Christianity is not the only religion to use this technique. Buddhism also does something similar. When the Buddha proclaimed his four noble truths, his dharma, he did so by setting it out as though it was a doctor’s diagnosis. First, there is the illness and in the Buddha’s case this was dukkha, usually translated as suffering, understood as dissatisfaction, impermanence. All life is temporary, the good as well as the bad. Things change and this is the nature of reality. The second truth is the cause of this suffering and for the Buddha this originated in the greed and the misplaced desire which leads us to want to cling to what we have, the ignorance that sees life as substantial and permanent as well as hatred of others and of all sentient beings. The third truth, the cessation of suffering, affirms that the cure for this is to extinguish desire and liberate self by not becoming attached to what is impermanent but accepting reality as it presents itself moment by moment. This can be a moment of enlightenment and liberation and can lead eventually to freedom from the cycle of rebirth that all sentient beings are caught up in. And the final truth is the path to end this human suffering called the eightfold path to enlightenment. This is a way of practice which covers right intentions and livelihood, the correct understanding of the nature of reality, meditation and compassion. For the Buddha what was important was discovering the truth of his teaching through the experience of practice, (which is found within Buddhism) not through accepting his word for it.
What I don’t like about Christianity’s approach is its association with dogmatic belief rather than practice and the consequences of this through the centuries. The foundational story to support original sin is in the Book of Genesis where Adam the first man and his wife Eve are forbidden to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge at the centre of the garden of Eden. Eve is tempted by a snake to eat the fruit followed by Adam and as a consequence they lose their place in paradise. Adam’s punishment is to till the earth and Eve is told that God will greatly increase her pangs in childbirth and that her husband will rule over her. For centuries this story was taken as literal. Eve was blamed for tempting her husband to sin and so women were seen as temptresses, inclined to evil and to be controlled by men. The pains of childbirth were women’s rightful punishment and so literally was this taken to be the case that it was still being debated by obstetricians and others whether women had the right to anaesthetic help during childbirth in the 20th cy. Then there was the tradition of “churching”, a private ceremony where a new mother would receive a blessing from a priest in church which, though meant to be an act of thanksgiving, was associated with the Jewish tradition of purification, and thus associating childbirth with impurity.
Augustine of Hippo, who lived in the 5th cy CE is the one often associated with original sin and its connection to baptism though it wasn’t formalised in the catholic church until the Council of Trent in the 16th cy. For Augustine human beings were born in a sinful situation and incapable on their own of changing this. What was needed was God’s grace given to them at baptism and without that they would be denied heaven if they died before baptism so better to have infants baptised than wait until they were adult and able to choose for themselves. This too has had its consequences. A superior understanding of Christianity vis a vis other faiths and ways of life as possessing the truth and the only way to salvation and eternal happiness led to forced sermons, forced baptisms, conflict and violence as well as the killing of people not of the Christian faith – and in time not of ‘my’ Christian denomination. It even led to a belief in a place called limbo – a place of natural happiness where unbaptised babies would go. They would be happy but not see the face of God. I have met mothers distraught at this thought and now it seems nonsense, against any belief Christians might have in the goodness of God. Nor is it possible to look upon the face of a new born baby and see it as disordered.
All of this and there is more seems nonsense to me now. Thank goodness, limbo has been quietly dropped and the reading of the creation story as a myth says that it is not so much about original sin as original blessing, about a world and the creatures in it which are basically good even though we do have the tendency to sin and do wrong and in that sense we are sinful and ignorant and greedy. But we also have the possibility to striving to be otherwise and both Christianity and Buddhist offer a practice to help us in this – I just wish Christianity made more of its practice than it did of its doctrines which so often can bind rather than liberate us.