Original Sin: A Cultural History
reviewed by Amanda Shaw
Original Sin is “an exemplary history,” its author says, “so-called not because it embodies excellence that other historians would do well to imitate, but because it makes its case through examples.” Scholarly tomes, staggering under the metaphysics and theology of original sin, often ignore the lived reality of fallenness and its result in despair or denial.
Alan Jacobs, professor of literature at Wheaton College, attempts to convey that reality through a series of cultural anecdotes. In doing so, he makes the paradoxical case that recognition of our innate sinfulness is a prerequisite for Christian hope and joy.
A Clearly Murky World
Can we sinful creatures possibly imagine what it is to be whole, Jacobs wonders, after discussing Augustine’s and Paul’s understanding of “the disease of the soul” afflicting all of us “children of wrath.” And with Milton he ponders the converse: How could a sinless creature, tempted beneath the tree of knowledge, possibly grasp the meaning of death or evil? “Some dreadful thing no doubt,” mused Milton’s Eve, but what did the Edenic bride know of dread?
In short, how was temptation possible? Jacobs gives no answer; the precise cause of the Fall is not ours to know, but the effect is undeniable.
This effect is not just the illusion of our over-sensitized Judeo-Christian consciences. Plato’s unnamed Athenian conceded the reality of “universal human frailty”—that “infatuate obsession that is bred in men by crime done long ago and never expiated”—and the Chinese sage Xún Zu put it even more bluntly: “The nature of man is evil.” The acclaimed Ulysses had ample opportunity to prove his might, but heroism often succumbed to humanity; on falling prey to Circe and Calypso, the warrior pitifully confessed, “As we are men, we could not help consenting.”
Call it what you will, there is something wrong with mankind, with each and every one of us.
Shrugging off the Burden
What is one to do? One can learn from Adam and shrug off the burden of blame, for which there are plenty of techniques. Augustine saw one in the Pelagians, whom Jacobs compares to the motivational speakers of our own times: “You can do it! You can be like Christ!” Man has the rational power to “come of age” before God, said the proto-enlightened Pelagians; he can emancipate himself with independent acts of goodness.
Thirteen centuries later, the Quakers took a similarly soothing, though less theologically rigorous, approach: We are led, they proclaimed, by our “inner light,” the “Christ within,” and moral anguish is the mark of a soul-sick pessimist. “I am the son of God,” said one founder, who thought that Christians worried too much about the biblical Jesus. Whereas John Bunyan responded with his tortured reflections on being the “Chief of Sinners,” for whom grace is the only hope, “presumably,” Jacobs remarks, the Quakers “would have prescribed Prozac, had it been available.”
Across the channel, Blaise Pascal waged a similar battle against the Jesuits, who were busy “‘defining deviancy down’ so that the great forbidding cliff of Mount Sinai was reduced to a scarcely noticeable rise of ground.” Pascal could be as clever as the Jesuits, but unlike them, he was not interested in mitigating morality and coddling consciences. “Our fathers,” he jibed, “have dispensed men from the irksome obligation of actually loving God.”
Pascal’s satire was exaggerated but prescient: His fellow Christians had embarked on a self-justifying trajectory, in which God becomes superfluous as man becomes like God. In short, if man can absolve himself from sin and sinfulness, who needs a Savior?
Who indeed?, asked the British factory owner and eighteenth-century socialist Robert Owen. There are problems in the world, he realized, yet they spring from societal corruptions (religion being the most egregious), not man. He decided to establish, as a peaceful remedy, a closely regulated commune with no creed but Rousseauian idealism and no savior but himself.
But when Owen tried to institute his utopia, Jacobs observes, “all hell broke loose” in New Harmony. Owen wasn’t the first—and certainly wasn’t the last—to try that experiment and experience those results. As Whittaker Chambers later observed, today’s men have witnessed the struggle between “the two great faiths of our time,” Christianity and Communism: “faith in God and faith in man.”
Some people, however, fall into neither congregation. These double-nonbelievers acknowledge man’s innate sinfulness but cannot turn their burdened shoulders toward the Lord.
Squelched with the weight of sin, the Donatists of Augustine’s age veered in this direction, and, disenchanted with the progress of progress, many postmodernists do, too. As Jacobs remarks, such people “embrace an Augustinian anthropology without its accompanying theology.” Ironically, they end up as close neighbors to the Pelagians; they deny the possibility of grace, while the Pelagians denied our need for it. Neither knows much about hope.
Hope to the Schlemiel
That Jacobs keeps his narrative from wallowing in the slough of despond is a tribute to his talent for weaving stories, and weaving them together.
In the last chapter, we trek from the declaration of the Immaculate Conception to the peapods of Gregor Mendel and from eugenics to behaviorism, all in an attempt to discover if original sin is, really or metaphorically, “in the genes,” or if it is simply a cultural construction and constriction. Jacobs never gives us a definitive answer, but Original Sin shows us why these questions matter.
Moreover, it shows us that it is grace, the encounter of those lost by sin with the saving Lord, which changes the drama of life from tragedy to comedy. Through original sin, all men are equal: equally fallen, equally subject to judgment as members of what Chesterton called the “democracy of the dead.” But if God’s justice extends to all, so too does his healing mercy; the doctrine of original sin frees man—no matter his birth or background—for the truth of sola gratia.
Sin and grace: The realization of these twin realities, Alan Jacobs emphasizes again and again, gives hope and joy: “hope to the waverer, the backslider, the slacker, the putz, and the schlemiel.” And that covers everyone.
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“Old Disharmony” first appeared in the December 2008 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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