Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Original Sin

I've already outlined the Western Church's concept of original sin, with its dreadful, and entirely logical, consequences. A newborn baby dying unbaptised goes to hell, and there's no salvation outside the church. So someone born into a Muslim community, however holy, is damned for being born in the wrong part of the world.

I don't come across people who really believe all this stuff, though many people still have an exclusive belief which is happy to damn anyone who believes differently from them, and it's not good enough to say that the church once believed it, or that the great Saint So-and-So wrote it, and therefore it's the proper orthodox belief. The church is the people, and if the people reject an idea, it isn't church doctrine. So what do we do with original sin?

Fortunately, there are different views available in the Fathers, who, of course, wrote at a time when ideas like this were taken Really Seriously. The Traducianists claimed that the guilt of original sin was inherited from Adam via our fathers, in the same way as eye colour or a hereditary disease. It wasn't, of course, inherited from our mothers, since they were believed to incubate the man's seed without adding anything of their own. So Jesus, allegedly born of a virgin, without a human father, was conveniently born without original sin. I don't see what we can do with this apart from consigning it to the theological dustbin.

Then there's creationism. No, not the fundamentalist pseudoscience, but its older namesake. This was the idea that each soul was created free of sin, but that it inevitably becomes polluted by sin. Some of the eastern Fathers; the Gregories, and Chrysostom, taught that newborn babies are without sin. We suffer the effects of Adam's sin, but without inheriting his guilt. Not only do we remain free from the guilt of Adam's sin, but in contrast to the Western Fathers, our will remains free. We can choose not to sin, and if we do so, the guilt is purely ours. It's not completely impossible for someone to remain without sin; Athanasius claimed that Jeremiah and John the Baptist did so. Compared with the Western Fathers, the Eastern are far more optimistic about the human condition. This, I think, is something that can be worked with. No longer are we struggling to reconcile some weird medieval idea with the modern world; rather, we have one that translates rather nicely.

Despite our debates about nature versus nurture, we assume these days that babies are born innocent, and this isn't incompatible with the Eastern Fathers. While we doubtless do have inborn sinful tendencies, nobody that I know of attributes all of them to nurture. There's plenty of evidence, for instance, that dysfunctional families produce dysfunctional children, and that sociopaths have often experienced deprivation or abuse as children. We're all affected to the core of our personalities by the experiences we go through, and we all experience the badness of human beings at a young age. I remember primary school, for instance, as being ruled by the law of the jungle.

It wasn't just the kids either. There was a scheme to put a dual carriageway through a few hundred yards away, and whole streets of houses along the proposed line of the road became empty and unsalable. When the plan was scrapped, they all went on the market togethe, and sole for next to nothing. Overnight, we had a flourishing multi-ethnic community around us. Overnight, the kids started referring to the newcomers as 'wogs'. Nobody ever said it was wrong to do so. Obviously, they got the term from their parents; the teachers didn't use it themselves, or not in public anyway. But their own racism was visible in the fact that they never had a word to say against it. That, not genetic inheritance, is how sin is passed from one generation to the next.

Obviously, modern Christianity is much more in tune with the Eastern than the Western Fathers on this point. We probably have John Wesley to thank for this. We tend to think of him as an evangelist and church builder, but he was much more than this. He taught Greek at Oxford at one time; it was his Lincoln fellowship which entitled him to preach in any parish in England. He was immensely widely read, and was influenced by the Eastern Fathers. Our belief that we have free will, and can thus choose to sin or not, goes back to Wesley's Arminian doctrine.

So we can throw out a good deal of bathwater, and retain the baby. Original sin isn't necessarily nonsense, and babies dying unbaptised (and how many of us accept that magical view of baptism anyway?) aren't necessarily damned. I suppose I'll have to tackle the Atonement next, and that's even more complicated, so it'll probably turn out to be a series of posts.

1 comment:

  1. Our residual folk beliefs about baptism in the West are based on medieval scholasticism (having to have everything explained logically) and the individualist theologies of the Reformation. Both ignore the 1st. Century, Jewish concept of household in which wives, children, servants and slaves within a household were regarded as both the property of the patriarch and an organic and spiritual extension of himself. So, if the father has repented and been baptised so too has all of his household including any babies that are born into his household.

    We no longer have such a view of family but a modern interpretation of the concept would fit well with your comments regarding nurture. If parents strive to live a Godly life then there will be an effect for the good on the lives of their children. If parents selfishly seek only their own pleasure without regard for the wider community then the children of such parents will, almost always, grow up with the same tendencies.

    Therefore, we need to emphasise the community aspect of Holy Baptism - the family community, the church community and the social community that the baby is naturally part of. The emphasis in any service of baptism should be on the responsibility accepted in the liturgy by the representatives of each community on behalf of each community, rather than on the candidate's responsibility for their own strivings for righteousness. This should be applied at adult baptisms as well as infant baptisms. We already accept righteousness by proxy in our understandings of incarnation and atonement. We accept that we are all part of the body of Christ. I do not think it would be heresy to allow the return of some of the catholic understanding of effective community and to ditch some of our protestant ideas about salvation being a purely personal matter between the individual and God.