At the heart of the classical doctrine of sin stood a narrative. God created all the world, including humanity in His own image, and saw that it was very good. Yet the first man and woman chose to disobey the commandment of their Creator, and thus were accursed. God, seeking to break the curse on humankind, enacted the only effective remedy against a curse so great – He sent His only-begotten Son to live and die as as creature. The classical doctrine of sin, from the writings of Paul onwards, was an attempt to spell out the implications of this story. In the 20th Century, however, the doctrine came to be questioned because the narrative behind it was questioned. In particular, the story’s second act – the transgression of the first human couple – became incredible to many. Our best scientific theories of human origin clearly indicated that, rather than a unique first human couple, there had been a continuum of primates bearing increasingly greater genetic similarity to the average human alive today. The question of sin then became, what sense can be made of the Church’s teaching here once this element of the underlying story is relinquished.
Spiritual Consciousness and the Divinising Relationship
It is my contention that nothing theologically important is lost from the Biblical narrative once we construe the Paradise story as wholly mythical. What follows is an inevitably speculative attempt to translate that narrative into terms consistent with our current understanding of human origins, thus to ground a contemporary understanding of sin. At some point during the evolutionary process, there arose a spiritually conscious creature – which, for our purposes, means to say that there arose a creature directed towards an ultimate end. Instead of simply acting instinctively to achieve obvious short term goals, our ancestors began to see their whole pattern of life and action as conforming to a definite shape and serving more general, long term purposes. At first, the long term goals would presumably have been no more than generaliations of the short term goals – e.g. stave off hunger throughout the cold months rather than merely through the night. Eventually, however, some will have come to reflect on what grounded the longer term goals. Why keep self and kin fed at all? For what purpose is anyone here? As soon as such questions were asked, in whatever rudimentary form, spiritual consciousness had been achieved.
The true ultimate end of our ancestors, the correct answer to their questions, was of course the service of God. Initially, moreover, God enabled our ancestors to give some rudimentary form of the correct answer. God so revealed Himself to them that they could take God as their ultimate end. Thus a relationship between God and humankind was established: humans trusted in God as their ultimate end, and so humans could receive from God both instruction in what service to Him entailed, and incitement to the various gifts (wisdom, courage, strength of will) such service required. We might say that in this relationship humanity offers faith, God offers grace and truth, and the ultimate end is divinisation – the perfection of humanity in the full image and likeness of God.
This account is essentially that of Irenaeus, albeit without mention of a historical first couple. ‘Now it was necessary that humanity should in the first instance be created; and having been created, should receive growth; and having received growth, should be strengthened’ with the ultimate goal of ‘ascending towards the perfect, that is, the uncreated One’. (Against the Heresies, Book IV, Chapter 38, Section 3). Human beings were initially created in a state of spiritual weakness, but God intended that, by entering into relationship with Him, we should grow to be ‘at length gods’ (Against the Heresies, Book IV, Chapter 38, Section 4).
One of the important points to make here is that mere spiritual immaturity is not itself sin. If sin is viewed as the failure to love God properly or to do His will in some unrestricted sense, then it is natural to assimilate spiritual immaturity to sin. This is problematic, because spiritual immaturity seems to have been inherent in our creation. We each come into the world meeting our own basic needs by instinct, and learning only later, and with difficulty, how to regulate our actions with the interests of others, or indeed, our own long-term interests, in mind. If we accept our best scientific theories of human origins, then we cannot assume that our ancestors differed significantly in this respect. Indeed, this view is supported by the Paradise story: Adam and Eve must initially lack the knowledge of good and evil, because the acquisition of such knowledge is a temptation to them. The Biblical narrative also insists, however, that sin was not inherent to creation: creation was itself ‘very good’ (Genesis 1:36), while sin entered later through human free choice. So spiritual immaturity is not sin.
Sin as Turning Away from God
So what is sin? Sin is turning away from God, construed as the refusal to acknowledge that the service of God is our ultimate end, and more generally as any action on our part that disrupts the divinising relationship. One consequence of this account is that the scope of sin various according to the extent of God’s revelation to a given subject. If we know that mocking a disabled person is a violation of God’s will, then to mock such a person is of itself a rejection of God as our ultimate end and a disruption in our divinising relationship. This is so even if the action is entirely spontaneous and unreflective, and not at all related back to any conscious conception of what our ultimate end might be: in that moment, we implicitly reject God’s claim on us by contravening what we know to be His will. At an earlier stage in the divinising relationship, however, when God’s will was less well known, things were otherwise. The mockery would not of itself have constituted a rejection of God as our ultimate end, and so would only have been a spiritually immature act and not a sin. This idea that those who have received greater revelation are thereby answerable to higher standard is well-supported by Scripture. ‘You only have I known of all the families of the earth, therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities’ the Lord oracles through Amos (3:2); though Paul’s argument is dense and difficult to interpret, it may be that he is making a similar point in Romans 7:7, that the law ‘provides sin with a more effective leverage on man’ (Dunn, 381).
It accords with the Biblical narrative, and is independently plausible (in that under such conditions sin would have been easier), to suppose that humankind first sinned very early in the divinsing relationship, during the initial period of moral immaturity when our ancestors still lacked the knowledge of good and evil. Thus the first sin is not likely to have been a failure to uphold an established moral ordinance so much as a fundamental change of orientation, a rejection of God as such, or at least God under whatever guise He was first known to our ancestors. This too is borne out by the Biblical narrative. Though the story of the Fall reaches its climax in the transgression of a specific commandment, there is clearly a more complex process at work. Adam and Eve only transgress God’s command because they put their trust in the serpent rather than God, while the serpent only succeeds in gaining their trust by appealing to their sense of their own glory: they would rather ‘be like God’ than serve Him as well as their weakness allows. By the time they have digested the serpent’s rhetoric, they no longer accept the service of God as their ultimate end, and are in sin.
Of course it is fruitless now to speculate on the precise nature of the first human sin, but we may presume that its character was similar to that portrayed in the Genesis account. One point bearing emphasis, however, is that it need not have involved the same self-glorification as enticed Adam and Eve. Any rejection of God as an ultimate end, for whatever reason, and in favour of whatever alternative, would have done just as well. There is little reason to think that pride is the purest or most basic form of sin.
Sin may not always be a turning away from God to self, but it does always involve the self in a special way. Concomitant with the turn away from God is a turning from a true to a false conception of self, for our self-conception is intimately connected with what we take our ultimate end to be. The true self is essentially related to God as its ultimate end. To reject God as our ultimate end, therefore, is to replace a true conception of ourselves with a false one. The importance of this point will become clear later, in discussing the relationship between sin and death (and it will become clearer still in the next essay!)
Sin as Original and Enslaving
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the traditional account of us sin for us to accept today is the idea that ever since, and because of, the first sin, we have all been in bondage to sin. The basic idea is present in Paul: ‘by one man’s (i.e. Adam’s) disobedience many were made sinners (Romans 5:19), ‘you were slaves to sin’ (Romans 6:20) and was fully elaborated in Augustine’s polemic against Pelagius. The mechanism by which one man (or even several people) could corrupt the wills of his descendants many generations later is, at least initially, mysterious.
Fortunately, however, it is not utterly obscure. If we can explain how sin perpetuates itself within an individual person, and how a sinful community can perpetuate sin in members newly born into it, then we need only posit a critical mass of enough initial sins in enough people for a community thereby to be bound to an inheritance of sin from generation to generation. Both of these explanatory resources are provided by Pascal. At the centre of Pascal’s account if sin is the faculty of imagination. Pascal understands the imagination as a general faculty of mental representation. It is relevant to sin because part of its role is to represent the value of things: ‘the imagination determines the subjective value of objects and situations by shaping the way we construe and interpret them’ (Wood, Blaise Pascal on Duplicity, Sin, and the Fall, p 124). Accordingly, if the imagination construes a sinful course action in the right (or rather, wrong) way, it will seem valuable to us, and we will be likely to follow that course of action. Our imagination might, for example, represent with particular clarity the inconvenience involved in accommodating to another’s disability, without representing with equal clarity the continual inconvenience endured by the disabled person, and consequently suggest that mocking such a person might, in fact, be appropriate. Our evaluative attitudes so ordered by imagination, we are naturally prompted to action – in this case, sinful action. More fundamentally, the ways in which the imagination habitually represents the world to us can obscure the fact that God is our ultimate end and the true source of all value.
This helps us to explain original sin because of the way the imagination is shaped. The whole human being, imagination included, develops within a particular social context, and that social context influences our development. Whenever the values of our society are enacted around us, in word or deed, our imagination is affected, and slowly the imagination comes to represent the world in accordance with the values to which it has been exposed. Our imagination is thus socially constructed. And if the society constructing our imagination does not recognise the God as its ultimate end, we will not recognise God as our ultimate end, either. A sinful society distorts the imagination, which in turn represents the world in a distorted and sinful way.
Consider, for example, a society in which religious observance is primarily construed as an expression of national identity. We will be used to hearing others say ‘he goes to church; he’s a good citizen’. We will be used to praying for the state and its ministers and singing the national anthem in church. Perhaps church services are typically followed by a procession to the town hall or a monument or some other symbol of the state, before which everyone bows. When they retire, people usually talk about politics or sing nationalist songs. As the imagination absorbs all this, it will internalise the idea that the display of identity is primary and the content of faith is secondary. Thus we will accept that our ultimate end is service to the nation rather than to God. Without a radical change in the mechanisms of imagination, moreover, we will likely continue in sin. Should state decree ever conflict with the commandments of God, the imagination oriented towards the state will represent following the state as the more favourable course, and we will obey the state. The more often we side with the state, the deeper our imaginative allegiance to the state becomes, and the more tenuous our relationship with God. Thus can the past sins of others bind us to sin.
The Wages of Sin
A last point I would like to consider is the relationship, often attested in the Bible, between sin and death. One way to interpret this idea is to see sin, as the disruption of our relationship with the living God, as a kind of spiritual death. But one puzzling point is that it is not merely continuing in sin that results in death, but also the very process of turning away from sin is involves death. According to Paul, ‘he who has died is free from sin’ (Romans 6:7), while Jesus claims that ‘whoever loses his life for my sake will find it’ (Matthew 10:39). The Bible seems to suggest that, with sin, we’re dead if we do and we’re dead if we don’t.
The natural way to interpret this death is with recourse to the false conception of the sinful self. The false self that denies its essential relation to God is what dies. This thought, however, can be construed in more than metaphorical (albeit highly speculative) terms, in accordance with the very concrete ideas of destruction associated with sin elsewhere in the Bible. First, note that is very difficult to get rid of a false self. It cannot simply be willed away. The false self, as we have already seen, is rooted deep in our imaginations. In fact, it is rooted deeper still. Our false self is ‘inscribed on the body’ (Wood, Blaise Pascal on Duplicity, Sin, and the Fall, p 65), something realised physically every time we perform a sinful act and abiding after the act has been performed. For, as every glutton knows, once habituated into sin the body retains a propensity towards sin. It follows that the false self can only be decisively abandoned through the destruction of the body. The restoration of our relationship with God, however, requires nothing less than the decisive abandonment of our false selves. So the restoration of our relationship requires the destruction of our bodies.
Naturally, however, we cannot endure the destruction of our bodies, and so have developed various approximations to fulfill a similar role. One such proxy, I suggest, is the practice of sacrifice. Sacrifices enable us to realise the death of our false selves through the death of the victim. It may not quite grant the glutton freedom from his bodily greed, but it allows a far greater separation from our false selves than it would be possible to attain all at once otherwise. It is for this reason that sacrifice can repair our relationship with God.
In conclusion, sin is turning away from God as our ultimate end, and severing ourselves from the divinising relationship He offers us. Original sin is the process of being socialised into an already sinful world, such that our evaluating faculties are sufficiently warped that we do not recognise God as our ultimate end and actions that defy God’s will appear attractive to us. Because our sin penetrates into the whole of human being, body included, rejection of sin naturally involves the rejection of our sinful bodies. Hence the traditional association of sin with death, and the institution of sacrifice.