Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Original Sin and Modernity

As we think about the meaning, or meanings, of ‘modernity’, it may be useful to remember the religious revolutions ignited by Luther and Calvin in the 16th century, as the well as the work of Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler in astronomy and physics. Luther and Calvin did as much to shape the modern world as those great scientists and their intellectual heirs.

Original Sin was one of the ideas that made the writings of Luther and Calvin particularly explosive. They did not invent the idea that human nature is fundamentally and inherently depraved as a consequence of Adam’s (and Eve’s) fall from grace; following the lead of Saint Augustine in the 5th century AD, they found it (so to speak) in one of the letters of Paul, Romans 5:12-31 as part of their program of reformation i.e. reclaiming the original purity of Christianity from the corruptions with which the original Church had become encrusted by centuries of Papal venality--and worse.

During the last 500 years, modern science triumphed over fundamentalist accounts of creation because of its vast explanatory power. But if you are looking for explanatory power, it’s hard to beat Original Sin. Why does human history consist of one war after another? Why does power corrupt? Why does every revolution replace one set of scoundrels with another? Why is the dream of world government and world peace just that, a sentimental dream that could never be realized? Human beings are a bad lot and they can’t help it; they’re just born that way. Maybe its congenital.

I don’t put much stock in the theory of original sin myself--for one thing it seems to entail the horrific and morally unacceptable doctrine of infant damnation. But there are times, and this is one of them as we watch the collapse of yet one more Ponzi bubble, and a deflating world economy, when the doctrine of Original Sin just seems to make a lot of sense.

But you have to choose. None of the things that modernity is all about--democracy, free markets, free inquiry, the freedoms we take for granted (in our Bill of Rights for example), romantic poetry, music, and art--would be possible in a Calvinistic state.

Here's an idea worth thinking about. The doctrine of original sin began lose its hold over the modern i.e. European and American imagination some time around 1800. Rousseau and romanticism had invented the notion of original innocence. The Machiavellian facts that original sin had accounted for did not go away, however. It was at about this time that an ancient word and idea, 'cynic' and cynicism, got dusted off and given a new, modern meaning: not the ancient belief that virtue is the only good, but the reverse: a disbelief in the very possibility of disinterested motives or virtuous actions.

In case you're interested, here is the material from Romans (in the King James text of 1611) that Augustine used to support his claim that evil first entered the world with the disobedience of Adam and Eve.

12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned— 13 (For until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. 14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. 15 But the free gift is not like the offense. For if by the one man’s offense many died, much more the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many. 16 And the gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned. For the judgment which came from one offense resulted in condemnation, but the free gift which came from many offenses resulted in justification. 17 For if by the one man’s offense death reigned through the one, much more those who receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.)
18 Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. 19 For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous.
20 Moreover the law entered that the offense might abound. But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more, 21 so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus
Christ our Lord.

1 comment:

  1. Jesus introduced the concept of eternal damnation into the world in his parables, among them the story of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Original sin is implicit in the words of Jesus, as we know them from John 14:6: "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me." We can be saved from hell—which nobody could deserve except maybe for a Hitler—through faith, meaning we can't know the rules until we are dead and it's too late.

    There are many reasons for evil in the world. The biggest one is faith, whether religious or political. Faith led young people in China during the Cultural Revolution to denounce their parents for being rightists and counter-revolututionaries. Faith is what makes the leaders of Hamas today sacrifice the lives of children by hiding in schools and hospitals.