Paradox Lost

Blessed Are the Cynical shows what happened to sin.

Blessed Are the Cynical: How Original Sin Can Make America A Better Place
By Mark Ellingsen
Brazos Press, 208 pages, $23.99

America has lost its sense of sin, says Lutheran theologian Mark Ellingsen. Augustine of Hippo can help us recover it.

According to Ellingsen, who teaches at Atlanta's Interdenominational Theological Center, America's Founding Fathers consciously held in tension two opposing conceptual frameworks: first, an optimism about the possibility of the virtuous responsible citizen (derived from John Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers), and second, a pessimism about human nature (drawn from the Bible and Augustine). In Blessed Are the Cynical, Ellingsen shows that biblical thinkers like James Madison as well as Enlightenment thinkers like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson held to this paradox.

Unfortunately, we've lost the Augustinian half of the paradox: the "cynical" understanding that human beings will always act out of self-interest, even when their actions appear altruistic. And as a result, we fail to be suspicious of our motives and those of others. And by failing in this "biblical cynicism," we make ourselves and others vulnerable to manipulation and velvet-gloved tyranny.

As a Lutheran, Ellingsen turns naturally to the great fourth-century African thinker Augustine for insights. In response to the theological emergency created by the British monk Pelagius, Augustine synthesized the biblical and early church teaching on our sinful human nature. "Augustine's primary agenda," Ellingsen writes, "was not to lament the power of sin but to assert the primacy of God's action and forgiving love, to confess that the Lord Jesus Christ is humanity's only hope."

Neither Ellingsen nor Augustine thinks that we ...

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Editor's Bookshelf
David Neff
David Neff was editor in chief of Christianity Today, where he worked from 1985 until his retirement in 2013. He is also the former editor in chief of Christian History magazine, and continues to explore the intersection of history and current events in his bimonthly column, "Past Imperfect." His earlier column, "Editor's Bookshelf," ran from 2002 to 2004 and paired Neff's reviews of thought-provoking books and interviews with the authors.
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