The Book of Genesis and Sartre’s Bad Faith

sartre

 

 

 

I was listening to a homily this morning that included mention of the book of Genesis and I realized a lot of what was happening can be illuminated by Sartre’s notion of bad faith. Sartre was a famous French cultural figure who was prominent in the existentialist movement. One of his key ideas was bad faith. To be in bad faith means to deny one’s own freedom. Sartre believed in the human power to choose, no matter what limitations are placed upon us. We could be under the power of an oppressive government, in prison, or in financial straits, but we are still free to make a choice. People in bad faith, though, will blame their circumstances for their decisions. The person in financial straits, for instance, will argue that they had to steal in order to support their family–they had no choice. Or, they will argue that there is no way they could change their career path, because to do so would risk what little income they had and they couldn’t afford that loss. Sartre sees these people as taking refuge from the obstinate fact of their freedom. In spite of limiting circumstances, human beings are never objects. We can overcome our circumstances by making a choice. The ability to make a choice is scary. It means we are responsible for what happens. Many people would prefer to run from that possibility. People in bad faith hide in social roles given to them by people around them and let these dictate their behavior, not letting their real desires and ideas come out.

You can see bad faith at work in the book of Genesis. It happens when God comes into the garden of Eden after both Adam and Eve have eaten of the fruit of the forbidden tree. When God accuses Adam of his sin, Adam’s reply shows that he is in bad faith. He says, “The woman whom you put here with me–she gave me fruit from the tree, so I ate it.” Then, God confronts the woman, and she too responds in bad faith. “The serpent tricked me into it, so I ate it.”

You can see here how both Adam and Eve are denying their own freedom. To acknowledge their freedom would be to confront the fact that they could have chosen otherwise. They could have refrained from eating of the forbidden fruit and obeyed God. Because they are free, they have to own their violation. But, they don’t want to do that. Instead, they want to blame their behavior on external circumstances, as if they were objects acting only in response to outside forces, without any internal ability to impel themselves.

I think there is profound psychological and spiritual truth here that is worth reflecting upon.

 

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