In the Christian schema (especially in Roman Catholicism), original sin is considered an inborn, guilt-worthy moral limp. In other words, original sin is a contradiction in terms.
Original sin says we acquired a sinful essence owing to the error of our remotest mother. Eve’s aboriginal, calamitous garden party bequeathed to all of us a nature tending toward sin. And when we do actually get around to behaving as our sinful nature pre-disposes us to, we are chargeable, blamable, guilty.
This cannot be true. If we are born with a defective moral compass, that should excuse us and not expose us to blame and punishment.
No one should be morally judged for characteristic traits within themselves because moral judgment of persons only applies when persons make free choices. But if we have a characteristic trait called original sin that inevitably leads us to perform sin, we are not truly free when we perform sin, and therefore we cannot be blamed for sinning.
Original sin is actually a theory of moral determinism, and moral determinism can have nothing to do with moral guilt. A ‘born sinner’ is about as perfect a contradiction of terms as can be contrived.
Let’s look at this through the lens of inherent physical defects. Can we blame someone for being unable to run if they are born with defective knees? Can we blame someone for not being able to add numbers correctly if they are born with dyscalculia? Can we blame someone for not hearing if they are born deaf?
No, we don’t blame these people. We excuse them.
Similarly, if original sin as a moral flaw is inherent in us we cannot be blamed for the act of sinning. We may indeed refer to some acts as dis-valued and denounced deeds. We stole, and we can all agree that stealing is a dis-valued and denounced act. But since we were inherently pre-disposed to steal, such an inherited trait must attenuate or eliminate our guilt.
Laying blame for a characteristic trait is the major flaw in the idea of original sin.
To deal with the contradiction within the idea of original sin, theologians would have to do one of three things.
ONE: Theologians could simply discard the notion of original sin. The story of Eve’s transmissible guilt to her heirs in perpetuity is as fabulous as the Phoenix and cannot be rescued even by metaphorical or allegorical exegesis.TWO: Theologians could say that humans inherit a moral taint from their remotest ancestors, but far from imputing blame to humanity for actions made under the influence of that inherited defect, the inherent defect exempts from guilt.
It might be that an Adam or an Eve in a state of innocence and not being created with a sinful nature could be blamed for sinning. But every other human being staggering under the weight of inbuilt moral ineptitude must be immune from judgment, and certainly from punishment.
Shakespeare’s Falstaff sees this and defends his errant ways from a censorious Prince Hal by saying, ‘Thou knowest in a state of innocency Adam fell, and what should poor Jack Falstaff do in the days of villainy?’
THREE: Theologians may look for a natural cause for human moral incompetence.
Evolutionary psychology might suggest ‘evolutionary drag’ is the answer. Our deep, posterior, reptilian, simian brain slogs behind the civilizing moral rules of our more recently evolved frontal lobes.
Like original sin, evolutionary drag can speak of ancestral inheritance, and such an inheritance might argue for a measure of determinism. Some people could be born with deficiencies that will interrupt morally good choices. And where an ‘inborn deficiency’ is a characteristic defect, the inborn deficiency must attenuate guilt. (A wise judge will see the mitigating role of a very low IQ even in a heinous murderer.)
Any fetus may acquire DNA that will eventually hobble its adulthood. There may be inborn physical defects. There may be inborn mental defects. There may be inborn psychological defects and even inborn moral defects. All congenital, none chosen. What we must insist upon—against original sin—is that characteristic traits, those we are born with, cannot be morally blameworthy.
What is true about original sin is that moral defects can be inherited.
What is untrue about original sin is that an inherited moral defect cannot incur guilt.
Featured image ‘Born From Original Sin’ by DanteAmore via Flickr