Communal Sin in the 21st Century, Pt. 3
Though we struggle mightily with the concept of communal sin in our 21st century context, it’s vital that we recover a basic understanding of wrongdoing that takes us beyond narrow individualism. How else can we account for grave systemic injustice in all of our institutions? Trying to lay the blame at a single person’s feet is not only naïve, it vastly oversimplifies the problem. In this six-part series, we’ll take a close look at some of our nation’s abiding communal sins, taking into account systemic racism, communal sin in politics, the church, the entertainment industry, and the workplace. Having traced these destructive patterns in our cultural moment, we’ll then turn to the biblical account of communal sin and see how it both makes sense of our dilemma and offers the only feasible hope. This episode considers the primal instance of sin for the human race, namely, the fall of Adam and Eve.
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Cameron McAllister: Hello, and welcome to the Vital Signs podcast. I'm your host, Cameron McAllister. Thank you so much for tuning in today. This is part three in our series, “Communal Sin in the 21st Century.” I've been looking forward to this episode because finally, we get to talk about scripture. We started where we're at with this series, we started in our own context, but now we finally made our way to scripture. I've really been looking forward to this because scripture, although it offers quite a bit of complicated information here, in the end this is what makes the most sense of communal sin and also the abiding problem of communal sin.
As I tried to show you in those first episodes, communal sin may sound ancient and Bronze Age. It may sound like something we've outgrown, but it's very much a continuing struggle and it couldn't be more relevant and more current, but we need to be able to make sense of it and to understand it, that way we can gain the needed perspective on the matter, and I think that we can get that only through scripture. So, let's talk about the primal incident that instigated all of this. This is of course, the story of Adam and Eve in the garden. It's a fascinating story, and I'll only be looking at some very small aspect of the story.
I can't possibly do full justice to it here, but it's really going to shed a lot of light on what has happened to us, because I think a very important question to bear in mind here is this, when you look at the world around you and you look at the state we're in, it makes a lot of sense to ask the question, “what is wrong with us?” What has gone so drastically wrong? And of course, in this story, we have Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and there are a number of really fascinating details here that are deeply mysterious as well. I'll just touch on them, because I've said this before on the Vital Signs podcast. When you really read scripture where you actually look at it carefully, it should mess with you. It actually should disrupt your comfortable notions and your comfortable thinking, we should expect that.
This is, if Christianity is true after all, the revelation from an infinite God. So, if we could easily translate it all, if we could easily figure it all out, that actually would be a mark against it. If it was all so understandable by us, that would seem to put it in more human terms. I would put it on more of a human plane, but that's not what we find with scripture when we actually look at it. It's profoundly disturbing and it's profoundly disruptive to our thinking.
So Adam is created, and then Eve is created, and Adam and Eve are given dominion over the Garden of Eden, that is, that they are the stewards, they are the ones who are responsible for it, and all of the other creatures are under their authority. They have a commandment, a very curious commandment. Here's where some of those curious details come in, they may eat of any tree in the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they may not eat. Now, let's just pause for a second. Why is that tree there? Why is there a tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Eden? I have a very easy, very simple, very straightforward answer to this question. I don't know. This is deeply mysterious and it's led to all manner of speculation.
One of my old professors speculated, and he admitted he was speculating, but he said, "Since the tree was there, I think it makes sense to presume that God was eventually, in his own time, going to share some of this with Adam and Eve in some way, share the revelations of this tree with them." But we don't know. That's speculation. What we do know is the tree is there, and a prohibition is given by the Lord to not eat of that tree. Now, we also have the figure of the serpent, and the figure of the serpent...this is a talking serpent, this is a satanic figure. We don't know precisely why this serpent shows up in Eden. Why is the serpent there in the first place? Why is there a snake in the grass, so to speak, in Eden? Again, another mysterious detail.
This particular series is not dedicated to the mystery of evil itself, but we touch some of that mystery here because the great question, “where did evil come from in the first place,” is one of the great mysteries of all time. Augustine of Hippo and many others have stated that we simply don't have an answer to where evil came from. We can give an adequate explanation of the fact that there is evil and how there can be evil and suffering and a good God, but where evil came from, we don't know. It seems to be pretty clear that this side of eternity, we probably will not know whence evil, where it came from in the first place.
How did rebellion arise in the heart of Lucifer in the first place when he was formerly an angel, and then he falls, as Jesus tells us, like lightning from heaven, what happened? What kind of calamity came into being there? Where did it come from? This is deeply mysterious, but at any rate, we have the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and we have the serpent who we are told is extremely crafty and we'll see that he is indeed crafty. He lives up to that reputation. Here's another mysterious element. God tells Adam and Eve that if they eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they will surely die.
Pause for a second. Would they have understood what that meant? Do they know what death is in Eden? They're living in a paradisal state and they're enjoying a degree of harmony and intimacy with their creator that none of us have experienced. So, what does that mean to Adam and to Eve? Do they understand? It seems likely that they probably don't really understand what that even means. How could they understand the full implications if they haven't eaten of the fruit of the knowledge of the tree of good and evil, the fruit from the tree. There's a little tongue twister. But what is going on here?
So there's so many different elements here that make this a deeply mysterious story, and we can't possibly solve them all. But there's a lot of profundity here as we see this setup where Adam and Eve are given this prohibition and they find themselves in this place. But of course what happens? Already by chapter three, everything is going off the rails because the serpent approaches Eve and he gives her a very, very interesting temptation. The form of his temptation is this. He says, "No, no, no, no, no, no. If you eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you won't die, but you will become like God, knowing good and evil." So this is a promise of forbidden knowledge.
Now that is something that we have never been able to live down that is...if you look at history, you'll see that the promise of forbidden knowledge is nearly irresistible to us in many instances. We discover that more and more as we venture forward in the scientific world. So often, think about this, in the field of research, pure research, so often we are very willing to either diminish ethical constraints, or at least our goal is to push away ethical consideration as much as possible so that we can continue forging ahead into ever more exotic territory, whether this is genetic experimentation, recombinant DNA, some of the various experiments that go under the heading of transhumanist movements, we keep wanting to move ahead.
It's always hard to resist quoting from the movie version of Jurassic Park, where we hear “You care so much about whether you can, whether you could, you never stopped to think about whether you should,” but forbidden knowledge remains this very, very enticing, powerful temptation for us up until this very day. But he also, and this is connected by the way, to forbidden knowledge in many ways. The serpent says you will be like God, so you will be Godlike with this knowledge. So, what happens? Well, Eve succumbs to the temptation and she gives in and she eats of the fruit, and then she persuades Adam to eat of the fruit as well, and then we get one of the great hiding incidents that takes place in scripture, Adam and Eve suddenly become aware of themselves in a whole new way.
When you see self-consciousness in this particular passage in Genesis here, as it's portrayed in the garden, it's seen as a bad thing. Suddenly, Adam and Eve are aware of themselves in a way that seems to approach morbid introspection. They're aware that they're naked. That's the first sign of their growing self-consciousness, and it's the first sign of their loss of innocence. Now, we can see this actually in our day-to-day lives as well. We see this. One of the great enemies of athletes of really any kind of public performance or any kind of performance in general is when we do what get in our heads. We're terrified of being in our heads. It's a threat to me here when I'm speaking to you on the Vital Signs podcast, is a threat to me every time I'm up on stage.
But the threats to get into your head when you stop, because then your eyes are off what you're doing, you're no longer holistically interacting with the people around you, with your environment, but suddenly you're in your head, you're questioning yourself, you're monitoring your mind at every second, and it becomes a form of paralysis. Dallas Willard once pointed out, “You don't actually want to be with a driver, in the car with a driver who carefully thinks through and exhaustively considers his or her every single maneuver.” Because if you do that, that's going to be a very frightening, very choppy or very slow ride. What you want is somebody who seamlessly drives a car mindlessly in the best sense, that is, they have acquired the habits and the rhythms necessary to operate the vehicle seamlessly.
If you're having to think through everything, you learn this very quickly with young children when you're teaching them how to put their clothes on, or when you have teenagers and you've got that terrifying project of teaching them how to drive a car, you see then how haphazard, how clumsy, how cumbersome it is when you have to think through your every move. But this is what's happening here in the garden. Adam and Eve, for the first time, they've lost the sign of the severing of that primal harmony that they enjoyed. This is the first sign of that alienation now. Now they're hiding from the very maker with whom they enjoyed such incredible intimacy and fellowship. Now suddenly, they're hiding from Him. What an absolutely futile gesture, because after all, if He is in fact the Lord of all creation, He knows all things. There's no hiding anything from Him, not even the greatest secret of your heart.
Nevertheless, they do that and He asks them one of the great rhetorical questions. He says, "Why are you hiding?" They tell Him, "Well, we hid because we were naked. We sewed fig leaves." Then of course He asks, "Well, who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the fruit of the tree that I told you was prohibited?" Then the blame game starts. Eve blames the serpent, Adam blames Eve. Everybody wants to pass the buck, but there are drastic consequences for this, because both of them certainly subject to outside influences here, both of them made their decision. And what we see now are catastrophic consequences that follow, immediately they are banished from Eden. They are cast out of Eden, and the way back into Eden is barred. Very, very strong language.
All of that former harmony that they enjoyed with the natural world, working in harmony and unison with the natural world is now severed. So now, work becomes a great burden. There's resistance from the earth. There's great toil, there's sow by the sweat of our brow we now eke out our living, there's pain in childbirth now as well, and there's death in the world. Now, death comes into the world, but sin has now been unleashed into the world. Here's where we really feel the rub. Here's where this comes into direct contact with our series. Now, the entire human race suffers as a result of Adam and Eve sin. All of us now suffer as a result of this sin, communal sin.
So, I've told you before in scripture that there's a general pattern and we'll see this more as we go forward, that sin always has communal implications. There are no private sins. Everything that we do has public consequences, there's no purely private action and there's certainly no private sin because we are inescapably relational creatures. We are tied to one another by great bonds, not only of affection, but of relation, families, friendships authorities, we cannot break out of that web. I called this in one of our earlier episodes, webs of implication when it comes to communal sin. So, here we see the primal sin that infects the entire human race.
The picture that Jonathan Edwards uses in his celebrated defense of Original Sin as this doctrine is called. He talks about a tree that is diseased in the roots, and when the tree is diseased and the roots, all the branches of the tree are now corrupted by that disease as well. He's using this as a rough analogy, a rough picture of what happens in Eden. Although there is no fully adequate picture to capture this, again, original sin, as it has subsequently been called, original sin is deeply mysterious, but as we move forward here, I think it makes the most sense of the human condition. I really do.
But let's look at Adam and Eve's sin and the consequences it has, the catastrophic waves that unleashes. If scripture is true, the picture that we have, one of the key interpreters here of these events in terms of sin is Paul, and Paul in Romans 5:12, talks about how all of us have sinned in Adam. Again, he's drawing a contrast here. He says in first Corinthians 15:22, he says, "As in Adam all die." And he contrast that with Christ who offers us life, but through Adam comes sin and death for all of us.
Now, I've pointed out, and the reason I started what I did with the other episodes, where I looked at systemic racism, and I looked at corruption in the entertainment industry, and politics, and in the workplace, the reason I did that was to show you the abiding consequences, the apparent abiding consequences of Adam's sin. We are still dealing with communal sin, these deeply ingrained patterns of corruption and sin that we find at the very heart of all of our institutions, and we've never been able to rid ourselves of them.
Now, that doesn't mean that reform is useless, that doesn't mean that we shouldn't be striving to fight against injustice. We should, we must, but it also means that we need to gain perspective. Human nature is not perfectible on human terms. We've never been able to do it, we've never been able to pull it off in all of history. We can't pull it off today. We need God's saving help. We really do. So, we see the consequences. Sometimes it's easier to understand Adam and Eve's sin and original sin in terms of its consequences first. That's what I've tried to do in the series. But when we look at Adam and Eve in isolation, I think there are three major objections that come to mind, and I think we need to deal with them. They come in this form, unfairness, ignorance, and disproportionality.
So these are the three major headings I want to use to explore our objections to Adam and Eve. We often think it's unfair, we think that Adam and Eve were ignorant. So how can they be held accountable for what the consequences of what they did? And finally, the disproportionality, the amazing catastrophic consequences for one seemingly small infraction. So let's look at unfairness. We look at Adam and Eve and we think it seems completely unfair that the entire human race is cursed because of the actions of our distant, distant, distant, distant, distant ancestors. If this is true of the original parents of the human race, how can we be held responsible? It's again helpful to think in terms of an analogy here, and it's not a perfect one, but I think it will give us some purchase.
We generally, when it comes to, and I mentioned this in previous episodes, when it comes to people who have a very horrendous past, if they have deep trauma in their past, if they were born to a mother with substance abuse problems, when they are of an adult age, I'm speaking in terms of our justice system today, when they're over the age of 18, we hold them accountable for any crimes that they commit. Nevertheless, when we talk to many of these people, and I happen to know some people who fit this profile, maybe you do as well, when you talk to them, you understand that in societal terms, the cards really were stacked against them.
They were born into such trauma. They were born into such incredibly difficult circumstances that it would be a miracle if they departed from the corrupt script that was essentially handed into their infant hands, and yet, if they commit murder, if they commit theft, if they sell drugs, we punish them to the full extent of the law, generally speaking. We hold them accountable for their actions regardless of their past. Now, if Christianity is true, this is the position, not just of some of the unfortunate members of our society who are born into those kinds of circumstances. This is the condition into which all of us are born.
Some of us are born into more societally accepted or socially respectable forms of sin, but we are all born in to sin, because we have everything to do with one another. We are tied by deep bonds of relationship and affection, we are united by that universal category of humanity. As I said, it's not a perfect case by case basis. Each person who is born is not an utterly unique and completely unprecedented specimen. They are deeply valuable, I believe, but another human being, a participant in the human race. Because of that, any deficiencies, any deep corruption that enters into the human race, necessarily it affects everybody. If the root of the tree is diseased, all of those branches reflect that disease. We are, if Christianity is true, all of us, diseased branches, deeply, deeply unflattering.
It sounds so unfair to us, but maybe the term “fair,” isn't really adequate here anymore. Fair works on human terms here. We can evaluate a court of law for instance, and if we see a misuse of justice, if we see evidence that's brought to bear on a case that is false, if we see any forms of malpractice, we would say that that is not fair, that's a violation of justice on human terms, but here, when it comes to fairness, we're dealing with human beings created by God, we're dealing with creatures and their maker. So fairness in the traditional sense for us on the ground fairness, the justice that we seek in our courtrooms. It's not that it doesn't matter, it's that we may have something that's not just a difference in degree, but a difference in kind.
You see, we are, if Christianity is true, we are created by God, we are creatures and God is in no way dependent on his creation. We're completely and totally dependent on Him, and creation is dependent on Him, indeed for its very life. God is actively sustaining creation. In Colossians, we have that majestic verse that says, "In Christ, all things hold together." But in those terms, if we yell to God about fairness, it doesn't really make sense, because after all, we are made by Him, now I need to pause and say, I don't believe that we serve a capricious or arbitrary God who simply makes up morality at will. I believe that God is Himself, the very standard of morality and therefore never violates perfect justice. Never.
So, if Adam and Eve sin and the root is corrupted, so to speak, and the entire human race is corrupted now because of their actions, then none of us are innocent. We're not innocent. We're born guilty because of somebody else's actions. Yes. And again, let's step aside in human affairs, we see this all the time. We see all the...Look at your own life, you are suffering in various ways because what you have done, your actions, you take responsibility for your actions and you're held accountable for your actions, but in some ways you know, you know, those actions are an outgrowth of decisions that you didn't make that somebody else did, and you were predisposed to them.
This is one of the great sources of tension in modern therapeutic culture, because it's all about trying to figure out the hidden secret source of trauma that will be the skeleton key that will unlock all of the mistakes that you've made, but we're drawing the wrong conclusion from it. We're drawing the conclusion that, "Ah, therefore we're innocent, it's all my mom's fault. Ah, therefore were innocent, it's all this distant uncle's fault." Rather than the fact that no, this is the human condition, it's both. Yes, it was your mom's fault. Yes, it was that distant uncle's fault. Yes, it was that friend's fault. Yes, it was that teacher's fault. But it's also, you are also a participant. You do your share as well. It's your condition as well. You're not standing on some moral high ground above the rest of the human race.
All of us, as Paul says in Romans, have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. So, all of us suffer that alienation, that separation that Adam and Eve experienced after they disobeyed the will of God. So, fairness, we need to think about it in different terms. We need to think about it in cosmic terms. Cosmic fairness, cosmic justice is defined by God Himself. He is the author of our faith, He is our author of our existence, and He is the standard and the measure of true goodness. We are not. To say to God in effect, He has a lot to answer for us to get things completely backwards, we are the creatures, He is the creator. We are what He has made, He is our maker, and what the maker has made the creatures don't get to tell the creator how it is. He doesn't have to answer to us. We are answerable to Him, after all, He made us. It's very difficult for us to deal with this.
In essence, the key theme here is one of the shortest sermons you will ever hear where the Lord essentially says, "I am God, you're not." We're not God, and we are not innocent. Just look at your life, just look at the world around you. The other major objection here is that Adam and Eve couldn't have possibly known what they were getting themselves into. Therefore, they probably shouldn't be held accountable. Because after all, we should only be held accountable for things that we understand. Stanley Hauerwas, the theologian and professor at Duke University often asks his students, "Do you think we should be held responsible for things that we don't understand?" And invariably they'll say, "No, of course not." You shouldn't be held responsible for something unless you understand it, because then if you didn't understand it, you weren't really free.
Hauerwas points out that, yeah, that's interesting that he would say that, however, that makes marriage completely incomprehensible. It makes having children incomprehensive as well. After all, there's no way for you to possibly know what you're getting into when you marry somebody. There's no way to possibly know what you're getting into when you have a child, which is by the way, why Christianity is very shrewd and very wise, yes marriage is a beautiful and gorgeous ceremony. Yes, it's used as a key metaphor in scripture for the mystical union between Christ and his church, but it's also a public ceremony. Why is it public? Because you need to make these vows in front of other people so they'll hold you accountable for fidelity to this person. Why? You don't know the person, you have no idea what you're getting into when you marry somebody.
Stanley Hauerwas again, he says, "Marriage is getting to know the stranger you married." And also Stanley Hauerwas, "You always marry the wrong person." Why? You're falling, they're falling. You always marry the wrong person and you can't possibly know yet. We hold people accountable for that vow. And children? "You never get the kids you want." Stanley Hauerwas again, very helpful insight. So often we think that we can, if we wait till the right time, then we can have...this is a completely modern notion by the way, if we wait until we're ready for children, you're never ready in that sense. Ready in the sense that your child is your own project and you can engineer them to be the perfect reflection of what you want. No, you never get the kids you want. This is why so many parents crushed their children under the weight of their expectations.
But, if you get a kid that you don't want as Stanley Hauerwas says. Well, then it's okay, it's not your fault. It's your duty. There's something very freeing about that. The word “duty” is definitely not a very celebrated word in our culture. I've mentioned this in one of the previous episodes, we're a contract culture, we're not a covenant culture. Contracts can be changed and ratified, they're individualistic, they're all about the benefits to you the user, but a covenant, covenant is relational. Covenant is communal and it's binding. Now of course, the modern world does have answers to the two examples I've just given, divorce and abortion, and both of those reflect our illusions about how we can evade responsibility.
But again, if we are relational creatures, if we are communal creatures, we are held accountable for decisions that we made all the time that we didn't understand. Think about how many criminals who have committed very serious crimes actually understood the full implications of what they were doing. All of it, all the ramifications. But we have interesting phrases like a “crime of passion.” Well, this person caught their spouse in the act of having an affair. So therefore they killed both of them. This was a crime of passion, it was temporary insanity. All of these different phrases. Now, they're held responsible for what they've done there because the consequences follow, whether they understood it or not.
If two lives are torn from this world, for instance, in a moment of heated passion, there are consequences. If somebody has an affair, that could be a momentary, that could be temporary insanity in some sense, that could be an impulsive decision, and yet there are catastrophic consequences that follow that are so wide spread in their implications and then involve so many different people, and there's so much hurt and it's so deep. And yet we hold the people who have done that responsible, ignorance is actually not the excuse that we think it is.
Finally, we come to disproportionality. I've already touched on this in that last example, but the disproportionality here, Adam and Eve disobey God and eat a piece of fruit that He said was off limits. They depart from his will and now the entire human race is condemned. How is that fair? But again, we've dealt with fairness. You may not find what I've said persuasive indeed, you might find it absolutely sickening, but just think it through, fairness here needs to be modified if we're talking about the God and Lord of all creation, but also again, we have pictures of this in our own world, small accidents, small errors that can have disproportionately catastrophic effects.
So, recently one of the better mini-series I've seen in a while was HBO Chernobyl mini-series. Now, Chernobyl has a personal element here, I grew up in Vienna, Austria, and I was born in 1984. So, when the Chernobyl disaster happened, was 1986, I was alive at the time, alive and kicking, and I was outside on one of the days where there was fallout from Chernobyl in Vienna. So interesting. This one actually literally touches my life. But think about this, here at this power plant, you have some human errors and some stupid decisions that were made to try to save money, to save cost or to avoid embarrassment internationally. You see all of these different missteps being taken, and yet the results are absolutely catastrophic.
Now, if you zoom out, it looks disproportionate. Yes, this plant, a lot of the errors revolved around basically almost a PR campaign, not dealing with a deep system error that was actually written into the very mechanics of this plant. Not dealing with that because that would constitute an international embarrassment. All of these factors because of that and safety regulations were disregarded because of that, because this nation wanted to save face, because of that, these small errors, you have thousands and thousands of people losing their lives, losing their homes, and you have catastrophic consequences. And we see this over and over again.
I mentioned a crime of passion, so to speak, somebody gets angry, we hear about these kinds of incidents all the time. What about road rage, where somebody has a firearm in their vehicle, and it's one of those days, they reach for the gun and they take somebody from this world forever. Now, in that moment, are they carefully reflecting on what they're doing? Of course not. Do they know the full implications of what they're doing? No, of course not. In fact, I think very few of us actually grasp the full implications of any of the sins that we commit on a daily basis. If we did, we might be a little more hesitant. I don't think it would be enough to stop us. Because again, I don't think information alone, I don't think knowledge is what solves the problem here. I think you have ample evidence of people who do understand the full scale of what they're doing and yet do it anyway.
So human wickedness isn't eradicated with education. If it were, I think we would have seen some major, major improvements in our world. I think you would have seen some major and lasting reform, but that's not what we've seen. The state of the world hasn't changed because human nature hasn't changed. We haven't fixed human nature, but we commit these...we make small mistakes, we commit crimes, we sin and there's a disproportionate set of consequences every time. Sometimes they're so drastic that the law gets involved. But the picture here, when we actually look at each of these, they're not incomprehensible.
Again, let me restate my question. If Adam and Eve, if our distant, distant, distant...if the parents of the human race didn't screw up in some major way, then what happened? What's wrong with us? Every single one of us just keeps repeating and repeating and repeating and repeating. What happened? Because if it's just that every single one of us is born into an environment that's now been so hampered and corrupted, that it's very, very likely that we're going to be predisposed to make mistakes and repeat the mistakes. If that's all it is, then again, it would seem that education would solve the problem. It hasn't. So if the parents of the human race did sin, what's wrong with us?
There's a really interesting book on the subject and I'm going to close on this note. It's a very provocative note, but I want to end on this one because I don't want to talk about it too much, I want you to think about it. Alan Jacobs wrote a book called Original Sin, A Cultural History, and he's got a pretty scandalous thesis in that book. Here it is. His thesis is that the fact that...So, if Christianity is true, every human being is made in the image of God. So we are all endowed with inestimable worth, every person, regardless of their background, regardless of their religion, regardless of their race, their creed, their nationality, every person is made in the image of God, and all of them are endowed with inestimable worth. So therefore you can't mistreat any human being.
Ideally speaking, that should be a source of unity for us. That should be something that we can celebrate together as human beings. However, argues Jacobs, it doesn't seem to be the case that that is actually what happens. A lot of us end up saying, "Well, some of us are made a little bit more like God than others, and maybe some other people, they might technically be humanesque, but they don't qualify for full membership in the human race." Racism makes such arguments. He draws from the one of the major celebrated scientists and the godfather of taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus. Carl Linnaeus once described, there was a lot made at one point of so-called feral children or wild children. If you've ever watched Disney's The Jungle Book, which is of course, based on the book by Rudyard Kipling, you have a little bit of a mythical take on that of supposedly these children who are raised by animals in the wild.
So the thinking went, they have a little bit more in common with primates and animals than they do with human beings, but Carl Linnaeus categorized these children as a sub-genre of humanity, a sub-genre of humanity. It's a chilling phrase because we've seen its iterations throughout history, from chattel slavery to colonialism, you see this over and over again to present day. If every human being is made in the image of God, then there can't be people who constitute a sub-genre of humanity. That's a travesty, that's a sickening thing to say, and yet that doesn't stop that from being a deeply held conviction deep in the hearts of many people.
So, says Alan Jacobs, by the way, he's a Christian, believes we are made in the image of God. But he says that's not really the source of solidarity that it ought to be. So in his book, he argues that actually original sin does that, a little bit better than the image of God. Now, hear me carefully. I think this is a really interesting and provocative thought. I'm still not quite sure what I think about it, but I think he's onto something. I will also say as a Christian, I believe every person is made in the image of God. That is the primary defining feature of human life and of your identity that you're made in God's image, not your fallenness, not the fact that you were born into a sinful condition, but the fact that you were made in God's image.
So having said that, I think there's something here, because what he argues, I think it can best be summed up in a little incident that he relates in the book. By the way, the book is filled with these fascinating historical anecdotes that shed light on his ideas. This one involves the great revivalist preacher, George Whitfield. George Whitfield gained a lot of popularity with some highly influential people. At one point he found himself among royalty in the United Kingdom, but as he began to...and by the way, George Whitfield in his sermons was very, very adamant about original sin. He pounded this one really hard. He really emphasized the fact that we are fallen and that we are desperately wicked, every single one of us and that we cannot save ourselves.
So, a Duchess of Buckingham heard him, and here's what she said in response, and this is what draws out Alan Jacobs, interesting thesis. She says, "The doctrines, and she means doctrine of Original Sin, are most repulsive and strongly tinctured within pertinent and disrespect towards their superiors in perpetually endeavoring to level all ranks and to do away with all distinctions. It is monstrous to be told you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth. This is highly offensive and insulting, and I cannot but wonder that your ladyship should relish any sentiments so much at variants with high rank and good breeding." Your ladyship, she's writing this in a letter to Selina, Countess of Huntington, who was a big fan of George Whitfield and had heard him speak to some of the royalty, and the Duchess of Buckingham was not amused.
But her little letter right there perfectly, I mean, almost perfectly states Jacob's thesis that original sin constitutes a kind of wretched democracy, where everybody from the top tiers of society, all the way to the very dregs is infected by this. So it's the great leveling of the playing field. She, being the aristocrat that she is and the elitist that she is absolutely finds this repugnant. "No, I'm not like the common wretches." Says she. But oh, no, according to original sin, yes, you are. You are no better than the worst criminal out there. You are not standing on moral high ground.
Remember Jesus's parable about the two men in the temple, the one who is a Pharisee and the one who was a tax collector, the Pharisee says, "Thank you, Lord, that I'm not like other men. I fast, and I give, and I'm very, very morally upright. I'm certainly not like this man over here, who's wicked." But then the other man of course says, "Lord have mercy on me, a sinner." And Jesus says, "I tell you…The man who said have mercy on me, a sinner walked out of that temple, justified.” The other man did not. Why? None of us are righteous on our own terms. In our human capacities, none of us can save ourselves because we're not righteous, we are all evil. Tim Keller says that the first half of the gospel is that you're evil, you have to be saved by the Lord of all creation.
So, when you look at it in these terms, original sin, this picture that we see beginning in the Garden of Eden that seems so repulsive and so antithetical to all of our 21st century notions, if we look at it carefully, it actually not only does it make the most sense of the human condition of the world we see around us and of ourselves, it actually is the one great feature that seems to eliminate all of that. Absolutely vile self-righteousness that is so lethal. Because if we truly understand this, if we truly take to heart and understand that we are no better than the common wretch, so to speak, whoever that is for you, then we are well on our way to understanding our condition and understanding the absolute vital need for every single one of us to be forgiven, not just the bad person over there.
So thanks for sticking with me for this episode. Again, I'm aware that this is a tough series and that these are difficult issues. I am doing my very best to be clear, but also not to oversimplify and not to try to iron out all of the wrinkles in some artificial manner. I think that would be intellectually dishonest. I want us to really wrestle with these issues with integrity. I really do. So think about Alan Jacob's suggestion about original sin. I think that's an interesting thought experiment that it actually can be something.
He draws on language from another thinker, calling it the co-fraternity of the human type that this, that our fallenness actually is something that can unite us and stands a better chance of uniting us because image of God so often that goes to our heads, leads to spiritual elitistism. Not that that invalidates the image of God, but that we often abuse it. But sin, it's pretty hard to abuse this because of how darn unflattering it is. Just think that over. But thanks for tuning in, you've been listening to Vital Signs podcast, exploring signs of life in today's culture. I'm your host, Cameron McAllister, and I'm a speaker and a writer here at RZIM.
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