DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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The Myths of Christianity - 2
The Myth of Original Sin
(Continued)
Richard Holloway

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 have died. 

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 genitalia.

 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 adulteresses. 

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 humanity.

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 enough.

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 them.

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 publication may not be reproduced
     in any form whatsoever without written permission from the author

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