Original sin for laypeople

I’ve just come across the works of Reinhold Niebuhr (for some reason I’d never heard of his name until a few months ago) and am deeply impressed. I am reading ‘The Irony of American History’, which seems very contemporary, although written in 1952. I want to comment more about his ideas in later posts, but one neat thing he does is provide a non-theological definition of original sin:

Practically all schools of modern culture, whatever their differences, are united in their rejection of the Christian doctrine of original sin. This doctrine asserts the obvious fact that all men are persistently inclined to regard themselves more highly and are more assiduously concerned with their own interests than any “objective” view of their importance would warrant. Modern culture in its various forms feels certain that, if men could be sufficiently objective or disinterested to recognize the injustice of excessive self-interest, they could also in time transfer the objectivity of their judgments as observers of the human scene to their judgments as actors and agents in human history. This is an absurd notion which every practical statesman or man of affairs knows how to discount because he encounters ambitions and passions in his daily experience which refute the regnant modern theory of potentially innocent men and nations.

Original sin is a complex and normally somewhat unappealing idea (I’m not sure that I’ve ever got to grips with it), but this distils it down to its essence: a self-centeredness that can never entirely be overcome. This also provides a handle on one of the most controversial aspects of original sin: the claim that we are born with it. It is now seen as objectionable to suggest that babies and children are anything except completely innocent. Yet as any mother knows, the key characteristic of babies is their self-centredness: nothing matters but what they want and the universe must revolve around them. Raising small children in a moral sense largely consists of trying to get them to accept that there is more to life than what they want and that they have to consider others too. But it’s good for the adults among us to be reminded that we haven’t entirely outgrown the sin ourselves and never will. When I lament how hard my life is (although I’ve got a nice home, an education and a healthy child, something that many people would long for) or when I get angry with people for some relatively trivial fault, what am I doing other than overestimating my own importance and that of my needs?


One thought on “Original sin for laypeople

  1. I think we dislike the term ‘original sin’ for its associations with hell-fire sermons and repressive black-clad Presbyterians. Call it something else – like ‘the id’ or ‘inborn self-centredness’ and most people will agree it plays a large part in human life.

    We also dislike the term ‘wickedness’ applied to children so we flinch at, say, St Teresa’s opening account of her life

    The possession of virtuous parents who lived in the fear of God, together with those favors which I received from his Divine Majesty, might have made me good, if I had not been so very wicked…

    I’m not sure if it’s nowadays helpful or legitimate to equate our emotional nature at birth with the reason for Adam & Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden: dealing with infants, however badly behaved, it seems disproportionate.

    I haven’t read Niebuhr for over 40 years – I remember him as a breath of fresh air so I’m glad he holds up so well.


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