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Original sin

9 July 2010

Original Sin: A Cultural HistoryOriginal Sin: A Cultural History by Alan Jacobs

I haven’t read or rated this book yet, but merely marked it as “to read” in my Good Reads list, and will only read it if I can get a library copy. My Good Reads friend Fr Ted has blogged about it, however, and I thought his comments were worth reading.

Alan Jacobs, English Professor at Wheaton College, in his book, ORIGINAL SIN, takes an in-depth look at how, since the time of St. Paul, thoughts on original sin have shaped the history of Western thought. The effects of “original sin” have not just been the dominate influence on human behavior as Western Christianity sees it, nor is its influence limited to theology and preaching, but reflections on and reaction to the idea of original sin have shaped the notions of governance, hierarchy, law, punishment, the 18th Century Enlightenment, child rearing, education, philosophy, ideas of what it means to be human, debates on nature vs nurture, psychology, sociology, and evil.

Jacobs presents a detailed look at how various Christian spokespersons have applied their thoughts on original sin to their times and flocks. This is not always a pretty picture, for the curative reaction against original sin has at times been a justification for abusive forms of punishment, the mistreatment of children, and the idea of assigning unbaptized babies to the eternal fires of hell. Jacobs does offer a few ideas from outside of Western Christian tradition at how others have dealt with the notion of original sin in their own scriptures and myths. He touches upon the Jewish reaction against such teachings, and acknowledges that Eastern Orthodox Christianity has not embraced the same ideas as the West, though he admits to not comprehending the Orthodox view.

In a subsequent post Father Ted also notes some of the differences between the Orthodox and Western views of original sin

It is the Orthodox interpretation of Paul in Romans 5:12, “that because of death, all men have sinned,” which leads the Orthodox especially to see the final enemy of humankind as death, not sin.  It is death, mortality, which has lured humanity into its grasp, and which holds humanity captive.  Satan’s deception is in telling Eve that disobeying God will not lead to death, but it does.  The humans are willing to deceive themselves into believing that disobedience to God is freedom and will not lead to mortality. Death is our captor and jailor.  It is Christ who sets us free from this imprisonment to sin, death, and self.

The problem with some of the thinking on “original sin” is that first it reduces sin to a juridical failure to keep the law, whereas the original problem is that humans chose death over God.  Our ancestral sin is not mere disobeying a commandment but making a choice between God and death, and choosing death as the preferred path.   The lesson of Adam and Eve is their, and as prototypes of humanity, thus our willfully choosing something other than God.  Not only do we not choose something good or beautiful, but something destructive and evil: it is a total failure for humans to love and to be in the image of the Trinity of Beings which is the God who is love.

As someone once said, the East has not been influenced by Augustine: its anthropology is different from that of the West.

I would, however, add something to what Father Ted says, perhaps as a theologoumenon. I agree with him that Western theology tends to reduce sin to a juridical failure to keep the law. St Paul says “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Protestant Evangelicals often quote this verse with the emphasis on the “all”, in order to convince people that they are sinners and therefore need “salvation”, but they often miss what the second part of the verse is saying about sin and salvation: the very word “sin” (amartia in Greek) means “to fall short”, and the image is of an arrow falling short of a target. And the target we have fallen short of is the glory of God (τῆς δόξης τοῦ Θεοῦ – tis doxis tou Theou). The essence of salvation is that God picks us up from where we have fallen and puts us on the straight path to glory, which is Orthodoxy (Greek orthos = straight, doxa = glory).

Original sin consists in being born into a world that lies in the power of the Evil One (I John 5:19). We are born possessed by the devil, and in the Orthodox Church there are four exorcisms preceding baptism to prise us from his clutches.

G.K. Chesterton, though he is a Western writer, once said something that applies equally to the Orthodox and Western understandings of original sin

Modern masters of science are much impressed with the need of beginning all inquiry with a fact. The ancient masters of religion were quite equally impressed with that necessity. They began with the fact of sin–a fact as practical as potatoes. Whether or no man could be washed in miraculous waters, there was no doubt at any rate that he wanted washing. But certain religious leaders in London, not mere materialists, have begun in our day not to deny the highly disputable water, but to deny the indisputable dirt. Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved. Some followers of the Reverend R.J.Campbell, in their almost too fastidious spirituality, admit divine sinlessness, which they cannot see even in their dreams. But they essentially deny human sin, which they can see in the street. The strongest saints and the strongest sceptics alike took positive evil as the starting-point of their argument. If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.

Father Alexander Schmemann, an Orthodox priest, said something similar regarding the exorcisms preceding baptism

According to some modern interpreters of Christianity, ‘demonology’ belongs to an antiquated world view and cannot be taken seriously by the man who ‘uses electricity.’ We cannot argue with them here. What we must affirm, what the Church has always affirmed, is that the use of electricity may be ‘demonic,’ as in fact may be the use of anything and of life itself. That is,  in other words, the experience of evil which we call demonic is not that of a mere absence of good, or, for that matter, of all sorts of existential alienations and anxieties. It is indeed the presence of a dark and irrational power. Hatred is not merely absence of love. It is certainly more than that, and we recognize its presence as an almost physical burden that we feel in ourselves when we hate. In our world in which normal and civilized men ‘used electricity’ to exterminate six million human beings, in this world in which right now some ten million people are in concentration camps because they failed to understand the ‘only way to universal happiness,’ in this world the demonic reality is not a myth.

Alan Jacobs may not comprehend the Orthodox view of Original Sin, but some of the things that are alleged to have been shaped by original sin in culture seem incomprehensible to me. Father Ted refers to “the curative reaction against original sin has at times been a justification for abusive forms of punishment, the mistreatment of children, and the idea of assigning unbaptized babies to the eternal fires of hell”.

Long before I became Orthodox, the Chestertonian understanding of Original Sin (described above) led me to become a liberal (politically, not theologically), as it probably did with Chesterton too. I heard Christians who belonged to what is now called “the religious right” trying to defend apartheid from the Bible (the British Israelites were the most advanced in this, preaching salvation by race, not grace). People said we needed strong government and harsh punishments for people who opposed it because all men were sinners and needed to be punished to keep their inherent sinful tendencies in check. The thing that bothered me, though, was that if all men were sinners, who was to do the ruling and the punishing? Weren’t they just as much sinners as everyone else? If whites were to have the vote and blacks were not, did that not imply that blacks were sinners and whites were not? And then another Bible verse niggled at me: “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” And so I accepted the liberal policy of “one man, one vote”, which was anathema to the South African government and most whites at that time. If all have sinned, then no one is more inherently fit to rule than anyone else, and if you gave power to one group on the basis of race, eduction, wealth or some other criterion, then they would, being sinners, be likely to abuse that power, and in South Africa they certainly did. As the great liberal historian (and Christian) Lord Acton said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

I don’t know if Alan Jacobs deals with this in his book — it’s one of the reasons I would like to read it, to see if he does.

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