Original Sin: A Cultural History

It is said that when Jonathan Edwards delivered his most famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” to a congregation in Enfield, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1741, the burden of the imagery was so powerful that his congregants began wailing loudly over the depravity of their condition — so much so, in fact, that Edwards had to interrupt his sermon to ask for quiet. When that didn?t calm the audience, he had to abandon the sermon; it wouldn?t appear in its complete form until it was later published.

Such is the power that the theological concept of “original sin” can hold over its adherents. Edwards, perhaps the greatest theologian in this country?s history, grappled with its meaning his entire life, seeking to understand and justify what others, particularly in England at the dawn of the modern era, were optimistically jettisoning, installing “moral virtue” rather than utter depravity at the core of their theology. By “original sin” is meant not merely the sin of Adam in disobeying God?s prohibition on eating from the Tree of Knowledge but also its devastating corollary; as St. Paul wrote in the Book of Romans, “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin.” In Romans 3:10 he more bluntly stated, “As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one.” If such a bedrock fact is at odds with a new spirit of melioration among liberal theologians, Edwards reckoned, the problem lies not with the concept of original sin — or even with the thorny issue of why God would permit man to fall, making Himself something of the author of sin — but with the limits of human understanding into the ways of God. But at any rate, he wrote in his own volume dedicated to the troubling notion, The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin (1757), “The immediate consequence was a fatal catastrophe, a turning of all things upside down, and the succession of a state of the most odious and dreadful confusion.”

It?s necessary to linger over Edwards, for he looms over the shoulder of English professor Alan Jacobs throughout Original Sin: A Cultural History. Although the tyrannical concept of pure iniquity has dominated and engaged the thought of figures as towering as Augustine, John Milton, Blaise Pascal, and, in our last century, C. P. Snow and Reinhold Niebuhr, it is Edwards who seems the most relevant to Jacobs?s own understanding of the doctrine and its ramifications — its extension of a radical democracy of sorts in which everyone, no matter what their station in life, is inherently equal because they are equally damned. (Edwards himself explicitly wrote of the Native Americans he witnessed to, and the new theologians who rejected the doctrine, as subject to “universal declension.”) “In general it is easier for most of us to condescend, ” Jacobs writes, “in the etymological sense of the word — to see ourselves as sharing shortcomings or sufferings with others — than to lift up people whom our culturally formed instincts tell us are decidedly inferior to ourselves. If misery does not always love company, it surely tolerates it quite well, whereas pride demands distinction and hierarchy, and is ultimately willing to pay for those in the coin of isolation.”

Jacobs is forthright about his own evangelical identity. Writing on Augustine?s encounter with the sharp blade of Paul?s letters — which led the African bishop to formulate, in a set of disputatious dialogues with a rival sect, that “even infants are born sinners, not by their own act but because of their origin” — Jacobs notes, “I write this as one who was similarly pierced; it was my discovery that Paul understood my inmost griefs and self-loathings that led me to Christianity.” Even as he traces the history of the doctrine, its anthropological understanding of the nature of evil, and the emphasis it places on a sort of Christian idea of inheritance — which he does from the time of the Church Fathers through the Enlightenment and the birth of utopian thought, on up to recent thinkers (including Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, and social psychologist Philip Zimbardo), Jacobs shows his fangs to those who deny what Paul called the “mystery of iniquity.” He clearly has a dog in this fight.

No one receives the full brunt of his wrath as much as Rousseau and the myth of the noble savage. Writing of the “Wordsworthian fluff about the innocence and purity of children,” he argues, “certainly I have always wondered whether those who talk about ?childlike innocence? have had children of their own or even spent much time around them.” When he recounts the sad outcome of the child of one intellectual who was sent to Rousseau to be reared according to the philosopher?s coddling theories in ?mile, he notes that the boy never subsequently “took well to schooling of any kind. He became a sailor and eventually immigrated to America, dying in North Carolina at the age of thirty-two.” At least Jacobs is honest in not repressing his Schadenfreude over the stunted moral growth of the young man.

This of course raises a perfectly valid question: how profitable is his book for a nonbeliever? Jacobs, as noted, never hides his positions, and he indeed lays out a historically informed defense of what many have considered a most pernicious doctrine that grew out of the particular self-loathing antihumanism of Paul and Augustine. (And he is probably most entertaining as a writer when he is eagerly puncturing the bloated and self-contradictory homilies of Zimbardo et al.) That said, Jacobs?s discussion is terrifically worthwhile for exposing how the idea of “evil,” as enunciated within the doctrine, undergoes permutations and translations over time. Paul did well in describing it as a “mystery.” In a sparkling discussion of Rebecca West?s prewar tome on Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, he lays out what an “Augustinian anthropology without its accompanying theology” might look like. As West, a nonbeliever, confronts the bloody history of Serbia, to which she was drawn over the “corrupt,” Western-oriented Croatia, she hears an ugly, death-driven sermon that it is better to be crucified than to crucify. Considering the Serbian cult of the martyred Prince Lazar, beheaded in 1389 in Kosovo, West wrote, “If it be a law that those who are born into the world with a preference for the agreeable over the disagreeable are born also with an impulse towards defeat,, then the whole world is a vast Kosovo, an abominable blood-logged plain, where people who love go out to fight people who hate, and betray their cause to their enemies, so that loving is persecuted for immense tracts of history.? If this disposition to be at once Christ and Judas is inborn?we might as well die, and the sooner the better.” Her illusions are destroyed, but she is beyond redemption. So what of that Augustinian anthropology minus the theology? In light of West?s ruminations, Jacobs calls her conclusion “one of the worst positions a person can occupy in thinking of her fellow human beings.” Jonathan Edwards would no doubt have agreed.