Tuesday, February 14, 2017

“On Not Leaving It to the Snake”

Thinking Friend Charles Kiker referred to Harvey Cox in commenting on a recent blog article. I responded (see here) by acknowledging my appreciation of Cox’s thinking and by mentioning his book On Not Leaving It to the Snake (1967).
Even though I have long been an admirer of his, up to this point I have not written about Cox, now professor emeritus of Harvard Divinity School, in any of my blog articles. I am filling that lacuna now.
Cox's Books
Harvey Cox (b. 1929) became widely known in theological circles—and beyond—with the publication of his book The Secular City (1965). Remarkably, it has sold over a million copies, a rarity for a theological book.
Cox’s book titled God’s Revolution and Man’s Responsibility was also published in 1965. Unlike the former book, which I read soon after it came out (and again later with even more appreciation), I didn’t read this latter book until in the 1970s. I found it, too, to be a good and important book.
Through the years, Cox has written many other books—including one I have not seen yet: The Market as God (2016), introduced in a Jan. 5, 2017, article in The Nation.
It is specifically Cox’s On Not Leaving It to the Snake, though, that I am writing about in this article. More particularly, I am focusing on the part of that book most relevant to us now: “Introduction: Faith and Decision” (pp. vii-xviii).
Cox's Point 
Cox explains that in the long history of Christian theology, “original sin” has generally been interpreted in such a way that pride is seen to be “the most dangerous of all human sins.” 
In contrast, using the “sexist” language usual for the 1960s, Cox avers that “man’s most debilitating proclivity is not his pride. It is not his attempt to be more than man. Rather it is his sloth, his unwillingness to be everything man was intended to be.”
Accordingly, in the Genesis story of Eve, she was guilty of the sin of sloth, letting the snake tell her what to do.
The ongoing significance of that mythical story is simply this: “Adam and Eve are the biblical Everyman and Everywoman. Their sin is our sin.”
Cox's Relevance
It might be argued that part of the political problem we have in the U.S. today is because many voters committed the sin of sloth. And here I am thinking of the (literally) millions of people who voted for Obama in 2012 but who--because of apathy, or whatever—did not vote at all in 2016.
Further, and perhaps even worse, is the fact that probably millions of voters left it up not to the snake but to the fox (Fox News) to tell them (implicitly, if not explicitly) who to vote for.
In looking ahead, the sin of sloth/apathy may well do the country in—or vigilant resistance/action may keep the country from going down the tubes.
The March 2017 issue of The Atlantic has a long and significant article titled "How to Build an Autocracy" (which you can read here). In that article, David Frum, the author, “argues that if Congress is quiescent and the public apathetic, President Trump can set the country down a path toward illiberalism, institutional subversion, and endemic graft.”

So far, there has been considerable resistance to DJT. Let’s pray that peaceful actions for justice will continue and that a large majority of the population will not succumb to the sin of apathy and will not leave it to the snake (or the fox) to tell them what to do.


  1. Very interesting, Leroy. Possibly Cox was working against Reinhold Niebuhr who's well known for, among other reasons, raising the issue of human hubris, especially after the tragedies and terrors of the first half of the 20th century. Coincidentally I read your blog right after reading a short editorial in The Economist recommending reducing the voting age to 16 for much the same reason as Cox and your blog suggest--to get people involved at an earlier age rather than sliding into political apathy, which seems to be the case for those 19 to 25. (There's a longer article, too, that I haven't read yet.) You might have seen the article(s) in the February 4th issue.

    One of the factors in elevating human pride as the original sin among Christian thinkers is probably the stories in Genesis, whereby God is concerned about human beings seeking to be more than they were created to be: knowing good and evil and becoming immortal (the second creation story) or becoming as gods (the Tower of Babel). Those early Genesis stories did manifest a God quite anxious about the powers of human beings to reach beyond what God wanted.

    The only question I'd raise, though, regarding this particular argument about apathy in a political context is this: If we highlight political inactivity among the populace for political shenanigans, corruption, or even tyranny, are we blaming the victims? There has long been a debate in the social sciences in the U.S. whether the general lack of political interest and activity is because of apathy or disillusionment. If apathy, then maybe Cox is right. If disillusionment with the political process, then we have a different kind of thing. We have, then, a lack of hope and a sense of powerlessness, which are different than sloth, I think.

    1. Anton, thanks so much for your early and thoughtful comments.

      While I think Cox has a strong point about the meaning of sin, I certainly don't want to affirm that in place of the Niebuhrian emphasis on hubris. As in most cases, I think the best understanding is both/and rather than either/or.

      I saw the articles in The Economist, but I didn't read them. I found it interesting that they thought 16-year-olds would be less apathetic that those 19-25.

      There were no doubt several factors behind the millions of people who voted for Obama but not for Hillary. Apathy was, I still think, a major factor. But no doubt there were some who felt disillusionment with the political process, as you suggest. And others, perhaps, just thought because of the polls there was no particular need to vote--and maybe that was somewhat related to apathy. (I am still upset that Hillary lost partly because of the polls being so wrong.)

  2. Actually the polls were not all that wrong. Remember that it was the national polls that were publicized, and they were closing in the last days of the race. And, nationally, Hillary won the vote within the margin of error. It was the rust belt states which were more or less taken for granted, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, that defeated Hillary. Also a strong anti-Hillary bias built over a couple of decades. In Michigan, for example, I have seen reports that I cannot document at the moment, that 10,000 votes were cast down ballot for Democrats with no vote for President--enough to turn Michigan to Hillary.

    I had never considered that the story of Eve could be a story of sloth, just leaving it to the snake. I have not read Cox's book "On Not Leaving it to the Snake." I need to get that and read it.

    Pride is a very important component of the so-called Pre-history (Genesis 1-11). There is the story of Adam and Eve and the Snake, where, sloth notwithstanding, the temptation is to be as gods. Then there is the story of the Flood where, according to the preface to that story in Genesis 6:1ff, the sons of the gods intermingled with the daughters of men and produced a race of arrogant giants. And the story of the Tower of Babel, about building a giant tower which would reach all the way to the dwelling of the gods until the God intervened by confounding their languages. But enough for this morning. Thanks for your provocative article, Leroy.

    BTW, some of us are as slothful by putting too much stock in MSNBC as our counterparts on the right chasing around after the Fox. Mea at least a bit culpa. Charles K posting as anonymous

    1. Charles, thanks for posting your comments -- and for stimulating me to write this article to begin with.

      But I must disagree with you about the polls. On Nov. 8, Nate Silver (of FiveThirtyEight fame) posted that Hillary had a 71.4% chance of winning (and Trump a 23.6% chance). Moreover Hillary's chances in Wisconsin were given as 83.5%, in Michigan as 78.9%, and in Penn. as 77%. A decisive win for HRC! But we saw how that turned out. The electoral votes in those three states gave the electoral college win to DJT.

      The Upshot in the New York Times (on Nov. 8) showed even stronger support for Clinton. Nationwide she was predicted to win by 85% to 15%. Trump's chan​c​es in Michigan were said to be 6%, Wisconsin 7%, and Penn. 11%. Again, a decisive win for HRC!

      That is what I was referring to in the polls being so wrong.

      I do agree with your paragraph about pride -- and that is why I responded to Anton by saying I want a both/and interpretation of Genesis 3 rather an either/or (either pride or sloth) interpretation.

      But one more disagreement: I think it is false equivalency to place MSNBC ​and Fox ​as polar opposites that are equally extreme. I don't watch either very much (though certainly MSNBC far more than Fox), but as far as I know there is no one on MSNBC who is even closely as dangerous and unbalanced as Sean Hannity, who regularly appears on Fox.

    2. Charles replied to the above comments in an email with this rejoinder:

      "I don’t watch FOX at all. I do watch MSNBC beginning with Hardball, then All In, then Rachel, then Lawrence O’Donnell. All decidedly but not equally left in their slant. I think Morning Joe is more balanced.

      "But the point I was trying to make was not that MSNBC are equally dangerous, but that many 'Progressives' leave it to the more left leaning cable news organizations to make their choice. They, to borrow from Harvey Cox, 'leave it to the snake.' But the snakes on the left are not equally dangerous with the fox den on the right."

  3. Thinking Friend, and long time colleague in Japan, Dickson Yagi shares the following pertinent comments:

    "As an introvert, having a passive Japanese group society stereotype, I automatically leave everything to the snake. Japanese Buddhist focus on No Self gravitates against rugged individualism (stand up, resist, and fight) and instinctively avoid confrontation.

    "I hate, hate, hate confrontation. A Japanese Buddhist priest said that Japanese Buddhist focus on No Self is exactly what Japanese group society should not hear. In instinctively avoiding confrontation, we leave it to the snake.

    "On this one point, Japanese Buddhist No Self is exactly what Japanese need to shake off and pick up the opposite from Americans and Australians—rugged individualism. [Of course, American and Australian rugged individuals
    [Frank Sinatra’s 'My Way'] need to focus on NO Self."

    1. Thanks much, Dickson, for your pertinent comments.

      I think you are right in saying that the Buddhist emphasis on No Self gravitates against rugged individualism -- but it also gravitates against group action against social evils. The passive acceptance of all that is has allowed social evils to persist.

      But as you know, and many do not, in recent decades there has been a new form of Buddhism called "engaged Buddhism." That term, and that form of Buddhism, was coined by Thích Nhất Hạnh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist.

      I don't know if they ever have had any contact with each other, but I think Harvey Cox and Thích Nhất Hạnh would find a lot of commonality in their social ethics.

  4. So we are celebrating Valentine's Day by dissecting which of the Seven Deadly Sins Eve violated? Personally, I find Genesis a wonderful book, if I ignore all the centuries of over-interpretation with which it is burdened. I find two threads intertwined in the story of Adam and Eve. One is simply the story of growing up, of leaving behind the garden of childhood to enter the strange world of adulthood. Teenage sexual angst is right there at the inflection point. The second is more subtle, an awakening to a self awareness, perhaps for the first time in history. We are looking at the question of what does it mean to be human, and not just an animal. Much to be meditated upon.

    As for the snake, I have an ambivalent opinion. Sometimes he does seem a devil, but historically some Christian sects, even in antiquity, saw him as a fore runner of Christ! Certainly Jesus taught us to be "wise as serpents, and harmless a doves." Perhaps that is a point with Cox's book, we should do our own due diligence, and not leave it to the experts, a very baptistic opinion!

    One last point, on the Nation article concerning "The Market as God." Our western world has been contrasted with the east as we have separated government and economics from religion, while in the east all are together. What we missed was in failing to see that there was still religion in our politics and economics. Indeed, neoliberalism is more of a cult than a religion. It is certainly not an art or a science. Yet, it is an invisible cult, since is dresses in the sheep's clothing of science. Economics is only a dismal science for those who have been deluded into thinking it is a science at all. Only for the predators in our society is it a science. For the rest of us, it is a disaster.

    1. Wow, Craig, that is a strong indictment of economics -- but you may well be right.

  5. Here are comments received about an hour ago from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your interesting observations.

    "Regarding the sloth of the American voter, I noticed that in Wisconsin, Trump's vote total was about 2,700 less than that of Mitt Romney, but Clinton's vote total was 238,000 less than that of Obama in 2012. The drop off was enough for Trump to carry the state. Where were the Wisconsin Democrats on election day? Maybe they had all fled from Scott Walker.

    "The article by David Frum is rather dark, but also scary. We may be saved, however, by the real possibility that the Trump administration is too inept to set up an autocracy. What is dismaying is that Trump's supporters seem unbothered by Trump's very rocky start."