Original Sin: A Cultural History

by Alan Jacobs

HarperOne, 304 pages, $24.95

Chesterton said of original sin that it “is the only part of Christian theology that can really be proved””by which he meant empirically demonstrated in every era, in every culture, and in every human being’s life. The stain of original sin blankets the world. It can be found on American presidents, on Samoan teenagers (pace Margaret Mead), and, one is forced to admit, even on one’s beloved authors.

My favorite demonstration, in the Chestertonian sense, of the aftermath of Adam’s disobedience on the soul can be found in the Prayers and Meditations of Samuel Johnson. Here we have a scrupulous record of temptation, sin, and repentance over the course of nearly half a century, a story whose constant refrain is the doleful fugue of failure, failure, failure. Johnson’s first entry, in 1729, is Desidiae valedixi; syrenis istius cantibus surdam posthac aurem obversurus : “I bid farewell to Sloth, being resolved henceforth not to listen to her siren strains.” Throughout his life, on major days of the year”Good Friday, Easter, New Year’s Day, his birthday”he wrote similar prayers, fraught with self-recrimination and vows of self-transformation. His last composition, just a week before his death, laments his “imperfect repentance”; other prayers from his final months declare his “wickedness” and the “multitude of his offenses.”

Psychoanalysts may be tempted to describe this lifelong pattern as obsessive-compulsive disorder, but Johnson, a devout Anglican, knew better. He called it “the captivity of sin” and considered himself to be a death-row inmate. Nor was this pessimism the result of idle fancy. In her memoirs, his friend Mrs. Thrale wrote that “the natural depravity of mankind and remains of original sin were so fixed in Mr. Johnson’s opinion, that he was indeed a most acute observer of their effects.” To his biographer Boswell, Johnson asserted that “men are evidently and confessedly so corrupt that all the laws of heaven and earth are insufficient to restrain them from crimes.”

Alan Jacobs, a professor of literature at Wheaton College, doesn’t mention Samuel Johnson in his informative, discursive, and entertaining Original Sin: A Cultural History .

He doesn’t need to. For original sin is, as Chesterton and Johnson averred, by definition universal. Jacobs describes it as “sin that’s already inside us, already dwelling in us at our origin, at our very conception,” echoing David’s cry in Psalm 51, “I was shaped in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”

As such, original sin has wreaked havoc upon us all. Original sin is universal in a second sense as well, for the doctrine (or analogues of astonishing similarity) can be found across a spectrum of cultures, some of them far removed from Christian influence, as Jacobs reveals in his brilliant opening chapter. Plato speaks in his Laws of wrongdoing as “an infatuate obsession that is bred in men by crime done long ago and never expiated.” The Confucian sage Xun Zu (310-237 b.c. ) taught that “the nature of man is evil; goodness is the result of training.” The Urapmin, a people in Papua New Guinea, embraced Pentecostalism in the twentieth century and soon found that “every time they looked within, they found more darkness, more willfulness, more disobedience.”

When we think of the history of the doctrine of original sin, however, our minds turn not to China or the East Indies but to northern Africa and the Levant, to the two great promulgators of the teaching, Augustine and Paul. Jacobs, thankfully, is not among the jostling crowd of Paul-haters; one can hardly tackle the history of original sin with any justice without appreciating Paul’s genius in so deftly formulating the doctrine”for instance, at Romans 5:12: “Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned.”

This seems a fairly transparent definition, yet, as Jacobs points out, numerous theologians insist on placing the invention of original sin on the poor bruised shoulders of Augustine of Hippo, who, they say, misread Paul (one such scholar being Elaine Pagels, whom Jacobs gently rebukes in turn for misreading, or failing to read with sufficient thoroughness, the early Church Fathers on Paul). Jacobs is for the most part in Augustine’s corner, and he provides a splendid portrait of the great bishop seated in his marble episcopal chair, biblical manuscripts balanced on his lap, thrilling his audience with tales of God’s love and wrath. But even Jacobs lashes Augustine for disparaging sexuality and for maintaining that unbaptized infants burn in hell”the latter a view also held, incidentally, by Dr. Johnson. Today this position is no longer widely held. (The Catholic Catechism , for instance, now speaks of “hope that there is a way of salvation” for unbaptized children.)

Augustine’s equation of sexuality with sin is more of a problem. Many Christian theologians”not least John Paul II, in his theology of the body”have celebrated sexual embodiment and described sexual activity as a fundamental good within the sacrament of marriage. Still, it can scarcely be denied that lust (still a deadly sin) participates in the celebration. Our sexual organs manifest, as Jacobs playfully puts it, “prideful disobedience . . . in contravention of or just plain indifference to a man’s will,” as “his penis lifts its proud head according to its own preferences.”

The doctrine enunciated by Paul and elaborated by Augustine soon entered and shaped the mainstream of Western thought. Jacobs has a grand time mapping out its subsequent course, detailing its appearance in the works of Milton, Pascal, Bunyan, Edwards, and a host of others. He pokes into some unexpected corners”weighing, for instance, Satan’s chances of salvation (slim but, according to Martin of Tours, not negligible) and lauding Odilo of Cluny’s founding, at the turn of the first millennium, of All Souls’ Day (devoted to praying for the saved who still have satisfaction to make for their sins).

The doctrine of original sin not only breathes life into art, philosophy, and the liturgical calendar, Jacobs argues, it also proves to be “curiously liberating,” at least for those who accept the corollary of God’s saving grace. While Pelagianism demands superhuman willpower as the path to salvation, belief in original sin places us all in the same boat, helpless sinners dependent on grace, a situation that “gives hope to the waverer, the backslider, the slacker, the putz, the schlemiel.”

Not everyone sees it this way, of course. Among the most entertaining portions of Jacob’s narrative is his account of the naysayers, those to whom the abomination is not original sin (which they deny) but the concept of original sin”the writers who insist that human nature is a blank slate or, more optimistically, essentially good.

The most celebrated standard- bearer here is Jean-Jacques Rousseau, famous for introducing the concept of the noble savage. (Although, as Jacobs points out, Rousseau himself never used the term.) Rousseau’s core idea, which drove his voluminous writings, is beautifully condensed in the first sentence of his novel Émile : “Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the Author of things, everything degenerates in the hands of man””an exact reversal, astute readers will notice, of Xun Zu’s pessimistic saying.

Ironically, while working out his theory Rousseau had recourse to his own version of the Fall, describing the despoliation of human nature under the baleful influence of a serpent, here called “Society,” through the transformation of amour de soi (healthy self-love) into amour propre (pride). Voltaire’s acidic reaction to this theory, quoted by Jacobs, is worth repeating: “I have received, Monsieur, your new book against the human race, and I thank you. No one has employed so much intelligence to turn us men into beasts. One starts wanting to walk on all fours after reading your book. However, in more than sixty years I have lost the habit.”

For those who embraced Rousseau, though, the question arose of how to undo society’s evil work. The answer was to reconstruct, in one form or another, the prelapsarian state. Thus the long comic/tragic history of building utopia, an exercise in folly that began long before Rousseau’s birth but took enormous impetus from his pen. Jacobs focuses on a few colorful examples, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Pantisocracy and Robert Owen’s New Harmony”the latter intended, as Owen wrote in his “Declaration of Mental Independence,” to free all humankind from “the trinity of evils responsible for all the world’s misery and vice: traditional religion, conventional marriage, and . . . private property.” Both projects quickly shipwrecked; Eden, it seems, is not so easily regained.

Utopias aside, debate over the doctrine of original sin continued unabated. It played a role in the great slavery debates that preceded the Civil War, in William James’ religion of healthy-mindedness, in the pessimism of Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon , and in the confessions of Whittaker Chambers. The doctrine has found new life among scientists: in the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment of Philip Zimbardo (in which college students energetically mistreated inmates in an ersatz prison), for example, and in the writings of experimental psychologist Steven Pinker (who believes that violence is genetically inscribed). Violence, Jacobs observes, is not the same as sin, and yet such claims mark a further rupture in the Rousseauian balloon.

What of the future? David Brooks recently predicted in the New York Times that militant atheism has had its day and that the next great threat to orthodox religious belief is “neural Buddhism,” which describes organized religions as “cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits””thereby rejecting all religious dogma and doctrine, including, of course, original sin.

David Brooks is often right, but here I believe he is wrong. Neural Buddhism lacks popular appeal, for in it there is no cosmic drama, no primal crime, no battle of good versus evil, no damnation, and no salvation. It leaves the imagination cold. Moreover, it relies on fuzzy definitions that do not correspond with lived experience. Belief in the “sacred” and
in “elevated experiences” (Brooks’ terms) hardly explain four millennia of encounters with, devotion to, and speculation about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; nor do “deep instincts for fairness, empathy and attachment” explain the Century of Carnage through which we just passed.

Far more impressive to serious minds are the dreadful musings of Herman Melville, whose White Whale can be read as the quintessential literary incarnation of the “sense of innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or another, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free. For, in certain moods, no man can weigh this world without throwing in something, somehow like Original Sin, to strike the uneven balance.”

The world may flirt with Pelagianism or neural Buddhism or any other of the countless ideologies that sidestep original sin, but there is no doubt that readers will find in Alan Jacobs’ exploration of this vexing, inescapable doctrine far more matter for serious reflection and liberating repentance.


Philip Zaleski is the editor of The Best American Spiritual Writing series and the author, most recently, of Prayer: A History (with Carol Zaleski)

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Articles by Philip Zaleski

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