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After some very angry people crashed several airliners full of people into buildings full of people, there began to appear reports in the media that students on college campuses were beginning to think that the concept of Evil might actually be referring to Something Real, as opposed to being merely a construct of this or that social ideology. After all, no other word seemed to describe that act. The easy relativism through which these young people conceived of the moral order suddenly evaporated.
Whether in fact 9/11 spelled the end of shallow thinking on campuses is debatable. But it did get people thinking about Good and Evil again. Once we start back down that well-traveled road, Christians soon encounter our doctrine of Original Sin.
This teaching is one that has fallen on hard times in our era. In the tradition of the West, inspired mainly by Augustine, original sin is the genetic inheritance of the human race from our first parents, Adam and Eve. Although we are not guilty of it personally, we are guilty of it collectively. As a result of this inheritance, we cannot live without sinning and we must die physically. Baptism is the ordinary remedy for original sin, giving us new life in Christ and power to resist sin, though not canceling either our physical death or our propensity to sin.
Since most people do not believe that A & E were historical figures (talking serpents?), the explanatory power of this doctrine has lessened. Furthermore, Augustine believed that original sin was transmitted in the vitium, sperm, following the science of his day (not disproven until the seventeenth century) that the whole of a person’s genetic inheritance lay in the father’s “seed,” the mother providing only the “fertile soil” in which it quickened into a human being. This led to among other things, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, teaching that by a miracle, Mary did not inherit original sin so as not to transmit it to her son.
All this sounds outlandish to our ears. Sex transmits sin? We must die for a sin we did not commit? And so the doctrine of original sin sounds bizarre as well.
This is really too bad. For without the symbol of original sin, we are unable to consider in any depth the continuing ubiquity of evil in our world, our church, our very hearts. We do not need 9/11 to remind us of this. Other recent events should be clear indications for anyone who has not somnambulated through life: the dreadful genocide of Rwanda, committed with the complicity of the churches and the governments of several nations, including France and the United States; the intractable spiral of violence between Israel and Palestine; the massacres of Muslims in the former Yugoslavia by so-called Christians; the collapse of Enron and with it, the losses of thousands of employees’ pensions and millions of people’s stock portfolios; the destruction of the Challenger, due to the willful blindness of its managers... pick a place on the globe, pick any era in history, the evidence of the existence of human evil is overwhelming.
Which means that we must confront this in ourselves. It is of course much more pleasant to excuse ourselves and everyone else by espousing the shallow relativism of today that says that what is good to me may not be good to you and I should not impose my values on you nor you impose yours on me. If that bit of silliness collapsed with the Twin Towers, some good will have come out of the tragedy.
The Outline of the Faith sums up the matter baldly: “From the beginning, human beings have misused their freedom and made wrong choices.” (BCP 845) This is the essence of the notion of original sin. Whether or not A & E were historical people is irrelevant. In fact, freeing their story from the safe anchorage of literal history allows its full power to be felt. As they were free, so we experience ourselves as free, for indeed we are. As they freely chose to disobey God in full knowledge of the consequences, so have we. As they experienced not the capricious judgment of an offended deity but the natural consequence of their act, so too have we tasted the bitter fruit of our actions, personally and collectively.
Furthermore, what they did could not be undone. The fact of human freedom—some might say the surd of freedom—is real. So is the fact that this freedom is limited. One absolute reality that every person must face is that our freedom is circumscribed by the consequences of evil and good choices of the past. As they cannot be undone, we must make our decisions not in the full joy and power of freedom, but in the dreary awareness of our inherited finitude. Inherited not genetically but inherited nevertheless, by the fact that we are human, born of woman and man, ourselves giving birth to a new generation further saddled with the consequences of our own choices.
There have been other versions of the doctrine of original sin. Karl Rahner among others has pointed out that Augustine’s understanding of it is not the Church’s doctrine. The Eastern Orthodox have been highly critical of it (and Augustine in general), pointing out that we cannot be guilty of a sin we did not commit. They contest the translation of Romans 5:12 that we inherit death through sin (the famous “ef ho” controversy). And they do not implicitly connect original sin with sex. Other authors have even spoken of the felix culpa, the good stroke of fortune that the first sin was, for it brought about our redemption.
Whatever fine points of Scripture or tradition we might discuss, original sin is a teaching we cannot duck. We have misused our freedom. I, Pierre Welté Whalon, have done so and probably will again. We have suffered the consequences of doing so. And we are aware that decisions made before we were born have restricted much of the manoeuvring room we feel we should have, and that we continue to suffer the consequences of earlier evil decisions. The only logical place to locate the beginning of the consequences of evil decisions is at the beginning of the human race. We should not let the paleoanthropologists’ constantly shifting hypotheses about human origins to distract us from this central affirmation.
Thus there is sin—it is real. It began “at the beginning.” And we are powerless against its real infringement upon our freedom. This teaching does satisfy the criteria of what all Christians believe, for it has been affirmed everywhere, at all times, by all Christians, in one form or another.
By itself this doctrine is very gloomy. But it does affirm that we are free, that our decisions matter, and that we should not be surprised by the continuing appearance of evil in our world, our nation, our family, our very hearts. This is the wisdom of the Serpent—the Tempter—that Jesus enjoined us to develop.
The German psychiatrist-theologian Eugen Drewermann postulates that the essence of original sin (and by extension all other sin) is to act out of fear of God and our creatureliness rather than confidence in God. Because of the fear of being less than what we feel we are or are entitled to be, or simply from fear of being nothing, we try to become more, to transcend the limit of physical finitude or the laws of God and nature.
Another, more metaphysical explanation might be that creatures, as participants in Being, have a certain nostalgia for Non-being, as it were, a yearning to be free of the weight of Being. Such musings remind us in any event that the existence of Evil is wrapped in the mystery of God and our existence and so cannot ever be fully grasped.
The doctrine of original sin leads to the ground of its eternal remedy: our confidence in God. The experience of freedom, however clouded by the realisation of our limits, is itself our first experience of grace. God’s free, gracious act of bringing us into being precedes our freedom to respond. Thus God is not limited by our freedom except insofar as God chooses to be. Thus God’s answer to the dilemma at the beginning of the human race goes back beyond our beginning: “In the Beginning was the Word...through whom all things came into being...”
“...and the Word was made flesh.”
Jesus is the fruit of the promise made to the first couple, that the wisdom of the Serpent, learned at such a huge cost, is not the last word on the human race. For the innocence of the Dove—the gift of the Spirit—is available despite our sin as a free and gracious gift from God, accessible by placing our confidence in God and God’s final and abiding Word to us, Jesus Christ. Christ is the ground of our confidence. His resurrection inaugurated a new world, a new creation, out of the old. The intractable rule of the inheritance of evil is broken forever. The power and scope of our freedom is being restored. Indeed, only in the light of the Easter morning can we struggle out of our darkness. Only through the freedom wrought on the Cross can we choose freely once again: Yes in confidence, or No in fear.
Evil continues to be a choice of the redeemed. Thus the Crusaders, seeking to avenge the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem, entered the city of Jesus only to slaughter in his Name every man, woman, and child in it. The Christian English burned the Tower of York and all the Jews in it. Orthodox soldiers systematically killed thousands of Muslims in Srebonica. Rwandan bishops and other leaders encouraged the slaughter of the Tutsi. And on and on...
We should not be surprised. Shocked, revolted, seeking to exact exemplary punishment upon those who nail Christ to his cross all over again—yes. But surprised, no. We all know about sin.
And we know about freedom. And God. And Christ. And the Spirit. And we know the way that leads not back to Eden, but forward to the everlasting joy of Paradise.
Bishop Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.