Thursday, January 22, 2009

Revisiting Original Sin

In an earlier posting entitled "Original Sin: Reject or Defend?", I noted that I had begun reading a very interesting book by Alan Jacobs entitled Original Sin: A Cultural History. Having now finished the book, I highly recommend it. (If you’d like to read a bit of the introduction for a teaser, check out my previous posting.)

Jacobs covers a lot of territory in his brief cultural history of original sin. He looks briefly or at length at the following:

… and more.

That’s quite a bit of turf to cover! But Jacobs does it in a way that is scholarly, readable and highly informative.
Early in the book, Jacobs lays out what’s at stake in either accepting or rejecting a conception of original sin:

We struggle to hold together a model of human sinfulness that is universal rather than local, in which we inherit sin rather than choose it, and in which, nevertheless, we are fully, terrifyingly responsible for our condition.

So why would anyone hold to such a strange and, frankly, rather depressing idea? … Any moderately perceptive and reasonably honest observer of humanity has to acknowledge that we are remarkably prone to doing bad things – and, more disturbingly, things we acknowledge to be wrong. And when we add to this calculus the deeds we insist are justified even when the unanimous testimony of our friends and neighbors condemns us – well, the picture is anything but pretty. These are the most truistic of truisms, of course, and I can’t imagine that anyone would deny them, but they raise questions, do they not? Unde hoc malum? is how it was put long ago: Where does this wrongdoing come from? What is its wellspring, the source of its ongoing prevalence and power? The doctrine of original sin is, if nothing else an intellectually serious attempt to answer such questions (pp. xiv-xv).

Certain attempts to answer the question Unde hoc malum? reject the doctrine of original sin at the cost of begging the question. Jacobs points out one way this crops up:

For many scholars and thinkers, especially in the fields we call the humanities, the only thing we all have in common is that we don’t have anything naturally or inevitably in common. The human condition, such as it is, is to be “socially constructed,” to be formed wholly by our environments. “Socialization goes all the way down,” as the philosopher Richard Rorty used to say. But this view leaves unanswered, and usually unasked, the question of why the social construction of selves is so limited in its range, so unimaginatively and repetitively attached to making us cruel and selfish (p. xvi).

Other scholars take a different approach to rejecting original sin:

For scholars outside the humanities – the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, for example – this social-constructionist “denial of human nature” is absurd, largely because it ignores the biological determinants of human behavior, and a common genetic inheritance is something that we all certainly share. Yet although Pinker and like-minded scholars feel they can account pretty well for the prevalence of selfishness and even violence across all human cultures, they have more trouble explaining why we remain uneasy, even guilt-stricken, about our most common tendencies – why selfish and violent are pejorative terms for us (p. xvii).

In spite of the limitations of the approaches taken by Rorty and Pinker, there are two problems with Augustine’s particular articulation of the doctrine of original sin. First, Jacobs notes “Augustine’s ever more forceful insistence that unbaptized infants surely are condemned to hell” (p. 62). Even if one concedes that all persons are born with the taint or stain of original sin, it does, indeed, seem most unjust – even monstrous – to believe that God would cast unbaptized infants into hell for all eternity. And to my mind at least, it also leads to a theology of sacraments that treats them more as forms of magic than sure and certain means for receiving the mystery of God’s grace. Jacobs continues by nothing how even a positive side of this aspect of the doctrine quickly becomes problematic:

One effect of this doctrine might, however, be commended: churches led the way in pressing for the creation and enforcement of criminal statutes against infanticide. But these too are deep and troubled moral waters, because up until the eighteenth century in England and later in some other European cultures churches also enforced a rite of public shaming on unwed mothers. This meant that an unmarried woman who became pregnant could be forced to choose between infanticide – which, she was told, could damn her child to Hell as well as take its physical life – and a humiliating public exposure that, in rural areas and small towns, was likely to haunt her for the rest of her life (pp. 65-66).

A second problem is that Augustine so closely ties original sin to human sexuality and procreation that it comes dangerously close to affirming Gnostic and Manichaean views repudiated by orthodoxy. And so “the whole doctrine of original sin, in Western Christianity anyway, got inextricably tangled with revulsion toward sexuality and images of tormented infants” (p. 66). I have to wonder how many persons end up rejecting any conception of original sin – not because they buy into the views of a Rorty or a Pinker – but because they find these implications of Augustine’s particular formulation offensive.

Another objection to the doctrine of original sin is that it undermines the freedom of human moral agency and thus, by extension, the grounds for holding persons responsible for their behavior. Only a tyrannical God would hold persons responsible for behavior that they cannot help doing anyway.

It’s in the light of this objection that I was particularly intrigued by Jacobs’ discussion of Pelagius. Actually, according to Jacobs, Pelagius ‘felt that an overemphasis on human sinfulness, especially on the inherited shackles of original sin, discouraged people from the practice of holiness” (pp. 50-51). Why bother trying to be holy when you’re inevitably going to screw it up anyway? Pelagius took a different approach:

Pelagius and his followers were zealots impatient for sainthood and intolerant of spiritual mediocrity. Their biblical watchwords were John 14:15 (“If you love me, you will keep my commandments”) and Matthew 5:48 (“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”). Pelagius believed that perfect obedience to God is possible and therefore obligatory, or perhaps it would be better to say obligatory and therefore possible. Augustine’s emphasis on the corruption of our will, never fully healed in this life, was to Pelagius not just wrong but absurd. It would make no sense, he felt, for God to ask us to keep commandments that inherited sin would prevent us from keeping, and if Augustine replied that it is precisely in our weakness and failure that we learn to seek the grace of God, Pelagius countered that the grace of God may be found in our ability to keep the commandments. Grace empowers us to avoid failure, rather than consoling us after we have failed. If Augustine emphasized our utter dependence on god, our permanent status as God’s children, Pelagius replied, “Oh, grow up” (p. 51).

Jacobs continues:

This we can all achieve, thought Pelagius, because each of us possesses a perfectly free will. At any moment we can simply choose to obey God. As Pelagius’ friend and devoted disciple Caelestius wrote, “It is the easiest thing in the world to change our will by an act of will.” We live under no inherited curse that constrains and breaks us; that’s just making excuses. In fact, he claimed, many people have lived without sinning at all, including people before Christ (p. 52).

Living as we do in an individualistic, can-do culture, it’s easy to see how Pelagius’ theology might appear more attractive than Augustine’s. As Jacobs says, “Pelagius seems to have been something like the Tony Robbins of his time, full of exhortation and encouragement: ‘You can do it! You can be like Christ!’” (p. 51).

So what’s the down side of Pelagius’ motivational theology? Jacobs puts it this way:

The Pelagian good news is that at every moment you are free to obey; the (unstated, hidden) bad news is that at every moment you are equally free to sin, and at the instant of choice a lifetime of strict spiritual discipline will avail you nothing. And every choice is unimaginably momentous: the clear implication of the claim that perfection is both possible and obligatory is that those who fail to obey – at any point – are in danger of eternal damnation. … [Pelagius’] original word of encouragement (“You can do it!”) immediately yields to the self-doubting question: “But am I doing it?” It makes rigorous asceticism the only true Christian life … and condemns even the most determined ascetic to constant self-scrutiny, a kind of self-scrutiny that can never yield a clear acquittal. You might have missed something; and in any case you could sin in the next five minutes and watch your whole house of cards crash down (pp. 52, 53).

So if that’s what Pelagianism offers, what’s so much better about the Augustinian view? Jacobs puts it like this:

By contrast, Augustine’s emphasis on the universal depravity of human nature – seen by so many then and now as an insult to human dignity – is curiously liberating. I once heard a preacher encourage his listeners to begin a prayer with the following words: “Lord, I am the failure that you always knew I would be.” It is the true Augustinian note. Pelagianism is a creed for heroes, but Augustine’s emphasis on original sin and the consequent absolute dependence of every one of us on the grace of God gives hope to the waverer, the backslider, the slacker, the putz, the schlemiel. We’re all in the same boat as Mister Holier-than-Thou over there, saved only by the grace that comes to us in Holy Baptism. Peter Brown once more: “Paradoxically, therefore, it is Augustine, with his harsh emphasis on baptism as the only way to salvation, who appears as the advocate of moral tolerance: for within the exclusive fold of the Catholic church he could find room for a whole spectrum of human failings” (pp. 53-54).

And then there's this concluding point for those who minimize or reject the doctrine of original sin:

... the theologian who wishes to minimize the effects of original sin - who wishes to deny that our power to do good has been impeded or diminished by our inheritance from Adam - must reckon with what seems to be the obvious fact that we don't do nearly as much good as [Pelagius'] theory says we can, that we consistently fail to keep (most? all?) of the commandments of Scripture (pp. 114-115).
There’s so much more in Jacobs’ book, so if you find any of what I’ve shared intriguing, do yourself a favor: get a copy and read it.


Anonymous said...

Hey there,
thanks for the post. Interesting topic.
I have a question about Pelagius. If his view was as ripe with flaws as Jacob's says in his assessment, wouldn't Pelagius have had to make the same concession? Jacob's seems to say that sooner or later one is forced to acknowledge that Pelagius view is unrealistic. If that's true, and provided Pelagius was honest and sincere about this, how could Pelagius uphold his positivity? According to Jacob's, a view like Caelestius should be non-existent, right?
I also don't understand why someone would constantly question himself whether he is doing the good that he believes he can do.

Bryan Owen said...

Good questions, Daniel. Part of the answer could simply be that Pelagius did not agree with Augustine, and thus did not draw conclusions that made it difficult for him to "uphold his positivity."

While Jacobs' reading of the pitfalls of Pelagius may or may not be right, I personally can rather easily imagine constantly questioning myself about the good I can (or could or should) do. I'm capable of doing the good, that's for sure. So why do I so often fail to do the good that I'm capable of doing? Why, instead, do I so often do the very thing I know I shouldn't do? (Echoes of Paul's letter to the Romans, chapter 7, here.) And why is that even when I believe I'm doing the good, a part of me wonders if it's really good enough? Did I really do as much as I could or should have? I can more than imagine that, because there have been times in my life when those are exactly the kinds of questions that have haunted me.

I invite you to read all of Jacobs' book. If you found my posting with extensive quotes from it interesting, the book itself is far, far more engaging.