June 26th, 2008
Here are some interesting paragraphs from Alan Jacobs’s new book Original Sin: A Cultural History:
“One of the arguments that I have been keen to make throughout this book is that a belief in original sin serves as a kind of binding agent, a mark of ‘the confraternity of the human type,’ an enlistment of all of us in what Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy called the ‘universal democracy of sinners.’ But why should original sin alone, among core Christian doctrines, have the power to do that? What about that other powerful idea in Genesis, that we are all made in the image of God? Doesn’t that serve equally well, or even better, to bind us as members of a single family?
The answer is that it should do so, but usually does not. Working against the force of that doctrine is the force of familiarity, of prevalent cultural norms of behavior and even appearance. A genuine commitment to the belief that we are all created equally in the image of God requires a certain imagination . . . Instinctive revlusion against the alien will trump doctrinal commitments every time. . . .
By contrast, the doctrine of original sin works with the feeling that most of us have, at least some of the time, of being divided against ourselves, of falling short of the mark, inexplicably screwing up when we ought to know better. It takes relatively little imagination to look at another person and think that, though that person is not all he or she could be, neither am I. . . . [I]n general it is easier for most of us to condescend–in the etymological sense of the word–to see ourselves as sharing shortcomings or sufferings with others–than to lift up people whom our culturally formed instincts tell us are decidedly inferior to ourselves. If misery does not always love company, it surely tolerates it quite well, whereas pride demands distinction and hierarchy, and is ultimately willing to pay for those in the coin of isolation. That the doctrine of a common creation in the image of God doesn’t do more to help build common community and fellow feeling could be read as yet more evidence for the reality of original sin.”
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