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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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7 occurrences of Dictionary of the History of Ideas
[Clear Hits]


Alienation, in theology, refers to the idea that the
relation of the worshippers to God may be analogous
to the alienation, or estrangement, between human
beings. The word implies that a close relationship of
affection, family, friendship, or another close tie has
been broken, often with detrimental effects on the
psyche. The disorganization of the self, worries about
guilt, and loss of identity which the breaking of a
long and very close bond between people may bring
are all familiar. The idea that man, by his sin and
indifference, may similarly alienate himself from a
loving Father is a distinguishing feature of the Judaic
and Christian religious traditions.

The Judaic conception of God and his people came
increasingly to be of a familial situation. The story of
the creation and fall of man stresses the point that
Adam and Eve were both disobedient and potentially
dangerous to the high God, since they were ambitious
of raising themselves to divine status and might find
the means of doing so (Genesis 1:22). Jehovah appears
as a jealous ruler. But there is a critical change when
the Lord adopts Abram as a son, as a child is adopted,
giving him the new name Abraham (Genesis 17), just
as later, Jacob is renamed Israel. God is thought of
not merely as the familiar protector of a nation, but,
uniquely among ancient cults, as the Father of a human
family—the tribes of Israel. The paradigm of the fam-
ily, with its tensions of affection, hate, loyalties, and
fears, permeates the Old Testament. Again and again
the children are disobedient and become estranged
from their Father: again and again, there is recon-
ciliation between a sorrowing, merciful but divine
parent and his loved, but wayward, family. As in a
human family, there is a separation between faithful,
appreciative siblings and willful, rebellious ones. Some-
times the children wander off to other gods in place
of their own Father.

The prophets are the agents through whom God
communicates his love for his children, his repeated
disappointment and anger over their behavior, and his
plans for effecting a final reconciliation. The prophets
do not merely warn of terrible punishments if the
chosen people continue to disobey the Lord: they
constantly use figures from the patriarchal family to
embody their message. In one of the most poignant
passages of the Old Testament, Hosea represents the
Lord yearning over his people Israel just as a patriarch
might speak of his sons:

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt
I called my son. The more I called them, the more they
went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and burn-
ing incense to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to
walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know
that I healed them. I led them with cords of compassion,
with the bands of love;... and I bent down to them and
fed them.... How can I give you up, O Ephraim!...
My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm
and tender

(Hosea 11:1-8, Revised Standard Version).

Elsewhere, the relationship is that of husband and wife:
“And in that day, says the Lord, you will call me, 'My
husband,' and no longer will you call me, 'My baal'”
(Hosea 2:16).

It is hard to find anything in other world-religions
to compare with this moving, divine domestic drama.
Even in Islam, Allah appears as judge and sustainer
of order only; man is created to fulfill the amr, the
divine commandment. In Neo-Platonism, it has been
asserted, there is a form of alienation, for man is seen
as separated from his true divine source and home. The
soul has been corrupted by matter, the lowest stage
of the emanations from the One, and so has turned
away from its higher origin, the Intellect. The very
metaphysical structure and impersonality of this sys-
tem, however, precludes anything like the relationships
and dynamic tensions among different psyches which
are implied in alienation as we have defined it. The
process of return to the Intellect, which certainly never
yearns over a lost soul, in fact implies something like


de-personalization. Love, for example, must be univer-
salized and purified from being directed to any one
person or object. Similarly, in Manicheism, two powers,
neither of which is a true personality, fight for domina-
tion. Mankind, like the hero of a fairy tale, is held by
enchantment in a dark prison—this world. He can be
rescued only by being taught the secret of his true
nature as a child of light, and through learning thau-
maturgic formulas which will enable him to escape to
his heavenly home.

Alienation-reconciliation is the central pattern of
Saint Paul's interpretation of salvation. In adjusting the
Hebraic tradition of a chosen people to a universal
religion, however, he necessarily had to make some
extremely important changes. The later prophets had
begun to think of ultimate redemption in terms of all
mankind, not just Israel. Paul completed the trans-
formation: all of the human race are members of God's
family, and so all human beings necessarily have be-
come alienated from their Father. Obviously, there
must have sprung up serious faults in basic human
nature which have estranged all men, not merely some,
from God. There is a generalized malaise in the human
experience, alienated as all men are from the source
of all truth and values. Paul implies that for the Jewish
people the alienation was at least partially cured;
addressing the Gentiles, he recalls their desperate situ-
ation before Christ:

... remember that you were at that time separated from
Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and
strangers to the covenants of promise having no hope and
without God in the world

(Ephesians 2:12).

He describes the plight of fallen man in terms of what
the psychiatrist would immediately recognize as “al-

And you, who once were estranged and hostile in mind,
doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh
by his death,...

(Colossians 1:21).

This statement demonstrates that alienation and rec-
onciliation are always combined in Paul's teaching, for
salvation is reconciliation with God. The Father has
reunited and gathered his estranged human family, not
by revealing the law through prophets, not by sending
a teacher to reveal the secret way out of this evil world,
but by curing human nature through joining the divine
with the human. In the union of the two in Christ's
unified personality, alienation has ended. The Christian
message, Paul stresses again and again, is that “God
through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us
the ministry of reconciliation” (II Corinthians 5:18).
The Christian is “reconciled to God.” Thus it would
be illuminating to speak of the “alienating sin” instead
of “original sin” and of redemption as “reconciliation.”
Whether this emphasis would survive in Christianity
became the great issue of the first and second centuries.

Opposed to such a view of salvation was the move-
ment known as “Gnosticism.” Although it took a vast
number of forms, this sect essentially continued
Manicheism with Christian coloration. The good God,
it taught, is not the creator and ruler of the irre-
deemably evil world in which man lives and suffers.
Men, however, have a spark of “light” which can
enable them to escape. Christ was a heavenly spirit,
child of a heavenly spirit; both he and his mother were
human only in appearance, having no real bodies.
Christ's mission was to reveal the gnosis, the secret
wisdom. The whole thrust is that Christ did not join
divine and human personalities. There is no recon-
ciliation, here, nor any analogy with human experience.
Man is saved by totally rejecting material nature,
by heroic denial of one side of his being. It is inter-
esting to speculate as to what kind of world we
should have if, say, the Albigensians of the Middle
Ages, who apparently carried on this kind of belief,
had triumphed.

In the late second century, Saint Irenaeus, in a clas-
sical attack on Gnosticism, stated the essence of the
great division in Christianity:

... if we devise another substance of our Lord's Flesh, then
will his statement about Reconciliation no longer hang
together. For that only is reconciled, which at one time
was in enmity. But if our Lord brought with Him flesh of
another substance, then no longer was the same thing rec-
onciled to God, which by transgression has become hostile.
But now by Man's participation of Himself our Lord hath
reconciled him to God the Father

(Against the Heresies,
trans. John Keble, V:14:3).

Irenaeus adds an important idea: that under the Mosaic
law, Israel was never truly reconciled with God, but
was only in a “servile” state; now God has truly
adopted all mankind, without favoritism, and men once
more are his “sons.” Hence they should have both more
fear and love of God; “for sons ought to fear more
than slaves, and to have greater love towards their
Father” (ibid., IV:16:5). This paradoxical combination
underlies the conception of Christian liberty, and it
could exist only in a relationship of alienation-

Saint Augustine in the course of his spiritual wan-
derings became a Manichean, and he left that sect
precisely because it offered no hope of real recon-
ciliation with the Father. He says, in a sermon for
Christmas, that God, “... remaining God, was made
man, so that even as the Son of man he is rightly called
God with us, not 'God in the one case, man in the
other.'” How could Christ, if we believe, with the
Gnostics, in the “crucifixion of a phantasm,” abolish


the “enmity” which man's sins have created between
him and God? (Confessions 5:19).

Augustine's spiritual quest was for a faith that would
combine a return to a reconciliation with God, and
to a strong sense that the Deity is truly transcendent
and omnipotent; hence his struggles to formulate free
will in accordance with divine power. So he vehe-
mently opposed the Pelagians, who denied that man's
nature is intrinsically alienated by sin, and that anyone
may, like the prodigal son, decide on his own volition
to arise and return to his Father. Augustine—and the
mainstream of Christianity after his time—emphasized
the one-sidedness of the reconciliation. Only as om-
nipotent God reaches out to the individual soul can
reconciliation begin. Augustine's Confessions elo-
quently expresses the idea that natural man suffers from
naturally incurable psychical unrest and distress, and
therefore yearns for something to save him; and it
expresses the joy, the sense of repose and contentment
when his estrangement from his Father is ended.

Augustine, following a concept implied in the
prophets, describes another kind of alienation. The
human family itself, which should live in harmony
under the Fatherhood of its God, continues in an in-
curable state of estrangement within itself. Believers
(the adopted people) and unbelievers, even though
living and working side by side, are really in deep
enmity. This alienation, moreover, is deceptive. The
eye of worldly wisdom regards the City of God as
composed simply of malcontents, since it is out of
sympathy with the ideals and convictions of the
“world,” which often professes good ideals and inten-
tions. But, of course, it really is the “world” that is
alienated from the source of all goodness. Thus there
has been a continuing impression that alienation within
society is inevitable, and that the righteous are perma-
nently estranged from the “establishment,” the domi-
nant powers of the world.

Medieval scholasticism attempted to bring into a
syncretic harmony the many strains of thought that
had gone into Christianity. The pattern of alienation-
reconciliation was not dropped, but the desire to find
precise metaphysical formulation for the experience
of salvation greatly reduced it in importance. Saint
Thomas Aquinas, for example, defining the end in life
as—in Aristotelian terms—pure contemplation, envi-
sioned something quite different from the recon-
ciliation of personalities Paul described. The meta-
physical definitions inevitably reduced the impression
of immediate relationships between God and man. On
the other side, the medieval mystical tradition, with
its goal of absorption of the individual soul into the
divine, worked against the conception of recon-
ciliation, which implies the continuation of the indi
vidual self in all its integrity. Augustine certainly would
have wished for a mind at one with God's, but not
to cease to be Augustine. Finally, the obsession in
popular religion with a crudely thaumaturgic salva-
tion—sin being purged by rituals, relics, pardons,
etc.—reduced the sense of alienation and recon-

Essential to Martin Luther's reform was a return to
Irenaeus' point: that man is redeemed when he returns
to become again, literally, a child of God. Luther puts
the point in homely, deliberately nontheological terms,
like speeches in a domestic drama:

Christ says: formerly you were my enemies; but now you
are friends because I regard you as friends, not because you
do many good things to Me.... I die for the sort of friends
who have done Me no good. I have just loved them and
made them my friends...

(Commentary on John 15).

God, like a (medieval) father, plays and sports with
his children, pretending to be enraged with them to
test their loyalty. Christ, unlike angels, lived with us,
“ate, drank, became angry, prayed, became sad, cried.”
And in Luther, as commonly in Christianity, there is
an implication, very strong if seldom clearly defined,
that it is better for the human soul to have undergone
alienation with subsequent reconciliation than it would
have been never to have been estranged from God.
The joy over the return of the prodigal son was greater
than that over the continued faithfulness of his brother.
In any event, the relation of a husband and wife, or
of friends who have been seriously estranged and then
reconciled, is very different from what it was at first.
The fall of man was a felix culpa, then, in the sense
that a new and perhaps deeper relation of God to man
has been established, symbolized by the cross. A mys-
tique of alienation has been evident throughout the
history of Christianity.

Thus in Western civilization the condition of aliena-
tion has, so to speak, been institutionalized in religion.
The expectation that alienation is part of the human
condition has endured even when specific Christian
belief has gone. Romanticism viewed man as “alien-
ated” from nature. Wordsworth's The Prelude, for ex-
ample, tells the story of a boy, nurtured by the divine
Spirit of nature, subsequently alienated from it by the
temptations and corruptions of civilization, and finally
reconciled. In one very important respect, however,
the tradition has changed it. The Judeo-Christian reli-
gions, as we have seen, closely connected alienation
and reconciliation. The gloom of the Christian doctrine
of “original sin” is greatly lightened by the idea that
this condition is a kind of nightmare from which those
who receive grace have awakened. It is the dark before
the light. Modern views of man as alienated, however,


have no such solution of the dilemma. Man appears
to be afflicted by this state, but its cause and cure are
uncertain. Hence we have lost the paradoxical sense
of optimism that accompanied the idea of alienation
in Christianity.


The main bibliographical items for this subject are men-
tioned in the text. In addition, the following may be cited:
J. M. Ward, Hosea: A Theological Commentary (New York,
1966); Saint Augustine, Sermons for Christmas and Epiph-
trans. T. C. Lawler (Westminster, Md., 1952); Martin
Luther, Lectures on Romans, trans. W. Pauck (Philadelphia,
1961); G. B. Hammond, Man in Estrangement (Nashville,
1965); and G. Sykes, Alienation: The Cultural Climate of
Our Times
(New York, 1964).


[See also Alienation; Christianity; Dualism; Free Will;
Gnosticism; God; Heresy; Romanticism; Sin and Salvation.]