Is humanity doomed? If you spent any time at the Curiosity Stage at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on Friday, you could be forgiven for thinking it is.
Following closely on the heels of a packed session on narcissism, James Boyce drew similar crowds with his talk, ‘On how Original Sin made the West’. More precisely, what is it, where did it come from and why, in a now largely secular and consumerist society, do we continue to be bothered by it?
A historian and author, Dr Boyce is well known for his colonial histories Van Diemen’s Land: A History (2008) and 1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia (2011).
His latest book is Born Bad: Original Sin and the Making of the Western World, which explores the history of the uniquely Western concept of original sin – the idea that each and every one of us is “stained” by the sin of Adam and Eve.
Dr Boyce began by noting that any discussion on the topic of original sin usually wanders off in many directions. “It’s like that with religion,” he said. “Everyone’s got an opinion.”
And he’s right. Over 1500 years, original sin has been argued by some of the West’s great minds (and, some may argue, not so great minds). Opinions, essays, treatises and entire volumes have been written on our creation story and what it means to be human.
Most of us, Christian and non-Christian alike, would be familiar with the story that gives us original sin. It originates with Genesis, chapter two. “Here man is created first, and woman from his rib,” Dr Boyce explains.
“And then, in Genesis three, we have the famous Fall, with the serpent tempting Eve to eat the fruit from the tree of good and evil, because she desired to gain wisdom. She encouraged poor old passive Adam to do likewise. Adam and Eve then became conscious, moral beings, and they were banished from Eden.”
That alone doesn’t explain the notion that humans – even newborn babies – are inherently bad, doomed to Hell but for the promise of salvation offered only to the chosen few. For that, we need to thank Augustine, a man whose influence Dr Boyce affectionately describes: “When we interpret the story, we are interpreting the trans-generational power of a very influential cultural warrior, the founder of Christianity, the Bishop of Hippo in North Africa in the 4th and early 5th Century, the prodigious writer and seasoned campaigner, skilled politician and brilliant intellect, a man called Augustine.”
It was Augustine’s teachings that gave us original sin and shaped the Western world as we know it.
“His doctrine taught that Adam’s sin – and it’s taken for granted the misogyny of the time required that Eve be given a subsidiary role – was passed on to every human being as an inheritance. No matter how good we try to be, no matter how outwardly moral our conduct, divine wrath could not be avenged.”
But what does this have to do with us, today? Surely now, in the 21st century, we’ve been able to shake off the shackles of original sin and understand humanity not as broken and innately immoral, but essentially good?
Dr Boyce argues this isn’t so, and asks us to consider how creation myths have shaped other societies. “Most of us now realise that Aboriginal creation stories are essential to how they understand their place in the universe, their relationship with the natural world, each other and themselves.
“We can accept this while not expecting modern Aborigines to believe that the Dreamtime stories are literally true. We accept they are so ingrained in the culture that it is not possible to simply reject and move on, even if this was considered a desirable objective.”
In accepting the Dreamtime stories as part of Australia’s Indigenous people’s “cultural inheritance”, we should be able to acknowledge the same in our own creation story – that of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Dr Boyce sees this “cultural inheritance” influencing us in every aspect of our being.
Despite the rather dim view of humanity that the Original Sin Doctrine promotes, Dr Boyce – in his talk and in his book – does not subscribe to the notion that we are all evil. Rather, he simply wants us to look at history objectively and understand why, even with all the comforts that modern life brings, we continue to feel uneasy, even anxious, about ourselves and the nature of humanity.
A dedication in my own copy of Born Bad, from the author himself, reads “In celebration of human goodness”. Perhaps, after so many hundreds of years pondering our brokenness, it’s time we spent more time looking for the good and acknowledging that maybe humanity isn’t doomed after all.