The Magazine

Annals of Eden

Does the serpent have the last word?

Jan 26, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 18 • By RYAN T. ANDERSON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Centuries later, the doctrine's relation to equality would play out in the efforts of abolitionists. The Harvard botanist Louis Agassiz developed theories of polygeny--that each race descended from different parents--to support the claim that blacks are "in everything unlike the other races." Against this, the Presbyterian James Henley Thornwell grounded our equality in our common ancestry: "No Christian man .  .  . can give any countenance to speculations which trace the Negro to any other parent but Adam."

The concept of original sin played a major role, as well, in the development of 20th-century American thought. As the historian George Nash has observed, underlying conservatism's political philosophy is "a Christianity grounded in what was, for many neoconservatives, the deepest lesson of World War II: the lesson of evil, of original sin." I guess one could call it the original mugging by reality.

Though Original Sin is long and about a rather unpleasant topic, Jacobs's flowing prose keeps the book moving at a nice pace. But it advances no clear thesis--the tension between our potential for moral greatness and the lived experience of our inclination toward evil is as close as Jacobs gets--and it leaves a good deal out. Readers will want, for example, some reflections on the 20th-century totalitarian regimes and their utopian denial of original sin, on the role of Calvinist thought during the American Founding, and on the idea of the felix culpa (the belief that Adam's sin was a happy fault for meriting so great a redeemer in Jesus Christ).

G.K. Chesterton famously quipped that original sin is "the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved." In that vein, Jacobs presents a lively discussion of recent scientific investigations into human nature, such as the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, in which students serving as prison guards all too easily shed their repugnance to inflicting pain. He also turns to evolutionary psychology. Noting that three separate secular reviewers had described arguments by Steven Pinker as modern-day doctrines of original sin, Jacobs quotes Pinker as affirming, in essence, a fallen nature: "Violence is not a primitive, irrational urge. .  .  . Instead, it is a near-inevitable outcome of the dynamic of self-interested, rational social organisms."

Read in this light, evolutionary psychology can show that we come into the world predisposed to wrongdoing. It can even explain why we're (biologically) so disposed. The one thing it cannot explain is what exactly is wrong about our wrongdoing.

Meanwhile, the utopian social theorists who seek to break the chains that man creates, convinced that we all are good at heart, end up denying the evil we all know exists. Saddest of all are those who recognize original sin but see no hope for redemption. Jacobs gives the example of Rebecca West, whose travels through Yugoslavia during the run-up to World War II brought her to "one of the worst positions a person can occupy"--accepting the truth of "an Augustinian anthropology without its accompanying theology."

Which is why the opening redacted lines from St. Paul can never stand complete. Watching a guard at the Gulag repeatedly abuse prisoners, Solzhenitsyn came to believe that he would have acted the same if only given the chance, that "the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either--but right through every human heart." That realization drove Solzhenitsyn into the Orthodox Church, where he could hear the complete words of St. Paul: "For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive."

Ryan T. Anderson is the editor of Public Discourse: Ethics, Law and the Public Good, a publication of the Witherspoon Institute.