living through death

"The only way that you can accept life is if you can accept death.” –Leo Buscaglia

Posts Tagged ‘Original Sin

Sebastian Moore: Christ & Salvation

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In the previous section we outlined Sebastian Moore’s theory of original sin. There he characterized original sin as a self-limitation of life that is necessary for our emergence into self-aware existence, but that gets stuck in exclusively that self-limited way of being. Growth beyond the relative safety of our socially-bound self-limitation is powerfully resisted, based, as it is, upon a fundamental mistrust of life that goes all the way back to the first experiences of being an autonomous reality separate from our mother. As both Becker and Kegan have helped us see, our fearful reliance on coping strategies formed along this developmental journey has the effect of alienating us from each other and from our own potential as life becomes more complex than the original conditions under which they were formed. We noted how these original conditions gave rise to the persistent human habit of attempting to find our identity by always measuring ourselves against others. Such is our “first focus” that we cling to because it is the world in which we first entered as self-aware beings. That being the case, it is understandable that our first focus easily becomes our only focus. However, our desire is unlimited, and for that reason our efforts to attain unlimited significance by measuring ourselves against limited others leads us to eat each other alive, as is amply reflected in the world’s constant war between the sexes, the social divisions that result from economic inequity, the conflict between racial, cultural, and religious others, and even the alienation between coworkers, family members, and friends.

The problem, therefore, consists of two parts. The first is that our true desire has been repressed. We easily settled for much safer forms of desire, and for that reason, we are easily led by the nose, allowing others to tell us what we should do, what we should love, and who we should fear. The second part of the problem is that for those whose deeper desire has begun to break through the surface of life, nothing in the world can satisfy it. Such people are like the Ebola virus, burning themselves up as well as the people around them with little regard for the impracticality of their actions.[1]

Moore articulates the Christian solution as being not so much the creative repression of a genius, as Becker argued for, or the unrepression of the insane, as Becker felt the evangelists of unrepression must end with. Instead, Moore shows how Jesus leads his followers on a two two-step journey that mirrors the two-fold problem of the human condition. Jesus first awoke his disciples to their true desires, but then, as the one who stretched out his life beyond the limits we set upon it, he revealed to them resurrected life. Or as he puts it in another place, “We are to become, first, honest, then cosmic.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 127.)

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How does Moore work this out? From what we have seen so far, we can view the story of the emergence of original sin as the story of the loss of the child in us, a foreshortened sense of our desirableness. (Let this Mind Be in You, 117.) In view of this, Moore encourages us to see the story of Jesus as the story of one who retains this child and, for that reason, is without original sin. We must also recall what was said earlier on the two general ways the problem of original sin is solved, namely, by way of indirect and direct awakening.

We are now ready to see the specific way that Moore conceives of Jesus as conquering sin. The basic pattern is that Jesus experienced his own desirability directly (union with the Father), and for that reason was able to bring about the indirect awakening of desire in those around him. Nothing too radical is on display at this point since these are the movements that, to varying degrees, occur between people every day. What makes the Christ event incomparable is its intensity and what occurred in the dramatic death of Jesus.

In terms of intensity, the Christian story is of one who’s experience of his own desirability was off the map of normal human experience. As Moore says, “his influence was the maximum possible within the limits of person-to-person contact. The charm, the magic, the allure of Jesus swept the whole range of human interaction, exhausted the possibilities of mutual awakening.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 117.) It was this spiritual mindset that enabled Jesus to utterly cut against the grain of expected social norms, pouring forth a compassion that had no limit. No fragile ego limited his ability to reach out toward the members of society that represent the elements of the (predominately male)[2] psyche that are repressed during its developmental journey: the opposite sex, cultural “others,” moral transgressors; and, perhaps even more significantly, those who are explicit reminders of death; the poor, the sick, and the political oppressors. This intensity produced a new hope for human existence. It created what Jesus called the “Kingdom of God,” and produced, precariously, heaven on earth. (Let this Mind Be in You, 117.)

However, this new hope collapsed in the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus. Since Jesus awoke those around him to the maximum extent possible within the limits of social arousal, there could be no comparable level of social arousal after Jesus. There could be nothing except for the other awakening: “the direct awakening of the sense of being desirable, by the One by whose desire we exist.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 118.) Moore sees the whole validity of the Christian message to hang on the series of encounters after Jesus’ death that gave rise to this awakening. This transition, so famously bungled earlier by Peter and the request of James and John (Matthew 16:13-23, Mark 10:35-45), was the “ah ha” moment that Jesus had been trying to instill in his disciples throughout his ministry, but it took his removal from the scene of creaturely existence and the disciples subsequent reflection on the nature of his removal for the insight to finally click. The cross effected for them the horizontal explosion of social (indirect) arousal into the vertical dimension of mystical (direct) arousal.

What was the nature of Jesus’ removal, and why does it matter to our discussion? Moore stresses, that the nature of Jesus exit from the scene of creaturely existence was that of one who chose their own sacrifice. This is not suicide, or even the passion of one who runs into a burning building to save another. The gospel memory is of one who “set his face towards Jerusalem,” in the full knowledge that his vocation was leading inexorably to his death. Moore sees the essential quality as being found in Jesus’ initiation of a final act of friendship with the ultimate enemy of human life: death.

For the sinful condition that is ours, death is repressed…, banished, ‘queered’, thrown outside the city. At the same time we know that this rejected status of death is the sign of our…lostness, of an incapacity-to-feel that we cannot deal with. To meet the one who connected with, who befriended, who claimed, this our rejected death, would be to encounter an enormous and incomprehensible love. This love of us in our wretched unconnectedness, shown in the embrace of what we reject in horror, is intellectually nearly impossible to understand, but our deepest and simplest knowing moves out to it. At the heart of the Christian experience down the ages, the uncomprehending sufferer stretches out to the free, willing, understanding sufferer. And thus outstretched, the uncomprehending sufferer can at last received the communication of the incomprehensible inflictor as love, and see this in the fact of the victim raised from the grave. (Let this Mind Be in You, 129-9.)

The significance of this cannot be stressed enough. We have seen that crux of Moore’s concept of original sin was the dynamic of self-limitation of our desirability (and therefore desire) that occurs during the process of psychological birth and growth, combined with our resistance to growing beyond that self-limitation. The result is our separation from each other, our potential, and God. More than that, it is not just “separation,” it is the creation of enmity, disgust, even horror at all dimensions of reality in ourselves and others that press beyond the edges of our self-created membrane. (See Richard Beck’s Excellent book “Unclean:%20Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and MortalityUnclean” for more on the role of disgust as it pertains to our capacity for offering hospitality) And at the root of it all stands the terror of death, for it is ultimately in response to the terror of death that our our fragile ego has been created. As it stands, humanity is largely arrested at its “Oedipal self-understanding.” We “take it for reality itself” and thus “impose on society and on the universe that distrust of life, that self-repression, which was once appropriate when we were engaged on the business of becoming separate and sexually distinguished selves.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 127.)

In other words, we set our own limit on the meaningfulness of our life in our refusal to grow…. We build an invisible wall round our life. Outside that wall, uncharted by us, is death. For what does it mean to be ready for death? Who is? To be ready for death is to be living life to the full, to its limit—which is death. We don’t live this life to anything like its fullness. And what this means is that we don’t believe in the glorious being that each of us is. Massively we repress the sense of our greatness and our desires, in consequence, are weak.…Thus we create a wall round ourselves, within which we live. And far beyond that wall is God’s limit on us, death, the threshold of his loving embrace. (Let this Mind Be in You, 127.)

It is exactly here that Jesus initiated the final breakthrough for his disciples. Though they remained uncomprehending throughout his life, the final intensification of their relationship with him at the last supper, followed by Jesus’ own self-removal as the object of their devotion, led to the ultimate crisis and transformation. Their awareness of the final enemy, death, had to be transformed, and when this occurred new life flooded back down through all levels of their awareness. Religious, cultural, and economic divisions were radically transformed in the new life that poured forth, as well as those of gender and social relations. Salvation was in this way an in-breaking of a hope that outstripped the disciples’ expectations that were possible under their former awareness. At the same time, their salvation consisted in the experience of a reunion with their own basic goodness. They knew themselves for the first time, as they come from the hand of God, “desirable because desired.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 118.)


This post is a continuation of a series in which I make use of the blogosphere to motivate my dissertation free-writing. For context, read the short summary of my work here. There you will also find a table of contents with links to all the posts in this series.

[1] These remarks remind me something Becker said. “…[H]uman heroics is a blind drivenness that burns people up; in passionate people, a screaming for glory as uncritical and reflexive as the howling of a dog. In the more passive masses of mediocre men it is disguised as they humbly and complainingly follow out the roles that society provides for their heroics and try to earn their promotions within the system: wearing the standard uniforms—but allowing themselves to stick out, but ever so little and so safely, with a little ribbon or a red boutonniere, but not with head an shoulders.” (The Denial of Death, 6.)
[2] Given the patriarchal nature of Jesus’ time we might expect that the social norms would mirror the psychological patterns of the male mind.

Sebastian Moore: The Emergence of Self-Awareness & Original Sin

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In the previous section we discussed two awakenings to God as the ultimate cause of desire. In this section we will be exploring Sebastian Moore’s answer to the question of why such awakenings are necessary in the first place. Indeed, why not think of the normal, run of the mill, sorts of desire we experience in everyday life as being normative, while bracketing off the sorts of desire experienced when falling in love or during rather exceptional mystical experiences, as being simply odd quirks of human psychology?  The answer that Moore gives us is, in brief, that desire as experienced by most adults is but the latest form of a process that has a long history. And once this history is gotten in view it is possible to see that calling the emotion we feel in our daily lives “desire” is much like calling Superman merely “Clark.” In laying out Moore’s narrative of the “history” of human desire this chapter will finally bring into focus Moore’s theory of original sin: the loss of our original desire and resistance to its recovery.

Moore reads the history of desire in human life through our developmental history, both corporately and individually. Psychoanalytic theory is one of his principle dialogue partners in charting this territory. He is particularly interested in how psychoanalytic theorists like Margaret Mahler show us how children grow into self-aware existence through a series of crises. The two crises that Moore focuses on most are the separation crisis and the Oedipal crisis. In both cases these crises represent a narrowing down of awareness and desire. This process of individuation is good in that it the process of identity formation, but it comes at the cost of losing the security of one’s original union with being, most obviously symbolized as the child within the mother’s womb.

The Separation Crisis: From “We” to “I”

The separation crisis initiates the human habit of always measuring ourselves against the reactions of others. Following Mahler, Moore describes the process by which the child with newly developed motor skills begins the ecstatic adventure of charting the world beyond the safety of the mother.[1] The crucial point here is that this exploration requires an enormous amount of emotional support by the mother. Just the right balance must be struck between encouraging the child to be on its own and remaining a stable security in the background. However, no mother can ever offer such a consistent, emotionally-supported send off. And to the extent this is true, the infant gets the unbearable message: “either be a part of me, or be on your own.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 71.) Thus, this separation, this first experience of what it is like to be “I,” is less than ecstatic. This dynamic that begins with the mother is then extended to all others. “The imperfectly separated individual existence looks continually to the other whence it has been unable clearly to pull away. Not knowing ourselves apart from others is our trouble, to remedy which we look to others!” (Let this Mind Be in You, 72.)

This initial phase in the birth of self-consciousness gives us the first part of our answer to the question of why our original goodness is more fundamental than our self-image (and therefore desire) as we experience it later in our developmental journey. It also explains why talk of our original goodness is puzzling to most of us, for, as Moore asks, “Why would anyone think of being him/herself other than the way they first came into consciousness? The world on which we first opened our eyes psychologically comes to be the world.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 72.) And to that extent, our emergence into self-aware existence impedes our awakening into luminous selfhood, for so long as we are looking to others for reassurance and measuring ourselves by their reactions, we are deaf to the “call from the depths of existence which says, ‘you are mine. You are not your family’s, your class’s, your race’s, your party’s. You are mine.’” (Let this Mind Be in You, 72.)

Discovery on Lake Michigan

The Oedipal Crisis: From Yes to No

The second part of the answer to our question comes from a complexification of the child’s now reduced sense of desirability. This is the Oedipal phase. Here, desire makes its first translation from an original oneness with the mother into interpersonal feeling. In a tremendously intense, sexually undifferentiated love, the child makes a total bid for the mother’s affection. It is here that the child encounters a “mysterious rival:” the father. The father is mysterious due to the fact that he has a claim to the mothers affection in a different way than the child. So not only is the father a rival, but he is a different kind of rival. (Let this Mind Be in You, 73.) The result of this asymmetrical collision is that the child’s total bid for the mother’s affection becomes a “no-no” and is repressed.[2] Of this repression Moore says, poignantly, that,

I suspect that this is an important part of that repression of our sense of being desirable which is the root of our weakened relationship with God, people, and the planet. That child’s total zest for life, the sense of being welcome everywhere without strings attached, meets its first great disappointment in the mother’s commitment to an ‘other’ in an ‘other’ way. (Let this Mind Be in You, 73.)

In Freudian terms, the culmination of this crisis results in the repression of the Id (the total love-bid now become a no-no and repressed), followed by the emergence of sexually differentiated identity (the Ego), which is modeled and reinforced after one’s parental role model (the Superego). (Let this Mind Be in You, 74.) In Moore’s thought, this forms the basis of his theory of original sin. Original sin, he says, “…is the universal, culturally propagated and reinforced, human response to the trauma of coming out of animality into self-awareness, into ‘the knowledge of good and evil.’” (Let this Mind Be in You, 88.) It is not simply the repression of our passionate nature that forms the birth of evil (as Moore reads Wilhelm Reich as arguing), but also the fact that “…in repressing our passionate nature we are discounting our desirability, which is our experience of ourselves as God’s desired.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 74.) Without this element, our passionate nature can still be interpreted as “desire from emptiness” and thus be open to all the problems that attend such an anthropology (e.g. relations of dependence).

Once that is understood, then certainly we can say that repression is the origin of evil, and that what our transformation will consist in is the final befriending of all all that is in us that we have had to repress on our first steps into personhood. God is that infinite intelligence for which there is no such thing as evil. Evil arises out of our self-doubt on the part of God’s self-aware creatures. And the closer a person or a community comes to God, the more their ‘dark side’ becomes light. (Let this Mind Be in You, 74.)

And yet, to the extent that we remain “far from God,” much of life takes on a compulsive quality. As Ernest Becker has helped us see, viewed corporately, repression is culture. As such, to appropriate Robert Kegan’s language, culture functions as  a corporate “immunity system.” This partial view of our whole life, motivated as it is by the terror of death, thus compels us to live according to the biases of our family, class, ethnicity, and so on. For if we do not, we will leave ourselves open to the very threats that our collective immunity system was tailor made to protect us from. Seen in this light, Moore’s theory of original sin is not only original, but also universal.

The final point that needs to be understood in Moore’s theory of original sin is that it is not the limited, repressed life that we find ourselves in that constitutes our sin, but rather is it our decision to stay there, to say “this is all there is.” Life itself is a movement of growth and it is our resistance to growth that puts us at odds with life. In this way Moore seems to want to go further than Becker was able to bring himself. Our desire is made for more than merely the creative self-restriction that repression affords us. Desire longs for liberation. Failing this, Moore sees humanity as being “shut in” and “psychologically on top of each other.” Our desires are “limitless,” he says, “and need the limitless breathing-space of the spirit. Closed in, they make us mutually destructive.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 104.) In the next section we will consider Moore’s Christology which functions as his theological solution to this problem of original sin as the  narrowing of desire and resistance to its liberation.


This post is a continuation of a series in which I make use of the blogosphere to motivate my dissertation free-writing. For context, read the short summary of my work here. There you will also find a table of contents with links to all the posts in this series.

[1] For this narrative Moore is relying on the following Margaret Mahler’s book: The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant.
[7] Following R.D. Laing, Moore stresses that repression is not only forgetting, but forgetting that you’ve forgotten.