The Other Original Sin
The Reverend Douglas Taylor
February 8, 2004
Back during the beginning of my seminary career when I was at the Methodist seminary, I took an ethics course called “Biblical Ethics in a Modern Global Context.” It was taught by a man named Star Bowen, who dressed like a cowboy and worked as a missionary in Cuba. He was teaching a class on Biblical Ethics in a little town in Ohio because he was taking a break from his missionary work while things cooled off down in Cuba. Those of us in his class assumed this meant he had gotten into trouble in Cuba. This theory was something Mr. Bowen never officially confirmed or denied for us, so we just imagined him to be the Indiana Jones of liberal Christian missionaries. He was quite a character, and a rather good teacher, I might add. He had a very interesting way of reading the Bible. I think it was because he looked at the world first and then read the Bible, rather than the other way around. I distinctly remember a rather subversive question he asked us one morning, the sort of question that made me think that the hot water he got into down in Cuba was not with the Cuban government but with the Christian hierarchy. He said to us, “What if the Original Sin everyone talks about from the first story in the Bible is not really a sin at all. Would that make the second story the story of the real Original Sin?” Most of us just stared at him (much in the way you all stare at me now.) A few of us were right there with him.
Of course those of us in the room were all seminary students who had recently taken classes, or were in the middle of other classes, dealing with Biblical Study. I imagine most of you are not in seminary right now. Perhaps there are a few of you who recall these first two stories from teaching Sunday school this year where the Bible is the shared topic. But allow me to flesh this idea out, because it leads us down very interesting paths with real life implications and applications!
Let me start with Original Sin. The text book answer to the questions “What is Original Sin?” and “Where did the idea come from?” is as follows: Original Sin is “the universal and hereditary sinfulness of man since the fall of Adam.” (Handbook of Theological Terms by Van Harvey, 1964) It originated from the first story in the Bible which is about Adam and Eve who ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil despite God telling them to not do so. According to the story, God set man and woman up in the Garden of Eden and had them tend to the various plants and animals therein, but he specifically said to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the middle of the garden. But they ate from it anyway. And so God kicked them out of Eden. This is often referred to as “the Fall.” Thus, some say Original Sin is our disobedience to God, our own proud willful nature, inherited from our earliest ancestors. It wasn’t a distinctly formed doctrine, however, until Augustine put it together around 400 A.D. Specifically, Augustine said,
“… before the fall angels and men possessed the ability not to sin as well as the ability to sin but that after the fall they possessed only the latter. Adam’s sin, then, has corrupted the entire human race and it is a mass sin and justly subject to damnation.” By this Augustine means not only that man inherits a tendency to sin, but that he also inherits guilt. (Handbook of Theological Terms by Van Harvey, 1964)
So disobedience to God is the cause of Original Sin and the result is, at least according to the traditional orthodox doctrine formulated by Augustine, our inability to not sin. When faced with an inability to not sin, how can we but disobey God? So, in effect, because the couple in that first story were disobedient, God solved that by making disobedience compulsory. It’s this kind of stuff that gives God and religion a bad rap. Jumping back for a moment, a quick reading will show that mandatory disobedience is not in there at all.
In the story, God curses the snake, who, as you may know, persuaded Eve to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God curses the snake saying, “Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.” (Gen 3:14) He also says something about making snakes and women enemies from then on. When he turns to the man and the woman, he says stuff to them, but never curses them. He curses the snake, but he does not curse the people. The Woman is told she will have to endure great pain during childbirth and that her “desire shall be for [her] husband and he shall rule over [her].” And the man is told he must sweat and toil to raise food from the ground. Never does God say, “cursed are you for what you have done.” Never does the story present God as saying, “Now I punish you for your sin.” And it certainly does not say anything about there needing to be universal and hereditary sinfulness!
I read this and most other Biblical stories with the perspective that they are myths. I see them as deeply meaningful and truthful stories, but not historical or literally true. With that in mind, when I read this story, it is quite easy for me to connect these consequences or “punishments” in the story to some of the presumed early steps of physiological and societal development among homo sapiens. The consequences Adam and Eve experience for eating the fruit are the increase pain in childbirth, the ruling of woman by man, and the sweat and toil of man to produce bread. As we moved from being transient hunters and gathers to an agrarian society, we would have begun to notice how hard it is to cultivate the earth to produce food. As we settled into permanent villages and living clusters, cultural rules arose to manage the relationships at the time. The consequences or “punishments” which Adam and Eve experience in the Bible fit right in with some of these key evolutionary steps in our development into civilized people.
And that bit about increased pain during childbearing, well, consider how most other mammals emerge at birth and can walk within a few hours. (and thus flee from the immanent threat of predators) Many of us, I am guessing, have seen the Wild Kingdom footage of the baby zebra emerging from its mother, and then mere hours later attempting to rise up onto wobbly legs with marked success. Humans take months before we can rise up on our wobbly legs and take a few tentative steps! One theory says that humans come out of gestation early. We emerge only half-finished because if we waited inside the womb, as most other mammals do, until we were able to walk, our heads would be to big to fit through the birth canal. The development of the frontal cortex, the area of the brain I will add, which is associated with abstract thought and moral reasoning (ie, knowledge of good and evil), the development of the frontal cortex made it necessary for nature to strike a timing balance between the baby being ready enough to come out and yet small enough to fit through.
So, it could be said that the eating of the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil represents the important evolutionary leap from common beast to the beginnings of civilized individuals. A leap, I might add, which took a great many generations. This first story in the Bible is about how we grew civilized.
But all that is one laymen’s theory, just some wandering, occasionally connecting thoughts. Really, what I want to say is that the first story says very little about the real problems we all face today. This first story does not tell us what our biggest problem is. It does not contain a workable statement of our human condition, thereby informing us of what we should be fighting against. It just tells us that we are human; not beasts, not gods, merely humans. Which leads me back to the beginning of my sermon and that professor who posed the question: “What if the Original Sin everyone talks about from the first story in the Bible is not really a sin at all. Would that make the second story in the Bible the real story of Original Sin?”
Let me remind you a little about the second story in the Bible: the story of the first children of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel. “Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground.” (Gen 4:2) They both brought offerings to God. God liked Abel’s offering and did not like Cain’s. Cain grew angry. He rose up against his brother and slew him. Cain killed Abel. God says to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” To which Cain replies, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” God then curses Cain, curses him as he had cursed the snake earlier. “And now you are cursed,” he says. “…When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer.” The situation God described to Adam of needing to toil in the ground, is revoked from Cain as a punishment, and it is acknowledged as a curse upon him. And following my earlier thoughts about the evolutionary development of society and David Bumbaugh’s meditation about the backscratcher, the punishment of Cain comes as much to say, “If you can’t behave right, then you can’t live in the society of men and women.”
Now, again, it does not say anything in this second story about Cain’s sin being universal for all of humanity. It does imply a certain amount of heredity, but that does not seem to play out in any significant way throughout the rest of the book. So, where do I get off suggesting this story of Cain and Abel is about Original Sin if it lacks the same built-in supporting evidence of the first story of Adam and Eve?
If we choose to read the Bible the way my teacher read the Bible, (my teacher, the Marxist cowboy Christian missionary, who taught me to read the Bible by looking at the world around me first, then reading these stories and seeing what I might learn from them,) … if we choose to read the Bible that way, then we might see some worthwhile connections. If you think about the troubling things going on in the world today and ask yourself, “What, if anything, might be a universal problem we humans face from within ourselves again and again?” What is our big problem? What, if anything, is the common element humanity contributes time and again to what’s wrong in the world? It seems to me to be our tendency whereby each person thinks only of him- or herself: self-centeredness believing in self-sufficiency. This plays out in the extreme as violence in its diverse and plentiful variety. And that is what the second story in the Bible is all about. Cain thought only of himself and grew angry and ultimately violent because he did not understand the answer to his own question! “In Eden, no one stands alone, each depends on the others.”(Bumbaugh) Yes, you are your brother’s keeper.
You know, that has got to be one of God’s biggest blunders. He missed a great opportunity. Cain said “Am I my brother’s keeper?” And God skips over the lecture and gets right to the punishment and cursing! What a missed opportunity! God should have at least made the record clear, “Yes, Cain, Yes! You are your brother’s keeper. You are here to help each other. You are here to watch out for one another. I can’t be expected to do everything here, Cain. Why do think you’re even here if not for some really important reason like taking care of each other! Yes, Cain, you are your brother’s keeper.” But none of that made it into the book. Silence. God just brushes that question aside. What a mistake!
You know, sometimes life gives us the short end of the stick. In the story, when the two brother’s took their offerings to God, that which Abel offered was pleasing to God. Sometimes everything is going your way, things work out for you, every now and then life and you are both flowing in the same direction! Cain brought his offering and God was not pleased with it. Sometimes it feels like your swimming up stream against a strong current. Sometimes nothing works out right, the timing is just always off, every now and then you hit a tough patch and life just keeps throwing you hard and fast. And it almost seems like its human nature to get angry at life, or at God, or at whomever you can find to blame. It almost seems universal.
If Original Sin is really all about our disobedience before God, then the solution is for us to figure out the way in which God wants us to obey and do it. This is not a simple solution to live out because there are easily fifty different rulebooks about what God wants and many of them are contradictory. If instead, we consider the possibility of the Other Original Sin, which is about the violence we do to one another, then the solution is to stop being so violent to one another.
That’s a hard sell. People have been trying to convince the world to not be so violent for what feels like forever. These people usually end up shot, or crucified, or at best ridiculed and then ignored and forgotten. It is not easy to speak out for non-violence.
In our story this morning, One man rose up and killed his brother. Today thousands and thousands of our brothers and sisters rise up and kill our brothers and sisters. What if the real Original Sin is not about disobedience and guilt. What if the real Original Sin is the Other Original Sin: Fratricide. Every major world religion preaches peace and love and cooperation. As Bumbaugh said in meditation this morning, “In Eden, no one stands alone, each depends on the others.” Yet religion is too often one of the major components leading us into war and violence. When will we learn? When will we be free from our warring madness? When will we ever turn from this stain that seems to pervade every soul?
I don’t believe in Original Sin, even as I have cast it this morning. I still believe that we all have an inherent and basic goodness at our core. And as long as I see this basic dignity and goodness in us I will continue to see hope for humanity. I will continue to see hope that we can eventually quell this violent appetite within us. As we look at the world around us, and then read some of these old stories and find therein truth and hope, I will continue to do what I can. I will continue to see hope as we here take what steps we can to deliver our messages and examples of peace and love to our brothers and sisters near and far.
In a world without end
may it be so