Others have long argued, and I assent, that we are grossly mistaken to equate myth with falsehood. To the contrary, mythologists, philosophers, and even theologians point out that myths are not untrue, they are statements of eternal truth; they are metaphor, and through metaphor we can gain insights in the truths of our human condition. As great thinkers such as Joseph Campbell or Bishop John Shelby Spong have taught me, sometimes our biggest errors involve literalizing myth into history—which is an evolutionary process through which we sadly destroy the truth of the metaphor. That said, today I want to reflect a bit on the myth of original sin, why it resonates with me, and how we might find redemption for our “sins.”

A Brief History of Sin

In Christianity, sin is a peculiar thing. In the earliest times of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), sin was a very different concept than the one we think of today. Modern Christians can’t imagine life without sin, but the Hebrew predecessors of Christianity surely could. Suffering could be minimized by celebrating the honor and opportunity to obey God’s laws of diet and conduct—which most certainly could be accomplished in full. But when ultimately God’s chosen people still suffered even more over the centuries, the ideas of sin became much more distinct and separate from God and humans alike. The pious Hebrews believed they had satisfied the legal requirements, but still they saw that suffering continued. Sin then evolved—over the latter centuries BCE—into a force; demons or spirits were the cause of suffering. Certainly by the time of apocalypticists like Paul and the Jesus figure, we see a full-fledged notion that “the devil made us do it,” and that such a force was in control of all the people in power.

Later, in the second century, when God’s kingdom did not come to earth “as it is in heaven,” and did not turn the world upside down as imminently predicted—tossing out those in control; granting the meek inheritance of the world; removing the corrupt people in power who were controlled by the dark spirits—well, a new form of sin and salvation evolved. The old notion of what Dr. Barth Ehrman calls horizontal dualism (where good and evil swap places on a horizontal timeline—God’s kingdom that was to come to earth and end this era of pain and demonic control), instead turned to “vertical dualism,” where good and evil were spiritual battles between realms, and within us, rather than chronological and literal transformations here on earth. In short, it became clear there would be no literal “second coming,” because we got it wrong; God’s salvation was not a literal thing in this world, it was a spiritual thing between vertical spiritual realms.

This evolution in thinking can even be clearly seen when progressing from “Mark,” the earliest of the canonical gospels, to the more mystical, Gnostic, or spiritual gospel of “John.” (The quotes indicate that authorship is unknown.) Many—perhaps most—second-century “Christians” believed this material world was an accident, caused by a rouge god and a cosmic misfire between the layers of the heavens, and should not have come into existence at all. Indeed all matter was evil and bad, though some “chosen” ones had special knowledge and access to sparks of divinity that could allow them to access—or even return to—the higher spirit worlds in the heavens. Sex was material and bad; Mary was therefore a virgin (or so became, after Mark’s original gospel in which no such claim was made); pleasure was bad. From this ascetic background, and the evils of our material beings, comes this “we are sinful” stuff that we think of as “sin” in the evolved, modern sense of today’s Christianity.

SIN BECOMES AN INHERTITED, INTERNAL STRUGGLE

So through the evolution of the myth, we move to a narrative of highly guilt-ridden internalizations of evil spirits, and to self-hatred. While even Saint Augustine appeared not to take the Garden of Eden story as literal history, he surely ran with the idea of original contamination of our essence—if not our genome. Some might call him the popularizer of the whole “sin and self loathing” element of Christianity, the same element that often seems so counterintuitive and counterproductive to those on the outside of the faith.

In this regard, the Doctrine of Original Sin is the harmful and sometimes silly-sounding concept that is easy to dismiss, especially for the non-believer. The whole notion of one’s self being so depraved, so horrible, so without merit in God’s eyes, so unworthy of even being allowed to breath without God’s mercy—let alone have pleasure (sinful ice-cream, or physical pleasure)—is all too deeply engrained in Christianity, particularly among the more fire-and-brimstone sects (Evangelicals; Baptists; Pentacostals; etc.). Many modern thinkers dismiss this self flagellation and argue that being taught how horribly harmful and wicked we are, beginning in early childhood, is downright harmful to a healthy psychological development and existence; I agree. At the same time this myth of being “sinful by nature” still resonates with me in some important ways, and is worthy of reflection.

THE MERIT OF THE MYTH

Is it possible to live without causing harm? Saint Augustine surely argued it is not; and I find myself in agreement. We eat animals, often causing them great horror and distress before; we put our needs ahead of others; we say things we don’t mean out of vulnerability; we believe in survival of the fittest (though in some bastardization of the scientific fact of evolution—turning it into some twisted eugenics program where we pay homage to the Gordon Gekkos of the world and worship those who can willfully disregard others); we rationalize competition over cooperation; we forget the Golden Rule; and we hurt real people as we worship our idols, making it a virtue to stay focused on our goals while not being “distracted” by others who need help—lest we be accused of being a “bleeding heart” who will disrupt the rising tide.

Some of my “granola crunch” friends are vegetarians. Of them, some see the consumption of animal flesh as something that should be avoided altogether, since it tends to support violent, painful, and unnecessary harm or suffering to conscious beings (our cousins). To a large degree, I agree, though my cognitive dissonance allows me to enjoy a good filet to this day. But is that not sin? Is that not the absence of perfect holiness and charity? Is there not value to such an idea of perfect love and the absence of causing hurt, angst, harm, or pain?

I have often agreed with M. Scott Peck: egocentrism is the best definition of evil. It is through blatantly hedonistic and selfish action—without empathic or sympathetic interest in the effects of one’s actions on others—that great horrors come into existence. It is for selfish people who care not what they do to others that we sometimes wish there were eternal punishment. But to what degree do we not all cause harm simply by living? I mentioned my pursuit of food. I, too, often wrestle a mother turkey from her babies, and kill and eat her, beyond the bounds dictated by my dietary requirements. I spend money on a Friday libation rather than send it to those still suffering in Haiti.

Are not all these things selfish? Are we not sinners in the mythological sense that our very existence and “selfish genes”—that drive us to survive and feed our delusions of “self”—cause harm in the world? How can we seek redemption and aspire to live at as high a level as possible, causing the least possible pain to others? Are these not questions worthy of our consideration?

Many regular readers will recall that I and my wife of twenty years have chosen to take more distinct paths through life, and will no longer be married. While truly I have no regrets and much appreciation for our 20 years—and we both made no decisions without honest forethought and considerable interest in the well-being of one another—the fact remains that people I love are suffering, and they are suffering for events of which I was a part. Even if hypothetically I bear zero blame for causing suffering (a claim I would not make), any role we play in a chain of events that leads to suffering feels horrible, and also demonstrates some degree of culpability by virtue of our being in the chain. (If we weren’t alive and present, this wouldn’t have happened.)

Even where our choices are not purely selfish, what choices do we make in life—even to give to a charity—that do not have some selfish motivation? Is that selfishness not part of our “original sin,” the admission we must all make that once we breath air, and interact with the world, we will cause harm to something, or someone?

My heart always goes out to people who by pure accident cause injury or death to another person. It elicits in some cases as much sympathy from me as does the victim—perhaps even more. How does one ever forgive one’s self for such a thing? It’s one of my greatest of fears not only for myself, but for my sixteen-year-old son as he takes the wheel of a car.

AN ATTEMPT AT SOLUTIONS

Big questions remain, and obviously answers are elusive; but this is part of the reason mythologies are so ubiquitous and meaningful to us, because those mythologies give us a framework through which we can seek forgiveness, redemption, salvation, and ultimately a sufficiently-clean slate to try to plow forward productively for our remaining days of life. So how can we skeptics benefit from that mythological framework, yet function within a real world while continuing that march toward a useful life?

Certainly I don’t have all the answers, and I’ll await your comments, but here are a few thoughts:

1. First, it seems that we must remain obsessively vigilant of the effect of our choices on others. Perhaps a daily “prayer” asking ourselves how what we did today affected others—and what effect our choices of tomorrow will have—would be a useful practice. We would thereby learn from our mistakes, be conscious of them, and seek to avoid making similar errors. If we do this, even while I thoughtfully eat my occasional steak, it would seem we have made progress.

2. Restitution: If we genuinely play a causal role in suffering or hurt, we need to do all that we can to make it right.

3. Forgive: Whether you are the one who sinned or are the victim who is now is being uncharitable in your treatment of the perpetrator, forgiveness is a very big concept. Books are written entirely on this powerful word. And it is worth noting that sometimes it is ourselves whom we most need to forgive, in order to plow forward and add meaning to our lives, and the lives of others.

4. Perhaps toughest of all, we can celebrate for others their successes, accomplishments, and especially their good fortunes. Jealousy can get in our way; but with conscious effort we will do better than without, and we will prosper in the bountiful harvest of goodwill, which in turn will feed us.

5. Love: Love embodies selfless giving to others, in whatever form you give it. Love embodies the Golden Rule. Giving more is a good thing. This leads to perhaps a Hippocratic Oath of original sin: Do as little harm as possible, being cognizant of the effects of your actions on everyone and everything else; and give love abundantly in penance for your “original sin.”

Conclusion

It seems that if we regularly take these most basic of steps, even our own self interests can become “enlightened,” as Earl Nightingale used to say. Yes, we can pursue our own growth and development—consume food (animal flesh if we must, respectfully appreciated at a minimum), enter into relationships, seek intellectual nourishment and education—but still fully recognize that a complete absence of negative impact is likely impossible.

We do cause harm through mere existence, but be it through the insights into redemption that are offered by myths and metaphors—or through conscious intention and attention—that harm of “Original Sin” can be far less than the benefit we provide to the world.

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(Stephen L. Gibson is the author of  A Secret of the Universe, a critically acclaimed, citation-rich novel about the intersections of science, reason, and faith. Still an emotion-driven thinker in recovery, Steve shares his journey in search of ever-elusive truth with thousands via his Truth-Driven Thinking podcast, and his Perspectives blog. © 2010, Truth-Driven Strategies LLC.)

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