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Thanks for nothing, Adam and Eve


Detail from Born Bad book cover

In recent centuries the relationship between Christian theology and the prevailing political and intellectual culture has alternated on both sides between dismissal, avoidance and accommodation.

Occasionally, as in St Augustine's monumental City of God, it has been conducted as takeover. Augustine offered a magisterial account of Roman culture and its presuppositions, claiming that its contradictions and aspirations could be reconciled only on the basis of Christian faith.

James Boyce's fascinating recent history of original sin and its impact on contemporary Western culture, Born Bad, starts with Augustine. He claims that contemporary attitudes to politics, human origins, economics and human psychology can be understood only if we recognise the hidden presuppositions imported from the theology of original sin. He argues that, as the doctrine of original sin lost purchase in the churches, it tightened its grip on secular culture.

The core of original sin is that there is something broken, perverse and destructive in all human beings, tracing back to the sin of Adam and Eve, from which we need to be rescued. We cannot save ourselves through our own free choices and actions but rely entirely on God's action in Christ. The doctrine was developed in a polarised conflict that focused on the unwanted logical consequences of opposed positions. So the stock questions raises were whether non-baptised babies would go to hell, and whether God predestined some people to damnation.  

With the focus in the Enlightenment on human possibility and on the capacity of human beings to shape their destiny, Western Christians became increasingly optimistic about the human condition. Original sin was seen as less radical in its effects and unyielding to human change. But secular theorists worked out of the understanding that human beings were inherently flawed and selfish.

Adam Smith appealed to the invisible hand of the market, not to celebrate it, but as a form of harm mitigation. The founding fathers of the United States Constitution saw their task as limiting the power both of flawed citizens and of flawed government. Freud postulated conflictual and destructive forces at work in human beings, offering no guarantee that therapy would set them free. Dawkin's selfish gene and the memes that civilise it are not derived from his research, but from presuppositions about human flaws from which we need to be set free.

One of Boyce's more challenging conclusions is that these theories, proposed by people who consciously tried to emancipate people from religious ideas, often unwittingly enshrined them. More than that, the theories won acceptance because they chimed in with tenaciously held popular convictions about the perversity of human nature.

This is a fascinating revisionist account of modernity, whose conclusions seem to have come as a surprise to its author who set out expecting to do a job on original sin, and ended up fascinated by it. The book is clear, elegantly written, beautifully paced and encourages rich reflection. I found myself musing on why, not how, original sin came to be so central in Western Christianity.

The popularity of the phrase 'original sin' can be attributed to Augustine in the 5th century. It proved seminal because it provided a single answer to five major questions asked by Christians at the time: Where does evil come from? Why do all human beings need the grace of Christ for salvation? How can belief in a just God be compatible with the lack of access so many people have to Christ? Why are human beings so stuffed up? Why are infants baptised? All these questions can be answered with the phrase, original sin. But the one phrase will conceal a variety of approaches to each question. Original sin functions less as a single concept than as a mobile whose shape varies with the weight put on each answer.

The interesting question then is how this diversity is held together, and does not tear the mobile from the ceiling. I believe it is controlled by a tension that lies at the core of lived Christian faith: the need to hold together the intensity of God's love for each human being shown in his joining humanity, the human pain and evil shown in Christ's tortured and dehumanising death, and God's decisive victory of love over hatred, through the raising to life of Christ.

This tension can be lost by minimising any of these elements, either through adopting a sunny view of human beings in which the Islamic State, prisons, exploitation and starvation are thought exceptional, or though picturing God's love for each person as less passionate than that of a good human being, or through regarding God's victory as a matter of being ahead by a few points at half time. It is especially lost if the logic of power is privileged over the logic of love when speaking of God's relationship with human beings.

This happened in some of the limit positions that have come to be identified with original sin. To defend the priority of God's grace in salvation by accepting that God predestines people to damnation and allows infants to be damned gives priority to power over love. No good, loving human being would do such a thing.

How to hold these things together, of course, is a challenge to Christians. But without belief in a God who loves and a God who is victorious over evil, we are still left to account for the Islamic State, prisons, exploitation and starvation. It is not surprising that serious non-religious thinkers regarded such things as more emblematic of human reality than instances of goodness.


Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.Andrew Hamilton

Image cropped from the cover of Born Bad, published by Black Inc.  

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Born Bad, original sin, theology, James Boyce, western history



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Existing comments

Whenever I am confronted by the evil and suffering in our world I tend to think the answer resides in the 'too hard' basket or the 'mystery' basket. The Book of Job poses some deep questions and I am impressed by Job's 'standing up' to God about his predicament. God's love is intense for each of us and Christ's resurrection was a decisive victory of love over hatred. And we have to hold on to that. But life can still give us a headache (or worse).

Pam | 03 September 2014  

Andrew, thank you for another thought provoking piece. Multi tasking, as I do not continuously - being both baby boomer and late bloomer - I am - though I ought not be - a little surprised at what oozes out of the landscape when the notion of ‘original sin’ is mentioned. Could it be that the western psyche is a more malleable tool than we imagine it to be? Kevin Treston, in his book, ‘Original Blessing’ mentions how he is continually surprised by those who still adhere to Augustine’s phrase. I also am baffled as to how the science mind of the twenty first century still deeply clings to this way of seeing humanity. I suspect it is tied up with how we imagine the term salvation. We are told that we are saved from sin. OK for the mind of a developing human. But the statement does not stand. Try asking not why, but… for what are we saved? I know this is a dangerous and subversive practice, but I occasionally imagine walking with people such as Augustine in this time and space. I ask such questions such as; What language would you use today to explain things? How do describe the difference between power and force? Contrast this with the encouraged practice of talking and walking with Jesus while asking the same questions. I find this helpful as it assists me in determining what is worth fighting for.

Vic O’Callaghan | 04 September 2014  

I think we can dispense with 'original sin' altogether, given that the Church has already tacitly agreed with Darwinian evolution. Islamic State and other perpetrators of man's inhumanity to man provide strong evidence for the inherent tendency to violence as a means of achieving power or whatever else individuals and groups might want. 'With the focus in the Enlightenment ... Western Christians became increasingly optimistic about the human condition.' Only until the First World War, the brutality of which collapsed the humanist optimism that developed from the Enlightenment. Where does that leave our religious faith? Jesus lived among us as a model of how we should live. As a good Jew, he would have believed the injunction to work towards 'healing the world' (Tikkun olam). The power base at the time crucified him. as many would likewise do today. We just have to keep on trying, and he remains probably the best model we've ever had to give us an idea of how to do it.

Ian Fraser | 04 September 2014  

Maybe, Fr Hamilton, human beings are simply not capable of the love that the God we believe in exhibited in his dying which, amongst other things, was marked by forgiveness for his executioners - the essence of true love. Also, free will can be a bugger of a thing!

john frawley | 04 September 2014  

I must confess if I saw the book, Born Bad, Original Sin and the Making of the Western World by James Boyce my first reaction would be - surely not the same James Boyce who wrote 1835 The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia. The leap from Melbourne back to the Garden of Eden was a leap too far. As to the Conquest of Australia that pales into insignificance compared to the making of the Western World. Is this a case of vaulting ambition that o'erleaps itself? Thanks to Andrew's review i now know he is one and the same and I shall now have to read the book to see if my prejudice was soundly based. I shouldn't be surprised however that Boyce takes a historian's view of what Biblical authors, theologians, philosophers, historians, economists, psychologists and psychiatrists have had to say about human nature. For me St Paul writing to the Romans summed up the doctrine of Original Sin in action: "For the good that I would, I do not: but the bad which I would not, that I do." (Roman 7:19) Did Paul have more influence than Augustine on the making of the Western World?

Uncle Pat | 04 September 2014  

"The core of original sin is that there is something broken, perverse and destructive in all human beings, tracing back to the sin of Adam and Eve, from which we need to be rescued" There is no doubt that there is a tendency in human beings to start off optimistically and along the track, to 'stuff-up'. One conclusion from this, made by ancient people who had little or no knowledge of the evolution of life, and the transmission of human characteristics, ( or even of the true nature of God's Providence), was that we inherited a flawed nature. .... In fact, what we did inherit from our animal ancestors was a strong emotional and instinctive survival instinct, and a potential (only) ability for the exercise of Spiritual activities, as intelligence and love. Each newborn arrives, not only without these activities but even without some of the essential components of the infrastructure needed for spiritual life, and needs to acquire them over many years of good example ,and disciplined study in a loving environment. If any of these elements is missing, we fall back on our primal urges, and come to grief.

Robert Liddy | 04 September 2014  

It is interesting that Augustine is neither as central nor as esteemed in the Orthodox Church as he is in the West. Indeed, his views are regarded by some there as extremist and bordering on heresy. It is difficult for us to mentally go back to the time before the Reformation and Counter Reformation and see Augustine clearly without the intellectual structure built up on his foundation since his demise. "Does Scholastic Theology really matter?" is a good question. The vibrant spiritual life of the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches would tend to prove it is not. What worries me about Augustine and the way he treats Original Sin is that, at its worst, in this country in the 1950s and 1960s, it was taken and taught by various dull and unimaginative people as if it were something concrete - rather like an anvil - rather than an inherent tendency or proclivity which can be balanced and overcome through Grace, which, as I understand it, is the immensely practical working of God's love within our lives. People like Boyce worry me because their theology, such as it is, sparks very much of the lecture room rather than life.

Edward Fido | 04 September 2014  

We seem to have pigeon-holed insights from evolution: Sin is thus a technical evolutionary term. It refers to the resistance – morally neutral in itself – which is presented to action by the very instruments and means it must use for realisation of its aims… Like the incompleteness of the universe of which it is a part, Sin thus imparts to the projects of human beings a tragic but almost bizarrely comic character. It gives action a built-in pull towards inefficacy. Things continually appear to be breaking down. This readily seems to be the case at the level of everyday experience. There Sin is recognised by what might be called a Tristram Shandy-sort of homespun wisdom (Tristram meaning sad, Shandy meaning “crack-brained”). The capacity of Sin to bring people up short with suffering – and cut them down with death – makes persons of goodwill deeply conscious of the tragic dimension of life, yet the irrepressible phenomenon of hope keeps them a trifle “crack-brained” about the worthwhileness of it all. Frances Stefano (From the back cover of my book, "The Worthwhileness of it all", recently published by David Lovell Publishing.

Noel McMaster | 04 September 2014  


Trish Taylor | 04 September 2014  

I admit (shamefacedly) to not having read Augustine. But I have read both Gaita and Eagleton. How is it that they seem to navigate the spaces of human turpitude (to my mind deeply and creatively - if not definitively) without fussing ad nauseam over "original sin"? How is it that the original recorders of the Adam & Eve story, the OT writers, seem never to have endowed their successors within Judaism with literalist dogmas about the Fall and its tragic protagonists - yet their more poetic, allegorical understanding is unknown to most of us Christians in the pews? How is it that a 4th-Century latecomer swept the theological field (and far be it from me to impugn Augustine's intellectual integrity, since I haven't read him though I had to swallow his baleful legacy in Scripture class)? How is it that the profoundly human insight of the Hebrew originators of Genesis has vanished utterly from Christian ken - at least after Pelagius' less draconian view was so comprehensively nobbled?

Fred Green | 05 September 2014  

You raise a few incredibly astute points, Fred Green. "Reading" Augustine, Knox etc. is usually the "privilege" of theological students. Sometimes, ordinary intelligent people, commenting from outside the realm of "specialist skill" are far more astute than supposed "experts". It takes someone really knowledgeable with humility and the necessary verbal skills to present Augustine and his ilk to the average bod. Andrew Hamilton, Michael Mullins, Frank Brennan and the ES crew are among the few clerics who can pull the difficult task off. I think Andy is the right man to answer your points. Hopefully he will. My opinions are just opinions. As someone who hit these shores long ago (1956) and, because his family were British, had gone to that Old Raj school in Bombay ("Mumbai") the Cathedral, I had not been exposed to Catholic religious teaching much except through the intelligent and discriminating medium of my late mother, a graduate of London University and no unintelligent follower of that faith. My father's family having been Anglican since the Reformation and numbering quite a few clerics among them I also had another example of what Christianity was. My exposure to Irish-Australian Roman Catholicism was a rude shock. Everything was very boiled down and simplified. There was no room for doubt. Correctly understood, doubt has been the illuminator along the spiritual path for so many Catholic mystics and I'm talking genuine, approved saints here. I am glad those days are gone.

Edward Fido | 08 September 2014  

A belated reply to Fred Green's penetrating questions. I share your esteem for Gaita and Eagleton, and agree that it is not necessary to refer to original sin to give an account of human evil. But it is necessary to take human evil seriously from the perspective of those who stand under the harrow, not those who drive or observe it. There were more or less optimistic or pessimistic accounts of the human condition among Jewish thinkers, but they did not amount to 'original sin'. That was effectively the coinage of Augustine, but based on the Christian understanding of the need for Christ for salvation, and the place of a tortured execution in that salvation. The reason why he swept the field was that he brought together a number of questions that were important to address in Christian faith and gave a coherent set of answers. But those became systematised in harsh ways. I don't think the insights of Genesis disappeared from spiritual writing and prayer. Even the liturgy today speaks of 'the happy fault of Adam'. But the insistence in Genesis of a God who always rescues humanity from the consequences of crimes certainly was obscured in preaching and teaching. I confess I don't find Pelagius very positive or comforting. He was a moral reformer, shared with Augustine and his other contemporaries the belief that only a few people would be saved, and argued that we are free to obey God;s commands, and so are bound to do so, and will be condemned if we don't. Not good news for me, at least.

andy hamilton | 11 September 2014  

Well said, Andrew.The unbearable burden of guilt engendered among Pelagius's disciples by their teacher's underestimation of human weakness and our need for grace is a sobering antidote to delusional Panglossian optimism. Thank God for Paul's and Augustine's affirmation of grace.

John Kelly | 12 September 2014  

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