I’m curious: what do you think of Augustine? Augustine of Hippo was an odd blend of saint and sinner. I don’t mean “saint” in the sense of being so designated by the Roman Catholic Church, but in the sense of having reputable and progressive ideas. For example, Augustine argued that science, such as it existed in his day, had to be taken into account when understanding Christianity. If the Bible’s account of creation didn’t match what we knew of the world, then literalism had to go—that kind of thing. This was quite liberal for someone in the fourth-to-fifth centuries. He believed in reason, to an extent. The sinner side of the equation goes beyond his Manichean days, however. The sins I’m referring to are his dangerous and long-lasting theological assumptions that’ve helped to hold back civilization throughout history.
It was Augustine, for example, who gave us the idea of original sin being involved in sexual reproduction. The church has always been cagey on why we should reproduce when the second coming is right around the corner, but Augustine declared that from our very conception (which he couldn’t understand scientifically) we were tainted with sin. But that’s not the particular sin to which I’m referring. Augustine also spread the persistent idea that curiosity itself was a sin. Christianity, in his view, was a “need to know” religion, and curiosity about the natural world could lead to uncomfortable answers. He held this in tension with his belief that we should accept what science teaches, but there were many questions, he decided, we simply shouldn’t ask.
Religions have often come to this crux. Science has a strong explanatory track record. Religion is frequently based on old texts, written in an age when science was but an infant. As the power of rationality grew, the role of miracles shrank. Over time the proof of theological structures began to crumble. And since life was all about correct theology, those edifices had to be shored up against the onslaughts of reason. If this sounds hopelessly outdated, I’ll have to confess that many of my students at Nashotah House believed reason was tainted by original sin. Augustine had the answers they believed; somehow rationality had stopped with him. Human curiosity, Augustine felt, was a sin. All questions should’ve ended with his arguments. It’s this kind of theological bravado that gets us into the mess we find ourselves in today. Voting blocs that never question what their religious leader tells them. Never curious enough to ask “Why?” Augustine was a brilliant man, in many respects. He was also a sinner of the highest degree.
The problem with the Bible is anybody can “interpret” it. As a book of unrivaled status in the American imagination, it can be tapped for anything from advertising to justifying pedophilia. So when stories of Roy Moore’s sexual dalliances with minors emerged, Alabama’s state auditor, Jim Zeigler drew the comparison with Mary and Joseph from his half-hearted knowledge of the Bible. There is no auditor for Bible interpretations. It’s the ultimate free market. Many, including evangelical clergy, were quick to jump on the inappropriateness of the analogy. What they didn’t see is that the Bible can justify just about anything. Despite what it says. That’s the problem with worshipping a holy book.
What the Good Book says about Mary and Joseph is very, very little. We do not know their ages—they are never mentioned in the Bible. The tradition about Joseph being older seems to go back to having to explain his continence to preserve Mary’s perpetual virginity—also not in the Bible. The church, in the early days, had issues with ideas such as “original sin.” When Augustine suggested it passed, along with bodily fluids, during sex, it became clear that Mary could have none of that. Even if she was a virgin by misquoting Isaiah, then she still had original sin from her parents. So Mary had to have been immaculately conceived. The Bible, of course, knows of none of this. Anybody can interpret it. And what senator-to-be wants to be bothered with consulting a Bible scholar? They’re hard to find. And besides, they might not interpret it the way you want it.
GOPolitics have sunk so low as to pressgang the Bible into justifying pedophilia. What’s more, the faithful don’t seem to mind. The Bible’s big enough that you can find just about anything in there. Except morality, apparently. You’d think that anyone running for public office would examine his—and it’s usually a guy problem—life pretty closely for possible scandals. We’ve lived to see the radical right, diligently groomed and oh-so-righteous, go after anyone who can spout insanity and be counted on to vote against women’s rights. You can be sure Roy Moore will be forgiven—already has been by many—because the Bible swings that way. We’ve already seen what happens when people like Moore take public office. They make America grope again. For the Bible tells them so.
io9 is a progressive website. Its futuristic stories delight and entertain. When a friend sent me a story on io9 titled “New Fan Theory Asks the Obvious Question: Is Wall-E Satan?” I had to read. Then wonder. People know so little about the Bible. The idea is simple: in Wall-E the people live in an undisturbed paradise until Satan (in the form of EVE’s plant) tempts them to leave paradise and return to an earth they’d forgotten existed. Okay, so the Genesis parallels are blindingly obvious (Peter Gabriel was even formerly a member of a band named with the title of that very book). What’s wrong is that there’s no Satan in the Bible’s first book. I give Katharine Trendacosta credit—she discounts the connection of fat, immobile future humans and paradise. The idea that the snake of Genesis is Satan, however, is about as biblical as original sin.
Genesis never calls the snake Satan. It doesn’t mention original sin. In fact, many (Christians, especially) don’t realize the event isn’t called “the fall” in the Hebrew Bible at all. The gaining of knowledge by the first human beings is painful yes, but can be a good thing. Some Jewish interpretations of Genesis 3 suggest precisely that. The story goes that Eve and Adam were living, stupidly, in the garden. The snake points out that the fruit will make them wise—and it does. They do not immediately die as God said they would. Instead they lose a blissful ignorance and have to grow up. The serpent is never said to be the Devil until the very last book of the Christian revisionist scripture, Revelation. Sometimes a snake is just a snake. That’s the way it is in the book of Genesis.
Christian interpretation, however, took over the story of humanity’s awakening and made it into the fall into sin and evil. Things have been so bad ever since than that we have to elect Trump to start a war that’ll end it all. That’s Christian revisionism writ large. Read Genesis again. Slowly. The snake is not said to be Satan. “The fall” isn’t sinful. In fact, the word “sin” doesn’t occur until the story of Cain and Abel in the next chapter. So, is EVE inspired by Satan to end the paradise of the Axiom, unaware of its true origins? Only in a revisionist history of the Bible. The idea existed long before io9, and, according to Genesis, it was wrong even then.
Perhaps the most overused simile for a real mess is that it’s “like a train wreck.” No doubt this is because train wrecks are messy, and deadly. Few things speak to human vulnerability more than airborne hunks of heavy metal flying in indeterminate directions. Trains don’t stop fast. If they do people get hurt. No, I wasn’t on the train that crashed into the Hoboken station yesterday during the morning commute. I’m just one of many thousands of people who make their way into the city every day, but I go by bus, which is more affordable. Still, there’s something in every commuter that mourns a tragedy like this. We’re not in competition for getting into New York. It’s only after we’re off our conveyances that we compete. The stories after the crash, however, emphasized something I’ve always known—people are basically good.
A strain of Christian theology makes the extremely dubious claim that people are “totally depraved.” Assaulted again and again with this misanthropic theology in college, I was bound to fight back. Some guys with minimal psychological training decided, in the early modern period, that God had created the vast majority of people for Hell. Because we share the primates’ evolved taste for fruit, we participated in “original sin.” It wasn’t exactly sex (since God had declared that good) but it was a consequence of it. We were born fallen and had to be redeemed. These theologians declared, however, that very few ever would be. Most of us were Hell-fodder and deserved to be since we’re so naturally evil. A few centuries earlier Jesus had said you’d know the righteous by their fruits. There’s no getting away from the fruit.
Life in the big city is impersonal. Commuters share their conveyances each day with many strangers. After the wreck, however, as my wife pointed out, those in the cars far enough back that the injuries weren’t grievous first turned to everyone else and asked if they were all right. If they need help. If they could walk. Strangers helping one another. Good Samaritans. It doesn’t sound like total depravity to me.
Our economic system thrives on hyped-up competition. When we’re taken out of that context and placed into a human one, we cooperate. We want to help one another. Perhaps it’s not the people who are totally depraved, but the system they’re forced into. No, I wasn’t on that train. My bus had pulled into New York an hour and a half earlier. But even from a distance I could see what I’ve known all along. People are basically good.
The media love the story of the fallen. Sometimes even those in religious institutions secretly delight in seeing the foibles of their infallible leaders. Part of the problem is that many clergy (but by no means all) place themselves on a moral precipice impossible to reach by mere mortal standards. So the Associated Press carries the story of a Neptune, New Jersey pastor who’s taking a sabbatical. What makes this leave noteworthy is that Pastor Miller railed against his flock using Facebook, arguing that it leads to adultery. So far, so good. This is standard pastor-babble. The problem is a decade ago the good reverend was involved in a ménage à trois, thereby predating even Facebook and still finding access to adultery. The response of Living Word Christian Fellowship Church: take some time off.
The real problem, the Republican symbol in the room, is that human nature likes to place the blame elsewhere. “The Devil made me do it,” was the 1970’s version (thanks, Flip!). Many religions, uncomfortable with the implications of humanity’s evolution, have devised means of shifting the blame. Augustine gave us “original sin,” suggesting that the true blame went back to our first biblical ancestors and forever made sex dirty. Somebody else must take the fall, as the Neptune preacher has discovered. The words of another famous New Jerseyan capture the sense exactly: “Now he walks these empty rooms looking for something to blame, if you inherit the sins you inherit the flames. Adam raised a Cain.”
Coming to grips with being human may be the greatest challenge bestowed by consciousness. There are primate survival strategies inherent in shifting the blame. Where evolution is disallowed, supernatural agency – even Facebook – is placed in the dock. Facebook may encourage the wasting of time on trite sentiments endlessly repeated across this universe we call the Internet, but it can hardly be blamed for adultery. For that, the beast is within. And those who place themselves on pedestals have a great distance to fall.
Finally getting around to reading Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (I hate to admit that it took the movie ads to prod me into reading the book), I have been surprised by the depth of the story. Spoiler warning! From the very first chapter I have been pondering what dust might be, and I have just discovered that it is Pullman’s metaphor for original sin. In the chapter where this is finally revealed to the protagonist, Lyra, her father reads an explanatory passage from Genesis 3 (somewhat altered). Indeed, dust drives the plot of the story.
With apologies to the magisterium
Pullman’s treatment of the topic once again throws into relief a popular, but mistaken, concept. “Original sin” is simply not a biblical idea. Nowhere in either the Hebrew Bible or the Christian Scriptures does the text suggest that people are born with the taint of a physical liability passed on from the first human coupling, as Augustine hypothesized. In fact, the Bible hosts several potential explanations for the origins of human troubles. One solution that it never reaches is a genetic passing on of an original sin.
Tradition often makes Scripture into its own image. Ideas are inevitably read back into the story and a chimera of hazy concepts emerges. Pullman’s treatment of the human condition is to be applauded, and to his credit he does not attribute the concept of original sin directly to the Bible. Although he alters the text a bit he doesn’t add this most damaging concept to it. The belief that people are inherently defective has allowed for some of the worst crimes imaginable against our species. As a concept original sin is dust in the wind.