Growing up as a Catholic child and teenager in Germany some 60 years ago, I learned about original sin. I was told that I and every other human being inherited the mark of original sin from Adam and Eve because of their disobedience to God’s command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Actually, in German, original sin is called Erbsünde, which means “inherited sin.” The word Erbsünde also contains the German word Erbse, which means “pea.” So, for many years of my childhood I visualized my original sin as a pea-sized growth on my soul.
As a child I accepted what I was told. But as a teenager I could not comprehend why God would make me inherit a sin which I had not committed. It seemed unfair that I should be responsible for some moral deviation that I had no control over.
In my 20s and 30s, I married and had children. I began to question whether my original sin was actually sin and how it could be original or inherited. Over the years of raising children and living in a close relationship with my wife, it dawned on me that I engaged in the same hurtful behaviors which I had observed in my parents.
I had sworn never to repeat their flawed actions in parenting or marriage. How could this be happening? Was this the long and large shadow of original sin?
With the passing of years, I became intensely immersed in the depth psychology of Carl Gustav Jung. It was a long time before I began to understand more about this long shadow which reaches down to me from my parents and all of my ancestors and that acts with the strength and mystery of magic power.
Natural Law vs. Human Law
I realized that it is a natural and inevitable consequence of my human nature. It is impossible for us to truly escape the powerful patterns of perception, feeling, and behavior which have evolved in humans during the millennia of Homo sapiens’ evolution. Although these human patterns appear to be similar to the animal instincts, they differ in their intricacies.
Instincts regulate the behavior of other animals more fully, while our human patterns of perception, feeling, and behavior leave us some room, albeit small, to make choices and decisions. Adam and Eve’s banishment resulted from their ability to choose. In the context of our discussion it does not matter whether these human patterns are “inherited” genetically or through unconscious imitation or both. In either case they are transmitted so successfully and regularly that they seem to be ordained by divine decree.
The Catholic beliefs I grew up with still speak to the presence of tendencies in every human being, which have been “inherited” from, or are “original” to our ancestors. Many human behaviors follow all the way back to Adam and Eve, who I came to see as the symbolic origin of Homo sapiens. But why should these tendencies or inclinations be sinful?
Because these human inclinations (patterns of perception, feeling, and behavior) are different from the totally dominant instincts, there is some room to make decisions. Human beings also share in the instinctual nature of animals which seeks to express itself according to its needs. The drive of the instincts to assert themselves combine with the ability of humans to make different choices. The act of choosing will inevitably lead to conflict within each individual soul and between individuals in society.
For example, my animal nature may desire my neighbor’s food, shelter, house, and mate, but there are rules which prohibit the unfettered exercise of my instinctual wishes. Or I may experience an inner conflict between the command to honor my parents and my need to become an independent and autonomous adult. All of these conflicts are governed by rules. Where do these rules come from?
Rules, Evolution, and The Book of “Genesis”
The existence of rules for the conduct of human behavior are as old as humanity itself. Animals also have rules for living in groups. We only need to think of the term “pecking order” which we have borrowed from the birds, or the social order prevailing in ant heaps and bee hives. Such rules are part of their instinctual makeup, not subject to question by individuals in the species. Their structures appear to be unaffected by change except through the gradual transformation of instinctual nature of a species over numbers of years through adaptation.
At the time of our Biblical ancestors, Adam and Eve, rules already existed for their relationship with each other and for their relationship to God. We are told in “Genesis,” for example, that God commanded our ancestors to “be fruitful and multiply, and to fill the earth and subdue it.” A short time later, God threatened them with death if they were to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
We can therefore conclude that the patterns of human behavior and their guiding principles evolved hand-in-hand from the origin of Homo sapiens. As anyone who has visited different human communities in a nation or throughout the world is witness to the variety in the rules and laws governing human conduct. Variation comes from human adaptations we know as culture.
As any serious student of human history will confirm, there has been great change in human behavior over the millennia. There has also been much change in the laws which apply to this behavior. Only one thing has remained the same: the regularity and inevitability with which rules of have appeared whenever and wherever there are human beings.
Some things change very slowly and other things change more rapidly. The instinctual nature of humans has probably changed very little over millions of years. Some experts believe that the spiritual side of humans evolved relatively recently. The unconscious part of our psyche is closer to our instincts. It is much older than our consciousness, which may have evolved over just thousands and perhaps hundreds of thousand years compared to the rest of our nature whose history reaches back into the millions of years.
Originally, laws were considered sacred or divine in origin. It is only in the last few thousand years that large nations have witnessed the development of a separate, secular body of law has developed. But whether law sourced from a divine lawgiver or emanated from a human source, it was perceived and articulated by human beings. And human beings are subject to and influenced by the forces of their environment and by their internal psychic and spiritual realities.
“Be Fruitful and Multiply”
How quickly things can change, even with perceived divine rule, appears in multiple examples. Adam and Eve were commanded in Genesis to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.” Humanity has multiplied so effectively that if the current trend of multiplication continues, the earth’s resources will be insufficient to sustain us.
In much of prehistory, the survival of children and their growth into adulthood was the exception rather than the rule. At a time when natural resources were abundant in comparison to the demands made upon them by human beings, an injunction to multiply as much as possible not only made sense but was necessary for the survival of the human species. But today, when the same multiplication can only lead to wholesale extinction, such a law must be revised.
Also in Genesis, Adam and Eve are commanded to subdue the earth. When human beings were much at the mercy of their environment and were few in number compared to the vastness of the earth, it made sense to encourage them to explore and harness the forces of the globe. Unfortunately, this advice has been paired with the explosion of science and technology in the last few hundred years. The combination has led to an unprecedented exploitation of the earth’s resources.
Humans have taken it to such an extent that some today even question whether we have not already reached the point of no return in our journey to self-destruction. Since, the command to “subdue the earth” has been fulfilled and exceeded, that law also needs reevaluation. Perhaps, God intended that Adam and Eve steward the earth. What artificial changes have we engineered or attached to sacred writings since their creation?
One might reasonably argue, therefore, that activities which once were divinely encouraged and sanctioned are now becoming immoral and sinful. What is sinful at any given time can, therefore, not always be immutably stated at the beginning for eternity? What is immutable, on the other hand, at least under the perspective of our memory of the past and our anticipation of the future, is the need for laws to govern the conflicts within and between ourselves and to guide the choices which we have to make? Equally immutable, therefore, is the making of laws, although their content will change over the generations.
Who are the lawgivers and rule-makers? Human beings have experienced and continue to experience many makers of laws. Depending on one’s worldview, these include God and God’s representatives on earth, parents, teachers, chieftains, legislative bodies, and any grouping of people that seeks to set forth its value system as a binding canon of behavior.
Human Nature, Deviation, and “Sin”
A departure from the established rules of behavior is branded as sinful, immoral, or illegal depending on whether the source of the rules is religious or secular. The Catholic Church is a symbol of God’s representative on earth, with the right to state infallibly certain rules for human behavior. But the doctrine of infallibility implies an absence of change. Once pronounced, an infallibly proclaimed doctrine or rule is to be valid forever.
The justification for the doctrine of infallibility is God’s eternal truth. But for us eternal is not the same as immutable. We experience the revelation of God or our psychic center as an ongoing and changing drama, beginning at the dawn of human understanding and continuing every generation thereafter. What is “immutable” in this drama is the ongoing revelation, and what is changeable in this drama is our understanding of that revelation. Making laws is likewise an eternal and “immutable” reality, but the actual content of the law changes and should be open to change with our unfolding understanding of the unfolding revelation.
But how did church doctrine get itself into the grand task of proclaiming immutable (infallible) laws? It may have to do with its view of original sin. As I came to see, the only thing which is original about original sin is the reality of an inherited conflict in our human nature, between our animal nature and our spiritual aspirations, and between different emotional and spiritual ambitions.
Judging whether a particular behavior is sinful can not be made once and for all. Neither can it go unchanged forever. It must depend on our understanding of good and evil, right and wrong, meaningful and meaningless within a time span that encompasses perhaps many generations–but not eternity.
If, however, we view human nature as inherently sinful from origin to eternity, then it is not too great a leap to see the need for judgments and rules which are permanently binding. If we consider human nature damaged for all time by original sin, it is necessary to have clear and permanent rules to help humans to deal with their sinful nature. To me, it seems as one sided as the opposite view represented by Jean-Jacques Rousseau who maintained that human nature is inherently good. He once wrote,“Everything is good as it came from the hands of the Creator.”
Probably, both extremes are probably equally in error. Human nature is neither all bad nor all good. Experience shows us that human beings are subject to both constructive and destructive forces.
We only need to look at history and the current condition of humanity to see that people are both good and bad, and do both right and wrong. But if we adhere to the extreme view that human nature is inherently and eternally sinful, then it is not a big step to claim the need for eternally unchanging laws to judge and contain such sinfulness. And in this way original sin seems to lead inevitably to a claim of infallibility.
In summary, Catholic doctrine of original sin says that every human being inherits the mark of original sin from Adam and Eve. This raises the questions whether humans do inherit any sin from their parents and ancestors, and what the nature of that sin might be. A Jungian perspective eases acceptance of the view that humans do inherit attitudes and powerful patterns of perception, emotion and behavior from their ancestors, whether through genetics or imitation.
Human behavior, which grows out of these inherited attitudes and patterns, may violate divine laws traditionally promulgated by the Catholic Church. But since the formulation of divine laws depends on our ever-evolving human understanding, divine laws can not be considered immutable. Accepting that revelation is always ongoing as an immutable factor still leaves traditional original sin doctrine at conflict with the Jungian perspective of an ever ongoing and changing human understanding.
The realization that original sin is neither original nor a sin in the sense ascribed to it by the Catholic Church could free us from our feelings of guilt and shame due to our old understanding that we are somehow blemished from conception or birth. Rather, we share in the evolutionary human fate of taking on the attitudes and patterns of perception, feeling, and behavior which our ancestors have developed before us. These are neither good nor bad; they just exist. It is our responsibility, however, to strive for better understanding of our “inherited” attitudes and patterns and to modify them, to the extent possible, when we deem this appropriate and desirable.
Likewise, my personal realization that the claim of doctrine’s infallibility, in the promulgation of so-called eternal truths and divine laws, is just a claim freed me from feelings of guilt and shame. Due to an old, “inherited” understanding, many people like myself think they must submit to that claim without any questioning. Since there is no immutability, and since everything is subject to change it is our opportunity and responsibility to evaluate the status quo and to attempt to determine when and where change is appropriate and desirable in order to further our healthy and whole life.
© Copyright 2007 by Rainer Kohler. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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