Friday, December 31, 2010

Review: Original Sin

Original Sin: A Cultural HistoryOriginal Sin: A Cultural History by Alan Jacobs

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the introduction, Jacob notes that of all religious beliefs, none provokes more criticism and repulsion than the doctrine of original sin. Original sin is irreparable, irreversible, and unpredictable (x-xi). It is the belief that every human being is born with sin already in them. That we all inherit sin, and are culpable. The history of original sin is a history of resistance to it. So why, over the centuries, have so many stubbornly believed it? Well, as Chesterton noted, original sin has enormous empirical evidence (“it is the only doctrine of the Christian faith that is empirically provable” [x])! But the main reason it has been adopted by some of the greatest thinkers in the history of the world is its vast explanatory power. All other explanations for human evil and selfishness fall short.

Original Sin is, in Jacob’s words, “an exemplary history” (as opposed to an exhaustive one), and “a specifically cultural history” (as opposed to a theological history). Thus Jacobs mines the literature of centuries and turns up story after story of people who either fought or defended the doctrine of original sin. The stories range from the ancient past (King David and Bathsheba) to the more recent dawn of eugenics and genetics. Those who are resistant to belief in “a divided self” will need to overcome a barrage of fire to maintain their skepticism by the final page.

One thing that stands out in Jacob’s brilliant treatment is the theme of original sin’s positive contributions to history and life. He introduces us to Pascal, who realized that only the fear of God that comes from being corrupt sinners in the sight of God enables us to have proper wonder at God’s love (116). The power of original sin to bind humans together in a “confraternity” is seen throughout the book, but especially in the chapter on American slavery. Original sin is a brake that can slow and restrain the course of evil (209-10).

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a Soviet prisoner who was brought to faith by being persuaded of the truthfulness of original sin. How he was persuaded of original sin is most interesting. As he watched a habitually-brutal prison guard, he realized over time that

given the same power in the same circumstances, he himself would surely have behaved with equal cruelty. “In the intoxication of youthful successes” he had believed himself “infallible”; it was the Gulag that taught him that he was “a murderer, and an oppressor.” It was the Gulag that taught him that everyone has the capacity to become a Stalin and that therefore “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but through every human heart.” (224)

Jacobs mines Rebecca West’s work, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (which he believes to be “the greatest book of the twentieth century” [283]), to provide us a vivid illustration of the human heart. West visited a biological museum and sees a two-headed calf. One head was lovely, the other hideous. The owners had fed the beautiful head milk, but the ugly head would spit the milk out, preventing the food from reaching the calf’s stomach. According to the custodian, the calf would have been “alive today had it not been for its nature” (223).

I found the stories where original sin intersected with science to be very interesting. The final chapter features this intersection the most because it deals with genetics. But it also appears in the chapter on American slavery. Interestingly, it is science, not the religious belief of original sin, which gets the bad rap. Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz was

a progenitor of “scientific racism”—the view that, setting aside any biblical narratives or doctrines that support the unity and common origin of human beings, there is no such thing as the human race; rather, there are several races that, carelessly and unscientifically, have been lumped in a single category. It was the task of science to disentangle the confused strands, to establish clear distinctions among races, to rank them according to intellectual capacity, and to insist that those rankings be reflected in law and public policy. And so the superstitions of biblical literalism would be set aside in the name of scientific progress, which is also, of course, social progress. (203)

Few questions can be more important than what is wrong with us. An incredible journey awaits anyone willing to pick up this book. I highly recommend it.

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Anonymous said...

Nice review, Mike. Looks like a very interesting book. I'll have to add to my reading list.

He introduces us to Pascal, who realized that only the fear of God that comes from being corrupt sinners in the sight of God enables us to have proper wonder at God’s love (116).

This reminds me of Calvin at the beginning of his _Institutes_ where he discusses the knowledge of God and of ourselves. We can only have a proper knowledge of God when we have a proper knowledge of ourselves and vice versa.

God bless,


MJK said...

Hi Joel

Do add it to your list!

Thanks for the note about the Institutes. I plan to read through them in the first half of 2011. Let me know if you have any advice about how to maximize the benefits of this reading project!