Original Sin: an explanation for those who don't believe all that "God" stuff
First I should explain the word theism. "Theism" is the error of confusing metaphors for God with the real thing: confusing the signifier with the thing signified. To a certain extent, theism is an unavoidable error in talking about God since God is ultimately ineffable. God is infinite and our language is finite.
Just because something is infinite, however, does not mean it is unknowable or nonexistent. A few examples from elementary geometry should suffice to clear this up. Geometry uses as pure axioms a number of infinite concepts: the "line" , the "plane" and the "point". A line (as opposed to line segment) is both infinitely long and infinitely divisible. We draw line segments on a black board or printed page to signify a line (sometimes with little arrows on the end to remind us that it is supposed to represent a line, not a line segment). Similarly, a "point" properly understood is not the smudge on the blackboard we use to indicate the location of the point. As Euclid defined it, a point is that which has no part. See Euclid's Elements: Book I, Definition 1. Obviously, in order to be visible, the smudge on the blackboard or bold dot on the printed page has to have "parts" (be divisible) and therefore isn't really a point.
In geometry, confusing the sign with the thing signified can lead us into errors. When we draw two parallel line segments, it seems intuitively obvious that if the segments are extended infinitely in both directions, the two line segments never meet. Assuming this to be true, as Euclid does in Euclid's Elements: Book I, Postulate 5, gives us one kind of geometry (which we call Euclidean). Assuming it to be false, however, gives us another kind of geometry, Non-Euclidean geometry. Non-Euclidean geometry is not only interesting but has some useful applications, such as Einstein's adoption of Riemann's geometry of a positively curved, finite and unbounded space to describe gravity.
Some of the errors of theism are as obvious as confusing a smudge with a point or a line segment with a line. Those include all anthropocentric descriptions of God. Obviously, Michelangelo's paintings of God in the Sistine Chapel, as a white-haired old man wearing a diaphanous white shirt which covers but still reveals his fat ass, are not accurate pictures of God. While these decorations may be beautiful and reveal some truths about God, in truth, God is not old, male, or subject to buggery, no matter how lovingly Michelangelo painted his butt.
Other errors of theism are more subtle, as subtle as Euclid's choice of uncurved space in Postulate 5. Generally, they involve drawing unwarranted conclusions from anthropocentric metaphors for God. These metaphors include talk about God as if God has human emotions, desires, and intentions, talk about "God's wrath" or "God's love". While these metaphors have literary value and can convey something meaningful and true (I am particularly fond of the metaphors of love and forgiveness) they can lead us into error, or poor "choices" (the meaning of heresy in Greek).
The Doctrine of Original Sin
The doctrine of Original Sin is an exegesis or rational interpretation of the Genesis story of Adam and Eve and the Fall of Man in the third chapter of the Book of Genesis. It begins with a conversation between the first woman (as yet unnamed) and a "crafty" serpent, about the fruit of a certain tree in the Garden of Eden. God had prohibited the man and the woman from eating the fruit of the tree. The serpent told the woman that she would not die if she touched the fruit, but rather "when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." Genesis 3:5. Initially, the only effect was that they realized they were naked and felt ashamed. Then they "heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze" and hid from him. Genesis 3:8. God, apparently unaware of what has transpired, calls them out and demands an explanation. The man blames it on the woman, and the woman blames it on the serpent, and God curses them all. They are no longer immortal, they have to work for a living, and they are driven out of the Garden. God also declares that the man shall rule over the woman. Genesis 3:16. Then the man names the woman "Eve" "because she was the mother of all living". Genesis 3:20.
This story is broadly mythological and can be interpreted in a number of ways. It is rife with mind-breaking questions, for example: did God lie when he told the man and the woman that they would die if they touched the fruit, or did God already know he was going to take immortality away from them when they disobeyed him? If so, why go through the trouble of telling them not to? (This is the question of free will).
Late Jewish apocalyptic writings attributed the world's corruption to the fall of Satan or Lucifer. In this story, brought vividly to the English-speaking world by John Milton in his epic poem, Paradise Lost, the serpent's motives in deceiving Eve can be traced back to a revolution in Heaven, and a prior casting-out by God: the Fall of Lucifer and his accomplices in treason. The other religions founded on the Genesis story, however, Judaism and Islam, don't subscribe to the doctrine of Original Sin.
The doctrine of Original Sin is mired in some of the worst aspects of Christianity; which include a primitive, irrational theism, misogyny, and a sick revulsion for our sensual, physical selves, and in particular, our sexuality. The peculiarly Christian (and peculiarly ugly) interpretation of the Genesis story can be traced back to the "Fathers" of the Church in the first few centuries of the Common Era, notably Tertullian and Augustine. I call this interpretation the "patristic" exegesis.
The patristic exegesis begins, as with almost everything else in Christianity, with Saint Paul. Paul makes an argument in his letter to the Christians of Rome that compares Adam to Jesus. If, as the Hebrew Scriptures tell us, one man's act of disobedience brought the curse of God down on all his descendants (that is, all of us) then it is possible that in just the same way, one man's act of obedience (Christ's submission to death on the cross) could reverse that curse. Romans 5:12-21. Now Paul is a slippery character and his letters frequently raise more questions than they answer. Here's a couple: first, if Eve's subservience to Adam was the result of the Fall, does that mean that the subjugation of women was abolished by Christ? There is some evidence that Paul thought so. In Christ, he said, "there is no male or female". Galatians 3:28. Second, does Jesus abolish for us the life of toil and trouble that God cursed Adam with? See Genesis 3:17-19. There is some evidence that was his intent. See Luke 12:27 ("Consider the lillies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.") Of course, it is a basic principal of Christianity that belief in Jesus abolishes death and gives us "eternal life", whatever that means. "For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive." 1 Cor. 15:22
Thus, in its basic form, Original Sin meant the human condition. We die, we have to work hard to ensure our survival, we are bound to one another in social relations that elevate some over others: master and servant, ruler and ruled. Jews and Moslems might disagree with the Christian view that Jesus abolished the human condition, and they would certainly have a point. We still die, we still work, we are still divided in social relations of superiority and inferiority. They might concede that the teachings of Jesus convey a wisdom that allows us to somehow transcend or acquire a more positive attitude towards these facts, but they remain facts. For Christians, however, the glory of Jesus was thus locked in inverse proportion to the Fall of Adam. The lower Adam fell, the higher Jesus raised us. And so began a rather self-indulgent and excessive elaboration of the doctrine.
It was Tertullian who came up with the term "original sin". Quintus Septimus Florens Tertullianus (c.160–c.230) was a Roman theologian and Christian apologist born in Carthage. Before he converted to Christianity sometime around 193-7 CE, he was a lawyer and lived a somewhat dissoulte life. As is so often the case with those who lack moderate instincts, after his conversion he became an extremist kill-joy, demanding of both himself and others strict asceticism and discipline. Tertullian eventually joined a heretical movement, called Montanism, which was defined by its hard-core views of sin. The Montanists asserted that a Christian who "falls from grace" can never be redeemed. This notion was particularly aimed at certain Christian bishops in North Africa who capitulated to pagan persecutions, to avoid martydom. This enraged others who refused to capitulate (at least, those who survived). The Catholic Church decided that these bishops had committed sins but that they could be forgiven and the status of church leaders could be restored. The Montanists broke from the Church over this issue, but later were reconciled by Augustine with the main body of the Church. Unlike most of the other early Church leaders, Tertullian has never been canonized, undoubtedly because making him a Saint would be hard to explain after him excommunicating him for heresy. His influence on Athanasius, Augustine and on the Councils of Nicea and Chalcedon is undeniable. In addition to "original sin", he coined the Latin term "trinity" (trinitatus) to describe the nature of God.
All of Tertullian's extant writings are highly polemical. In chapter xxx of his De Spectaculis (Concerning Public Spectacles) he expressed the view that Christians had much better entertainment in store for them than watching gladiators hack at each other: watching their enemies burn in Hell. Among Tertullian's nasty orations was a tract called De cultu feminarum (How Women Should Behave) which basically just one long misogynistic rant. In Book I, Chapter 1, he tells women that they are all Eve, and blames Eve for everything, including the death of Jesus:
- You are the devil's gateway:
- you are the unsealer of that tree:
- you are the first deserter of the divine law:
- you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack.
- You destroyed so easily God's image, man.
- because you deserved death, even the Son of God had to die.
And that's just the first chapter. Is it any wonder then that the Catholic Church, which Tertullian and others of his ilk helped shape, to this very day refuses to ordain women as priests? Tertullian wasn't just a misogynist, however. He had the distinctly Gnostic tendency to hate all bright, shiny, pleasing or attractive things in the world, because they awakened in him an insatiable desire (the Latins called it concupiscence) which was an irresistable temptation to disobey God.
Now, the Church Fathers were not the only religious thinkers to view desire as the root of all evil. One of the fundamental tenets of Buddhism (the Four Noble Truths) is that desire leads to suffering. The Buddhist response to suffering, however, is to walk the Noble Eightfold Path. In short, Buddhists conduct themselves in a manner which allows them to abandon desire. This encourages the development of diverse practical means of dealing with desire, such as meditation. Christians, on the other hand, depend on an external source —a mystical relation with Jesus— to overcome desire. In the Christian view, desire is transmitted sexually or inherited genetically and is considered unavoidable and unconquerable, relying on our own resources. Another way of saying this is that human beings are born "depraved", and need "grace" to live rightly.
Some of Tertullian's excesses can be excused, or at least explained by the fact that he was a leader of a small, illegal, and vigorously persecuted religious sect. After around 300 CE, however, Christianity became the official religion of the still-mighty Roman Empire. Into this circumstance came Augustine, bishop of Hippo, and like Tertullian a brilliant Latin rhetorician from the Roman province of Carthage. With Augustine, Tertullian's vehemence turns inward. While Augustine wrote his share of polemical treatises against the pagans and heretical Christians, he was writing for the winning side and it shows. Dogmatic interpretation of original sin led Augustine to make theoretically consistent but practically pernicious conclusions, such as his conclusion that unbaptized babies go to hell.
A modern understanding of "Original Sin"
For all these flaws, and I think they are many and serious, the doctrine of original sin is probably ugly because it expresses certain ugly facts about the human condition. We like to flatter ourselves that we are better than this, but the truth keeps coming back to bite us in the ass. See Genesis 3:15 (God said to the serpent: "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.")
We are finite beings in a world much bigger than ourselves. If you look around you, you can only see part of that world. We have developed all sorts of devices for extending our vision, to see wavelengths of light our eyes cannot register, to perceive fluctuations in radiation or magnetic fields which allow us to "see" the structure of things hidden from our eyes. But all these devices merely confirm how much we are missing. Similarly, although we can travel and communicate all over the world, there isn't time enough in a lifetime to see everything or meet everyone in existence today. Add to that a distant past we can never personally experience, and a distant future we can only imagine, the the limitations of our memory, perception and understanding, and the part of the world which we can make our own starts to seem very small indeed.
If, while you are thinking of how big the world is and how little you know of it, you the start asking fundamental "why" questions (Why am I here? Why are things the way they are?) you will eventually encounter the distressing state of mind which Blaise Pascal described in his notebooks: Le silence eternel des espaces infinis m’effraie ("The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.") Pensées, III, 206. Oh sure, you can frame your "why" question in a more limited way, and avoid this. "Why am I sitting at my desk? So I can use my computer!" If you push the limits of your own experience, however, you hit the fog, the chaos, the heat death of the universe, where the unknown variables overwhelm the data and the constants. If you have a lick of sense, what you don't know should scare you, like it did Pascal. At least until you decide to stop thinking about it and go do something else. (Pascal liked gambling.)
Some of this is implied in the Story of the Fall: the Garden of Eden seems finite, familiar to the man and the woman, and it provides them with sustenance without having to work for it, unlike the "Real World". There is clearly a wider dimension to the story, however, and this dimension requires more than the solitary contemplation which typifies modern philosophy in the style of Pascal or Descartes. It requires a voyage beyond the safe certitude of one's own thoughts and perceptions toward acknowledgment that there are other people out there.
Each of us exists as an individual consciousness. I cannot hear your thoughts or see your dreams. Being-in-the-world not only means seeing things from our own limited perspective, but also not being able to directly experience the world from anyone else's perspective. To reconcile the two perspectives, we must accept a certain "average" or communal perspective which falls short of what the individual knows to be true. The Gnostics expressed this separation as a kind of curse: when we are born into this world we are separated from a mystical union with God, and when we die we can return to that union. Many poetic representations of the human condition depict separation: the separation between lovers, parents and children, between clans and tribes and nations. We strive to communicate and to cooperate for our survival and happiness and sometimes, as in the Story of the Fall, to obtain and share the knowledge and power of the Gods. But our means of communication are flawed and subject to deception. Hence the serpent.
At the same, while we are stuck in our own minds with our own thoughts, humankind cannot exist for long without social relations. Mere genetic survival requires at minimum some encounter with a person of the opposite sex: we can't naturally reproduce asexually by budding or cloning (and the technical infrastructure to reproduce by artificial cloning requires a high degree of social cooperation we have not yet achieved). Paleoanthropology and comparative biology suggests that human beings and their ancestors lived for millions of years in social groups.
Adam and Eve are symbolic of the irreducible minimum of contact between Self and Other, between I and Thou. Inevitably, people in social groups take on defined roles, and without significant exception, those roles include rank: superior and inferior, master and servant, leader and follower. These roles take many forms, but the basic framework is that one person becomes a means towards another person's ends. Of course in a just society we would take turns using and being used, according to whatever formula we deem fair, in a network of interwoven needs and wants and desires. The Myth of the Fall tries to unravel that web and consider it in the simplest, most evocative way.
None of us lives in a just society. Every society on the globe bears the scars of holocaust and oppression in the past. The countervailing force of greed and the desire to dominate others has always overcome the best of intentions and systems. Sometimes even our best attempts at a just society, like the Bill of Rights and Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, spring directly from the horrible atrocities of the past. It is foolish and juvenile to deny responsibility for the misdeeds of others, even misdeeds committed in a dark, forgotten past, when the effects of those acts still reverberate through us and our institutions. Ultimately, our behavior still carries forward relations and prejudices forged in our prehistoric past, as a matter of survival. In that light, it makes perfect sense to talk about an "inherited" sin which has nothing to do with our own acts, our own disobedience. We are born into a social milieu permeated with the survival drives and tactics of countless generations, some of them good, some of them terribly obsolete and bad.
The precise contours of "original sin" doctrine vary from one Christian sect to another, but in everyone they are defined by how that sect views the solution to the problem. For Christians, that solution is Jesus Christ. Traditional, theistic Catholics like Tertullian viewed original sin as a supernatural "taint" bound up with sexuality, because they view Christ as a supernatural grace, conditioned upon our efforts to restrain of "the Flesh" and its evil tendencies. In short, they believe God won't give us grace if we offend him with impure and unnatural (i.e. nonreproductive) sex. Traditional, theistic Protestants insist that God's grace is freely given regardless of our behavior, but require a sacrifice and submission of the will (accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior) the evidence of which is the same sort of obedience expected from Catholics, with some Puritanical austerity and self-righteousness thrown in for good measure. Progressive Christianity recognizes that blind adherance to the same old formulas for human behavior is precisely what got us into this mess, and indeed, is "original sin". What Progressive Christianity values most in the words of Jesus are the paradoxes and impossible challenges he poses, like "love your enemies", which force us to think "outside the box" and break free from inherited sin.
informs me that the development of Eastern Orthodox Church dogma was not influenced by the Latin writers, such Tertullian and Augustine, and so never adopted the notion of original sin as some sort of sexually-transmitted disease. Indeed, the Orthodox Church finds the doctrine of Immaculate Conception
, which purports to make Mary, the "Theotokos
" (God-bearer), different from all other women, absurd and offensive. Contemporary expressions of the meaning of original sin from the Orthodox Church seem to correspond exactly to what I understand as the "modern" view of the doctrine. Here is a beautifully written example:
"Original sin is not to be interpreted in juridical or quasi-biological terms, as if it were some physical 'taint' of guilt, transmitted through sexual intercourse. This picture, which normally passes for the Augustinian view, is unacceptable to Orthodoxy. The doctrine of original sin means rather that we are born into an environment where it is easy to do evil and hard to do good; easy to hurt others, and hard to heal their wounds; easy to arouse men's suspicions, and hard to win their trust. It means that we are each of us conditioned by the solidarity of the human race in its accumulated wrong-doing and wrong-thinking, and hence wrong-being. And to this accumulation of wrong we have ourselves added by our own deliberate acts of sin. The gulf grows wider and wider. It is here, in the solidarity of the human race, that we find an explanation for the apparent unjustness of the doctrine of original sin."
Bishop Kallistos Ware, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia (http://home.it.net.au/~jgrapsas/pages/original.htm).