The Sin of Adam: Two Allegorical Accounts of the Fall
Antonio Spadaro asked the pope point-blank:
“Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?”
The pope looked at his interviewer a moment, then responded:
“I do not know what might be the most fitting description… I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”
Few concepts are more central in Christian theology than that of sin. Indeed, arguments over the meaning of sin and its import for understanding of human nature and salvation have figured prominently in the rhetoric of reform movements throughout the history of Christianity from the Albigensians to the Anabaptists. Reformers—as well as their counter-parts in the established church—were forced to grapple with what sin is and how we as humans can hope to heal the pervasive wound it leaves in the lives and actions of those around us; for one thing no human can deny is that sin is abundantly present in the world. No one who turns on the news or even observes the sincere interactions of those around oneself can help but witness the ubiquity of both genuine, self-sacrificing goodness as well as disturbing hatred and willful neglect. Even as we may affirm the profound goodness that blossoms in the darkest places, the human being is confronted by the unsettling awareness that something is wrong with the world.
But what does this sense have to do with the individual sinner? When Pope Francis identified himself as a sinner, he did so not only in recognition of the personal and voluntary sins that he has and continues to commit in word, deed, omission or commission; the pope’s identification as a sinner also runs deeper than this—it is the expression of something that touches the bone of his humanity, and no less so because he is a baptized Christian. To impute his sinfulness to his humanity at first appears absurd—is to be human to be a sinner? What I would like to address in this essay is why the answer to that question is yes and then, briefly, how a Christian is given the tools to grapple with this reality through one of the most ancient traditions of the Church, baptism. However, to answer the first question, I will need to uncover a very ancient—and controversial—concept that remains at the center of much Christian theology and ethics: the doctrine of original sin.
Traditionally, original sin has been tied all the way back to the first human beings and the consumption of a forbidden fruit from the tree of good and evil. As such, Christians from St. Basil the Great to the present have harkened back to the story of Creation and the Garden of Eden to explain the strange predilection humans evince for darkness and sin. Yet at the same time, beginning as early as Origen of Alexandria in the second century, the creation story and thus the explanation of original sin has taken on distinctly allegorical nuances. In fact, allegorical interpretations of the creation story can be found in the writing of none other than the towering Christian philosopher of the 5th century, St. Augustine of Hippo, who affirmed that Scripture was revealed for humanity’s salvation, not the elucidation of scientific propositions. By drawing this distinction, Augustine opened the door to allegorical interpretations of the Christian canon, including Genesis.
With these ancient hermeneutics in mind, we may begin to approach a study of original sin beginning first with an entirely traditional construction. In the Catholic understanding— shared in most respects with other forms of Christianity and especially Eastern Orthodoxy—original sin has its origin in the sin of Adam whereby human beings “preferred [themselves] to God” and so, abusing their freedom, were immediately deprived of “the grace of original holiness.” Critically, Adam’s sin is construed as a voluntary sin for himself alone while the stain of original sin transferred from this primal event constitutes a transference not of guilt, but of corrupted nature. Thus the sin of Adam was for him a willful sin and a denial of grace, but for humanity it was the source of an inward distortion of an intrinsically good creation.
Needless to say, the foregoing description of original sin leans heavily on the literal events of the Fall; however, it need not do so and can as well be interpreted symbolically. In this reading, the distortion of our nature symbolized by the consumption of a forbidden fruit is in fact no more or less than our tendency to ignore our inherent human limits and in so doing turn our hearts away from an all powerful and abiding God. The soul, which the monk Thomas Merton calls God’s “little word” within us, is ignored for the proud guidance of a will that has been fooled into the illusion of self-sufficiency.
This analysis of human nature and original sin may be understood not as issuing from an event that occurred at a singular moment (e.g. 6000 years ago) but as a description of the situation in which humans find themselves. We find ourselves sinners for whom the Word of God falls on deaf hearts—beings for whom what was first and fundamentally good is again and again misdirected towards an end improper to our natural identity as children of God. Recovering the literal sense of the Greek hamartia—translated in our Bibles as “sin”—we have “missed the mark.” We have turned our face from God. We are sinners.
Yet this brief discussion has not, in fact, answered any important questions. That the Biblical text can be interpreted metaphorically is hardly more than banal. The true nodus which confronts the exegete is not if the text can mean what tradition has ascribed to it, but why tradition has ascribed to it such a meaning in the first place. Put a different way, why has a fundamentlly good creation been given hearts that are easily disposed to go astray and fall deaf to the voice of their God, to whom they owe their entire existence and being? How could a good creation be born so inclined to deny the grace and love of its Creator and in so doing strive towards ends incommensurate with its own inherent being?
Answers to these questions have varied widely over the centuries and I cannot hope to summarize, let alone explore, all of them. Indeed, what I hope to do here is present for consideration just two theories and a supporting ecclesiology that have arisen more or less within my own tradition, that of the Catholic Church. Neither theory exhausts the theological depth of original sin, but both shed some light on its profound significance in our modern world. However, before I begin this brief and necessarily incomplete foray into the doctrine of original sin, I feel it is important to restate the central paradox at the heart of this entire venture: that despite the world and all that is in it being good, creation is marked by a fundamental and profound sinfulness. At the close of the sixth day, after God had created the world, “God saw everything that he had made and, behold, it was very good.” How can it be, then, that the Christian church has taught for centuries that all humans are born “marked by the original fault freely committed by [human kind’s] first parents,” first parents whose existence, if one lends credence to modern paleontological research, is tenuous at best? If Adam and Eve didn’t literally pass their sin onto humankind, then why has a good creation been marked from birth by this so damaging “original” sin?
In the 1960s the Catholic Church underwent a major renewal in theological as well as ecclesiological practice. Among other important insights of the Second Vatican Council (as this renewal was called within the Church), was a rediscovery of the Christian community’s identity as a pilgrim Church. To be a pilgrim means to be directed towards a particular end—to be going somewhere in order to obtain, experience, or achieve something. As Christian pilgrims, we are part of a journey that has a distinct beginning and end; in one sense, the beginning may be conception and the end natural death, but in another, the beginning is the inception of life itself and the end the reunion of all being into God, that God might be “all in all.”
With this insight in mind, the first theory of original sin I’d like to present is that of the renowned paleontologist and 20th century priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who developed a theology of original sin which placed this spiritual pilgrimage toward God into the context of biological evolution. Teilhard de Chardin’s musings were first condemned by the Church and indeed it was not until nearly a decade after his death that his work was exonerated. However, once exonerated, de Chardin’s work has been acclaimed by all recent popes as both remarkably insightful and contributing to the enrichment of modern Catholic theology. In his theorizing, original sin as a corruption of nature was in fact nothing more or less than the necessary death and transformation of all created matter as it progressed from a starting point of multiplicity toward a state of final communion and reunion with the singularity at the center of creation, God. Thus, in the theology of de Chardin, the unfolding of evolution was itself a pilgrimage towards Christ through whom creation gradually rises to God in an intricate and creative process, mirroring the magnificent and creative acts which marked the beginning of creation itself.
What is important to note here is that the conception of “the mark of Adam” necessarily leads to incompleteness, and consequently to an evolutionary process that tends towards completeness in and through Christ. This necessity explains both the ubiquity of original sin and its existence despite the work of an all-good, all-powerful God. Here, the allegorical Adam’s first sin is simply the “primary transgression” of the first culpable agent (who was the first human being) who willfully turned his/her heart from the journey of ascension to God and so followed the tendency “retained in [our] fibres” to “fall back towards the bottom [the multiplicity of creation], into dust.” Thus, for de Chardin, to be human is to be a creature in a constant struggle to ascend against all the natural force that pulls creation back down toward its diffused origins in God’s first creative act of completely diffusive self-giving love. Evolution takes on a majestic spiritual aspect of pilgrimage from multiplicity towards the unifying principal of Christ, through whom all creation is beckoned back into Godself. Teilhard de Chardin’s theology gives us a new perspective from which to understand the concept of original sin that firmly roots the doctrine in both modern science and Christian spirituality.
As a counterpoint to this spiritual exegesis of creation comes the theorizing of another Catholic, Terry Eagleton. Though most of Eagleton’s writing is not distinctly Catholic (or even religious), his work on original sin is disarmingly insightful and adds an important piece of nuance to the foregoing discussion. Eagleton’s understanding—following his Marxist background—is entirely grounded in the material reality and circumstances of human society.
For Eagleton, original sin refers to the network of responsibilities, causes, consequences, and conditions—what he calls the “complex web of human destinies”—which immediately engulf a child the moment he or she enters the world. No human being is born outside of the imperfect relationships and sinful tendencies of every other human being in existence or, for that matter, ever having existed. The love and hate of a child’s parents as well as the sin and oppression permeating the economic and social world around the child ensconces the young human in a web of dependencies and responsibilities that tie the single, embryonic life to the entire life of the world. A child knows nothing of the torturous labor of sweatshops in continents far removed, but the very clothes she wears attach her inextricably to the life, death, and suffering of those she does not know nor ever will know. No human being can escape these ties that bind her to all the rest of creation, and so, due to the willful and compounding sin of all humanity, the child is conceived in the context of a perfect creation distorted by this “original” sin.
Eagleton’s analysis provides a second explanation of original sin, similarly rooting the doctrine in a concept utterly plausible in the modern world: the community of all humans means that as soon as sin enters the world it places all humans, present or future, in an ineluctable relationship which will invariably shape them, distorting the purity of creation placed there at its origin by God. Thus for Eagleton, Adam’s first sin is a symbolic referent to the first sin of the first human which laid the first thread of that web which has bound all humankind since. Our existence from conception in this ever expanding web of sin militates against ascension to God and so constitutes the force of our profound spiritual corruption. We are bound up in this darkness, and, born into a community we cannot escape, we are forced to “live in spite of [our] blood”—to labor in the working out of our salvation despite an existence in the clutches of sin.
Importantly, the theoretical bedrock of Eagleton’s theorizing on original sin—his notion of human solidarity—is entirely orthodox. Indeed, none would question the towering credentials of the newly minted saint who penned the following words, words whose implication bear weighty testimony to the pertinence of Eagleton’s own: “every sin can undoubtedly be considered as social sin” because, by the mystery of human solidarity, just as “every soul that rises above itself, raises up the world,” so too each “soul that lowers itself through sin drags down with itself the church and, in some way, the whole world.” It is from a theology of solidarity such as that on display in the writings of Pope St. John Paul II and Terry Eagleton that we may interpret the famous words of the English Catholic G. K. Chesterton who wrote that, “We men and women are all in the same boat, upon a stormy sea. We owe to each other a terrible and tragic loyalty.”
Together with de Chardin, Eagleton’s understanding of original sin allows Christians in the 21st century to conceive of sin and solidarity in a way consistent with modern sensibilities regarding the world’s origins and the profound fellowship of our shared humanity. From the two perspectives presented above, humanity’s original sin exists not so much as an explanation for but rather a description of the nature of our species’ existence as we find it after the long process of human history up to this point.
And now finally, the reader must ask: can a Christian ever overcome this innate tendency to sin? As suggested at the outset, I feel the answer to this question depends upon the ancient Christian rite of hope offered against the world’s wages of sin: baptism. However, why this might be the case is not straightforward; given the theories presented above, how could baptism confront the necessary death and synthesis mandated in a human’s evolution towards God (de Chardin) or entrenchment in the calamitous web of human sin (Eagleton)? To address this conundrum, we must turn again to the theology of Vatican II adumbrated earlier and its conception of the Church as a pilgrim people.
Through baptism, we are initiated into a community whose purpose is the direction and guidance of its people on the universal pilgrimage toward reunion with God in Christ. By the grace effective in baptism, a human being is made aware of his or her spiritual situation in the world; baptism apprises us of that universal tendency towards aimlessness and regression—in the verbiage of the Catechism, a face turned from God—that characterizes our spiritual evolution if left unattended. However, one ceases to be an aimless wanderer the moment one is situated within a community of pilgrims, both living and dead, that exists to help gain each member safe passage to the farther shore. Therefore baptism is a response to both the aimlessness (de Chardin) of the soul that lacks guidance in her spiritual sojourn on this Earth and the individualism (Eagleton) that blindly ignores the depth of our shared human existence. Indeed, if in our journey sin blinds us with thick scales to the eternal tether that binds us to our God and all humanity, then baptism is a moment of overflowing grace whereby the scales are wiped clean and, like Paul on the way to Damascus, the human being’s face is forcibly turned towards the light and love that are its proper end. The mark of this vision is indelible just as once one has seen a thing, the memory of it cannot be erased, even if one subsequently goes blind or attempts to forget. It is no wonder the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls baptism an “enlightenment” of the Christian soul, for though the scales of sin may—and will (though perhaps differently)—return in the years that follow, the image of God remains permanently emblazoned in the baptized soul.
Thus through baptism, Eagleton’s web of sin and responsibility may finally be overcome by a corresponding web of self-giving and love. Put differently, a web of interconnectedness—here called community—which implicates the individual in the sins and virtues of all her brothers and sisters, is an acceptance of the responsibility incurred by original sin. Baptism neither satisfies nor erases the nature of corruption, but instead turns and re-orients the individual into such a relationship with others that the corruption may be transcended by love. For, returning to de Chardin, evolution is not the journey of one being moving in a detached and disconnected pilgrimage towards God—evolution is an evolution of all creation, and to make this odyssey requires a solidarity of all parts directed towards a complete and final union with God.
And so perhaps here, after theoretical discussion of both sin and baptism, it is appropriate to return to the simple figure whose words began this entire discussion: Pope Francis. Pope Francis, the man whose life, though dedicated to love and service, remains mired in the sin not only of his own doing, but of the whole world and all humanity. The philosopher Jan Potočka once wrote that we are defined “by the uniqueness of what situates [us] in the generality of sin.” In a way, this is exactly what Pope Francis was seeking to convey in his interview with Antonio Spadero. For Pope Francis—and all Christians—are like the prodigal son who has discovered his own waywardness and must now begin the long journey home. Like the prodigal son, it is only after the acknowledgement and the awareness of our situation in the “generality of sin” that the first steps of our pilgrimage back into the waiting arms of the Father are made possible.
So by the grace of God and with the assistance of the entire community of believers, we are cautioned of our responsibility in this world and so assume our place within it, to re-orient ourselves on this holy pilgrimage in such a way as to raise up the entire human community. This pilgrimage is a journey from fragmentation and the illusion of separateness to what the Indian Christian Sadhu Sundar Singh called our “spiritual oneness with God,” broken by ignorance and irreverence but redeemable by the grace of God and participation through baptism in the body of Christ. When we do this we discover this journey is not only for attaining that spark of sublime charity by which we perceive “all earthly things are full of vanity.” No, to redirect our nature is to enter upon something far more mysterious than ascetic renunciation: it is to discover under the thick film of sin the divine seed that resides deep within. It is a pilgrimage into God that finally discovers God’s own image as the kernel of our humanity all along. For despite sin and all its corrupting influence, we have been taught that when God created the world and all that is in it, God did not turn his face away, but instead “saw all that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.”
1. Antonio Spadero, “A Big Heart Open to God,” America Magazine, September 30th, 2013. Accessed January 30th, 2015 at http://www.americamagazine.org/pope-interview.
2. For example, Origin of Alexandria in De Principiis IV, 16 Accessed February 1st, 2015 at http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/04124.htm. For Augustine, see St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis. vol. 1, Ancient Christian Writers, vol. 41. Translated and annotated by John Hammond Taylor, S.J. New York: Paulist Press, 1982.
3. Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), 397-399.
4. By “voluntary sin” I here mean to describe an act which; 1) amounts to a “missing of the mark” and a turning from the light and truth of God that is 2) a voluntary act of a disordered will and thus 3) rightly producing a sense of guilt/culpability in the actor. Here it is important to note that other Christian traditions differ with respect to the transference of guilt.
5. This description borrows heavily from CCC, 385-421; Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation, New York: New Directions Publishing, 2007, 3.
6. Genesis 1:31 (KJV).
7. CCC, 390.
8. This question leaves aside the equally important question, if one accepts the existence of an historical Adam and Eve, why the sin of two human beings would irreparably and grievously afflict all ensuing humankind.
9. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: Lumen Gentium, Solemnly Promulgated by His Holiness, Pope Paul VI on November 21, 1964. Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1965.
10. 1 Corinthians 15:28 (KJV).
11. Ockham, William. “Dan Burke and Accuracy on Teilhard de Chardin” Accessed on February 1st, 2015 at http://teilhard.com/2013/11/01/dan-burke-and-the-accurate-story-why-teilhard-de-chardin-is-important-to-catholic-theology/.
12. “Evolution and Original Sin: the Problem of Evil” Accessed on February 1st, 2015 at https://whosoeverdesires.wordpress.com/2009/09/13/evolution-and-original-sin-the-problem-of-evil/. See also The Phenomenon of Man (1976) by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. It may be appropriate here to note that some still question the orthodoxy of de Chardin’s writings, though these critiques are fewer than in his own lifetime. That said, my discussion of de Chardin’s ideas here are both simplified and cursory—I suggest further reading if you would like to pursue his thought in greater depth.
13. Teilhard de Chardin, “Christology and Evolution” in Christianity and Evolution. New York: Mariner Books, 2002, 84.
14. Eagleton, Terry. On Evil. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010, 33.
15. For exposition of these ideas, see Eagleton’s On Evil (2010).
16. Ezekiel 16:6 (The Jewish Study Bible); cf. Philippians 2:12. For, indeed, to work out our salvation is to truly live; to live that we no longer live, but “Christ lives in [us]” (Galatians 2:20).
17. Pope St. John Paul II, Reconcilatio and Paenitentia, 1984, Accessed on February 1st, 2015 at http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_02121984_reconciliatio-et-paenitentia.html; or as Thomas Merton put it: “My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine we are not.” (Merton, Thomas. The Essential Writings of Thomas Merton. Ed. Bochen, Christine M., Modern Spirituality Series, New York: Orbis Books, 2000, 173).
18. Ahlquist, Dale. “Lecture 91: The Boat on a Stormy Sea,” The American Chesterton Society, 2014 Accessed on February 1st, 2015 at http://www.chesterton.org/lecture-91/.
19. cf. Acts 9:18.
20. CCC, 1216.
21. It is only then that, as the Apostle writes, “the Son also himself [may be made] subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28 KJV).
22. Derrida, Jacques, The Gift of Death. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996, 52.
23. cf. Luke 5:31 and Luke 7:47.
24. Singh, Sadhu Sundar, Essential Writings of Sadhu Sundar Singh. Ed. Charles E. Moore. Modern Spirituality Series. New York: Orbis Books, 2005, 42.
25. Thomas-a-Kempis. The Imitation of Christ, Bombay: The Bombay St. Paul Society, 2001, 50.
Erin Kast is from Wausau, Winconsin and is majoring in Biology and Religion. He is on campus but will be leaving soon.Antonio Spadero, Augustine, Catholic, community, economics, GK Chesterton, grace, Jan Potočka, love, Marxist, paradox, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Pope Francis, Pope John Paul II, Sadhu Sundar Singh, sin, Terry Eagleton, theology, Thomas Merton