Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Original Sin: Reject or Defend?

I recently heard an interview on the Mars Hill Audio Journal with Alan Jacobs about his latest book Original Sin: A Cultural History (HarperOne, 2008). I was so fascinated by the interview that I've borrowed the book from Vanderbilt Divinity School Library through their Kesler Book Lending Service (if you're ordained and don't know about this service, do yourself a favor and check it out).

The first paragraphs of the Introduction are worth sharing:

All religious beliefs prompt rejection. Souls are reincarnated? Ridiculous. The Bible is divinely inspired? Dangerous nonsense. Muhammad is the prophet of God? Poppycock. Jesus rose from the dead? Absurd. It is the common fate of doctrines to be dismissed; you'd almost think that's what they were made for. But not all beliefs are dismissed in the same way. Some get an airy wave of the hand; others, a thoughtful shake of the head, with pursed lips indicating a tinge of regret; still others, the stern wag of a hectoring finger. But of all the religious teachings I know, none - not even the belief that some are eternally damned - generates as much hostility as the Christian doctrine we call "original sin."

It is one of the most "baleful" of ideas, says one modern scholar; it is "repulsive" and "revolting," says another. I have seen it variously described as an insult to the dignity of humanity, an insult to the grace and loving-kindness of God, and an insult to God and humankind alike. And many of those who are particularly angry about the doctrine of original sin are Christians. One of the great evangelists of the nineteenth century, Charles Finney, called the doctrine "subversive of the gospel, and repulsive to the human intelligence." A hundred years earlier an English minister, John Taylor of Norwich, had cried, "What a God must he be, who can curse his innocent creatures before they have a being! Is this thy God, O Christian?"

Yet for other Christians this teaching is utterly indispensable. Taylor's outburst prompted book-length retorts from two of the great pastoral and theological minds of that era, Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley. Blaise Pascal believed that without this particular belief we lack any possibility of understanding ourselves. G. K. Chesterton affirmed it with equal insistence, adding the sardonic note that it is the only doctrine of the Christian faith that is empirically provable. The twentieth-century French Catholic writer George Bernanos wrote, paradoxically but sincerely, that "for men it is certainly more grave, or at least much more dangerous, to deny original sin than to deny God."

What is this belief that generates such passionate rejection and such equally passionate defense?

I'm reminded of a time when I was teaching a class in an Episcopal parish and I made reference to original sin. In response, one of the Episcopalians said with surprise, "I haven't heard the term 'original sin' in years!" Perhaps it's hard to get passionate about something that's not even on the radar screen.

Anyway, the book looks like a fascinating read.


Perpetua said...

Please tell us more when you've finished it.

Michael said...

I have often struggled with this idea myself, especially in light of the evidence for a human evolution rather than the classic Christian Protogenitor Theory, which posits a single male and a single female as our first parents "created" by God. These same Protogenitors are the source of "Original Sin" in the Western / Augustinian tradition. I recently commented in a biographical sketch for a collegues BLOG that this is the singlemost pressing matter intellectually for me to resolve for my own faith in the immediate future.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the comments.

I'll definitely report back after completing the book, Perpetua. Thus far I've about 60+ pages, and it is excellent.

And thanks for sharing your struggle around this doctrine and its implications, Michael. Based upon what I've read of Jacobs' book thus far, I think you would find it a helpful resource for processing the relevant issues. I'm particularly impressed with his discussion of Augustine's views.

More later ...

plsdeacon said...

From what I understand, original sin is not inherited guilt, but the state of rebellion against God.

If you doubt that we are in rebellion against God, just look at two toddlers playing. If there is a toy that neither of them is playing with, everything is OK. However, as soon as one child wants that toy, the other wants it too and a fight often ensues. This is not "learned" behavior, it seems to be part of the human condition.

So we have a choice. We are either born as part of a creation in rebellion against its creator or we all choose to be in rebellion against God.

Phil Snyder

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for commenting on this, Phil. I'm hoping to offer some more thoughts after I finish reading Jacobs' book. The further I get into it, the more I'd like to commend it.