Christianity and the Problem of Human Violence
From All-Creatures
Christian Living

True Christian living requires us to live according to Kingdom standards which bring Heaven to earth

Christianity and the Problem of Human Violence
By Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.
http://www.christianveg.com

Part 111: Original Sin, part 1

Throughout the ages, Christians have struggled to understand why humans sin, the consequences of sin, and how we might overcome sin. A popular contemporary theology is that everyone is sinful because everyone inherits Adam’s “Original Sin” of disobedience in the Garden of Eden. They hold that only the ritual killing of a sacrificial victim can mollify God’s wrath at human sinfulness. Jesus, who was totally innocent, was the perfect sacrifice to atone for humankind’s depravity. This satisfied God’s demand for sacrifice, and further animal sacrifices became unnecessary. I will discuss difficulties with this atonement theology shortly, but here I want to look at the notion of “Original Sin.”

Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was central in developing the theory that everyone inherits Adams “Original Sin” of disobedience. One difficulty with Augustine’s theory has to do with the mechanism of transmission of Adam’s sin. Augustine maintained that human sexuality was the outward manifestation of human sinfulness (perhaps because he struggled greatly against his own sexual desires), and he asserted that the overpowering passions associated with sexual intercourse transmit human sinfulness to infants.1 With our better understanding of the biology of inheritance, Augustine’s theory – or any theory that posits inheritance of Adam’s sin of disobedience – seems unreasonable.

I think mimetic theory offers a more reasonable framework: Humans, as mimetic creations, inherently desire what others have or want, which strongly predisposes us to sin. In other words, according to this view, we do inherit a propensity to sin, but we are not sinful at birth. As we grow and develop mimetic desires that incline us towards sin, we still can choose whether or not to sin. We still sin, because humans have great difficulty overcoming all temptations, but our degree of sinfulness tends to reflect the strength of our will. I think that divine grace involves our gaining self-esteem in ways that do not involve acquisitive mimetic desire, which reduces our desire to engage in sinful behavior.

As discussed in essays 9 and 75, I regard the Garden of Eden story anthropologically and as allegory, rather than historically and as literal truth.* I find that overwhelming scientific evidence from fields such as geology, paleontology, archeology, biology, and astronomy contradict the literal biblical account that the universe is only about 7500 years old. Since I am unable to disregard things I believe are true, I am forced to regard the Genesis creation account in symbolic terms, or to reject the validity of the Bible. My perspective leads me to conclude that Adam was not created innocent or without sin. Rather, becoming human is what inclined Adam to sin. Adam became human by virtue of his self-consciousness, and self-consciousness made Adam aware of that his sense of self exists not only in the present (as animals experience) but also will exist in the distant future (something that, evidently, other animals cannot imagine).** Consequently, anxious that harm might befall the self at some future time, Adam sought to know what would be good for his self and what would be evil. As a human, Adam regarded as evil scarcity (which threatens the self with deprivation or even death) and the inevitability of death (which terrifies the self with the prospect of the self’s extinction). His fear of scarcity encouraged him to hoard, generating communal scarcity and making harmonious coexistence with the rest of Creation impossible. His fear of death fueled acquisitive mimetic desire to gain self-esteem, which has led to rivalries and violence ever since.

Next week, we will explore Original Sin further, focusing on Augustine’s understanding of Romans 5:12.

1. Eugene Webb, René Girard and the symbolism of religious Sacrifice, Anthropoetics vol. 11 no. 1, 2005, http://www.anthropoetics.ucla.edu/ap1101/webb.htm; Donald Sensing, A short history of Original Sin, 3/11/04, http://thereligiousnews.blogspot.com/2004_03_07_thereligiousnews_archive.html.

* I would like to emphasize that either way of regarding the Bible – literally or allegorically – encourages a plant-based diet as a biblical ideal, and the Bible teaches that love and compassion should guide our choices.

** Many animals can anticipate, with anxiety or eager anticipation, the consequences of current conditions for the near future. For example, a dog can fear the consequences of having just urinated on the carpet. However, I am doubtful that the dog is anxious about the possibility that the dog might urinate on the carpet tomorrow.

Go on to Part 112: Original Sin, part 2
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Christianity and the Problem of Human Violence

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