Inside Story

After the fall

Does Christianity’s “original sin” help us understand Western culture in the twenty-first century?

Janna Thompson 12 August 2014 2410 words

Stained glass window depicting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa. Universal Images Group/ AAP Image

Born Bad: Original Sin and the Making of the Western World
By James Boyce | Black Inc. | $34.99

When I first began to question the doctrines of my evangelical upbringing, my main objection was moral. Why should people who lived before Christ did – Plato, Aristotle and all the other people of ancient times – be condemned to hell just because their temporal location prevented them from knowing about Christ’s offer of salvation? How could this be the will of a good God? I didn’t realise then that I was wrestling with an article of faith that has been a subject of contention since the early days of Christianity: the doctrine of original sin.

The Biblical basis for this doctrine is the story of Adam and Eve, who were thrown out of the Garden of Eden because they disobeyed God, and condemned to a harsh existence in a nature that no longer freely offered its gifts. The fall of Adam was the fall of man; all of us have inherited his sin and can only be saved through Christ’s mercy.

Though it is contrary to our ideas of justice and individual responsibility ­– as well as to scientific ideas about inherited characteristics – this story has played an important role in the history of Christianity. In Born Bad, James Boyce recounts the history and looks at why a doctrine that people found difficult to accept nevertheless became a dogma of the Catholic Church and a defining article of faith for Protestant reformers. But Boyce has a larger purpose. He aims to show that original sin, though ignored or repudiated in secular times, continues to exercise an influence on our culture and on our ideas about what it means to be human.

There is nothing in the Bible that says, unambiguously, that humans are bad by nature. Original sin entered Christian thought as a result of Saint Augustine’s attempt to come to terms with contradictions at the heart of his faith. He lived in perilous times: the Roman Empire was coming to an end and the Vandals were besieging his homeland. Suffering and acts of murderous violence in a world created by a loving God might be explained by reference to the free will that God gives to his creatures – some people choose to do bad things – but for Augustine the problem of evil was not just a matter of bad willing. Examining himself, he encountered a creature with an innate tendency to sin. He wanted to be pure but could not help experiencing lust; he wanted to be good but could not resist the temptation to behave badly. Looking around him he saw that this was the human condition. Even babies and young children were self-centred and deceitful.

The tendency toward sin might be explained by the power of Satan. Some early Christians took this route. Or it might be explained by the impact of bad influences on a basically good character. In Augustine’s time Pelagius and his followers were of this opinion. But Augustine rejected both of these explanations. To give Satan power over humanity, he believed, was incompatible with the omnipotence and benevolence of God. And the Pelagians, he argued, failed to account for the wickedness at the heart of each human individual.

If God is good then how can man, a creature made in his image, be bad? Augustine’s answer was that the first man had chosen to sin and that this sin was inherited by all his descendents – transmitted, he thought, through semen during the sexual act.

Human corruption doesn’t preclude the possibility that people can become good through their own efforts. But this idea is at odds with a belief basic to the Christian faith: that Christ died to redeem humankind from the wages of sin. If people could save themselves through their own efforts then Christ and his death on the cross would not have been necessary. By the end of his life Augustine had come to the conclusion that humans were so corrupt that they were not even capable of choosing to be saved. Their ability to accept Christ’s message depended entirely on the mercy of God.

Augustine’s attempt to make the Christian faith philosophically consistent and compatible with his observations of human evil has the unpalatable consequence that unbaptised babies as well as people unacquainted with Christ are doomed to hell. Yet it was his view and not that of Pelagius that was accepted as the official doctrine of the Church. What persuaded Church authorities was not merely the logic of Augustine’s arguments but the fact that a belief in original sin put the Church in the powerful position of being the conduit for salvation.

As Boyce presents it, the history of original sin is punctuated by periods when the doctrine was strongly promoted followed by periods when its harsher consequences were watered down or rejected. The watering down occurred early in the history of Christendom when the Church, in an effort to make Christianity more attractive to heathens, allowed that people by their own efforts could do something to overcome their evil nature or to make punishment for their sins less severe. In the later Middle Ages the Church tolerated mystics, many of them women, who questioned whether human corruption was really compatible with a loving God.

The reformist priest Martin Luther’s primary complaint against the Catholic Church was not that it sold indulgences or tolerated corruption; he condemned it for going soft on original sin. He insisted that all people, whatever they do, are equal in their corruption. The protestant theologian John Calvin revived the Augustinian doctrine that people are incapable of saving themselves and depend on the mercy, and thus the election, of God. But Protestantism in its evangelical manifestations retreated from the full implications of original sin, especially in America, the land of self-help and freedom of choice.

From the doctrine of original sin people drew different, and sometimes contrary, conclusions about how they should live and what kind of society they should form. Original sin is a great leveller: if all people are equally sinners than no one can claim to be better than others. The rise of Protestantism and a new lease of life for original sin encouraged a belief in human equality and a distrust of rulers. But a belief in original sin can encourage passivity. The badness of humanity means that no real improvements in the human condition are possible. It can encourage a tolerant attitude toward sinners and an easy-going attitude toward human failings. If you are naturally sinful then there seems no point in getting upset about giving into temptation. But self-control and a frugal lifestyle can indicate that an individual has been chosen by God for salvation, and a puritan way of life can thus become a requirement for those who want to believe in their own salvation.

Original sin also encourages an ambivalent attitude toward politics. People need to be ruled in order to keep the worst aspects of human nature under control, yet rulers are as corrupt as their subjects and their ability to do evil is increased by their power. Boyce argues that American founding fathers, taking seriously the corruption of human nature, built a democracy that ensured that neither the people nor any institution of government would have untrammelled power.

In a modern secular society most people don’t believe in original sin, and those who do are mostly happy with an inconsistent mixture of the Pelagian heresy and the teachings of Augustine. But Boyce believes that the effects of the doctrine are found in contemporary philosophical and scientific thought and, most of all, in the modern psyche. It visits itself on modern people, he claims, in the form of feelings of guilt and existential anxieties about not measuring up. In this secular context there is no such thing as the grace of God, so redemption has become dependent on the market, technology and self-help movements.

Boyce conducts a survey of key Western philosophical and scientific thinkers to demonstrate that neither the Enlightenment nor modern science have succeeded in banishing original sin from our world. Though he rejected the concept, Rousseau regarded man as a fallen creature. David Hume and Adam Smith believed that humans were inherently self-centred, though Smith thought that selfishness could be put to good use in a market economy. In Moses and Monotheism Freud retold the story of the fall of man to explain why an inherited neurosis makes us seek a god. For Charles Darwin, self-interest was the motor of evolution, and Richard Dawkins describes us as survival machines for our selfish genes.

Boyce’s eagerness to detect the influence of the doctrine of original sin in the theories of philosophers and scientists sometimes leads him to misrepresent their thought. Though Rousseau did think that people corrupt each other through the envy and greed that social life encourages, he also believed that individuals have the potential to resist this corruption. His treatise on education, Emile, is an account of how the better nature of a human individual can be developed and maintained. Hume and Smith acknowledged that humans are naturally self-interested but they also stressed that sympathy is a basic human characteristic. From our ability to sympathise with others comes a moral concern for others and a sense of justice. Darwin emphasised the role of competition in nature but also thought that cooperation and even altruism were natural characteristics of some animals as well as humans. Dawkins allows that selfish genes do not necessarily make humans behave selfishly; he is well aware his theory has to explain the prevalence of cooperative behaviour and the altruism of those who sacrifice themselves for others.

What all of these thinkers believe in common is that human nature is such that we can’t depend on people to be good or rational. But they don’t deny that humans are able to be just, generous and cooperative. In their view of human nature they are a long way from Augustine and Luther and much closer to Pelagius. If all it takes to be influenced by the doctrine of original sin is to believe that human failings need to be explained, at least in part, by reference to human nature or, as in Rousseau’s case, to the societies that humans create, then Boyce’s thesis about the continued influence of original sin on Western thought is all too easy to prove.

Boyce does establish that there is a widespread belief among Western thinkers that humans are naturally self-centred and are influenced by appetites and emotions that they find difficult to control. But it is difficult to suppose that this belief is unique to people with a Christian heritage. In the tragedies of Aristophanes, in the Mahabharata and the dream time stories of Aborigines we can find people who are driven by rage, jealousy and lust, by desires to outdo, and to do in, others. Nor does it seem plausible to suppose that feelings of guilt and inadequacy belong only to people who inherit a Christian culture.

Nevertheless Boyce is probably right to claim that the doctrine of original sin continues to exercise an influence on our way of thought. Its influence can, perhaps, be detected in a tendency to believe that emotions are irrational and bad, or in disgust for bodily appetites and functions and, more generally, in a lack of respect for “fallen” nature. It may be one of the reasons behind the unshakeable conviction of neoconservatives that governments are bound to act badly and that only the free market, as an institution undirected by the human will, can be pure and good.

One of the virtues of Boyce’s book is that it encourages a curiosity about the foundations of our ethical thought. To what extent are our beliefs about sin and saintliness, responsibility and human nature bound up with a doctrine that secular people have largely repudiated? Answering this question properly requires a comparison with the ethical thought of non-Christian cultures – something Boyce doesn’t provide. But while reading this book I was inspired to make my own comparison between the ethical assumptions that Boyce describes and the thought of the pre-Christian philosopher Aristotle.

Aristotle didn’t think humans are born bad, but this is not the most interesting contrast between our way of thinking about ethics and his. For him, virtue is inseparable from the qualities that enable humans to flourish, but he didn’t believe that people are naturally virtuous. The good judgement that virtue requires can only learned by following the example of those who are virtuous, and becoming virtuous requires a favourable social environment. If people turn out to be vicious rather than virtuous the best place to look for an explanation is not in the heart of the individual but in their upbringing or social relations. The anxious self-examination that the doctrine of original sin encourages and the loneliness of ethical individuals before their God have no place in Aristotle’s thought.

Virtue, in Aristotle’s view, is a matter of finding a balance between two extremes. A courageous man is neither reckless nor cowardly. A virtuous person is neither selfish nor self-abnegating. He pursues interests of his own while giving due weight to the interests of others. Those with a Christian heritage are predisposed to regard certain kinds of actions or inclinations – self-centredness, for instance – as inherently sinful. Boyce assumes that this is so when he identifies Adam Smith as a perpetrator of the doctrine of original sin. For Aristotle there is nothing inherently bad about being self-interested or having sexual appetites. Indeed, a proper amount of these is a good thing. They turn into vices only when they are taken to extremes.

Contrasting Aristotle’s ethics with Christian morality reveal some of the assumptions that accompany and support the doctrine of original sin. If self-centredness or sexual desire is inherently sinful then no one can be free of sin. If sinfulness is located in the individual then guilt and the problem of finding salvation belong only to her. The doctrine of original sin encourages an individualist approach to moral responsibility.

The continuing influence of these ways of thinking on our views about responsibility, human nature and evil don’t mean that we believe in original sin in spite of ourselves. But they do support Boyce’s claim that understanding this doctrine and where it came from is necessary for an understanding of ourselves and our cultural heritage. •