|The Myths of Christianity - 2
The Myth of Original Sin
In this passage Paul emphasises that death was the punishment for
Adam's sin, the implication being that if he had not sinned Adam would not
It is possible, of course, to read the idea of original sin and
inherited guilt into Paul's words, but it is not as clearly stated there
as it was later by Augustine of Hippo, who is usually credited with the
invention of the fully developed idea of original sin.
However, Peter Brown, the greatest contemporary interpreter of
Augustine, has pointed out that...
The idea that some ancient sin lay behind the misery of the human
condition was shared by pagans and Christians in Late Antiquity.
He tells us that Augustine had met the idea in his early life as a
Catholic and he goes on to quote him and to add his own comment:
'The Ancient Sin: nothing is more obviously part of our preaching of
Christianity; yet nothing is more impenetrable to the
understanding'...while many Catholics in Africa and Italy already
believed that the 'first sin' of Adam had somehow been inherited by his
descendants, Augustine will tell them precisely where they should look
in themselves for abiding traces of this first sin.
With the fatal ease of a man who believes that he can explain a
complex phenomenon simply by reducing it to its historical origins,
Augustine will remind his congregation of the exact circumstances of the
Fall of Adam and Eve. When they had disobeyed God by eating the
forbidden fruit, they had been 'ashamed': they had covered their
genitals with fig leaves.
That was enough for Augustine: 'Ecce unde'. That's the place!
That's the place from which the first sin is passed on'. This shame at
the uncontrollable stirring of the genitals was the fitting punishment
of the crime of disobedience.
Nothing if not circumstantial, Augustine will drive his point home by
suddenly appealing to his congregation's sense of shame at night
emissions... Thus at one stroke, Augustine will draw the boundary
between the positive and negative elements in human nature along a line
dividing the conscious, rational mind from the one 'great force' that
escaped its control, sex.
If we refuse to treat these ancient myths as the record of historical
events, we can use our imagination to guess at how they came to be.
The elements in the story of the Fall are clearly Death, Toil and
Shame, and the myth clearly sets out to offer an explanatory narrative for
these overpowering human experiences. Augustine's isolation of sexual
shame as the main element in the Fall narrative is interestingly echoed in
one of Freud's guesses, where he wonders whether shame and sexual
embarrassment enter the human psyche when
homo sapiens assumed the vertical posture and exposed its
Another mythical guess about the mysteries of human sexuality is found
in Plato's Symposium, in Aristophanes' famous myth, which is worth
listening to in full.
The starting point is for you to understand human nature and what has
happened to it. You see, our nature wasn't originally the same as it is
now: it has changed.
Firstly, there used to be three human genders, not just two - male
and female - as there are nowadays. There was also a third, which was a
combination of both the other two. Its name has survived, but the gender
itself has died out.
In those days there was a distinct type of androgynous person, not
just the word, though like the word the gender combined male and female;
nowadays, however, only the word remains, and that counts as an insult.
Aristophanes' myth is a long one, but it is clearly intended to explain
the varieties of sexual longing. The key element in the myth is the
decision by Zeus and the other gods to divide the human creatures into two
halves, because of their dangerous challenge to divine power. Thereafter
they will have to spend much of their energy trying to complete themselves
by finding and joining up with their other half.
Here's how he sees it working out.
Any men who are off cuts from the combined gender - the androgynous
one - are attracted to women, and therefore most adulterers come from
this group; the equivalent women are attracted to men and tend to become
Any women who are off cuts from the female gender aren't particularly
interested in men; they incline more towards women, and therefore female
homosexuality comes from this group. And any men who are off cuts from
the male gender go for males.
It is interesting to speculate about what might have become of the
Christian attitude to sexuality if the Church had borrowed its myths from
Greek rather than Hebrew tradition, as it did in the third and fourth
centuries with many of its philosophical and theological ideas. Christian
fundamentalists today would be pointing to the inerrant book of
Aristophanes to explain its passionate support for gay and lesbian rights
which were being threatened by revisionist liberals who refused to accept
the historical validity of the speeches in the Symposium.
Apart from trying to offer an explanation for the great human themes of
sexuality and death, the ancient myths of humanity try to account for
human misery by narratives of catastrophe and fall from an original Eden.
This is still a powerful theme, even today, and there are always books
being produced by nostalgic scholars describing how wonderful Britain or,
more specifically, England was in the past before it was overrun by
foreigners and contemporary values. As the blind poet Borges reminded us,
all our paradises are lost paradises, places of contentment we destroyed
by our own folly and greed.
And all of this is true enough, because we go on doing it to ourselves.
Narratives of the fall (dystopias) are probably more frequent in human
history that narratives of paradise (utopias) because we go on messing up
our own home.
The latest fall narrative is global warming and consumer greed. Our own
insatiable desires have the pyrrhic effect of destroying our own
happiness. It is the oldest story in the book, because it is the most
constant of the human experiences.
And it is even possible to find contemporary meaning in the notion of
original sin, of passing on some kind of taint. That is certainly what
Philip Larkin thought, though he was hardly a cheery optimist about
They fuck you up, your mum and dad;
They do not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had,
And add some extra just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old time hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy stern,
And half at one another's throats.
Man hands on misery to man;
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as quickly as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.
The difference today in our myths of fall is that they come from
science, which is the great narrative of our time. And the very language
of fall has been replaced by the language of struggle and ascent. There
never was an Eden, a perfect and innocent human state, with fully formed
humans who knew no sin. Our mythic narrative today is just as epic and
exciting, but it is a sort of reverse catastrophe, the emergence of
consciousness from a violent and literally exploding universe.
It might go something like this. There is a famous French aphorism: 'To
know all is to forgive all'. The idea behind the saying is that humans are
largely determined by circumstances beyond their control and that if we
could see all the factors that have led to a particular event in a
person's life we would fully understand and fully forgive.
The philosophical term for this point of view is 'determinism'. It
holds that we are not really the free creatures we think we are. We are
made, determined, programmed by factors that are beyond our control.
Most of us would agree with this point of view to some extent. We
would acknowledge, for instance, that if you are a young man reared by a
single mother living in poverty in a housing estate you are more likely to
get a lousy education, more likely to get in trouble with the law, more
likely to be unemployed, more likely to be have bad health, more likely to
die young than if you were born to middle class professional parents who
sent you to a private school.
We may not be full-blooded determinists, but experience teaches us that
external circumstances have a lot to do with how our life works out. One
of the oldest debates in politics is over just how important external
circumstances are in making us what we are and what the role of private
choice is. One of the most interminable discussions in political theory is
whether systems make people or people make systems; whether, in order to
change people, you have to change the system, or whether, in order to
change the system, you have to change people.
What I want to register is the fact that human beings are made what
they are by millions of facts they are not in control of; and if we want
to understand ourselves we have to go deep and wide into our past. To
understand ourselves today, we have to have some knowledge of where we
have come from.
We humans have only been around in the universe for a comparatively
short period of time. The universe was born in violence, in what
physicists call the big bang. Wherever it came from, it is a story of
power exploding and expanding through space.
Most of it seems to have been inert or lifeless till about three and a
half billion years ago when the first self-replicating molecules came
along and life began. On and on it goes, this amazing force of life.
That's what makes these nature programmes on TV so fascinating, as we look
in on the great food chain that nature is, as we watch all the breeding
and hunting and searching for food and building nests and stalking prey
that is played out endlessly on our planet.
Look out on any tranquil country scene on a summer's day and you might
be deceived into illusions of peace and calm; in fact underneath it all
life is killing and munching and swarming and breeding and dying. And it
is that ability to look at what is happening, out there or in here, that
is characteristic of our species, the human animal, or the moral
animal, as the new science of evolutionary psychology defines us.
In us the life-force has become conscious and we have started watching
ourselves doing the things that come naturally or instinctively in the
animal kingdom. We are thinking about ourselves, and that process of
self-study is one of the most characteristic things about us. When you
know you are being watched, you get self-conscious and uncomfortable.
Well, we are being watched all the time by ourselves, and it is the
resulting self-consciousness that is one of our glories, as well as one of
the sources of our pain and anguish.
Aspects of living that would pose little difficulty in a species that
had not developed consciousness, create major issues for us, as all the
fall myths amply indicate.
Sex is still the obvious example, but our explanatory myths are
different today. One school of evolutionary psychologists claims that the
problem for the human male is that his DNA has programmed him to be a
self-replicating animal, a seed-scattering machine without conscience; but
this urge is in conflict with his consciousness, his self-awareness,
because he can recognise that simply operating like a gene-propulsion
machine can be damaging to others as well as to himself.
Sex is not the only instinct that gets complicated by human
development; violence and cruelty are also in there, programmed into us
before the dawn of consciousness. So we are creatures who are in conflict
with ourselves, moral animals, creatures in whom the life-force has
started observing itself.
I have compressed millions of years of emergent consciousness into a
few paragraphs there, but I hope the point I am making is understandable
Human consciousness and the emergence of our moral sense move us away
from the purely instinctive, the unconscious and unreflective natural
response, to what we might call an intentional approach to life.
The narrative of our day is not about having fallen from a perfect state,
but about the endless search for a perfect state somewhere in the future.
Our myth is not about having fallen from a past perfection, but about
the possibility of achieving a future perfection, and it characterises
everything we do, from the search for the perfect kitchen to the quest for
the perfect orgasm. That's why IKEA flourishes and it's why we produce sex
manuals on spicing up our sex life. That is why we encourage boys to
sublimate their anger and aggression and be aware of the needs of others -
whereas our instinctive hard-wiring accorded great survival value to the
very impulses that have become so problematic for us today.
Indeed, one major critical account of the undoubted male crisis of our
time locates its cause right at this point, at what is called the
feminisation of culture and the consequent discounting and disapproval of
the purely masculine virtues of raw sexuality and aggression.
I saw a little piece in the papers the other day about the male craze
for body-building. The point that was being made was that it is difficult
for men nowadays to know what the distinctive male role is, but they do
know that they have a distinctive musculature, so they develop that to the
point of exaggeration. They call this 'the Adonis complex', and there's
more than a touch of it in the Kevin Spacey role in the Oscar winning
film, 'American Beauty' where, just as his life starts falling apart he
starts to build up his body.
Culture critics have a field day with this sort of stuff, but the point
behind it all is that, as conscious animals, we are a problem to
ourselves, as our myths amply illustrate. We will go on producing myths,
ways of explaining ourselves to ourselves but, like everything else about
us, they are in constant transition and we must not fundamentalise any of
In spite of what the Christian doctrine of original sin claims, we are
not guilty simply by virtue of having been born as children to parents who
fell from perfection. Nevertheless, the myth is still eloquent and
instructive not because it describes an ancient catastrophe, but because
it expresses permanent human realities.
� Professor Richard Holloway: This
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