This winter I am teaching the first third of the American literature survey -- beginnings to 1865. I begin the course with in a fairly traditional way: I start with the early writings of the British separatists, especially William Bradford and John Winthrop. This first week of reading moved from the two early male leaders of New England to the poetry of Anne Bradstreet and the captivity narrative of Mary Rowlandson. It's all a heady brew of self-effacement and an embrace of humility in the face of an all mighty and all consuming God. Students find much of the material alien, even with the observation that these writers were (or nearly were) contemporaries of Shakespeare (his Tempest was produced in 1611; nine years prior to Bradford's and Winthrop's journey to their new world).
The focus on humility grew, of course, out of the belief in the degeneracy of the human soul. I find it interesting that within the past week -- and in conjunction with the reporting and commentary generated by the shootings in Arizona -- a few observers have resurrected the Puritan sense of sin and have begun to argue that contemporary America can benefit from a heightened sense of sin and the resulting humility, that perhaps those lessons could help transform our immediate and chaotic embrace of extreme and even narcissistic discourse into a more reasonable or certainly more measured discussion. It's an interesting idea (most recently offered by David Brooks in his NY Times column and during an appearance yesterday on Meet the Press; it' a point made by Sarah Vowell in her 2008 book The Wordy Shipmates). The point, perhaps, is not to return to the religious myopia of the puritans; rather, we should regain some sense of our failings and the reality that we cannot locate perfection in this life. That if we acknowledge our own sense of human failing, we are likely to approach others with a sense of compassion.
Of course, the Puritans were not knows for their tolerance (ask Roger Williams or Anne Hutchinson). But the point to this updating of the reality of "sin" is not religious dominance. It is a hope that humility in the variety of venues (political, social) can lead to less dependence on self-righteous bloviating and more awareness of the complicated nature of life and the inherent challenge of social and personal improvement. I would like to think that we can get there without the deep dependence on God and self-loathing that leads to the extremism of the neo-calvinism of Jonathan Edwards. It would be worth a try.