Raised as a Catholic as I was, I was taught that the original sin committed by Adam and Eve stained the soul of every human being ever born. As a child, I thought of it as a big black mark streaked across my soul which was a sort of diamond-shaped translucent light somewhere around my heart. Since I had been baptized, the streak wasn’t so black anymore, but the stain was still there. I was still fundamentally and inescapably a sinner, potentially a bad person caring more about myself than about God.
With the biblical studies we received at Maryknoll, I did come to understand that the Hebrews saw the story in Genesis as a metaphor, as an expression of a sense that somehow something seemed wrong with the world. But for the millennia in which it was solely their Holy Book, the Hebrews did not see it as a story about original sin.
The theory of original sin as it is presently taught by the Roman Catholic church was developed not by Jesus, but by Augustine, a 4th century Roman convert who was trying to explain, above all, his own sexual lust which tormented him apparently relentlessly. With the adaptation of Christianity as the official Roman religion, the celebration of communion was no longer a coming together of the faithful to witness to their faith. Instead, the communion table was transformed into a sacrificial altar in which the faithful were reminded that we are all sinners redeemed by the death of Jesus. We were guilty of that death, and if God the Father had not been propitiated by the execution of his Son, we would have had to serve an eternal punishment for our sins. As it was, we were fortunate that we only have to suffer while we are still on Earth.
With time, I dismissed the theory of original sin as a misunderstood literalist interpretation of Genesis which nonetheless proved useful for those wishing to convince us of the fundamental sinfulness of human beings. Original sin is pagan in its origins, developed by people trying to understand why they were being punished by natural disasters like hurricanes and droughts, illness and fire, starvation and disease. But today, it is a manifestation of hubris. It assumes that we humans are responsible for everything that happens in the universe, a view of human control which would be laughable if it weren’t so delusional.
As I recently finished reading Tony Equale’s Religion in a material universe, it dawned on me that this idea of original sin is still more pervasive and destructive in Western thought than I’ve appreciated. How often we explain behavior that seems gratuitously cruel or blatantly unfair as a result of inherent sinfulness or selfishness that the person has failed to overcome? Judges not infrequently will sentence prisoners found guilty of some particularly heinous and inexplicable crime as “evil.” The death penalty is often justified on the ground that the perpetrator is irredeemable.
I don’t think that’s how it is. This might sound bonkers, but I think we are all doing the best we can. I’m not advocating some poly-anna free-for-all tolerance when I say that. But I am saying that we would be much better off trying to understand why we and others do the things we do before we start trying to change them or ourselves by whipping the sinfulness out of our systems. If sinfulness isn’t the problem, then whipping it out isn’t going to be the solution.
My own hypotheses about this question at the moment is rather Buddhist: we are incomplete. I come to that from an extrapolation, though, of what I know about evolution. Like all other organisms that we have ever encountered, we are driven by a survival mechanism. To live is our first and foremost drive. And life is our first and foremost responsibility. Not always our own lives, which we may endanger for the sake of others. But nonetheless, life is our highest value, driven by an inescapable impulse to preserve it.
If we start out with this assumption – that survival, not sinfulness – is our most fundamental impulse, we will approach our own behavior and that of others from quite a different perspective, with different questions and searching for different answers.
Okay, I wake up in the morning, turn on the news, and sometimes everything looks so horribly bad. Sometimes it looks as if we are nothing besides stupid, and self-serving, and violent, and arrogant, and bigoted. Sometimes resident evil looks more than proven by the manifest evidence.
But I do think that’s the wrong end of the stick.
And the more we believe it, the less we are going to be able to bring our best talents and abilities to address the real world in which we find ourselves.