Head to Head
Ancient Christian doctrines tend to be
preserved over millennia, probably mainly because they derive from a
time closer to the Church's origins. One such is the teaching about
original sin. Mick and Rick discuss the idea that sin is somehow
inherited from our parents and therefore ultimately from our most primitive
ancestors, typified by the myth of Adam and Eve.
Christian theology seems to conflict with Western secular understanding
of the world at many points. That’s no doubt as it should be, for the
Christian Way of living has been at odds with that of “the world”
since the very earliest days. Indeed, Jesus himself undoubtedly often
went against the grain of the Roman-Judeo culture of which he was part.
Having said that, there are a number of doctrines
which, despite centuries of teaching, seem today to have lost the
support of many Christians. The doctrine of Original Sin is one such. It
is based on Pauline teaching such as Romans 5.12-21 and 1 Corinthians
15.22. It goes roughly like this:
Sin came into the world
through Adam and Eve. They were reduced to what can be called a
“natural state” by their rebellion. That is, they became subject to
sin, corruption and death. Their sin is transmitted to us all through
natural generation so that our free will is weakened though not totally
Of course, the early teachings were often modified
and elaborated over the centuries. For example, Thomas Aquinas eased
strict versions by saying that each of us shares in the original sin of
Adam and Eve in the same way a person’s hand shares responsibility for
a murder. But I think it’s fair to say that the initial, more simple
concept we have from Paul has survived more or less intact and, if not
often bruited abroad by Christians, at any rate lies buried at the heart
of the way they regard the world.
Am I correct in supposing that you uphold Paul’s
teaching? And if so, I wonder how you interpret it.
Where did sin come from? According to biblical scholars it occurred
simultaneously with the Fall
that took place in the Garden of Eden. In my book, Time and The
Mystery of Consciousness (Dorrance, 2003), I suggest the Garden of
Eden story is really describing the attainment of consciousness by
humans and that this event in turn propelled us into the realm of
morality and provided the capacity for sinning. The unique faculty of
consciousness is a defining feature of Homo
sapiens, a constitutional factor transmitted to all humans. Thus,
Paul’s idea that “sin came into the world through one man …” is
consistent with this mode of the transmission of original sin.
Consciousness also provides the foundation of free
will and identifies each person in the mass of humanity, giving dignity to
the individual, a classic Judeo-Christian concept. Thus, consciousness
has immense importance in our discussions about our nature as humans and
our relationship to the Creator of the cosmos who made consciousness
seems you are deriving from a being’s consciousness its capacity to
make moral choices. That is, a conscious being can choose to sin, while
a non-conscious being cannot know right from wrong. I need only ask,
“Is a chimpanzee conscious?” For if so, then there is perhaps such a
thing a chimp lust, or chimp envy, or chimp greed. Is chimp sin
essentially different from human sin? I wonder. Consciousness is
obviously an inherited thing, and therefore the chimp’s capacity to
sin must also be inherited. Are you actually arguing this, or am I
somehow mistaken in supposing that you are?
I really don’t know if chimps are conscious, at least at the level
of humans. Therefore, the
questions you raise about chimp envy and greed are, to my mind, moot. I
am familiar with studies that show striking facility for learning,
devising and using tools etc. that would support a level of
consciousness approaching but in no way equaling that of humans. One
would have to discuss such topics directly with a chimpanzee
psychologist or philosopher (I mean a real chimp himself who has the
capacity for reasoned discourse) in order to approach the question. Such
an obvious and huge gap between human and chimp cognitive abilities
pushes your question into the realm of impractical fantasy.
The remarkable gift of human consciousness creates
a culture that is clearly distinct from other species on our planet.
This complicated culture created by conscious beings includes an
ineluctable moral code that defines the many ways in which we can sin.
We are victims, as it were, of our consciousness.
Mick, let me ask you, do you think chimps are
conscious? If you do, can you cite evidence for such an assertion?
I think chimps are conscious. It also seems to me that there are degrees
of consciousness. Certain plants are conscious in the sense that they
react to their environment in quite complex ways. For example, a type of
acacia in southern Africa is grazed by antelopes. As the animals begin
eating, the acacia emits a pheromone. Within minutes its neighbours
begin producing an evil-tasting alkaline sap. The result? The antelopes
can eat only for a short time in any one area and the trees survive to
be nibbled (but not destroyed) another day. I’m pretty sure that
chimps have a far greater degree of consciousness than acacias - and
that we humans in turn have a far greater degree of consciousness than
But the issue around sin is not consciousness as
such. Nor is it the issue self-consciousness. The research I have
seen indicates strongly that chimps and other great apes have a good
sense that they are individuals who are distinct from other individuals.
It appears that even so-called “lower” animals - like the elephant,
for example - are also self-conscious.
It seems to me that the issue of sin revolves
around a capacity to reflect upon one’s own internal processes
- that is the ability to think about thinking and about emotions. Only
when a being can examine its own internal processes of thought and
feeling can it be said to have the capacity to sin. So for example: I
can’t be convicted of the sin of envy unless I can think and feel
about the mental and emotional process we call envy. A being which
can’t do that is innocent because it can’t know that it is envious.
The capacity to reflect upon oneself is the basis of free will, not mere
I wonder if we might have begun a digression -
perhaps useful, perhaps not. Isn’t it true that original sin is only a
capacity to sin which is inherited from our parents? It is simply
not true that each of us is born sinful. Self-reflection is part of our
genetic makeup: sinfulness is not. Indeed, there is a strong case to be
made that only adults can truly sin. That is, not until a person reaches
a degree of maturity which allows him or her full self-reflection can
there be sinfulness.
But let’s move on by taking a specific case: What
about a psychopath, someone who is constitutionally unable to appreciate
that others can be hurt? In that respect, he or she utterly lacks that
part of a person’s makeup which we call empathy. It appears that such
a person cannot empathise due to a failure of the genetic system,
rather than one of upbringing. In other words, some actions which we
would normally call sinful are the result of inherited human nature
rather than free choice. I think it’s highly probable that many more
dispositions to act sinfully are also derived from genetic faults and
that what Christians and others often regard as sinful actions are not
actually so. Would you accept that in this sense we might be able to
speak of original sin?
Let me first try to approach your example of the psychopath who
presumably does not have the constitutional faculty to understand that
what he or she does is injurious to others. Civil law recognizes such
defects and defendants are frequently excused from responsibility for
their actions on the basis of “insanity” or similar psychiatric
diagnoses. However, I think it unwise to describe or typify humanity by
statistical outliers such as the psychopath. The capacity for sin is
universal, not a statistical anomaly as represented by the psychopath.
When a person does not have the ability to reflect on his or her actions
there may be civil mitigation but society still penalizes such actions
for its protection. Should we all be all excused of our sins because we
have an inherited capacity for it? Such a position would entirely
vitiate the idea of free will and personal responsibility.
You may have a point invoking maturity as a factor
in the capacity to sin. However, as I am sure you have observed, even
very young children, have a propensity for acquisitiveness and
selfishness. Is a snake dangerous because it can bite or because it has
bitten? In other words does the capacity to do something carry the same
weight as the actual demonstration of that capacity? Is the snake by
virtue of its essential nature more likely to eventually bite than not?
I think it is similar with humans to sin. It is highly likely we will
all (well, almost all) sin because we were born to do so having
inherited the genetic material for consciousness.
As to the issue of reflection
vs. consciousness, I think they are sides of the same coin.
Consciousness is the faculty and reflection is a function thereof. The
unconscious mind may have discourse with itself. In order for such
discourse (thought) to have ultimate effect or meaning it must rise into
consciousness. Consciousness is the window to our thoughts.
summarise our debate at this point, it seems that our approaches so far
are similar. Whatever the orthodox version of Original Sin may be, we
agree that it is not the corruption of sin itself which is transmitted
from generation to generation, but a capacity to sin - that is, to use
our free will for good or evil. Nobody is born evil or sinful. It is not
right to maintain, for example, that new-born babies need baptism in
order to be “saved” from an inherited sinfulness.
We diverge somewhat over the issue of
consciousness. You seem to rest with consciousness itself as the key
requirement in our capacity to sin; whereas I focus on the requirement
of reflective self-consciousness as the key factor.
And although you say that the tale of Adam and Eve describes
the attainment of consciousness, I suppose you would go on to add that
this is a mythological rendering of that truth rather than an objective
Have I got it right so far?
I do, indeed, consider the Adam and Eve story as a myth that
conforms to the idea of attaining consciousness. Regarding the matter of
reflection as opposed to consciousness, I contend, as I iterated
earlier, they are alloyed so as to be a distinction without a
What perplexes me is why the concept of original sin causes some people so much consternation. I have
already opined that our consciousness (or ability for self-reflection)
is the hereditary basis for our capacity to sin. When one looks at a
baby it seems absurd to impute sinfulness to it. He or she has not had
time to be exposed to the possibilities of sinning. Nevertheless, again,
as I have previously expressed, even the very young demonstrate
acquisitiveness and selfishness, reminding us of our inherent
As a bit of a thought experiment, what if we
substituted the words original
consciousness for original sin
could we come up with a different yet coherent concept? By this
substitution, I can see Baptism as a ceremony giving recognition to consciousness
as the defining characteristic of humanity. In turn this
characteristic makes us all susceptible to sin and its consequences.
Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church is generally a reliable
source. It says that Original Sin is “…
the state of sin in which mankind has been held since the Fall
… the solidarity [according to Tertullian, Cyprian and Ambrose] of the
whole human race with Adam not only in the consciousness of his sin but
in the sin itself, which is transmitted through natural generation
…” It seems to me that this doctrine disturbs the aware person
because it imputes moral guilt (and therefore the possibility of eternal
penalty) on those who are clearly guiltless. After all, it takes only the most basic awareness of genetic
processes to understand that.
As you rightly point out, however, this is not to
say that we are all born tabula rasa - that is, like a blank
sheet of paper upon which our life story has yet to be written. Rather,
on that sheet there are, as it were, ready-made genetic notes which
limit and direct some aspects of our lives and for which we can’t be
held accountable. For example, a psychopath cannot (as far as we now
know) be held accountable for his or her (mostly his) lack of empathy.
The tragedy is that orthodox purists in the Church
continue to doggedly insist that we see the issue through lenses at
least 1 500 years old. Small wonder that Christians are so often mocked.
It is with trepidation that I would argue with the likes of
Tertullian, Cyprian and Ambrose. I can only say they perhaps had a
different concept of consciousness from mine. Perhaps the sin of which they speak is consciousness itself.
even since my youth, definitions of sin have changed. For example
dancing, having a drink of an alcoholic beverage, playing cards no
longer have the status of sinning in my Swedish-American culture. That
is progress to my mind. Nonetheless, I have not seen much improvement in
the moral climate of our society with the relaxation of these seemingly
petty proscriptions. The old paterfamilias
of my culture may have had a point. They recognized we all have the
potential and tendency to do bad things because of our fundamental
inherited natures. They thought this reality should be kept near to our
consciousness. The snake can and likely will eventually bite.
I would add one more thought. Suppose some of us
are found guilty of sin and think we are wrongly charged. We have an
out, as it were. By believing in Jesus Christ our sins are washed away.