Original Sin

I have just been reading this article on original sin from a “liberal” point of view. The author’s thesis is that this doctrine needs to be “reviewed, reformulated, or even discarded”. The ideas he expressed fit in entirely with my article of a few days ago on Romanticism and Modernism. The general tone seems to be that all the “old hat” isn’t “with it” and unsuitable for modern man who knows everything and has evolved to be superior to anything else. All that sounds great, except that we all have to die, as I was rudely reminded yesterday, and everything comes to nothing or there is something beyond our modern competitive and power-hungry jungle.

So, what is original sin? What scholasticism calls actual sin is usually an act of alienation from God caused by a transgression of moral laws, as defined by what is usually taught. Sin takes many forms, whether from the individual to human collectivities and structures. It is part of the study of evil. The news is full of it, from heinous crimes and murder to the police state and warfare for money.

The big problem is that if humanity was created in the image and likeness of a perfect God – therefore perfect, how did everything go wrong? The explanation would be the Devil and the fallen angels. The Devil made me do it, Your Honour… Isn’t that the oldest excuse in the book? Were not the Angels also created perfect by God? We’re back at square one. So it’s a mystery beyond human understanding. It is. All we have are a few myths from different ancient traditions to explain truths in allegorical and analogical terms. We are too used to literalism, something which takes away credibility and casts Christianity into a kind of storybook for children to be discarded by modernity and adulthood.

The doctrine of original sin is an analogy, as in the creation narrative and all the events of the Book of Genesis. Something happened in distant history, but all we read are the myths that convey it in terms we cannot understand but accept in some way. We seem to be in trouble if we deny original sin, because that was surely the whole point of Christ, the Incarnation, the Paschal Mystery and Sacrifice of the New Testament. Or was it?

I’m certainly not going to take the step of denying it, because that creates more problems than it solves. The problem is more in literalism than anything else, because it places requirements on the mind to find reasons and consequences, theological constructs for which Scholasticism is famed. You then need to find out how this sin is transmitted, like a biological disease, how Baptism deals with it, the question of the Immaculate Conception and what happens to unbaptised babies who die without having ever committed a moral act of any kind.

The Roman Catholic dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption come from this particular theological formulation of original sin. The way this doctrine developed in Roman Catholicism was assumed untouched by Anglicanism, Lutheranism and all the Reformed churches, all of which followed the position of St Augustine. The current catechism defined it quite well in an attempt to recover credibility:

The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of the human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents. [n.390]

Something did happen at the beginning of our history. What is significant is that the Oriental and Byzantine Churches have not accepted Augustine’s explanation about the exact nature of this sin and how it passes from generation to generation in all human beings. The prevailing view in Orthodoxy is that humans inherit mortality which would be restored by a process of deification made possible through the redemptive work of Christ. This notion is less “legalistic” and more ontological. The “liberal” article tries to adopt a more empirical approach through psychology and anthropology, claiming that a new-born baby is morally neutral, neither holy nor evil. Such an approach will necessarily be inadequate and as literalistic as that of Christian fundamentalism, but should be taken into consideration.

It appears to me that we are all mortal and suffer from the effects of genetic degeneration. See The Degeneration of Man, The Human Race Is Dying and others – disclaimer: I do not endorse all the practical conclusions of these articles. Scientific evidence seems rather to refute the idea of evolution. The Nazis thought they could do something about it through eugenics and killing people of “inferior races”, but in reality, no human solution is possible. Each one of us must die one day after growing old, succumbing to a disease or being killed by accident or human evil. I find it believable that the human race shares the same destiny – and this was not changed (at least physically) by the event of Christ. What is more, non-human life shares the same fate of degeneration and death. The planet itself is finite and ageing.

Can we talk of original sin, rather than an original fault? An analogy in genetics is that if you make a photocopy of a photocopy of an original document or image, and continue the process for several “generations”, you will end up with a real mess. In technology, this is the difference between analogical and digital. Computers make identical copies of files that are no better or worse than the originals, but digital technology is also fraught with faults and errors – or “bugs”.

The “liberal” article attempts to “save” Christianity in spite of denying Augustine’s notion of original “sin”. Baptism would be more geared to initiation into the Christian community rather than regeneration. Is Baptism necessary for salvation? What is the Church? What happens to the “non-saved”? Is hell eternal, and if so, how can this be reconciled with a loving God? These are the question asked by all those who don’t say they don’t care, who feel concerned about the future of Christianity or another spiritual world view to replace it.

The Augustinian notion of original sin is found embarrassing by the Church authorities themselves, and Popes and bishops are in two minds. We remember how Benedict XVI “did away” with limbo as an explanation of what happens to unbaptised babies dying in infancy. The controversy continues between Universalists and those at the other extreme who believe that most of humanity is predestined to roast in eternal hell.

What do other spiritual and religious traditions convey to us? All the world religions recognise that there is something wrong and that humans commit evil. Divine light is obscured and sin alienates humans from our happiness and from God. But that is personal sin through our words, deeds and omissions. Sin is usually described in mythological terms, because they would reach a greater depth than using the analogies of law and notions of financial credit and debt. We need to examine the Eastern Orthodox view to seek balance in our understanding. The keyword is θέωσις – transliterated as theosis. It is the counterpart of the western notion of salvation – but something beginning in this life and not exclusively after our bodily death and particular judgement. Behind the words, connections can be made in our attempt to achieve some understanding. The concept of deification through grace has found its way into modern western theology, and this is something positive.

Modernists (those who believe in the linear evolution of man and that we are the nec plus ultra with our smartphones, laptops and air travel transporting Ebola all over the world) think that terms like original sin and baptismal regeneration will just drop away. Perhaps they might, and then the other skins of the onion have to be peeled away until nothing remains. Alternatively, we can try to understand them more deeply and enter into dialogue with our literalist contemporaries of “left” and “right” alike.

I will not enter the fray, since I have studied the question only generally in a context of university level dogmatic theology. There is the myth of Adam and Eve (when I say myth, it is not a “fairy story for children” but an allegorical narrative) that points to a reason behind the faults and defects that spoiled God’s creation. The Creation is also another myth. The Book of Genesis is full of them. One example I have been reading about is the Nephilim, derived from a Hebrew word meaning the giant or powerful beings that existed before the Flood. This myth stretches the imagination, and we find the ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman gods, the cult of the superman, the Übermensch of Nietzsche and the parody adopted by the Nazis in their murderous plan. Mythical animals are a powerful part of our imagination – unicorns, mermaids, kraken and others from the mysterious depths of the sea, minotaurs and other creatures from Greek mythology. They are allegories of something. We are not sure what. In science, there are skeletons of dinosaurs, other extinct animals and giant humans (when the photos are not fakes). In Christian art and imagination, there are portrayals of Satan and the demons as human / animal hybrids. The question of hybrids has come up in modern science and genetic engineering.

When I was a boy of about 10, I knew that there was a kind of “safety lock”or reproductive barrier preventing different species from reproducing. However, some exceptions are possible in nature like between a horse and a donkey, producing the mule. Some basic scientific information can be found on Hybrid (biology). A vital distinction is made between breed or race and species. There are hundreds of breeds of dogs, cats, cattle and many others, caused by selective cross-breeding. Humans of different races can produce offspring, and I have seen some very beautiful people of mixed race. In this Wikipedia article, there is a short section on mythical hybrids and chimera. Can science and genetic manipulation produce offspring from, say, a bird and a frog, or a pig and a cat? Nature is tough. For example, a mule is sterile and cannot reproduce. Did creatures like griffins, centaurs, minotaurs, unicorns and mermaids ever exist, for example before the Flood? If so, were they artificially made by “Frankenstein” science?  Today’s science is not making hybrids, properly speaking, but it has been possible to graft cells from one species onto another, like the notorious image of a human ear on a mouse. Here is some more scientific information from Hybrids, Chimeras and Haldane’s Rule. Let’s not get carried away!

However, there are some who claim that some creatures other than Noah, his family and the animals he was carrying survived the flood. According to the Book of Enoch the Nephilim were wicked sons of fallen angels (? I thought angels were spiritual beings with no bodies, but the Angel Gabriel was responsible for Mary’s pregnancy with Christ) inseminated women and produced humans who presumably had genetic defects. If there was some antediluvian survival, then the cycle began over again, and this would explain man’s diminishing genetic quality and viability. Seen in this context, bodily death and extinctions are necessary. As a Christian, I cannot condone abortion or euthanasia for reasons of poor genetic quality, but there are cases where such a conservative judgement would be very difficult (eg. trisomy)… There are individual abnormalities and then there is the constant and general decrease in humanity as a whole. Eventually, we will become sterile and the species will become extinct.

There is also the mythology of Gnosticism which I find fascinating. Mythology and allegory are crucial notions, as we find in Jung’s psychology and his attempt to understand how the human mind and soul work. The Gnostic understanding of our beginning, as it has been understood from the Nag Hammadi scriptures, Pistis Sophia and other ancient sources, is quite different. The problem is not man but God. If the creator created a flawed world in his image, it would logically follow that the creator was flawed. Was the creator God or some other being?

Gnosticism saw that there was a problem in the origins, right back at the very beginning. The difference from traditional Christianity is that the flaw was not the fault of humans but of the creator. That leads to another problem. Are there two Gods, one good and the other bad (Manichaeism) or is God just as sinful as we are? If we say that, we come up against the accusation of blasphemy – attributing evil to a good God.

Greeks like Plato encouraged us to look at the good side, at the beauty and harmony of the universe. How well did they address the flaws and the alienation? The question is God himself. In the Gnostic view, God, the true and transcendent God, never created anything, but “emanated” from his own essence other beings who contained the divine spark. These beings were called Aeons. These beings would probably correspond with our Angels of the Old and New Testaments. One of those Aeons was Sophia, identified by Jung as a feminine principle, and incorporated into Christian Mariology to an extent. From Sophia emanated a flawed consciousness who would come to be called the Demiurge or “half-maker”. Again, according to Gnostic mythology, this Demiurge would have begun to claim to be the ultimate God and surround himself by so-called Archons or “rulers”. It sounds like our own myth of Satan or Lucifer and the fallen Angels. If this is so, the original fault was somewhere between Sophia and the Demiurge before any “material” was ever created.

Humans, created by the Demiurge (as the Old Testament God would seem to be in his cruelty and anger), would be composites of the original divine spark imprisoned in perishable bodies and souls. Contrary to those who know, the describing word of Gnostics (γνῶσις), most humans are ignorant of their divine spark. This ignorance is maintained by the Archons whose intention is to keep us enslaved and attached to the material world. Death releases the spark from the lowly body, but there must have been a long effort of achieving gnosis lest the soul be hurled back into the same world through something like reincarnation.

The Gnostics divided humans into three categories: spirituals, psychics and materialists. This is a particularly fascinating theme, even though it is potentially dangerous and elitist, giving the Gnostics their reputation of excluding the majority of mankind from spiritual life. All the same, it rings true when we look around us and read the news!

Much of the mythology of Gnosticism is implicit in Genesis, if you search through the layers of allegory and symbolic language. Our task is not made easy when reading translations or being unable to read Hebrew. There is a parallel between the Greek concept of θέωσις (theosis – divinisation) and γνῶσις (gnosis – spiritual knowledge). It makes a refreshing change from materialism and legalism in the concept of salvation.

Some Gnostics were Christians, and a diluted variation of Gnosticism found its way into the Alexandrian school of Origen and Clement of Alexandria. Salvific figures in their mythology include Seth (the third Son of Adam) and Jesus Christ. Thus, Gnosticism filtered its way into orthodox Christianity and human culture down the centuries. We find it in the first reactions against the Constantinian official Church, the off-flow from the Franciscan movement, the progenitors of Protestantism, Renaissance alchemists, Freemasonry, Romanticism and various influences in contemporary theology. We find it in the psychology of Jung. Some attempts have been made to establish neo-Gnostic churches, particularly in Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century (cf. Theosophy) and the USA. One of the most known promoters of modern Gnosticsm is Bishop Stefan Höller, who would certainly not go down well with conservative Anglicans and Roman Catholics!

Since my student days, I have been fascinated by this influence in the more “spiritual” visions of Christianity (as opposed to materialistic, legalistic or conventional). It often appeals to the Baby Boomer generation and people who like to place spirituality over conventional religion (not necessarily by excluding the latter totally). I read a couple of works by Carl Gustav Jung, who ideas have helped me in my own self-understanding and mental balance. Jung makes for hard reading, but the labour is worth it. He was concerned with helping and healing people with emotional and personal problems to find their true selves. If you have seen people in mental hospitals, the first thing we notice is that they are prisoners of themselves. In a way, they live in the ultimate hell. Jung’s work helps to heal and cure many of those souls without debilitating drugs. Many of the ancient myths help us to identify our own inner conflicts and find peace as human persons.

I am not tempted by Gnosticism as presented by those who break entirely with conventional Christianity, but I have seen a vital distinction between the kind of stuff that can really lead us astray (when understanding things in a literal and materialistic way) and a certain influence that has been admitted and tolerated more or less in the history of the Church. It provides a leaven against the materialistic characteristics of religion that Jesus attributed to the Scribes and Pharisees of his time.

The subject of this article is original sin. With a Christian viewpoint leavened with “orthodox” Gnosticism, the notion of sin is removed from its legalistic and materialist understanding and brought to mean all the things that make us suffer: the certainty of death, sickness, human evil, catastrophes and accidents, the cruelty of the sea and the weather, so many things that challenge our Promethean ambitions. Sin and evil are evident in persons (ourselves included) and structures. The ruin of our planet and the increasing tyranny and self-interest in our politics are no worse or better than people challenging conventional marriage and sexual morality. We live in a world of beauty, nobility and greatness, ugliness, evil and tragedy. The flaw is still there.

What difference did Jesus make? This is a mystery to us. The difference is not at the material level. The death, sickness and evil remain just as before the birth of Christ. It is at a level that is becoming increasingly recognised by scientists specialising in quantum physics. There is no matter. Matter is an illusion. Everything is energy and consciousness, which can change and take different “forms”. Everything is related and nothing is separate. This concept is baffling, since matter seems so real to us, because we live in that dimension. The difference Christ and his redemptive work made through the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery are situated at another level which is both transcendent and immanent. We begin to understand in a different way and know as we had never known before. Maybe some of us can begin to transcend some of the old materialistic and legalistic categories, not to conform to some cheap modern materialism of another kind, but the reality above reality. As I was saying about Romanticism and Modernism the other day…

Perhaps, with such ideas, we will reach out towards another understanding of Christ and the sacramental Church that would draw all of us who have the slightest spiritual insight and aspiration. Just one last word. I have already approached these notions in Aristocracy of the Spirit and I share Berdyaev’s judgement on Gnosticism, “had the Gnostics won the day, Christianity would never have been victorious. It would have been turned into an aristocratic sect“. You cannot drink pure alcohol! Christianity had to appeal to souls who might have been at a “lower” level but sought to soar to the heights. Gnosticism’s greatest failure is the refusal of the possibility that the lower can be transfigured into the higher. That was the originality of Christianity.

The job is far from finished….

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1 Response to Original Sin

  1. David says:

    I believe a holistic approach to the issue is called for. I will address the subject of infants in particular.

    First, Scholasticism: Aquinas endorsed Original Sin and a “Limbo of Infants” in the “top realm of hell” (which speaks more of the time he was in, because heaven and hell – being spiritual – have no concept of physical “place” but are actually “states”) where they have “eternal natural happiness”. However his “On Happiness” seems to contradict this and utterly destroy the premise of “Natural Happiness” that is required for this. How indeed can one be eternally happy without God? Is this not blasphemous or rather near it? Furthermore, Aquinas elsewhere stated that EVERYONE gets a choice which – again – contradicts the premise on which “Infant Limbo” is founded.

    Even the best of the scholastics illustrates the limitations of that school of thought.

    Next, the Greek and Oriental fathers. Some speculated, but they all ended up going “We don’t know. God will judge them as he will.” One (I believe Gregory of Nazianus) considered the possibility of a Limbo-like state while another father pointed to the verse “In my father’s house there are many mansions”.

    Third, Heinrich Klee. Going off the “Everyone gets the opportunity” line of thought, this orthodox opponent of rationalism put forth the theory that the infants, at the moment of their death, are enlightened enough by God to make a decision. It makes much sense.

    As you can see, in the Catholic Church the issue is far from settled. I’m a supporter of two theories:

    1. Heinrich Klee’s belief
    2. There actually is a Limbo, but it is done away with at the Final Judgement. All the infants currently there will then make their decision to end up on God’s right or on his left.

    I never understood why so many Trads are so defensive about the Limbo fantasy. Is it really more Catholic to wish to see as many souls as possible excluded from God’s mercy?

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