Original Sin

A Cultural History

by Alan Jacobs

HarperOne, 304 pp., $24.95

As St. Paul told the Romans: "Sin came into the world through one man; many died through one man's trespass; the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation; because of one man's trespass, death reigned; one trespass led to condemnation; by one man's disobedience the many were made sinners."

Well, actually, that's not quite all Paul said. It's what you get if you take the Letter to the Romans and remove all mention of Christ, leaving just the fallen world that Adam made for us. Alan Jacobs gives this stripped-down passage from Paul in his new book, Original Sin--and rightly so, for Jacobs, who teaches English at Wheaton College, has set out to explore how the concept of original sin is key to understanding ourselves.

The Book of Genesis is clear enough about what happened that fateful day in the Garden, but the Jewish tradition developed no doctrine of original sin. For that, we needed Paul, with his description of man's alienation from God and his discussion of the fallen nature it produced: "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate."

Jacobs walks through the historical controversies surrounding these passages' interpretation, especially the battles with Pelagius in which St. Augustine emphasized the existential reality of the soul's bondage to sin. To Pelagius, that seemed an excuse; even in this life we can follow Christ's command to "be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect." Fortunately, Pelagius's spiritual elitism (he wanted everyone to be a monk) was rejected by the Church. It proved to be Augustine's recognition of our fettering that left room for our liberation by grace.

But we shouldn't get lost in theological thickets. Jacobs's subtitle, "A Cultural History," is apt. The book's concern is not so much to trace the development of the doctrine as to show how it permeates our culture and our identity. Of original sin, Pascal remarked that "nothing jolts us more rudely .  .  . and yet but for this mystery, the most incomprehensible of all, we remain incomprehensible to ourselves." Jacobs agrees that the key to "explaining ourselves to ourselves" is "reconsidering that curious concept called peccatum originalis, the belief that we arrive in this world predisposed to wrongdoing."

Original Sin explores the concept with key examples from history, works of literature, cinema, music, political theory, social criticism, and even psychology and evolutionary biology. Jacobs includes the predictable cast: Augustine, Shakespeare, Milton, Bunyan, Edwards, Lewis, Tolkien. But he also invites some surprising guests: Plato, the Confucian Xun Zu, Rousseau, Muddy Waters, Richard Dawkins, and such movies as Animal House, The Emperor's New Groove, and Hellboy. Jacobs's use of examples is, by necessity, somewhat erratic, and it makes the book's thesis and overarching narrative a little hard to discern.

Still, some examples stand out. Jacobs considers the relation of original sin to educational theory. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, believed that just as disease makes medicine necessary, "so the disorders of our rational nature have introduced the necessity of education and tutors." Education aims at "discerning these sins and rooting them out as aggressively as possible." But then there is Rousseau, who believed that naturally good human beings are corrupted by society. He claimed that his discourse on education offers "simply a treatise on the natural goodness of man, intended to show how vice and error are foreign to his constitution, invade it from outside, and imperceptibly alter it."

Of course, Rousseau leaves us no answer for the question of where the evil in society comes from. And Christian views about the origin of this evil provide, surprisingly enough, an even stronger grounding for human equality. All humans--the rich and the poor, the high and the low--inherit the stain of Adam, Jacobs argues, and stand in equal need of redemption.

To buttress this claim, Jacobs recounts how Odilo, a 10th-century abbot of Cluny, introduced the Feast of All Souls (when the church prays for all the departed) just after the Feast of All Saints (when the church honors the saints in heaven). Such a move, Jacobs says, promotes democracy here on earth, "based on .  .  . the judgment that each of us stands under because of our inheritance from Adam." The spirit of Odilo's feast "offends every aristocracy, real or imagined, traditional or inverted--every attempt to separate 'us' from 'them.' "

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.

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