BOOKS: by Bill JamesNews Weekly
ORIGINAL SIN: A Cultural History, by Alan Jacobs
, October 11, 2008
Are humans all bad to the bone?ORIGINAL SIN: A Cultural History
by Alan Jacobs
(New York: HarperOne)
Hardback: 304 pages
Rec. price: AUD$49.95Alan Jacobs authored an excellent biography, The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis (2005), which was reviewed in News Weekly (April 1, 2006), and, while his latest offering is not quite in the same class, it is still a stimulating read.
Note the subtitle. This is not a systematic and exhaustive theological treatise. It is, instead, a rigorous, but selective, discursive and highly accessible overview of the ways in which the idea of Original Sin has been formulated and modified, as well as embraced and rejected, over 2,000 years of Christendom.
Nearly 40 years ago, I read with interest another historical survey, The Perfectibility of Man
, a sort of mirror image of Jacobs's theme, by the Australian philosopher John Passmore.Human perfectibility?
Jacobs is forced to review optimistic alternatives to original sin. Passmore, quoting Augustine's pronouncement that "The whole mass of humankind is cankered at the roots", was obliged to examine original sin as the major doctrinal assertion of the impossibility of human perfectibility.
Both Jacobs and Passmore come to pessimistic (realistic?) conclusions about human fallibility. The difference between them is that Jacobs is a Christian and believes in redemption, while Passmore was an agnostic/atheist, who could only tentatively and wistfully hope, in his book's concluding sentence, that man (the gender specificity is a dead giveaway as to the book's chronological provenance!) might "become a little more humane, a little more civilised".Unde hoc malum
- where does wrongdoing come from?
While believers in Original Sin find it implied and hinted at throughout the Bible, its locus classicus
is to be found in Paul's epistle to the Romans. Its most influential theological development took place at the hands of Augustine.
There have been, and continue to be, many disagreements over the details, such as its mode of transmission, the scope of its damage to the mental and spiritual faculties of the individual and (to descend from the heights of theological speculation to the depths of raw human anguish) its bearing on the fate of dead babies and children; but Jacobs claims that those who believe in the doctrine agree on the following fundamental points:
behaves less than ideally; second, the misbehaviour is hard-wired
; third, the misbehaviour is rightly termed wrong
; fourth, we have fallen
from primal innocence (John Newman's "aboriginal calamity"); and fifth, the only cure is supernatural intervention
, what Christians call grace.
Jacobs's survey begins by drawing relevant themes from Greek myths, Old Testament history, Confucian philosophy, Nigerian legends and New Guinean religious syncretism.
In the rest of the book, he assembles a huge cast of characters (even Spongebob Squarepants makes an appearance) who can be divided into two categories.
Those who believe in innate and inherited universal human depravity include Catholics such as Augustine, Pascal and Tolkien. Jacobs's description of the origins of the Feast of All Souls, and the dogma of Mary's Immaculate Conception, also fall under this category. Then there are the Protestants such as Milton, Bunyan, Whitefield, Wesley and Rienhold Niebuhr, and the Russian Orthodox Solzhenitsyn.
The other party, the bitter and outraged opponents of what they see as an abominable slur on humanity, cannot deny that people are less than perfect. (As Chesterton pointed out, Original Sin is the only tenet of the faith which is empirically verifiable.) They therefore either maintain that it is not original (Rousseau, Owen, and even the evangelist Charles Finney) or that it is not sin. This latter group is represented by Richard Dawkins, for whom behaviour is scientifically predetermined and therefore morally neutral.
For Jacobs, one of the most useful side-benefits of the doctrine is that it functions as a bulwark against racism. In a chapter on American slavery, he demonstrates that 19th-century "scientific" theories of racial inequality came up against the ingrained Christian conviction that blacks and whites stood on the same ontological level, not just because all people are made in the image of God, but also because all people have fallen short of God's standards.
(Interestingly, a similar point about pseudo-science versus traditional Christian anthropology, this time as regards the European perception of Aborigines in 19th-century Australia, was made in Robert Kenny's The Lamb Enters the Dreaming: Nathanael Pepper and the Ruptured World
, published last year).
Original Sin, if it is true, is cosmically tragic, but paradoxically it is also magically comic. Milton tells us that Satan rebelled from a sense of "injured merit", as a result of taking himself too seriously. As Chesterton put it, "Satan fell by force of gravity". It is not just the conviction of our guilt, but also the humiliating revelation of our utterly irrational and ridiculous self-importance, which drives us to grace.
Here is Jacobs's concluding sentence: "If there is a proper response, a truly wise response, to the narrative of this book, it surely begins with the recognition that if everyone
is bad to the bone - if all of us strut and fret our hour upon the stage, filled with the consciousness of our injured merit, fairly glowing with self-praise - then our condition is, first and above all else, comical."