Thursday, February 22, 2018

Original Sin

Yesterday Elisabeth and I went to a lecture about Erbsünde, ein irreführender Begriff (Original sin, a misleading term) by Professor Ludwig Wenzler, former director of Freiburg's Catholic Academy. While the notion of "original sin" may well be understood in English, Erbsünde (inherited sin) in German is frequently misinterpreted.

Are we all born with the personal sin (peccatum originale originans) Adam once committed when in paradise he ate an apple (?) of the tree of knowledge and why is a new-born child already fraught with Adam's sin (peccatum originale originatum)?

Do you see this big black spot? That is the original sin. (©Cosmiq)
Let us start at the beginning. Not taking for serious the “literal” interpretation of the Book of Genesis by creationists, science now explains that the world came into being following the Big Bang with life developing on earth later. Out of primitive forms of DNA have evolved viruses, bacteriae, protozoans, plants, animals, and eventually man/woman or better men/women for it is hard to believe that mankind is the result of only one common ancestor.

Bible stories are great explaining in their way the mystery of creation to Jews and Christians before science inspired by Darwin revealed the development and the selection of species and later the transfer of our DNA to our offspring.

Martin Luther in his time, although proclaiming the Freiheit eines Christenmenschen (On the Freedom of a Christian), was still deeply rooted in the Middle Ages. For him, freedom meant freedom from the paternalism, the tutelage of the Catholic Church, i.e., freedom for any man/woman to find his/her individual way to God guided by reading the Bible. Nothing was more important to Luther than fighting illiteracy even for women (!) so that everybody may study the Bible in his German tongue and find his way to Christ.

According to Luther, man/woman has no free will for although the spiritual human being is free the flesh is weak and bound to sin, so he read in St. Paul's letter to the Romans 7:19, "For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing".

As Luther writes in his scripture De servo arbitrio (On the Bondage of the Will), human beings are slaves and bound in their will. They are either “ridden” by the devil or by God. This was his rude answer to Erasmus of Rotterdam’s scripture De libero arbitrio diatribe sive collatio (On Free Choice of the Will, Discourses or Comparisons) in which the latter explains that God does not interfere with man’s/woman’s free will and lets him/her decide between good and evil.

Back to the original sin. It is widely acknowledged that it was Augustinus who forwarded the concept. The story of Adam and Eve losing the paradise by disobeying God’s order and eating of the tree of knowledge was Augustinus' way of explaining the evil in this world and the misery of medieval life. Is there not a more modern interpretation of the “original sin”?

Man/woman is indeed in the bondage of his/her origin. Although the genetic code has evolved, the original traits of evolution that the fittest will survive and proliferate are common to all species. Being essential for their survival, animals have no scruples eating other animals and strong males will fight for females to pass on their genetic material. We, however, intelligent beings, became conscious that it is wrong to kill neighbors, take or destroy their possessions, impose the genes in raping their women. Professor Wenzler called the inclination of man/woman towards evil an Erbmangel but interpreted the "genetic defect" rather in a religious context. The insight of our ancestors that there is evil apparently came in pair with their queries about the meaning of existence.

Here I dare to claim that a paradise never existed although such a condition is the starting point of many other non-Jewish mythologies too. The paradise lost serves as an auxiliary construction to explain how good and evil came into this world and how man/woman acquired the “knowledge”, i.e., became conscious to decide between those two.

Although Professor Wenzler tried hard to get rid of the German word Erbsünde, replacing it by Ursünde and even introduced the concept of Erbgnade (hereditary grace), for me the element Erbe gets a whole new significance. We carry the basic information of egoistic life preserving and life proliferation in our genes as the lyrics of the song "As Time Goes by" describe:

It's still the same old story
A fight for love and glory
A case of do or die ...

Or with respect to our heritage, as Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust states in his defeatest way:

Es erben sich Gesetz und Rechte
wie eine ew’ge Krankheit fort;
sie schleppen von Geschlecht sich zum Geschlechte
und rücken sacht von Ort zu Ort.
Vernunft wird Unsinn, Wohltat Plage:
Weh dir, daß du ein Enkel bist!
Like a disease, an heir-loom dread,
Still trail their curse from race to race,
And furtively abroad they spread.
To nonsense, reason's self they turn;
Beneficence becomes a pest;
Woe unto thee, that thou'rt a grandson born!

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