Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Vernon, Mark. "William James, Part 3: On Original Sin." GUARDIAN November 1, 2010.

Original sin is a religious doctrine that divides perhaps more than any other. For some, it only makes sense – maybe not the part about the apple and the garden, but the general idea that humankind is flawed: we do what we wouldn't do, and don't do what we would do, as St Paul put it. For others, though, original sin is vile and offensive. It feeds the fear of hell, a hopelessness about progress, and leaves us pathetically dependent on God. Each side has a radically different view of what it is to be human, and William James understands exactly what's a stake.

It follows from one of the most interesting distinctions he draws in the Varieties. There are some, he explains, who take the happiness that religion gives them to be the amplest demonstration of its truth. Then, there are others who take the remedy that religion offers for the ills of the world to be the amplest reason for its necessity. James adopts the terms "once-born" to describe the happy sort, and "twice-born" for the more pessimistic.

The link between the phrase "once-born" and the positive temperament is that these individuals believe that seeing God – or finding fulfilment, or simply living well – is no more or less difficult than seeing the sun. On some days it will be cloudy. But the skies eventually clear.

The cosmos is fundamentally good, they affirm. Human individuals are, basically, kind. Your first birth, as a baby, is the only birth that's required to see the world aright. This temperament is, James explains, "organically weighted on the side of cheer and fatally forbidden to linger, as those of opposite temperament linger, over the darker aspects of the universe." James's favourite example of the once-born is Walt Whitman. "He has infected [his readers] with his own love of comrades, with his own gladness that he and they exist." . . .

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