Posts Tagged ‘St. Augustine’

Use and abuse of the doctrine of original sin

February 9, 2021

When I was a small boy, I used to dread the Easter sermons in the church my parents sent me to.

The pastor, who was a fine man, would preach about how Jesus suffered and died on the cross for our sake.

Jesus, literally the best person who ever lived, a man who loved everyone and harmed no-one, had his hands pierced with nails and his side with a sword, and was given vinegar to drink.

And why did he have to suffer and die in this horrible fashion?  Because of people like me.  Because we were so sinful.  Because that was the only way to save us from the consequences of the sins we had committed.

My feelings of guilt did not make me a better person.  I was selfish, lazy and weak, and at the same time self-righteous.

I felt I was better than irreligious boys my age because I at least was aware of how much of a sinner I was. But then I thought that having pride in a sense of guilt was just as bad as any other form of pride.

Adults did not understand me. They thought I was a nice boy because I was obedient, agreeable and an “A” student in school.

Mary McCarthy, in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, remarked that religion is good for good people and bad for bad people.   I guess this applies in my case.

Bertrand Russell, in The Conquest of Happiness, wrote that people eaten up with guilt are egotistical.  We are preoccupied with ourselves.  We would be happier if we had objective interests and if we thought more about other people and less about ourselves.  This applies in my case, too.

I thought I might get rid of my feelings of guilt if I had sufficient faith, as great Christian figures of the past had done.   But I lacked faith.  I doubted everything.

I shared my doubts with my Sunday school teachers.  My doubts did not bother them.  They were, if anything, pleased that I took religion seriously, which so few boys my age did.

They did not take my doubts seriously. They told me that my doubts would resolve themselves when I became a mature adult.  However, neither of these things happened.

So far as I know, I was the only person in the church congregation, young or old, who felt as I did. 

My guess is that a large number were not bothered because they did not absorb the message Dr. Norment was trying to convey.  My guess is that the rest understood it through a filter of common sense.

The common sense way to hear Christian message would be to think: Yes, I am imperfect.  I try to be a good person and very often fail.  I repent of my failure, and try again, and, in the meantime, I do not judge others harshly for their failures.  That wpuld be a healthy way to respond.

As for myself, I resolved my problem by ceasing to fight my doubts about Christian doctrine.

I joined a small Unitarian fellowship in my native city as a young adult, just before the Unitarians merged with the Universalists to form the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA)

The Unitarians and Universalists are two small sects that originated in the 19th century USA and were noted for not having any binding religious creed.  We committed to living by living by certain principles rather than believing in certain doctrines.

Interestingly, Unitarianism and Universalism had their roots in early Christian heretics that St. Augustine regarded as his enemies—Arius, who taught that God was a unity, not a trinity; Origen, who taught universal salvation; and Pelagius, who taught that people were not inherently sinful, but capable of choosing between good and bad.

For me, they provided a moral community to which I could belong while being open about my thoughts and doubts.  I am a Unitarian-Universalist to this day.

I’m bothered by the readiness of some contemporary UUs to accept the idea of white guilt, which is very like the doctrine of original sin.  Feelings of guilt are not the best motivation for striving for justice, because your focus is on yourself and not the needs or wishes of the people who are actually suffering from injustice.

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Saint Augustine and original sin

February 5, 2021

In his Confessions, St. Augustine sought the truth about himself and his motives, and the truth about the nature of God and His creation. 

What’s interesting to me is that he didn’t see his investigation of subjective truth, about himself, and of objective truth, about the nature of time and free will, as two separate things.  He saw them as different sides of the same thing.

What’s also interesting is that he didn’t see religious revelation as opposed to philosophical reason.  He saw them as mutually reinforcing.

I recently read The Confessions of St. Augustine for a couple of reasons.  One is that I just got finished reading Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer, which said fanatic mass movements such as fascism and Bolshevism were imitation religions, and I thought it worthwhile to read an account of actual religious belief.

Another is that there is a move afoot to abolish the teaching of the ancient classics on the grounds that they are irrelevant, and I thought it worthwhile to read an ancient classic to see whether it is relevant or not.

What follows is not a summary of the Confessions, but my personal reaction to it.

The main thing I got out of it was an understanding of how fundamental the doctrine of Original Sin is to Christianity.  This is the idea that sin is something baked into your nature that you can’t get rid of, no matter what you do.

Augustine condemned himself because, as a little baby, he didn’t care about anything except his selfish hunger for his mother’s milk. 

He condemned himself for what most people today would regard a normal desire for career success and for the approval of his peers.

He even criticized himself for being excessive in mourning the death of good friends.  It meant that he may have loved them more than he loved God.

He criticized himself for taking pleasure in the beauties of nature, or of art, unless it was combined with gratitude to God.

One act that particularly tore at him happened when he was a teenage boy.  He was part of a gang that invaded a walled orchard and stole pears.  He thought it was particularly evil because he didn’t need the pears.  He committed the theft because it was forbidden and because of peer pressure, not for the sake of pleasure or benefit to himself.

I have to say there is something to his last point.  I do think there is such a thing as evil, which is hatred of the good.  I think is different from mere badness, which is the inability to resist temptation.  But if this minor act of juvenile delinquency were the worst thing I myself had ever done, I would be well pleased with myself.

I do not see Augustine’s attitude toward sin as a distortion of Christianity.  Just the opposite!

Jesus taught that the great commandment is to love God with your whole heart, soul and mind.  He also taught a second commandment, to love your fellow human beings as yourself.

If you take these commandments literally, they are almost impossible to fulfill, even by people who are extremely spiritual and compassionate.  Who can say that the only thing they care about is God and his love?  Who can say they give other people’s needs the same priority as their own?  By this standard, who can escape sin?

All religions teach the need for atonement for wrongdoing and the need to make restitution to those you have wronged.  But none of them make repentance for sin the center of their religion in the way that Christianity does.

Only a Christian would say sin is inescapable.  Only a Christian would say that there is more joy in Heaven over one sinner who repents than ninety and nine just persons who need no repentance.

One thing wrong with many people today, especially secular liberals, is that they no longer believe in God, except in a vague, metaphorical sense, but they still have a sense of sin. 

Not being Christians, they don’t know how to get rid of it, and this can shape their beliefs in strange ways.

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