-rebroadcast/

  6. Why do we have to feel guilty or shameful in the first place? Doesn't the cross & resurrection save us from guilt and shame? I reckon guilt is a substandard response to bad things that prompts people to act in the absence of love, which does a much better job in prompting social action.

    Freeganism is ok as far as it goes, but boycotts rarely succeed in changing anything and often their only success is in making the boycotter feel better about themselves (and escaping guilt).

  7. The dilemma you pose, is inevitably the "case of living in the world", as it is. The only "solution" is to allow freedom within law, that allows men to make moral choices, depending on their personal convictions (as there is no "perfect" solution).

    Guilt is not what should motivate us, but compassion. Some people are genetically predisposed to be more compassionate than others. But, that does not alleviate the responsibility that we all have in our own sphere of influence, and even that sphere can be widened or lessened. It is really up to our own choice.

    Some may because of differences of lifestyle "condemn or judge" others based upon thier own convictions, but what else is new? Everyone makes certain decisions and "sacrifices" based on thier own personal value systems. The poor are only one social problem that needs addressing. There are many others...

  8. Sorry to be late coming back to this one --

    Yes, I think I understand the move you're making with the Malthusian World: essentially, you're suggesting that we should apply the words "fallen" and "broken" to the system at large, rather than to people in particular.

    I'm just not sure whether it makes more sense to describe what you're doing as falling in line with the traditional concept of Original Sin or standing drastically opposed to it.

    Don't have an answer, just wondering.

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