My earliest memory goes back to a time before I knew language.
I could not express my thoughts in words, of course, but I was aware of a number of things, which add up to a kind of thought-process.
I was aware of the place where I was- in my cot next to a light window, probably the morning light.
I was aware that I wanted to get out.
I was aware that I could not manage the catch which would let down the side of the cot (a simple hook-and-eye affair, as I know retrospectively).
I was aware that if I cried, someone would come along and let me out.
Which led me into a course of action. I cried.
My memory stops at the opening of the door (right hand end of the opposite wall) and my father appearing through the doorway.
I don’t know whether this means that the sequel was satisfactory, or whether it means that the sequel was traumatic.
That memory is useful because it illustrates the question of “Original Sin”.
The concept of Original Sin has become problematic in the modern world.
Yet there is no getting away from the fact that something
has gone wrong with the human race.
The world we see around us tells us that something is not right, and the kind of things that are wrong have been wrong all through human history.
The current state of the world is clearly the result of a long succession of wrong human choices.
The purpose of the story of Adam and Eve was to offer an explanation for the flawed world which we live in.
The difficulty for modern people is understanding how Original Sin (which means, strictly speaking, the state of individuals at birth), can be
“inherited”, as the church has been teaching, from the origins of Sin in the Garden of Eden.
Especially when “Sin” is described in legal terms, as committing an offence against God.
How can the state of “having done something wrong” be transmitted from one generation to another?
The task becomes easier if we discard the assumption that Adam and Eve were literal human individuals, and understand them as symbolic figures,
representing the human race at large.
The story then becomes a symbolic account of the way that our ancestors developed.
If it shows us a feature of what has become human nature, “built in” to the same extent as thought or speech, then this feature is necessarily
part of the make-up of every human individual, and the problem of “inheritance” disappears.
We also need a fresh understanding of the act in Eden, when they are supposed to have seized hold of “the knowledge of good and evil”.
I was exploring the issue in this thread;
The Tree of what knowledge?
Briefly, my case was that “knowing good and evil” does not mean knowing them separately, but placing them side by side and comparing them.
In other words, it means claiming to know- and therefore claiming to decide- where the boundary line between them lies.
It certainly should not be taken as “discovering that good and evil exist”.
Adam and Eve already knew that some things were right and some were wrong, because they knew they had been told “not to eat from the tree of
knowledge”, which made it a wrong thing to do.
Before the crucial event, they were following God’s judgement on where the boundary line lay.
That is represented, in symbol, by their acceptance of his judgement that the fruit was “not-to-be eaten”.
The turning point was deciding to follow their own judgement instead.
That is represented, in symbol, by their new judgement that the fruit was “a delight to the eyes and to be desired to make one wise”, and by the
act of taking it.
So the act of disobedience described in the story represents a new disposition towards independent action, not controlled by obedience to God’s
If we adopt the more modern understanding of human origins as a gradual process of development, then this change might be associated with the
transition from living by instinct to the development of a more human consciousness.
That would identify “Original Sin” with our current human consciousness and our propensity to assert our own wills and choose our own line.
We can then follow this through later events in the Bible; in the way that individuals, setting their own wills against the will of God, also set them
against others (Cain), and in the way that corporate bodies set their wills not only against God (Babel) but against other corporate bodies and
The lesson of our blood-stained human history seems to be that this clash of wills is at the heart of everything that has always been wrong with the
And that might well be called Original Sin.
Augustine illustrated Original Sin by observing the behaviour of babies.
The memory I’ve recalled makes the same point, because it shows me, even at that age, trying to impose my own will on the world around me.
(Perhaps not successfully. My mother’s later comment on the story was “He would have thrown some toys into the cot.”)
In the Biblical perspective, the consequence of the choice the first couple made in Eden was the breakdown of their relationship with the God who
placed them there.
They were taking their wills out of alignment with the will of God.
They were detaching themselves from him, in effect, and sending themselves into what was really a self-imposed exile.
Therefore the central theme of the rest of the Bible is the problem of healing that broken relationship.
This could hardly be done without a re-alignment of human will with God’s will.
There’s a difference between Jews and Christians on the way this re-alignment might be achieved.
The Jewish position, if I understand them correctly, would be that God’s will is expressed in the Law, and it then becomes a question of obedience
to the Law.
The Christian case would be that this does not work in practice, if only because the Law will never be fully obeyed.
(And even the Law, on closer inspection, looks like a compromise between God’s will and more human tendencies.)
The New Testament solution therefore hinges upon One whose will has never been out of alignment with his Father’s will.
In the New Testament, the problem is not fully resolved until the last chapters of Revelation, which describe the disappearance of Sin from human
life, together with a full restoration of the old relation between God and man.