Paradise Lost, Again and Again

GEORGE SIM JOHNSTON

The idea of Original Sin -- that we are all implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity -- does not sit well with the modern mind.

Original Sin: A Cultural History By Alan Jacobs (HarperOne, 286 pages, $24.95)

But then neither does the idea of sin itself. According to our therapeutic culture, people like Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin may have sinned, but the rest of us are victims of circumstance and maladjustment. Why even talk about sin? As for the idea that we all have to suffer because our first parents chose to sample a piece of fruit -- that obviously doesn't resonate either. One could even define the Enlightenment, which began with 18th-century thinkers like Rousseau and Kant, as a rejection of the Christian doctrine of Original Sin.

And yet, as Alan Jacobs notes in Original Sin, his strangely entertaining cultural survey, some very smart people have concluded that there is no better explanation of the darker side of human behavior. Blaise Pascal, who was certainly a genius, thought that without this particular belief we lack any possibility of understanding ourselves. G.K. Chesterton opined that Original Sin is the only Christian doctrine that requires no explanation: Just look around! And the French novelist Georges Bernanos made a point worth pondering, one that has not been disproved by history, that "for men it is certainly more grave, or at least much more dangerous, to deny original sin than to deny God."

Mr. Jacobs presents an impressive gallery of thinkers convinced of the reality of a hereditary stain in human nature. He starts with St. Augustine, who saw evidence for Original Sin "everywhere, from the angry cry of a baby to his own tendency to be distracted from prayer." There are classic Protestants like Luther and John Bunyan, as well as the Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who in the Gulag came to realize that the real fault line ran not between the guards and prisoners but within each human soul.

Of course, they are all Christians. When we turn to modern thinkers who take a dim view of religion -- Marx, Freud, the current batch of evolutionary psychologists -- Mr. Jacobs sees a pattern: They dismiss the idea of Original Sin but then try to sneak it through the back door and give it another name.

Kant, who had little use for Christian revelation, talked about "the crooked timber of humanity." For Marx, human behavior was skewed by immemorial social arrangements. Freud talked about the dark forces of the subconscious. One way or another, these thinkers were wrestling with the question that God directed to Adam and Eve after the Fall: "Where are you?" In other words: Why are we not where we ought to be?


Whatever your belief about the devil, his offer to Adam and Eve is something to think about: If you eat the fruit, he says, you shall be gods, knowing good and evil. In other words, you can create your own reality. Why not enjoy a radical autonomy wherein the truth is determined not by the nature of things but by your own individual will?


Mr. Jacobs treats the biblical account of the Fall with disappointing brevity, moving quickly on to Milton's poetic version in Paradise Lost. But there are provocative ideas to be mined from the opening chapters of Genesis, even if you're not particularly religious. In just seven biblical verses the devil speaks twice, and all is ruined. Whatever your belief about the devil, his offer to Adam and Eve is something to think about: If you eat the fruit, he says, you shall be gods, knowing good and evil. In other words, you can create your own reality. Why not enjoy a radical autonomy wherein the truth is determined not by the nature of things but by your own individual will?

The author of Genesis suggests that this is a formula for unhappiness: Genuine freedom is anchored in objective truths that we ourselves do not invent. Otherwise there is going to be a mess. And indeed in the chapters of Genesis that follow, which may have a substratum of historical truth -- there was, for example, an enormous flood in the Mesopotamian basin at the dawn of history -- mankind lurches from catastrophe to catastrophe.

The rest of Mr. Jacobs's book is an absorbing, if serendipitous, history of how mankind has dealt with the fact of its own waywardness. We seem to know what is good, but behave otherwise. What to do? There are the mischievous dreamers, like Rousseau, who think that innocence is simply a matter of organizing society properly. Rousseau was the intellectual godfather of the French Revolution, which taught us that revolutionists have their own dark side and that replacing faith with "reason" can involve a high body count. As Pope Benedict XVI has said, replacing reason with faith doesn't work either. You need both.

Mr. Jacobs observes that, while revolutions usually self-destruct, the melioristic schemes of the 19th century -- better sanitation and schooling -- did improve things, and for this we should be grateful. Problems occur when we go too far in regulating human behavior. Original Sin has a wonderful chapter on Robert Owen, the 19th-century English industrialist who migrated to America to found a utopian community called New Harmony. Owen abolished private property, with the result that a black-market economy instantly appeared. In fact, writes Mr. Jacobs, "all hell broke loose."

Which brings us back to the Garden of Eden. In an easy, fluent style, Mr. Jacobs makes the case that we're setting ourselves up for a fall whenever we think that mankind can get things exactly right.



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

George Sim Johnston. "Paradise Lost, Again and Again." reprint The Wall Street Journal (June 13, 2008).

This article reprinted with permission of The Wall Street Journal © 2008 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

THE AUTHOR

George Sim Johnston is a writer living in New York City. His articles and essays have appeared in Harpers, The American Spectator, Commentary, The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, Crisis, and Catholic World Report. He is a recipient of the Journalism Award from the Catholic Press Association. His most recent book, Did Darwin Get it Right?: Catholics and the Theory of Evolution is published by Our Sunday Visitor and may be ordered by calling 1-800-348-2440.

Copyright © 2008 Wall Street Journal




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