Schleiermacher: Sin is Communal

  • The text: The Christian Faith
  • The author: Friedrich Schleiermacher
  • Notes: The text is organised by sections, and also ‘paragraphs’ – where each paragraph, so-called, is essentially one doctrine. Today we’re talking about paragraph 71.
  • Read it yourself: I haven’t found any freely available digital version of this text.

In your classic Christian theory of sin, there are two basic types of sinful behaviour. There’s the bad things that you do, and the bad things that you inherit. In his 1830 work The Christian Faith, Friedrich Schleiermacher refers to these as actual and original sin, respectively. The idea with original sin is that Adam and Eve essentially corrupted the spiritual genepool, passing on their sin from the Garden of Eden down through the generations to us today. That’s the reason why you see some Christians advocating for infant baptism: that baby might not have done anything bad, but they’ve inherited the original sin of Adam and Eve, so if we don’t baptise them immediately and they accidentally die they go to baby hell, which, I dunno, these people think is a real place.

Now, usually when people talk about original sin, they’re talking about some sort of magical abstract spiritual inheritance, some mystic curse that we all take on when we’re born. But when Schleiermacher talks about it, he takes a bit of a different approach. Rather than treating it as abstract metaphysics, he’s really invested in the idea of original sin as communal, as something embedded in and transmitted through the community. For example, he argues that original sin is “not something that pertains severally to each individual and exists in relation to him by himself, but in each the work of all, and in all the work of each.” It’s not like I have my original sin and you have yours, like two separate cellphones manufactured by the same company. It’s one overarching collective entity, the combined historic and ongoing corporate sin of the world.

Similarly, he almost seems to argue that the exact form of original sin in each individual’s life is shaped by the culture and community around them. “The distinctive form of original sin in the individual, as regards its quality, is only a constituent part of the form it takes in the circle to which he immediately belongs.” Your particular problems only make sense within your cultural and historical context, as part of the broader social fabric that you’re embedded in. In other words, you’re not just an alcoholic, you’re an alcoholic because of your abusive parents, who lashed out due to their own trauma, which has its own context and history, and so on. “And this relationship,” Schleiermacher says, “runs through all gradations of community – families, clans, tribes, peoples, and races – so that the form of sinfulness in each of these points to that present in the others as its complement.” It’s a combination of every dimension of your life – a sort of intersectional original sin, if you like. It’s sin as the product of a “corporate consciousness,” of society as a whole, in direct opposition to the atomised, individualistic portrayal of sin and guilt that we more commonly encounter.

Maybe I’m getting away from Schleiermacher’s core point here, but – I mean, this idea of sin on a collective, corporate level is actually really fascinating. The idea that our individual failings are part of a broader trend, that they tie into wider cultural issues – there’s something in that. We understand that a systematic issue can exist in a variety of forms. If Billy goes around shouting racial slurs at black people, and Susan thinks rap is for degenerates, we know there’s a common thread even as it’s uniquely expressed across different individual circumstances. As Schleiermacher says, the form of sinfulness in each instance points to the other as its complement. Maybe the only real difference between Billy and Susan is that Billy’s poor and acting out against so-called political correctness, while Susan is rich and liberal and gets offended by anything that violates her white upper-middle concept of politeness. The specific expression of white supremacy mutates depending on the social class that each person belongs to.

The other thing about communal sin is that it changes how we think about evil. In your classical account of suffering, the party line is that your experience of evil things is more or less in line with what you deserve as a result of your sin. We see this view in Calvin, for instance, who argues that as a sinner you deserve everything bad that happens to you. Schleiermacher, on the other hand (in paragraph 77), describes it as “not only a limited and erroneous but a dangerous point of view” to believe that people get what they deserve, “that for each the measure of his sin is the measure of the evil that befalls him.” Rather, he says, if sin is a collective, communal problem, then its effects will be experienced in a collective, communal way. “Even common evils not seldom acquire their peculiar cast and character from the nature of the sin that predominates in the society.” If the Americans are going to be stupid about guns, then they’re going to experience the consequences as a collective whole. The people driving the bad decisions aren’t necessarily those who are going to experience the negative brunt of the consequences, either: “quite possibly only the merest fraction of the common evil may fall upon the author of much of the common depravity.” Where gun control is a national problem, a national sin, if you like, the consequences, insofar as evil acts have evil consequences, will be experienced on a national level. Similarly, if we want to talk about sexism or racism, or other forms of discrimination, we can identify them as national or maybe even international problems, and we can see their effects radiating out across connected communities, intersecting and mutating as different cultures encounter and engage with each other. In the age of global warming, we can even talk about sin on a global level, and the consequences that will be experienced disproportionately by poorer countries and poorer communities within wealthy countries.

This idea of communal sin is really one of the reasons we’re starting this phase with Schleiermacher. I’ve mentioned a few times that we’re moving now into 20th century theology. That’s the stuff I’m going to be reading for the next, you know, five years or so. And so much of the thought that we’re going to cover can be traced back to Schleiermacher. He’s the guy at the head of 20th century theology even though he was born in 1768. Communal sin is going to be really important when we hit feminist theology, or black theology, for example. It’s kinda cool to see it spinning up all the way back in 1830.

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