Makes us do other than the right things

Eve with ice cream

Born Bad: Original Sin and the Making of the Western World, James Boyce, Black Inc.

Are people, at heart, good or bad? Many Westerners would nowadays favour the former, and believe that the Church’s insistence on the latter has distorted our view of ourselves and our potential. Historian James Boyce, though he claims to be objective, seems to hold this view, even while his main aim, he says, is to show how the doctrine of original sin, in our largely secular society, is still a powerful influence. In this history, which is much preoccupied with the fate of dead babies, he traces the doctrine of original sin to St Augustine, rather than the Genesis story of Eden, which, in his view, though it portrays the Fall of the first human beings, still emphasises that humans are made in God’s image. (It might be better to say Augustine makes explicit what the creation narratives imply.) He then follows the doctrine through medieval times to Martin Luther and the Protestants (though the theology is lite), and onto America where it becomes muddied by the emphasis on freedom. In the Enlightenment “a new language [is] found for an old tale”, as the common people’s sin becomes their barbarism. (Voltaire and Diderot believed the common folk were simply too depraved to ever change.) It resurfaces as self-interest in the science of Darwinism (and in Richard Dawkins’ selfish gene idea), says Boyce, and in Freud, who, though he dismissed religion, entrenched in the modern West the not-so-original view of a dark core that makes us do other than the right things. Freud also agreed with St Augustine on sexuality being a predominant site. It is ironic, thinks Boyce, that Freud’s theories have such Puritan roots.

Boyce claims that original sin now has “little relevance” for American Christians, because of the all-encompassing importance of the idea of freedom. But there has been, and likely will be in Christianity generally continual tension between the idea of grace being sufficient and the idea that human beings have the God-given choice to improve. But Boyce sees the influence of this doctrine continuing in a more general, negative sense, in our ongoing pessimism about human nature. The implication here is, perhaps, that free from this dubious doctrine we might be able to do better at fixing the world. Maybe. But maybe we haven’t been able to banish the idea because it still says something about us. Maybe Freud was not unconsciously misled into continuing original sin’s legacy, but, rather, his theories resonate with the doctrine because both try to explain something fundamental – that we contain both good and bad. It isn’t either/or. Christianity works best when it maintains a balance between “made in the image of God” and our heart of darkness. As the biblical scholar Claus Westermann explains about the biblical creation narratives, the story of human beings being made in God’s image and the story of their “first defection” are “inseparable”. And as Luther said, to be human is to be simultaneously saint and sinner.

 

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