I recently read Rutger Bergman’s book, Humankind, in which he tries to give a positive view of human beings and show that on the whole human beings are decent kind of beings. He does admit, however, that we also seem to be attracted to stories that shows the opposite – stories like William Golding’s Lord of the Flies that suggests children left to themselves on a desert island will deteriorate into animal and destructive tendencies. Bergman shows reality doesn’t support this but somehow it has grasped the imagination of people who seem to readily believe the truth behind the story. It’s the same I think with the Christian belief in original sin which has also spoken to the imagination and influenced church attitudes for centuries.
Original sin, the story that at the beginning of creation human beings i.e. Adam and Eve disobeyed God resulted in the belief that all human beings are born in a state of alienation from God and in need of redemption. I should say that Judaism, which shares the same story in Genesis does not interpret it in this way and Islam which talks of Adam and Eve falling to earth from Paradise sees human beings as weak and to be tested but not in any way alienated from God. It only came into Christianity in the 4th cy and as far as the Catholic Church is concerned formalised in the 16th cy at the Council of Trent. It is associated with St Augustine who, while grappling with the problem of how sin could have come into the world when the world was created by a good God, devised the belief that the original sin of Adam and Eve was passed down biologically to future generations. Human beings could then only be saved by grace which came through baptism and belief in Jesus. Such a belief in the tainted nature of humanity lays the way open for control, a negative attitude towards the body and sex, forced conversions and baptisms, a rigid moral code which punished the sinner to say nothing of a lack of self -esteem and a poor self- image. It influenced the attitude of preachers and teachers and probably William Golding in writing the Lord of the Flies.
Of course, human beings are sinful and have tendencies towards greed, power, control. It’s very obvious in the world today and just this week I’ve heard stories from a Uighur woman about the genocide that it happening in China, from an artist who has worked with the Rohingya in Myanmar and of the antisemitism that stems from the very false but persistent reports about a fabricated document called the Protocols of the Elders of Sion. We are not doing well as human beings.
I’m glad to say, however, that as far as Christian theology is concerned there is now much more emphasis on the goodness of creation and the innate goodness of human beings, created as they are in the image and likeness of God. Religions are living traditions. They develop their understanding of faith in dialogue with the prevailing culture in which they live. That early story in Genesis is now understood as a myth, not to be seen as a fabrication but as a story which contains a truth and the truth is that human beings are created good as all of the created world is, that we are all made in the image and likeness of God, that we are made for fellowship with God and one another but we can also be sinful and determined to plough our own furrow ignoring the need to work for harmony among our brothers and sisters and forgetting our call to care for the created world. Is this not a much more positive view of human nature and a good basis for transforming our attitude to one another? What if we trusted that the men and women we met were essentially good and like us struggling to live as best a human life as they could? Would we be more open to refugees, more concerned for the homeless, for those with addictions, those of our brothers and sisters without food, water, health care or whatever. Would we be less likely to see those of other cultures and religions as a threat and different from ourselves? Would we be able to overcome the suspicion, racism and zenophobia that sets us against one another?
I would certainly hope so.