Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Myths of Christianity - 2
The Myth of Original Sin
Richard Holloway

One Sunday night when I was a young priest I came home from evensong, had my supper and was reading the newspaper when the phone rang. It was a ward sister at a local hospital, asking if I would go to the hospital immediately, because parishioners of mine were in need of pastoral ministration.   

I hastened over to the hospital and found a man I knew slightly who informed me that his wife had just given birth to premature triplets who were not expected to live out the night and would I please baptise them. This kind of ceremony is called emergency baptism and I agreed to do it immediately.  I was taken to the room where the three tiny scraps of life were lying in incubators and I asked for a cup of water. Then I reached into the containers where they lay and marked each child's head with water and baptised all three of them 'In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit', according to the ancient formula. They all died a few hours later.

 What I had done was an act of pastoral care for the parents of the tiny babies and it did, indeed, provide them with a certain bleak comfort. I had responded to the request of the parents out of care for them, but behind the practice of emergency baptism there lies one of the most unsympathetic of the Christian doctrines. It is the doctrine that the unbaptised go to hell after death, hence the need to administer baptism without preparation in situations of imminent death.  

The doctrine was later slightly modified in the case of babies who, though they were born guilty of original sin like everyone else, had not had time to commit any actual sins, so they had their sentences commuted to eternity in the limbo puerorum, a suburb of hell, from the Latin limbus for edge or border.  

Voltaire claims that limbo was invented by Peter Chrysologos in the fifth century as a sort of mitigated hell for babies who died before baptism, 'and where resided the patriarchs before the descent of Jesus Christ into hell; so that the view that Jesus Christ descended to limbo and not into hell has prevailed since then'.  

Thinking about the fate of unbaptised babies in the Christian tradition is the cleanest way to tackle the doctrine of original sin, because it saves us from getting mixed up with the doctrine of punishment for sins committed rather than inherited, actual sin as contrasted with original sin.  

There is a certain moral logic in the notion of punishment after death for sins actually committed in life and most of the great religions have versions of it. Buddhism and Hinduism see it more as a process of impersonal consequences rather than as the personally imposed punishment by God we find in the Christian tradition, but there is a certain logic in either approach: what you sow you reap, acts have consequences.  

In the doctrine of punishment after death by God there may be more than a trace of the resentment that Nietzsche despised in the Christian tradition, the hatred of the weak for the strong and their longing to get even with them, even if they had to wait for the afterlife in which to do so. There may also be an instinctive sense of justice of the sort expressed in the parable of Dives and Lazarus. 

In that parable, versions of which are found in various religious traditions, the rich man implores Abraham for a little comfort and is refused it, because he'd already used up his comfort account: "He called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.' But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.'" 

Even if we do not believe in the morality of eternal punishment for temporal crimes, we can follow the reasoning that leads to the concept of the afterlife as a place where the inequalities of this life are evened out and balanced up. Many of our most ancient stories are based on this deep longing for justice and for wrongs to be righted and villains to be punished, and since it does not seem to happen in this life in any balanced or systematic way, it is easy to understand how the human imagination projected the final reckoning on to the afterlife. Whatever we make of this kind of thing ourselves, it is easy to understand its moral logic and even to admire its effectiveness as a deterrent to wickedness.

The Christian doctrine of original sin and its remedy lacks this kind of moral dimension, because it reduces the matter to the application of a ceremony that wipes out the balance sheet of sin, whether original, actual or both, simply by virtue of its enactment. This was one reason why baptism was abused in the early Church among those who wanted the best of both worlds, this one and the next. 

Voltaire gives a mordant example of the abuse: 'This sacrament was abused in the first centuries of Christianity; nothing was so common as to await the final agony in order to receive baptism. The example of the emperor Constantine is pretty good proof of that. This is how he reasoned: baptism purifies everything; I can therefore kill my wife, my son and all my relations; after which I shall have myself baptised and I shall go to heaven; and in fact that is just what he did'.

The specifically Christian element in the ancient drama of human folly and frailty, therefore, seems to have two ethically dubious elements, one of which is the doctrine of original sin itself and the other the claim that, by the application of a particular ceremony, the debt inherited by the plaintiff can be converted to credit in the divine balance sheet. Both of these elements seem to reduce the resolution of the human drama to a mental act, the holding of a particular opinion, followed by a ceremony that is automatically, if mystically, efficacious. 

This is not a phenomenon that is confined to Christianity, but there it has created a specific kind of mentalism called dogmatism, which is the belief that holding right ideas in our head can save us from damnation, just as holding wrong ones can condemn us to it. As Montaigne would have put it, this is rating our conjectures very highly indeed. 

How did it all come about?

Well, we cannot blame the story of the tempting of Adam and Eve in the Hebrew scriptures, because the doctrine of original sin and consequent congenital guilt is not found there, as we will discover when we read chapter 3 of Genesis:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God say, 'You shall not eat from any tree in the garden'?" The woman said to the serpent, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.' " But the serpent said to the woman, "You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." 

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, "Where are you?" He said, "I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself." He said, "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?" The man said, "The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate." Then the Lord God said to the woman, "What is this that you have done?" The woman said, "The serpent tricked me, and I ate."

The Lord God said to the serpent, "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. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel."

To the woman he said, "I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you."

And to the man he said, "Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, 'You shall not eat of it,' cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living. 

And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.

Then the Lord God said, "See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever" therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.

Whatever we make of this ancient narrative, it says nothing about the transmission to humanity of Adam's guilt and it is interpreted by Jewish scholars as an allegory of the human condition, not a historic event. It is a myth, not a factual account of a real event. 

Paul seems to have been the first person in the Christian tradition to treat it as a historic event from which conclusions could be drawn and consequences measured. His account comes in his Letter to the Romans, Chapter 5:

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned.

If, because of the one man's trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

Therefore just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. [19] For just as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous. 

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