My parents had a working theology of original sin. Perhaps they weren’t exactly clear as to what original sin was, but they had, at the very core of their understanding of life, a deep sense of its substance.
Of course, they weren’t so naive as to take the story of Adam and Eve and the apple literally, but they did believe that this story contained a profound, archetypal truth both about history and ourselves. What did they believe? They believed that because Adam and Eve “ate the apple” history and our lives are now marked by certain things (and, for them, it didn’t much matter that the story of the apple was not a video-taped recording of history). For them, because of this primordial event, whatever it was, individually and collectively, we find ourselves helpless to save ourselves; only grace from outside can help us. Second, because of this initial “fall”, none of us is as morally whole as we would like to think we are in our more inflated moments. Rather, if we are honest, we all know the truth of Paul’s lament in the Epistle to the Romans: “Woe to me, wretch that I am, the good I want to do I end up not doing and the evil I want to avoid I end up doing.” Finally too, because of this primordial event, we live outside of the garden of Eden, in a world that is less than perfect and we can never find in this life a full, consummated symphony but rather are “weeping in a valley of tears.”
Today, we tend to react negatively, especially emotionally, to all these beliefs: We don’t like admitting helplessness, we balk at singing the famous line from Amazing Grace (“that saved a wretch like me”), and we think it morbid to consider this world a “valley of tears”. Curiously though, I submit, because of how they understood original sin, my parents’ generation had a certain peace, one that comes of wisdom, that we lack today. Among other things, their belief in original sin helped give them the capacity to recognize that they were weak, morally inept, and much in need of personal conversion. It also helped them accept that, here in this life, there are no finished symphonies and that death, chaos, and accidents, life’s nasty contingencies, can be accepted without having to blame or sue anybody and without having to grow angry and impatient with everything. In the end, their theology of original sin served them well. It helped them make peace with the fact that life is, more often than not, far from ideal.
One of our problems today is that we are trying to understand ourselves and our lives without the benefit of a theology of original sin. We would like to believe that we can be morally whole all by ourselves, that it is morbid to ever refer to oneself as “a wretch”, that a finished symphony can be had in this life (if only we are lucky enough or work hard enough at it), and that our efforts at changing the world need focus only on converting systems and never on purging personal fault. We would like to live our lives as if … as if selfishness and greed are simple learned behaviours; as if somewhere there are functional families, churches, and institutions, and our own are anomalies; and as if, in the end, we could save ourselves without God.
This is, I believe, a naivete. We are trying to understand life – and come to peace with it – without an adequate symbol to help explain how, at its very root, it is somehow un-whole. We admit of course that there is something wrong, for there always is, but we prefer to name it with lesser, less archetypal and less religious, symbols. Thus we speak of patriarchy, the corporate structure, capitalism, false freedom, non-conscientization, and the like, as if these actually were original sin and not just certain functional substitutes. Marxism as an ideology, for example, contains precisely this naivete. Ultimately it collapsed in Eastern Europe and is destined to fall elsewhere because it contains no concept of original sin. Instead it tries to convince us that we can adequately explain human nature and that there is sufficient reason to give ourselves away to community in altruism, without reference to a personal God (who alone can ask such things) and a theology of original sin (which alone adequately situates our resistance and points to its widest cause).
For my mum and dad, there was an adequate explanation for things: Adam and Eve “ate an apple”, whatever that meant, and since then we have found ourselves outside of the garden of paradise, in a valley of tears, un-whole, grieving something long lost, deeply in need of both collective and personal healing, but still standing gratefully before a gracious, ultimate power, the saving grace of God. That makes more sense than anything else I’ve read lately.