CONSIDER THIS: for almost 2,000 years and counting the entirety of Western culture has been brainwashed. The fields of biology, economics, religion, and psychology are built on a lie. Even those who self-consciously reject this falsehood are subconsciously shaped by it. It’s unavoidable and all pervasive. It’s made us who we are. Indeed, it’s turning us into monsters. What is this lie exactly? It’s the assumption that humans are born bad.
This grand deception began with an honest mistake, James Boyce tells us. The fourth-century theologian Augustine of Hippo propagated a mistranslation of the Apostle Paul. Frustratingly, Boyce never directly cites this passage (“Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” — Romans 5:12), even though he places a lot of weight on the phrase. Unpacking this theological mishap involves some angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-pins-type minutiae, so feel free to skip the remainder of this paragraph. Boyce summarizes the issue concisely: “The original Greek text had Paul saying that, after Adam, death spread to all because all have sinned. The Latin Vulgate version was that death spread to all through Adam, in whom all sinned.”
Here is the distinction. A reading of the Greek text could yield the notion that death became common to humanity because every person happens to sin (and we read from the first pages of the book of Genesis that one of the consequences of sin is death). The Latin Vulgate, however, implies that death is inevitable apart from what any particular person might or might not do. Adam represents all of humanity, and in him, symbolically, we all have sinned. In the theologies that resulted from this reading, humanity also physically receives Adam’s sin at conception. We should note that, at the end of the day, both of these textual traditions assert that every human has sinned. Their profound similarity aside, Boyce ascribes a civilization-altering consequence to the in whom corruption.
Out of this botched rendering Augustine formulated an idea that would dog the West from then on: humans receive a moral disease upon conception that leaves them inclined toward evil. In other words, all humanity suffers from original sin. Boyce’s discussion is breezy, and he never tips his hat to the reality that the meaning of Romans 5 is still highly debated among New Testament scholars. He also fails to mention that the Eastern Church holds a slightly different, though very similar, idea of original sin. But since Augustine’s mistake was so obvious and unilateral to Boyce, he wonders out loud why this reading ever took hold: “Perhaps it was only in the context of a crumbling state that the need to assert ecclesiastical authority over sinful human beings became pressing.” So in a flailing grab for power, Roman religious leaders used a slight misreading of one particular verse in the Latin New Testament to make half the world subservient to their wishes? I’m not saying things like this don’t happen, but without more substantial support this theory is not very convincing.
Boyce spends 95 percent of the book (187 pages out of the book’s 197) detailing formative individuals in Western culture — from Augustine to Freud — who adopted some form of original sin into their thinking: Abelard, Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, Pope Innocent III, Pope Innocent VIII, Pope John XXII, Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, John Wesley, John Knox, Thomas Cranmer, Cotton Mather, John Locke, Jeremy Taylor, Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Charles Darwin, Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, and Martin Luther King Jr. He also includes an almost equally long list of individuals who opposed the idea. The narrative is rather tedious but is at times truly captivating — particularly Boyce’s discussions of the voices of dissent.
Boyce’s description of Celtic Christianity is particularly fascinating. The Celts, according to him, thought that all life reflects the glory of its creator. This is why they did not baptize infants but had a ceremony for blessing new life. One of the main purposes of baptism within the Catholic Church was to symbolically wash away the stain of original sin and to effect regeneration. To the Celts, this wasn’t necessary. Boyce highlights, time and again, the amazing diversity of the Christian religion. In a remarkable economy of space, he unpacks clearly and compellingly various expressions of the Western Church that are often forgotten today. This alone is worth the price of the book.
Unfortunately, Boyce does not apply this sensitivity to all of his treatments. It startled me not a little that he identified as co-ideologues Luther and Freud, Cranmer and Darwin, and Billy Graham and Benjamin Franklin. The way he accomplished this was by lumping together anyone who showed the slightest pessimism toward the human species as advocating some iteration of original sin. This is like saying that Michael Bolton and Tupac Shakur were both rappers because neither played the cello.
Reading the conclusion, I got the feeling that after Boyce had slogged through a summary of Western intellectual culture he didn’t have the energy to offer any thoughts of his own. He raises the question: How would the world be different if the idea of original sin failed to take hold? Boyce doesn’t know. Hypotheticals of this sort are impossible to trace, he says. This is debatable, however. Oxford Professor of Church History Diarmaid MacCulloch (whom Boyce cites in his acknowledgments) answered precisely this question in his “Princeton in Europe” lecture, “What If Arianism Had Won?” Of course, hypotheticals are hypothetical, but there must be a way out of this circle.
Boyce says that the idea of original sin has wreaked havoc upon our lives. We’ve embraced the idea for so long that it’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy. His next-to-last sentence reads:
Perhaps the first step towards healing our relationship with ourselves, each other and the natural world is just to accept that, after fifteen hundred years, the idea that “there is something wrong with me” might be so internalised that it has become part of who we are.
According to Boyce, even atheists (he has an entire chapter on Richard Dawkins), who openly disavow any notion of original sin, are still subconsciously shaped by their culture, which is a direct product of it.
What exactly is so bad about us that this concept has produced? Boyce never explicitly says, but he does mention the environmental crisis. He doesn’t connect the dots, but he seems to imply that Westerners have ruined the planet because the idea of original sin that we have embraced has made us selfish. On the surface, this might appear to be a compelling thought. Yet, one trip to China or just a skim of reports of its air quality should dispel that notion pretty quickly: the East is doing the ruining in the absence of any notion of original sin.
The thing that troubles me the most about Boyce’s book is that he seems to imply that the Western Church’s embrace of the idea of original sin is the reason why humans suffer psychological angst and live in conflict with their world. There is no discussion whatsoever of the fact that the Eastern Church also believes in original sin. The only difference is that Eastern Orthodoxy believes that all humans suffer the consequences of the first sin, but that humans do not inherit moral guilt from it. Nonetheless, historic Christianity — East and West — assert that “there is something wrong” with humanity. Rabbinic Judaism would, too.
Rabbinic literature is quite up front with the idea that humans are born with a yetzer ha-ra, an evil impulse. A humorous story in the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 32a) describes this feature of the human condition with an illustration:
It is like a father who takes his small son, bathes him, douses him with perfume, combs his hair, dresses him up in his finest accoutrements, feeds him, gives him drink, places a bag of money around his neck, and then goes off and puts his son at the front door of a brothel. What can the boy do that he not sin?
But far from being something that weighs humans down in perpetual self-loathing and moves them to become lousy individuals, the yetzer ha-ra has been seen as a motivator toward good. The impulse toward evil can move people to grow and work in ways that a simple impulse toward good can’t. The deciding factors in how individuals turn out are the choices they make. Even if we embrace some iteration of the idea that “there is something wrong” with humanity, it does not automatically lead us to panic, guilt, and ecological ruin. In fact, there are vibrant religious traditions in which it does the opposite.
Furthermore, Boyce seems not to realize (or if he does he does not acknowledge) that many Christian theologians regard original sin as a sign of human possibility. Take, for example, 20th-century monk and writer Thomas Merton: “The doctrine of original sin, properly understood is optimistic. It does not teach that man is by nature evil, but that evil in him is unnatural, a disorder, a sin.” Merton argues that the Christian teaching of original sin is similar to the Jewish understanding of the yetzer ha-ra. The idea of original sin does not subsume humanity in a sea of blame or assert that people are unable to achieve virtue. According to Merton, a proper understanding of original sin is a liberating notion that should inspire individuals to embrace happiness and contentment. It defines evil as something that is ultimately outside the human person. The true heart of humanity is good, Merton declares, and one of humanity’s greatest pursuits is rediscovering that essential goodness. Unlike Boyce, Merton believes the traditional teaching of original sin helps us do this.
Boyce’s book is a fascinating survey of anthropological pessimism within the Western tradition. It would have been better had he stopped there. Linking this pessimism to the negative outcomes of the West that we experience today was perhaps a bridge too far, and his presentation of original sin as a uniformly detrimental idea suppresses its multifaceted role within Christian understanding. Boyce looks at the West’s problems and identifies original sin as a scapegoat.
For a moment, let’s put aside his simplistic representation of original sin and focus on his proposal. What happens if we kill it, if we take that goat out into the wilderness, lay our hand on its head, and slice its throat? What if we start viewing ourselves differently, as Boyce advises, as fundamentally good instead of cursed from birth? Would environmental destruction cease? Would we start treating each other more lovingly and less violently? I very much doubt it. Original sin in all its iterations has certainly shaped Western civilization, but attributing to it our most pressing problems seems to me to be rather over-the-top. Or, maybe, I’m too pessimistic.
Charles Halton is managing editor of Marginalia, a channel of the Los Angeles Review of Books, and assistant professor in theology at HBU. His anthology, co-edited with Saana Svärd, The First Female Authors: An Anthology of Women’s Writing in Mesopotamia, will be published next year by Cambridge University Press.