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The Tar Babies
:: Original Sin ::

by Clara Rising

Original Sin

Lying buried in the subconscious of Western mankind is a cistern of inherited guilt from which we drink daily, and which--for better or worse--we replenish with our regrets, our real or imagined shortcomings, our disappointments, our lost opportunities, but most of all our dreams. It is a cistern filled not with rainwater from the heavens but with the tears of our souls. Let us recognize it for what it is: a cultural Tar Baby implacable and immutable, as infinite and as unavoidable as eternity. And yet it is an aberration--as the Oxford English Dictionary defines the word, a defect of focus, a departure from the normal. No other religion in the world, except the Judeo-Christian, suffers from it. It demeans man, defining him as stupid and selfish, and it demeans God as vengeful, bloodthirsty and paranoid. It is Original Sin.

It shouldnít take a Hebrew scholar to understand the basic story of the Creation in Genesis. The English language is clear enough, and we have heard it all a thousand times. But what is interesting is that there are two versions of the Creation in the first two chapters of Genesis, passed down through oral tradition from old scrolls and documents separated by centuries. Dates are important because they reveal the audience to whom the stories were told, and the cultural necessities of the time. Oddly enough, Chapter One is the younger of the two. Called the P source (for Priestly Document), it appeared after the fall of Jerusalem to Nebuchadnezzar (586 B.C.) and the subsequent

exile in Babylonia, which ended in 538 B.C. Even more importantly, it was not written down until the fourth century B.C. To place it in context, Pericles died in Athens in 429 B.C., in the fifth century. The Parthenon was finished. Pre-Socratic Greek philosophy, which began on the shores of the Aegean in Ionia (now western Turkey), had migrated across the Near East, and was already spreading across the known world under the conquests of Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C., toward the end of the fourth century. We should not be surprised to find some Greek influence in Chapter One. And we do. Chapter One is pure poetry.

There is a hushed reverence in the words of Chapter One, an awe. One senses in the rhythm the ebb and flow of life, in the seas, the grass, in all "creeping things." God has created the heavens, the earth, and the waters between. Day and night, light and dark. And all the animals, creeping, walking, or flying. And it was all good. Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness." PLEASE NOTE that only after forming the animals He creates man in Chapter One--"male and female created He them"--as if mankind is the epitome of his created creatures. What a typical Greek idea! ALSO NOTE that God uses the plural "us" and "our," when He says "Let us make man in our image." Are we dealing with multiple gods here, as on Mount Olympus?

After that momentous announcement, He gives man dominion over the fish ,the fowl, the cattle, over all the earth and creeping things. We must remember that the word is dominion, not "domination." A dominion is a self-governing nation or state, for example, the dominion of Canada. One has dominion over oneís property, with the implication of "caring for." On the other hand, domination, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is the exercise of ruling power. One can argue, with much justification, that the line between the two is very thin, and that we are arguing about angels dancing on the head of a pin.

Yet this discrepancy may be significant. If the Hebrew god Jehovah has given man dominationócontrol over nature, He has separated man from Nature. Joseph Campbell, in the Power of Myth, makes a good case for his belief that the Jewish religion is the only one that separates man from nature. Could this separation be the Tar Baby in our Judeo-Christian culture that has led to our environmental disasters? One wonders how different our treatment of the world--of the elephants, the buffalo, the rivers, the oceans (not to mention the occasional unwanted cat)--would have been if we had heard "dominion" and not "domination." Because I tend to be pessimistic, my guess would be not much. Still, it is interesting. Those angels continue dancing.

Where were we? Oh, yes, God is plural, and has just, mysteriously and miraculously, created both male and female, as if Pouf! out of the head of Zeus. No Eve from a rib yet. Just the animals, and man. By now we realize that this fourth

century B.C.creation story in Chapter One of Genesis is very Greek--or Hellenistic, since we are dealing with the time of Alexander the Great. Now, to continue evidence of Greek influence, we read that sex is the next order of the day. God says, "Be fruitful, and multiply." So sin here--just plain, natural old sex in a garden. So it was there even before the Serpent slithered onto the scene! God has created everything--night, day, animals, mankind (with sex) and all the herbs, plants and trees (even the fruit trees have seeds in their fruit)--in six days. Itís time for a nap.

Now something strange happens. We go to Chapter Two, the older of the two chapters. The tone changes. We thought everything on earth (via the Greek P-for-Priestly source, Chapter One) was good. Now we find (via the Hebrew J-for-Judah source, Chapter Two) that certain fruits are forbiddenówith terrible consequences. And that the Serpent (that ancient symbol of sex and creativity) is the great Anti-God, the opposing force in the universe, having his home within Nature. Nature is, in this older version of the Creation, our enemy.

The J (Judah) source of Chapter Two has been dated before 850 B.C. How much before we have no idea. We do know that the Hebrews left Egypt during the reign of Rameses II, about 1200 B.C. Whether they were construction workers disgruntled because their overseers were refusing to provide straw to make bricks (and who left voluntarily for their promised land) or slaves (as in Exodus) depends on who is telling the story. It does seem strange that in Exodus God tells them to take their flocks and herds with them (Do slaves have flocks?) and to borrow from their Egyptian friends "jewels of silver and jewels of gold" (Do slaves have rich friends?). Then we are told (Exodus 12: 36) that they obeyed, and "spoiled the Egyptians." Well, so much for friendship.

When these Hebrew nomads entered Palestine they found a resident, urban population of Canaanites (Phoenicians) and along the coast Aryan "sea people" (Philistines) with a culture much more advanced than their own. After they finished their conquest they had time, under the rule of Kings David and Solomon, to record their history in the books of Joshua, Judges, and Samuel. Then, after the death of Solomon, when the kingdom was divided, the scholarly work continued in the South (in Judah where we get our "J" scroll), adding the story of the Garden of Eden, of Abraham, Jacob, Joseph and the saga of Exodus, with its escape from Egypt into the Wilderness. These stories had been passed by word of mouth across generations before being committed to writing between the ninth and seventh centuries B.C. (as opposed to the "P" scroll, with its Greek 4th century flavor). One thing is certain: it will not be surprising to discover in the older J source of Genesis (Chapter Two) some attributes of God which, if we can keep a non-biased perspective, we might find sadly amusing, if not revolting.

In Chapter One we thought that we had the herbs and fruit trees. Now in Chapter Two we learn that we have only (in the King James Version) "every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew. Why? Because God had not yet created rain. Now, besides rain, God realizes that something else is missing. Man. Not just man, but Man-the-Farmer. "There was not a man to till the ground." So God forms man "of the dust of the ground." He breathes into him the breath of life, and "man became a living soul." No longer do we have that joyous, instantaneous Greek creation of "he" and "she" (with no discrimination between the genders) as the epitome of creation, but a calculated, plodding need. In this older version we have unplanted plants and "every herb before it grew" needing rain, but there is no rain. Then we have rain, but no man to till the ground. Weíll fix that. Pick up some dust and make a man. A reader is now convinced, beyond a doubt, that this version comes from the older, "J" scroll. No Greek influence here, but plenty of nomads wanting to be farmers.

Now we can get to the garden. East of Eden we can put the man just formed from dust. But he looks lonesome. God says "I will make him an help meet." So "out of the ground God formed every beast of the field"--and all the birds, fish, etc.--and "brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them...." But, we are told, "for Adam there was not found an help meet for him." In other words, Adam did not get enthusiastic about mating with an orangutan. So, God made woman, not out of dust, but, since Adam was obviously egotistical and would not be satisfied with anybody but himself, out of one of Adamís own ribs. Now we are told that they were both naked. (What else were they supposed to be?) And--wonder of wonders--not ashamed (of what?). In this older J source God (or the male-dominated nomad/ herder society which produced this story) there is a peculiar silence about sex. In Chapter One, on the other hand (like a good Greek), God actually orders it ("Be fruitful ,and multiply!"). In Chapter Two He is not only reluctant to mention sex but seems to have decided that sex is a tainted thing, almost outside the bounds of his creation, as it were. Adam and Eve are not bad for lacking shame--just stupid, for when they do exhibit an awareness of themselves that fact becomes evidence of their disobedience. No longer do we have man as the Greek epitome of creation. Man is now, because of natural curiosity and natural sex, a deceitful, groveling coward. There is no pleasing this God.

But the Serpent, with his shedding skin, that symbol of creativity and reincarnation of the ancient world, will soon educate them. He has persuaded them to eat of the tree of knowledge, that tree in the middle of the garden which God has forbidden them to even touch-- "lest ye die." ( Does this mean that they were already immortal? What if they had obeyed, and not eaten of the tree, would they have lived forever?) There is another "taboo" tree in the Garden--the Tree of Life. If they eat of the Tree of Life they will "be as one of us" (i.e., gods, i.e., immortal). There is that problem again: Does this mean that they were NOT immortal after all? That they would have died anyway? There is some confusion here. We must remember that we are in the old J scroll, written down in the ninth century B.C. by those whose loyalty belonged to the culture of their fathers, those hunting nomads, that male-dominated marauding warrior tribe who will, after Eden, roam the desert looking for a homeland to conquer, a tribe with the terrible inheritance of a jealous god with as much sensitivity and predictability as a volcano, a god whose marching orders (against the Canaanites in

Deuteronomy) will be vengeance, rape and murder. That "lest ye die" connected with tasting the Tree of Knowledge was no empty threat. Now, an even worse fate will result if they taste of the Tree of Life. The King James version is very clear here. It reads: "Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever....." Well, we just canít let that happen! They must remain mortal. They must be driven

from the Garden. It is interesting that Adam and Eve lost paradise not because they tasted of the tree of good and evil but because God is afraid that, if they taste the Tree of Life, they "will be as one of usí---i.e., immortal!

Similarly, it was not the prospect of Adamís sudden education that worried God, but the fact that, as the Serpent tells Eve, "your eyes shall be opened, and YE SHALL BE AS GODS, knowing good and evil." The Serpent knows that it is the power of knowledge, and not just knowing, that arouses the wrath of an insecure Jehovah. Was that "lest ye die" a threat or a bluff? The Serpent doesnít care. He uses it to lure Eve into satisfying her curiosity and her taste buds: "Ye shall not surely die." The story goes on: "And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her, and he did eat."

(Genesis 3:4-6)

A tree to be desired to make one wise. THAT is the crux of the matter, and not the minor snickering over being naked, which tells God that they have disobeyed. Did God really want them to remain ignorant? Without such knowledge there can be no morality. The whole story seeks, in Miltonís words, "to justify the ways of God to men." But does it? Adam must sweat now while he works (He didnít sweat before?). Nothing will come easy. Thorns and thistles will thwart him. As for Eve, she will bring forth her children in pain and sorrow. And be under the domination of her husband. BUT PLEASE NOTE: There is nothing, absolutely nothing, mentioned here about the inheritance of this sin onto their progeny. Absolutely nothing. And yet the idea of Original Sin has become our first Tar Baby, the one we carry around with us--however unconsciously--telling us we are not quite good enough for Paradise. One wonders, under these circumstances, why God created man in the first place. Oh, I forgot: to till the Garden. But, ironically enough, the need for a farmhand to till the Garden would not have lasted long anyway. In the history of the desert peoples of the Middle East, agriculture would soon give way to the breeding and herding of sheep and goats. Cain, the farmer, will become the bad guy and Abel, the herder of flocks, will receive Godís blessing. Cainís murder of Abel may symbolize the change from farming to wandering. When you need to justify something, you can always create a story within a story. And a scapegoat. (Even that word comes from the herding culture.)

Still, the central problem of Genesis remains. Why is this God so insecure? Why does he fear the loss of worship in favor of other gods? (Evidently He believes

in other gods, since he is so afraid of them!) Why shouldnít his followers abandon him--especially when He treats them so shabbily? William James, in his THE VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE, quotes Henry Wood, who wrote in 1899:

Man often has fear stamped upon him before his entrance into the outer world; he is reared in fear; all his life is passed in bondage to fear of disease and death, and thus his whole mentality becomes cramped, limited, and depressed, and his body follows its shrunken pattern and specification....Think of the millions of sensitive and responsive souls among our ancestors who have been under the domination of such a perpetual nightmare! Is it not surprising that  health exists at all? Nothing but the boundless divine love, exuberance, and vitality, constantly poured in, even though unconsciously to us, could in some degree neutralize such an ocean of morbidity.

That last sentence is critical. It gives us the reason for mankindís dilemma. We are made to suffer so God can help! We are made to feel guilty so we will need somebody to comfort us! The early Church was not unaware of the opportunities. Why are we cursed with this Original Sin? Create a need, and then fill it. For the priests and preachers, original sin may be the best job security of all.

As I have said, I canít find anywhere in Genesis a mention of this sin being hereditary. I do find in Exodus, Chapter 20, Verse 5, a threat of hereditary sin connected with Godís own fear of other gods:

Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.

But even this vengeance is reserved "for those who hate me" and not an entitlement program for being human. It is interesting to note, here, that Jewish doctrine does not teach that the guilt of Adamís act is eternally transmitted to all men. Genesis Chapter 3, Verse 17 quotes God as saying to Adam: "Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all

the days of thy life." But in Genesis Chapter 8, Verse 21, after the ordeal of the Flood, when Noah in thankfulness for his survival built an altar and sent up the scent of burnt offerings, God seems to forgive Adam, and even expresses regret that He cursed the ground, implying that man is naturally evil, anyway, and doesnít deserve special punishments: "And the Lord smelled a sweet savor, and the Lord said in his heart, I

will not again curse the ground any more for manís sake; for the imagination of manís heart is evil from his youth: neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done." Wow. Quite an admission of remorse from Yahweh, letting man off the hook. With a rainbow thrown into the bargain, as a token of His good will--a

"covenant which I make between me and you, and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations." So in Genesis there is nothing to suggest that

Adamís sin is inherited, but this covenant of a forgiving God is! How strange, after all the threats, the thorns and thistles. Then we learn that this chapter is from the P, or Priestly scroll, with its Hellenistic Greek influence, which solves the mystery of an uncharacteristic kindness from Yahweh. It also shifts the attention from "man" to "mankind"--another indication of the later date.

But this reconciliation proves to be a brief respite. In Exodus, we return to a vindictive God displaying a paranoia bordering on psychosis, using any excuse to establish his POWER. First, he appears on Mount Sinai "in a smoke." Was Sinai a volcano in those days? Geology experts say it was not, but I wonder. Sinai was Yahwehís mountain, and we have already noted the volcanic qualities of this God of the Hebrews. We read in Chapter 19, Verse 18:

And Mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly.

In Exodus, Moses seems to have more sense than God. When God orders Moses up through the smoke and tells him to "charge the people, lest they break through unto  the LORD to gaze, and many of them perish" (because to look at Godís face is instant death), Moses has to remind God that He has already forbidden the people to come up (Ex. 19:23). When the people worship the golden calf, God sends Moses away:

" therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them." Again, Moses has to remind God that He has just saved these people from the Egyptians, that the Egyptians will have the last laugh when they hear that this same God who has parted the Red Sea has destroyed the people He has saved (Ex. 32:11). So, we are told three verses later, "the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people."

Yet, in this same chapter (Ex. 32:28) God orders every man who is on His side to "go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor. And the children of Levi did according to the word of Moses: and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men." In other words, "I wonít kill them all, only 3,000. And even then, I wonít do it--Iíll pass the buck onto the people, and let them do the killing!"

Moses, in an attempt to assuage their grief, tells the people that each one who has lost a son or brother has by that loss "ordained yourselves for the service of the Lord...that he may bestow a blessing on you this day." (What a price for a blessing!) Moses then tells them: "And now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin." His atonement is really a deal: realizing that the killing may continue (for the wrath of Yahweh is great), Moses tells God that if He cannot forgive the people who have sinned, He can blot Mosesís name "out of thy book." But God does not take the bribe. He will still take revenge on "whoever has sinned against me." The chapter ends with: "And the Lord sent a plague upon the people, because they made the calf...." Yahweh is not only vengeful, but stubborn.

We have noted that the belief in an inherited Original Sin is not found in Jewish doctrine. Where, then, did the Christians get it? Chiefly from the influence of Paul, specifically Romans 5:12 and 14:

Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned....

Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adamís transgression....

(The italics are mine.)

This is an extremely interesting passage. We now have not only sin, but death inherited, indeed caused by that one bite of an apple in the Garden. Even those who have not sinned as Adam had (i.e., disobedience to God) will have to pay the price.

It does seem incredible that such a brief mention could influence centuries of belief. The Catholic Church, faced with the necessity to explain the humanity of Mary, promulgated in a Papal Bull as recently as 1854 the dogma of the "Immaculate Conception," which freed the Mother of God from the taint of Original Sin.

The Founding Fathers-- Franklin, Jefferson, Adams-- did not believe in the Fall of Man. My Christian friends take it for granted. Even our newborns need baptism to keep them from, if not the fires of Hell, at least Limbo. When did this start? Saint Augustine, who lived in the fifth century of our era, and whose own battle against lust caused him to be overzealous (to put it mildly), considered flesh evil. He is given

credit for adding the guilt of original sin to the newborn because babies arrive on this earth through the nasty, depraved activity of sex. His own famous sentence, "Give

me chastity--but not yet!" subtracts somewhat from his own sincerity, if not from his saintliness. Equally disturbing is the advice of Martin Luther: "Sin bravely, and see how much of Godís mercy you can invoke." Thereís that job security again! Luther was a preacher, with a vested interest in recruiting sinners. And it all began in the Garden.

It wasnít always so. The early Church squabbled over the nature of Christ, God, and man. If Christ was truly God, did he suffer on the cross or only pretend to? If God was truly omnipotent, why did He seem surprised at Adamís disobedience? Surely He must have known his creature would be curious. And what of man? Was he no better than a dog to be sent out of the Garden, never to return? (Was man the only creature to leave? Are the tigers, the elephants and the orangutans still there? A fatuous question, but remember, we are all amateurs here.) And Nature--is it evil (the Snake) or merely the means now of torturing man? (Did the thorns exist before the Fall?) Remember, man was put in dominion (domination) over Nature--as if Nature was to blame. Who was to blame? Eve, of course. An obvious answer for a male-dominated hunting culture.


So this original sin business has led us into a quagmire (a Tar Baby?) of questions. Let us begin with Nature. And for that we will have to go back to the Greeks, to Plato, student of Socrates and teacher of Aristotle (who in turn taught Alexander the Great). In his Republic, Plato has that famous little story of a cave, where people sit chained to their chairs, facing a blank rock wall (Perhaps they were the original couch potatoes?). Behind them, a little distance from the opening of the cave, a fire blazes. In front of the fire stand men holding up wooden cut-outs depicting various objects and animals--chairs and horses, pots, pans and pelicans. The fire throws shadows of these images onto the wall, and the poor chained humans think that the shadows are the real things. Then Plato goes one step further. He agrees that, letís say, the shadow horse is not real, but neither are the wooden cut-outs--and neither is the horse in the field! What is real, then? Why, the IDEA of a horse. Where is this IDEA? Certainly not out in the field, for that is merely a horse made of flesh, the visible world. Is the REAL horse in our minds, then? No, not even there. The real horse is a an Eternal Form "in the intelligible world." How do we get to this real horse, this Form? Through a vision of truth. How do we do that? Through a study of mathematics, the only wisdom dealing with indivisible numbers.

Wow. And we thought shrinks were limited to psychiatry. Letís stay with Plato a minute longer, since he is the most un-Greek of the Greeks. With his separation of the real horse from the Idea of a horse (or the touchable, visible world of reality from the eternal Reality--i.e. Forms), he has enjoyed an amazing influence on Western thought, and specifically, on the Christian Church, which added to his disparagement of matter the idea that matter (flesh) is evil. Where did the Church get this idea? In fairness to Plato, we must remember that he never said that matter was bad, but for him it was definitely secondary, at the bottom of his list. The Christian Church used his separation of matter from form (flesh from spirit?) and added to matter the quality of evil--based on, you guessed it: Genesis!

The early Church latched onto Plato like a drowning man clutching at a lifeboat. And, in reality, perhaps thatís what it was. During the first four centuries after Christ the Roman Empire struggled with decay from within (bureaucracy and luxury--sound familiar?) and barbarian attacks from without--Vandals and Germans and Gauls and Persians--and finally Alaric the Visigoth, who sacked Rome in A.D.

410. Order was needed for the organization of this new religion, even despotic order. Plato obliged them. We have called Plato unGreek because of his rejection of nature. He was unGreek also because he was so undemocratic, advocating in his Republic a despotic rule by his Philosopher King, who would "bring compulsion to bear on the noblest natures." In other words, a dictator. For the Church, Plato became the High Priest of order, pushing logic into silliness, making a fetish of Form. But Plato doesnít stop there. He arranges, in his day-dream "republic," to have breeding facilities for the more intelligent citizens--a kind of kennel reminiscent of Hitlerís sexual experiments.

Athens would have no part of his theoretical solutions. So he went to Syracuse, on the island of Sicily, where the tyrant Dionysius, an unscrupulous despot if there ever was one, had enslaved the neighboring Greek cities and was in the process of adding all of southern Italy to his rule. Plato became great friends with Dionysiusís brother-in-law, Dion. Ironically, Plato began to preach his own brand of despotism, which was based on "justice," an idea that, according to Cephalus, an old man and the only realist in Platoís imaginary "republic," was nothing more than simple honesty--paying oneís debts. But Dionysius, having been told that despots lacked "the true qualities of manhood," was decidedly not happy with his guest.. We have the story from Plutarch, the Greek historian who lived four hundred and fifty years later. How much we can believe is questionable. One thing we do know is that "Platoís friends soon found it necessary to arrange for his departure." On the way home he was captured, sold as a slave and redeemed by Anniceris of Cyrene. The purchase money, refunded by friends in Athens, was used to buy the land on which Platoís Academy was founded, where Plato would spend the rest of his life (He died in 347 B.C.) teaching the Royal Art of philosophical statesmanship.

It is an interesting--and tempting--thought to imagine that if Plato had not been the worldís best PR man for his teacher, Socrates (who, as the saintly victim of democracy, became the major character in Platoís book), we may not have included Socrates in every college curriculum, or lifted him onto the podium of Great Thinkers. But then, maybe we would have, for it is Plato, more than any philosopher in the ancient world, who continues the myth of Genesis, the basic premise that man is separate from nature. With apologies to Joseph Campbell, we will have to admit that, although Plato was not a Jew, this unGreek Greek, in his meandering search for reality, preached the separation of man from nature so strongly that his philosophy maintained a stranglehold on Christian thought until the days of Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. Aquinas taught that spirit could be in matter, that a bird was not just a bird, but a creature containing spirit. At this same time, Gothic architecture began. One of my students, a boy who sat in the back of the room in a junior college in Florida, said it best: "Why, fear was gone. Now the lines could go UP!"

But it took fifteen hundred years for those lines to go up, from Platoís death in the fourth century B.C. until Aquinas was born in the mountains of Lombardy, in Italy, in 1225. When we consider those first centuries after the death of Christ, when the Christian Church was anxiously searching to articulate its doctrine and beliefs, as well as to establish the hierarchy of its organization, we have to remember that it had to

deal also with the loss of the Roman Empire, under the onslaught of barbarian invasions. A civilization was literally crumbling around them. It would be only

natural for them to turn to a Greek who offered a vision of law and order under the wisdom of a Philosopher King. Rudolph Bultmann, in his Primitive Christianity, says that for the Jewish religious philosopher Philo (c. 25 B.C. - A.D. 40), who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, Plato was the "greatest of the saints." During those first three centuries of our era beliefs and cults, like the peelings of an apple, curled and clung to the central problem of man and God, man and Nature, man and his own soul. A mixture of Hebrew religious legalism, imaginative Greek scientific naturalism, and the stultified pronouncements of Plato vied for attention. All seemed to cry out for survival by helpless victims of fate. Some of these beliefs, as we shall see, were very imaginative, indeed. Others, like stoicism, discovered strength in self-discipline.


The Stoicism of Epictetus (born c. A.D. 60) and the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (A.D.161-180 ), although basically a withdrawal into the inner self of mind-over-matter, stressed the ability of the human will to achieve virtue while still functioning in the world. It became a positive manual of good conduct, with a pep-

talk quality about it, always stressing manís natural goodness, which could be the reliable, ever-present source of virtue. If external order was vanishing, one could turn inward to oneís own self-discipline for at least a modicum of control against the worst hell a philosopher (or anybody else, for that matter) could imagine--nihilism. Where there is nothing to believe, retreat into self is the last foothold of sanity. But the

Stoics saved themselves from total isolation by insisting that, as Epictetus says so eloquently in his Discourses, although Zeus gives to each creature the selfish need to do everything for itself, he has also arranged "that no one can attain its own good without contributing something for the good of all." The community, after all, was still out there, and man is a part of it. In his Meditations Marcus Aurelius, in a soldierís battle tent beside the Danube, could insist that "Nothing happens to any man which he is not framed by nature to bear." The solution to any problem, he insisted, lies within ourselves. In his Meditations he writes that if you can be "content with yourself, and serviceable to society, and at peace with the gods, praising all they give and have ordained," you will have attained the stoicís paradise, which is not happiness so much as a quiet contentment, earned through the exercise of forbearance and love for your fellow men. Furthermore, this stoicism did not separate man from nature. Writing of death, Aurelius advises:

"Thou hast existed as a part; thou shalt disappear in that which produced thee....This, too, nature wills...Pass, then, through this little space of time conformably to nature, and end thy journey in content, just as an olive falls when it is ripe, blessing the nature that produced it, and thanking the tree on which it grew."

One feels a breath of fresh air flowing through this pagan stoicism. Although it was always a secular philosophy rather than a religion, its stress on virtue and the "divinity within" made it a viable choice for those seeking something to believe in, without the negative fears of sin and damnation. The more traditional believer might regret no mention in stoicism of a hereafter. But perhaps this lack of reward and punishment is the clue to its remaining a popular, uncomplicated code of conduct in a world needing direction. Admittedly, virtue for its own sake becomes a hard sell in a marketplace where the buyers are desperate for something solid to hold onto, especially if other beliefs are offering heaven everlasting. Still, in any review of early Christianity, stoicism deserves consideration because its precepts influenced contemporary thought, and any reasonable theologian must admit that it remains an undercurrent of Christian values even today. I can remember, as a freshman in college, browsing in a used bookstore in New Orleans and finding a little leather-bound, gilt-edged volume of Epictetus. It wasnít a book so much as the man himself. I devoured him, and carried him around with me like a secret friend when I would ride the streetcars to class. Above all, I found it delightful because it avoided any notion of original sin. The Christian Church could have taken a page from Epictetus or Aurelius, but instead it concentrated on a stubborn rejection of the world and produced some insufferably self-righteous martyrs who invited--indeed, welcomed-- the jaws of the lions and the sword of the gladiator.

An even crazier, way-out, "Star Wars" scenario was indulged in by the  Gnostics. The word in Greek refers to knowledge--one who knows. Never, I think, has a word been more misused. To read a description of their beliefs is to be transported, as a recent sect tried to do with suicide, into the tail of a comet. Hold onto your hats (or your brain cells), while we review what the scholars call Gnosticism, having, as some think, its beginning in Zoroastrianism. Zoroaster (or, as Nietzsche called him, Zarathustra) , a Persian prophet who lived from 660 until 583 B.C., withdrew from society to enjoy wisdom and righteousness. The Devil tempted him by piercing his breast with a sword and filling his entrails with molten lead, but he did not complain, clinging to his faith in Ahura-Mazda, the Lord of Light, his supreme god. Zoroasterís religion was based on the dualism of light and dark. The Gnostics took this idea and ran with it--in my opinion, over the edge. For Gnostics, the soul of man had its origin in light. In fact, it is a splinter torn from the heavenly light by demons who needed to create a world out of the chaos of darkness. Then each soul fell, to become an alien living on earth, imprisoned in a body. If these slivers of light are ever removed, the whole world, the cosmos, will return to primordial darkness. Thatís why the demons jealously watch over these splinters and sparks they stole. But they not only watch over them--they devour them, they get drunk on them, so they can forget their heavenly home. If they donít, they yearn to return. When this yearning becomes too great, too powerful, the God of Light sends his only Son down to redeem them. He takes on an earthly body, to fool the demons. His chief task is to pass on to his followers the magic words they will need for the journey back. This Gnostic redeemer says things like "I am the truth, the light." Once he makes everybody happy, he will return to heaven to prepare a way for the "gnostics" to follow him.. When that happens, the world will end.

Wow. Had enough? How would you feel, if you were a Gnostic? Completely alone. Completely severed from nature, from the world, other people. Truly an alien, alienated. The world is now not only hostile, it is a prison, from which you long to escape. You are afraid of everything, but most of all yourself, because you are now nothing but a plaything for demons. You are no longer your own master--if you ever were. Gone is any idea of transcendence, of a cosmos with order. Indeed, the cosmos is a source of terror. The separation of God from the world is complete. Liberation can only come through redemption, when one hears the call, receives the message to detach oneself from the world. Redemption is indeed the "knowledge" of the "gnostics" that this world = NOTHING. The result of this knowledge is that the gnostics became a version of early Christian hippies, like those delightful non-students of the 1960's, liberated from any obligation to work, or to make the world a better place (although in the Ď60's there was enough talk about it) or, in the case of the gnostics, to belong to a human community at all.

Some of them were very clever. According to Will Durant, in his Caesar and Christ, a gnostic in Gaul named Marcus "offered to reveal to women the secrets of their guardian angels; his revelations were flattering, and he accepted their persons as his reward." For most, however, gnostic ecstasy was attained through liberation from an oppressive world, the long-sought-for relief from being human. In the final analysis the deepest fear of the gnostic--the inescapable terror--was himself. Gone is any Greek idea of nature as spirit. Poseidon is no longer in the sea, or Zeus in the sky, playing with thunderbolts. The world is now completely "objective," an indifferent, inert lump of matter ready to be analyzed and dissected by modern science. Mythology, any hope, is gone, leaving religion as bare as an uninhabited planet. The separation of man from nature in Genesis has leap-frogged into a sophisticated nihilism. All mystery is gone--the wonder of water, of air, of babies, of puppies playing. Indeed, where is play? Have you ever heard of a more dour, sour, depressing fairy tale? One can hardly call it a religion. And yet these ideas influenced the early Christian Church. Why? Maybe, since in Genesis God passed the buck to Eve for Original Sin, the Gnostics passed the buck to demons. I think, at this moment, I am losing my grip on reality, if not my sanity. As I write, the news is coming onto the TV screen of hundreds of suicides (or murders) in Uganda--poor, deluded people following religious leaders who have promised them paradise. Perhaps humanity, in its struggle toward serenity, has not changed so much after all.


Interestingly enough, it was not in Rome, with its catacombs and coliseum, or in the imperial tents of stoic emperors on a battlefield, that the most influential philosophical thought would develop during those decades of chaos. We must turn to a busy Mediterranean port built by Alexander the Great, and named for him, in Egypt. Alexandria, with its great library and fortunate geographical position, had become the cultural crossroads of the ancient world. There a philosopher, an Egyptian with a Roman name and a Greek education, softened the harsh logic of Plato and made Platoís Absolute available to humanity via an intuition that reached the beatific visions of mysticism. His name was Plotinus (A.D. 205-270), whose philosophy would be called "Neo-Platonism," although it was far from Plato, indeed. For Plotinus Nature is the source of spirit, not something secondary--and certainly not something less valuable than spirit (and certainly not something containing sin). In fact, for Plotinus, Nature produces all the outward forms in the world. Beauty is the unseen divinity in things, in animals, in people, in all matter. Art can be the doorway, the avenue leading from these material forms to the hidden soul in Nature, and finally, in the words of Will Durant, to " the divine Unity that gathers all things, even striving and conflicting things, into a sublime and marvelous harmony."

One wonders what the Catholic Church would have been without Plotinus. Would there be a blessing of animals? Or a Saint Francis of Assisi? Would there be the mystery and miracle, the sense of wonder that permeates even the strictest ceremony? Would its Latin ritual, which reaches beyond language into spirit, and puts a framework around time, have been as effective, without that atmosphere of mysticism? The Church has lost much, I think, since it abandoned Latin, for that gave a universality (the name Catholic) to the whole experience. I remember thinking, in that little town in North Mississippi, as I said Agnus Dei or Et cum spiritu tuo, that I could have been in Budapest or Buenos Aires--or anywhere, at any time, and it would be the same. I could be in the 13th century, with St. Thomas Aquinas, or in France with the Little Flower. When my mother was dying of throat cancer, a stiff, pasty-faced "reverend" from some Protestant sect came into her room. He had a superior, uncompromising way about him. His eyes were cold, his thin-lipped mouth drawn into a grim line. He starting talking about salvation and repentance of sin to the woman on the bed, who was staring at the ceiling, hardly knowing he was there. Her father had come from Ireland when he was a baby to escape poverty, and his daughter was starving to death in the land of plenty, from enjoying cigarettes. There was too much irony in that room already; and I didnít need to hear about Original Sin. Then an Irish priest walked in. Evidently he was on the hospital staff, because he silently introduced himself with a nod and a smile, and began singing Irish lullabies. He sang them with that pure, sincere tone of an Irish tenor, and the song swelled past my motherís room, down the hall, to drift, diaphanous, past the windows into the sunshine. Plotinus was in that room with us that day. Plotinus and all the Irish priests I had known from my childhood. I remember one telling me, when I was twelve and had just said that I couldnít believe in hell, "Oh, thatís all right--Saint Bridget cuddent believe in it teether."

Plotinus has been called the last of the great pagan philosophers, a Christian without Christ. One scholar claims that he has left a deeper mark upon Christian thought than any other single man, and that the Catholic Church, usually thought of as belonging to the middle ages, is really the last creative effort of classical antiquity, which may have died giving birth to it. I found Plotinus to be a barometer of the general mood of a decaying empire. Where logic and reason and even self-discipline had failed, a belief rooted in nature, and not just "nature" but Nature-as-Spirit gave man more hope than a dozen Platos. And with no mention of Original Sin--for, after all, Plotinus was a pagan, without the benefits of a tribal god named "Yahweh." What a relief to return to him, to Alexandria, where he went to school and studied under a man named Saccas for ten years. Saccas, a Christian-turned-pagan, was trying to reconcile Christianity with Plato. Plotinus, with his earthy mysticism, turned Plato inside-out and gave budding Christianity a sensuous, but at the same time ethereal, vision. One wonders if St. Thomas Aquinas, with his spirit-in-the-bird, would have felt the same without the influence of Plotinus. Plotinus left Alexandria when he was 39, and, except for a trip to Persia, lived the rest of his life in Rome.

One of his fellow-students in Saccasís class in Alexandria was a young man named Origen (A.D. 185-254). When Origen was seventeen his father was arrested as a Christian and beheaded. Left with the care of his mother and six siblings, Origen became a conscientious ascetic who fasted, slept little on bare ground, wore no shoes and subjected himself to cold and nakedness. A bit of a Stoic, a Platonist with a touch of Gnosticism, by the age of eighteen Origen was the head of the catechetical school, teaching Greek science and Holy Scriptures. Perhaps a little over-zealous in his need for sanctity, he castrated himself in order to instruct women--which turned out to be the supreme irony, since he would later be refused ordination as a priest because emasculation disqualified him! He worked at Alexandria for 28 years, and in his lifetime wrote 6,000 books. Under his influence Christianity ceased to be just a comforting faith, but a philosophy based on Scripture and supported by reason. He traveled to Rome, Arabia, Antioch, and to Palestine, where the bishops were somewhat more lax in their expectations, and ordained him while the Roman imperial executioners ravaged Alexandria. He settled in Caesarea, Palestine, established a school, and soon became famous. For him the ideal life is a sorrowless condition, reached through contemplative isolation and a self-knowledge that allows man to enter into the likeness of God, which is divine wisdom. His growing reputation disturbed Demetrius, Bishop of Alexandria, who annulled his ordination and banished him. By the year 250, when Origen was 65, the Roman persecution of Christians under the Emperor Decian had reached Caesarea, and Origen was arrested. He was stretched on the rack, loaded with chains and an iron collar, and kept in prison. Before his executioners could kill him, the emperor died, and he was released. His own life ended three years later.

Called by historians the most distinguished and influential of all the theologians of the ancient church, Origen, that sad mixture of Stoic, Gnostic, and Platonic ideas--as well as an overdose of self-denial-- seems to represent the struggle of the early Church with the problem of Spirit vs. Flesh. Woman, of course, was the culprit. Woman (Eve) was to blame for the expulsion from the Garden, for Original Sin. Remembering his own castration, we are not surprised to learn that Origen did not conceive of the end of the world as a transfiguration, but rather as a liberation of the spirit from its "unnatural union with the sensual." It is incredible to think that he had been in the same class in Alexandria with Plotinus. How differently they turned out! God for Plotinus was not a personal deity but an Absolute "beyond experience." He did not use the word "sin," although there are those who "live unrighteously." For Plotinus all nature is essentially good. A man for all times, for all people. One can understand his prevailing influence. His philosophy was like a yeast of unabashed emotional acceptance of the world which might just have saved a more dour, hell-bent religion from becoming extinct. On the other hand, his fellow classmate Origen led a life that seems to have been a catchall for any popular belief or near-belief, even for the gimmickry of Gnosticism. Put into 21st century terms, the difference between the two might be that of a sensuous visionary (Plotinus) and a scholarly bureaucrat (Origen). But, in the case of Origen, we must be careful when we speak of any theologian at that time as being "the most distinguished and influential." Origen lived at the end of the second century, and into the first half of the third century after Christ. Rome was still an Empire, and the "church" did not yet have a capital "C," much less official recognition (which did not come until the reign of Constantine in the fourth century). For most Romans, Christ was still a minor political rebel whose deluded followers made entertaining scapegoats for gladiators and lions in the arena. Unknown to many citizens of the Empire, the squabblings of synods in Antioch, Jerusalem or Caesarea over Original Sin--or anything else--was insignificant. For the presbyters and priests of the early church, these arguments were very significant--even life-threatening, as Origen found out.

A Christian named Mani, born in Babylon in A.D. 215, died for his beliefs. He was brought up in a "Baptist" sect in southern Babylonia and carefully educated in Ctesiphon, on the Tigris near Baghdad. A Persian mystic, he called himself a Messiah sent to reform the moral life of mankind. His name gave birth to the term "Manichaeism," whose followers were ascetic vegetarians who not only refused to separate man from nature (indeed, were not allowed to kill any living thing), but who believed that religious knowledge is a knowledge of nature. Man can be saved by gnosis, knowing nature. For them a distinction between physical, ethical, natural

and spiritual beings did not exist. As a young man Mani spent five years at the

Persian court, then left to preach a brand of Christianity free of Judaism--in fact, Manichaeism has been called "Christianity without the Old Testament." The Encyclopaedia Britannica calls it "one of the great religions." Connecting knowledge with faith and reason with authority, it must have satisfied new wants in an old world, for it grew rapidly , spreading to Syria, across North Africa to Rome, where schools were established. In North Africa it suffered under the Vandal invasions, and in Rome by Valentinian III, who banished it, and by Justinian, who pronounced a death penalty for its believers. . In 270, six years before his death, Mani returned to Persia, where the Zoroastrian Magi ("the Wise Men from the East" in our nativity scenes) threatened him. He fled the country, but returned when a new king was more receptive. The next king was not so accommodating. Mani was crucified, and his skin, stuffed with straw, was hung from the gates of Susa. This martyrdom inflamed his followers--and Manicheism survived the persecutions of Diocletian, the conquests of Islam, a thousand years of Western history until the coming of Genghis Khan in the 13th century. Perhaps no other tortured life represents more poignantly the soul-searching need of the early Church to accommodate itself to reality, to Nature, or to struggling mankind, than this kindly Babylonian.


The most challenging heresy to the Church occurred in Alexandria, that Egyptian home of Plotinus and Origen, that hotbed of suppositions and speculations.

A Greek deacon named Arius (A.D. 256?-336) started asking some disturbing questions. (1) If Christ the Son had been begotten by the Father, surely it must have been in time, and not before the beginning of time, i.e., eternal. Therefore the Son cannot be co-eternal with the Father. (2) If Christ was created, it must have been from nothing, and not from the Fatherís substance. Therefore, Christ cannot be co-substantial with the Father (i.e., of the same essence). (3) As for the Holy Spirit, it was begotten by the Logos, the Word, and was still less God than the Logos. It is

clear, to any student of Greek mythology, that what Arius was dealing with here was Christ and the Holy Spirit as demigods, semi-divine beings less than God but more than man. When the young deacon persisted in these beliefs, the bishop at Alexandria called a council and persuaded it to unfrock Arius. The whole squabble centered on

the meaning of two words, homoousia (God and Christ sharing the same divine substance) and homoiousia (God and Christ merely similar). Note that the whole storm swirled around one letter--i--inserted after "homo." The Eastern bishops were pro-Arius, while in the West priests were exiled and excommunicated for being "Arian." One, a famous bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, was even attacked by imperial troops and fled into the desert.

Wind of the controversy reached Emperor Constantine, who saw these new ideas as a threat to the stability of the empire. If Christ was not God, the whole structure of Christian doctrine would crack. The subsequent chaos might destroy the authority of the Church, essential to the control by Rome of its far-flung dominions. Constantine immediately called his own council, the first ecumenical, or universal, synod. The result was the Nicene Creed, in which the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost became the incontestable, undisputed Eleventh Commandment. What has all this to do, you may ask, with Original Sin? Everything, once you realize that the rock-bottom problem was the need of man to be redeemed. Redemption--the payment of that obligation incurred in the Garden toward God because of Adamís sin--requires the Incarnation of God-in-Christ, of the Divine-made-flesh. Arianism joined Manichaeism as the double-edged sword threatening the cornerstones of Judeo-Christian theology, the separation of man from nature (challenged by Mani) and the absolute divinity of Christ (questioned by Arius, but which, more than any single belief, provides for the redemption of sin.)

All these squabbles were certainly not isolated. They permeated every presbytery and monkís cell, every cloister from Arles to Constantinople. They certainly influenced St. Augustine ( A.D. 354-430). Perhaps the greatest theologian of the early Church, Augustine is an enigma, sometimes infuriating in his contradictions, if not in his insufferable "holiness." Born in Numidia (now Algeria) in northwest Africa of Roman and possibly Punic blood, his strong sympathy for Carthage is evidenced by the fact that, when he became Bishop of Hippo he insisted that his priests speak Punic rather than Latin. His father became a Christian late in life, his mother since girlhood. At age twelve he attended a school of grammar run by Roman veterans. He disliked Greek, and at age seventeen went to Carthage to study rhetoric. Evidently disliking the sexual restrictions of Christianity, he fathered a boy by a concubine. Then, as he would for the rest of his life, he struggled with the tug-of-war between spirit and flesh. He found some relief in Manichaeism (spirit and matter are one) for nine years; then he became a skeptic and went to Rome, hoping to teach rhetoric. When that failed, he took a lecture job at Milan. In the autumn of 384 he was joined by his widowed mother (he was in Milan with the mother of his son). When the study of Cicero turned him from skepticism to morality, his mother must have seen her chance, because she sent the concubine back to Africa (where she joined a convent) and arranged a marriage for her son with a suitable bride not quite of marriageable age. Augustine, however, was less happy. Realizing that sexual restraint was not his cup of tea, he made the famous pronouncement, "Give me chastity, but not yet!" and took another concubine.

A visit from two soldiers (who had pledged themselves to austerity under the influence of the hermit St. Anthony in Egypt) made Augustine see the intellectual weakness of skepticism. He turned to Plotinus, and was a Neo-Platonist (so he says) from that time forward. Then he read, in the Epistles of Paul, a sentence that ended his chastity problem. "Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in clambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying: but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provisions for the flesh in the lusts thereof." That Easter Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, baptized him, and he moved back to Africa unmarried. His mother died on the trip, his

beloved son Adeodatus soon after, at age seventeen. The Church now for Augustine became his preoccupation--one almost wants to say his obsession. He became a priest in 391, Bishop of Hippo five years later. At age 42, he was set for life. He never left Hippo, and began an intense correspondence with other bishops of the Church. Two hundred and fifty letters of that time are preserved. Twenty-two books of De Civitate Dei were begun after the sack of Rome by Alaric the Visigoth in 410. Then there were the Confessions, the most famous confessions ever written, in which Augustine insists that evil must be inherited from Adam, that all humanity is in a state of moral death, to be saved only through baptism. As for baptism, Augustine insists that it must be applied to the newborn, since the newborn is guilty via association--via sex, that built-in demon, that depraved activity of human nature. In my opinion, we have not come very far from the Garden, from Genesis. I find in all this a pathos bordering on the obscene. For a man who loved his illegitimate son when he died--who wept for him-- to regard all children as depraved, is unconscionable. It is as if Augustine has taken that mutinous member of his body and is beating us over the head with itóworse, blaming little babies for his own lust. Perhaps he would have been better off if he had followed Origenís solution. Augustine was against marriage because he was against concupiscence, against flesh because it was evil. He became Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, rival of Saint Jerome in Bethlehem--two pillars of the Church who faced each other across the Middle East--one (ironically?) who would become a Champion of Chastity, the other, Jerome, the great scholar and author of the Latin Vulgate version of Scripture, the official Bible of the Catholic Church. The Middle East was fast becoming a Christian Holy Land, and the Church a battleground for squabbles over Original Sin (what else?), with POWER as the prize.


Now we come to the crux of the matter, the Super Bowl of the argument. Now we come to an Irish monk (who else?) who would confirm all those beliefs of my childhood. Some say his origin is unknown, but that he was a Celt, and he did come from either Scotland or Ireland. In any case, his name was Pelagius, and he lived from A.D. 360 until he disappeared from view about 420. He was in Rome by 405, the date of his earliest writing. He rejected the "human weakness" excuse for immorality. He argued instead for the powers of human nature, insisting that manís free will at each moment of life, no matter what the previous career of the individual has been, is able to choose good or evil. He saw Augustineís "total depravity" of man as putting man in bondage, as cutting the sinew of all human effort and throwing on God the blame which really belongs to man. His motto was "If I ought, I can."

Succinct as a proverb, his commentaries might not have drawn attention except for his student, Coelestius, a young Italian lawyer. When Rome was sacked by the Goths in 410, he went with Pelagius to North Africa, where Pelagius met with Augustine. It couldnít have been a cordial meeting, for Pelagius sailed almost at once to Palestine, hoping for a better reception. In the meantime, young Coelestius stayed in Carthage, hoping to be ordained. Here the "one-upmanship" of the religious bureaucrats reminds me of some faculty meetings I have enjoyed in the halls of Academe. The Bishop of Carthage listened to Coelestius, then called a synod where Paulinus, a deacon of Carthage, charged Coelestius with six errors. Here they are (with my comments in parenthesis):

1. Adam would have died even he had not eaten the apple. (TRUE! Or else why was God so afraid that he would eat of the Tree of life and become a god--i.e., immortal?)

2. Adamís sin injured himself, not the human race. (TRUE! Where in Genesis is there a mention of heredity?)

3. Newborn babies are in the same condition as Adam before the fall. (TRUE! Again, there is no mention of heredity.)

4. The whole human race does not die because of Adamís sin, nor will it rise again because of the resurrection of Christ. (Again, the absence of the heredity argument makes the first item true, and as for the resurrection problem, it does seem a bit haughty of man to assume a resurrection for himself, as if he will piggy-back on the divinity of Christ.)

5. The law gives entrance to heaven as well as the gospel. (TRUE! This gives the lie to those people of questionable sanctity who claim to be "born again" simply because they go to church!)

6. Even before Christ there were men without sin. (John the Baptist was a good guy, wasnít he?)

There was also mentioned a #7, "Unbaptized infants have eternal life," which was perhaps the strongest item on the list because it challenged Augustine directly, and opened a question upon which the Church --with its "limbo" for unbaptized infants (like some half-way house)-- had never satisfactorily settled.

Now the squabbling began in earnest. The synod condemned Coelestius, then excommunicated him. After a futile appeal to Rome, this student of Pelagius went to Ephesus, in Greek Ionia, and received ordination. In the meantime his teacher was living unmolested in Palestine, until, in 415, a Spanish priest came from Augustine to warn Jerome against Pelagius. So now we have the two "greats," Augustine and Jerome, in the fray. Jerome cited Pelagius before John, Bishop of Jerusalem, with Pelagiusís idea that man can be without sin, if only he desires it. In other words, because man has FREE WILL. The result of this confrontation was a deadlock. The prosecution broke down. A few months later another synod was called, with fourteen bishops speaking different languages. Jerome called it "miserable," but it gave him what he wanted: Pegalius refuted Coelestius. Yet when Pelagius said that divine grace consists only in free will, and that man is able to live without sin and keep the commandments if God gives him the ability, the synod let Pegalius off the hook. Augustine argued immediately that Pelagius had used language that was "ambiguous."

If interpreted by Pegaliusís previous statement concerning free will, it involved a denial of what the Church understood by DIVINE GRACE. The result of this charge was another synod, which now opposed Pegalius, and in 418 Bishop Zosimus of Rome condemned his opinions. Nineteen Italian bishops refused to follow, but even their zeal could not help when the Eastern Church agreed with Rome. Pelagius disappears after 420. His student Coelestius was still at Constantinople in 428.

But the story doesnít end there. Something had happened which could not be ignored. A challenge had been laid down, with all the intensity of a dare. Pelagius had insisted that, at each moment of life, no matter what the history of the individual has been, the will is able to choose good or evil. We are born with no bias toward good or evil (ut sine virtute, ita et sine vitio). We are uninjured by Adamís sin, except as his example may influence us. "Original" sin DOES NOT EXIST, since sin is the result of free will and not of nature. If it were of nature then all sin could be blamed on God, who made our nature. But just here is the major problem facing Pelagius: If man has the natural ability to be righteous, what becomes of Grace, of the aid of the Holy Spirit, of priests, of Christianity? Pelagius was challenging the raison díetre of the Church itself--indeed, of that old job security for its clerics. Gotta need that Grace, canít depend on yourself. Gotta need that Church, to keep it in business.

Yet the synodís arguments against Pelagius seemed valid, if academic. Some argued that he confused the denial of original sin (in the sense of inherited guilt) with the denial of inherited nature (since manís nature was purely natural, not necessarily inherited). Doesnít this cause Pelagius to vacillate in the use of the word "Grace"? In his most careful statements he appears to allow to grace everything but the initial determining movement towards salvation. He expects the unassisted human will to have the power to accept the salvation of Christ. HENCE (the synod said), HE DEPARTS FROM THE CREED, because he implies that human will can take the initiative in a personís salvation, when the Church had always insisted that it is the DIVINE will that saves man. But, one can object, isnít this the real meaning of Christianity--that the cross gave man the responsibility of choice? The Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevskyís Brothers Karamazov--always the cynic-- solves the dilemma when he says that, since man wasnít ready for such a burden as free will, he turned the job over to the Church. Augustine had answered his critics with the assertion that when God ordains an end He also ordains the means. The result of all this was a split in the Church, sometimes called "Semi- Pelagianism," a middle way between the harshness of Augustine and the free-will beliefs of Pelagius, with monks arguing that God gives grace, but man keeps responsibility. This belief that divine will and human will cooperate in the destiny of man has quietly survived, even though Pelagius is all but forgotten.


But not his ideas of free will, or his rejection of Original Sin. Those ideas resurfaced in the philosophy of a Jew named Spinoza, who lived in Holland from 1632 to 1677. His family had fled there in 1492 when the good Christian monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, expelled the Jews from Spain. Holland in those days was the closest thing to religious freedom in Europe (the Dutch were more interested in  making money than in burning heretics). In Amsterdam Spinoza must have breathed the fresh air from the Zuider Zee, or watched the skaters laughing as they sped down the canals. He would have none of this vengeful God separating man from nature, much less burdening his creature with sin. For Spinoza God is Casua sui, a spirit which is the cause of itself. God is certainly not sitting on a cloud somewhere and for something better to do, decides to zap matter into being. For Spinoza, thatís where the whole problem starts, because once matter is created apart from nature, man must ask WHY. "Why did You create this universe in the first place?" The minuteman asks WHY, he is asking for a REASON. Since God is LORD up there on a cloud, the reason must be to serve him. The minute you become obligated to serve, a great ledger appears in the sky, with two columns, like the profit/loss record of any shopkeeper. Or the grade book of any teacher. Now, when you make sales or grades, you need JUDGMENT. Who did well today? Who obeyed? Who disobeyed? The minute you have judgment, you need REWARD AND PUNISHMENT. You need HELL. Itís as simple as that. And you start with a sin that canít be gotten rid of except by some SPECIAL DEAL, either from God or one of his shopkeepers.

Needless to say, Spinoza was excommunicated from the Amsterdam synagogue. When Spinoza lived in Amsterdam Rembrandt was painting there. Rembrandt often went to the old Jewish quarter for his Biblical models. We have no likeness of Spinoza; nobody knows what he looked like. Perhaps he exists in one of those paintings. I thought of him when I was living in a pickup truck camper on an abandoned farm in Kentucky, where my husband and I took down and reassembled three pre-Civil War log cabins to make a house. Without electricity, we would listen at night to the news on a battery radio. One night the announcer said that the elders of the Amsterdam synagogue had just voted NOT to reinstate Spinoza into their congregation. Outside the stars shone brighter, and the incessant call of the whippoorwills rang clear. I was sure that Spinoza, wherever he was, could have cared less. The rabbis were playing their old job security game again.

No part of the Bible can be read apart from the history of its time. The Book of the Prophet Isaiah (written down c. 700 B.C.) is no exception. Isaiah lived in Judah, the Southern Kingdom. In 734 Judah was invaded by the allied kings of Israel (the Northern Kingdom) and Damascus, who in turn were conquered by the western march of the Assyrian armies. Then, on this eternal chess board of the Middle East, Sargon II usurped the Assyrian throne and completely destroyed Israel in 721 B.C.

Not to be outdone, his son Sennacherib devastated Judah eight years later. What was Isaiah to do to help his people? He tried walking the tightrope of neutrality, on the one hand blaming the sufferings of a conquered people on their own faithlessness, which had caused Yahweh to use the Assyrians as "the rod of mine anger" (10:5), but at the same time promising them that Yahweh would never allow his Chosen People to be destroyed (31:5), by allowing the forgiveness of at least a Remnant of the people of Israel who "shall return...."(10:21-22). He will do this by sending a "righteous king" (32:1) for a glorious future for Israel.

It is well to stop here a moment and remind ourselves that there is no indication that this future is anywhere but on this earth, and specifically in the land of Israel. Nor is this "Righteous Leader" a Messianic savior. Within him is the hard core of the old familiar vengeful Yahweh, with fire and smoke from the volcano:

"...and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked, and righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins." (Isaiah 11:4) There is nothing ethereal, metaphysical or other-worldly here. The emphasis, as the editors of the Dartmouth Bible state clearly, is concentrated on concrete immediacy, what "was in store for Israel and for the world." This righteous king would inaugurate on earth a reign of justice and peace for all--answering the desperate need of a nation struggling for release from bondage, of individuals seeking an escape from rage--in short, this king would provide an antidote for revenge, a haven of hope for this day, this moment.

Something happens in Chapter 40. Most scholars believe a change of authors occurred, separated by two centuries. Assyria has fallen and Nebuchadnezzar, the Chaldean, rules, and in 586 B.C. orders the destruction of Jerusalem and the deportation of the Jews to Babylon. Twenty-four years later, after Nebuchadnezzarís death, the Persian king Cyrus conquered the Chaldean Empire and swept westward to the Aegean Sea. Cyrus was more than a conqueror; he was a statesman who allowed his subjects to have their own religion, and, in 538 B.C., permitted the Jews to come home from Babylon. We have in Chapter 40 not only a change of author but a change in climate--both political, emotional and cultural. Whoever this anonymous author was--some call him the "Nameless Prophet," he joyously joins the Israelis for their return to Palestine. The righteous king of Isaiah stops smiting with his rod and becomes Godís "Righteous Servant": "Behold, my servant shall deal prudently, he shall be exalted and extolled, and be very high." Some scholars think that this servant does not refer to an individual, but to the whole nation: "Thou, Israel, art my servant" and "Thou art my servant, O Israel" (Isaiah II 41:8 and 49:3).

Yahweh is no longer a frightening, avenging force but a creator, directing all events of past and future. The "nameless prophet" who writes Isaiah II speaks of forgiveness and hope, courage and comfort, and creates the most lyric, poetic book in the Bible. He prepares the way for Zechariah, a priest who comes home to Palestine from Babylon to find the ruined temple destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, and begins the process of rebuilding. But the Book of Zechariah, like the Book of Isaiah, is a puzzle, containing two parts very dissimilar, indicating, perhaps, the presence of two authors. The first part is straightforward and specific, the last becomes full of fantastic visions, almost apocalyptic with mysterious symbolism. It is in Zechariah that we get the King coming with salvation "lowly, and riding upon an ass." He "shall speak peace unto the heathen: and his dominion shall be from sea even to sea, and from the river even to the ends of the earth." Then: " the Lord their God shall save them in that day as the flock of his people....For how great is his goodness, and how great is his beauty?"

The Book of Daniel carries on this enigmatic vision. Pretending to be an autobiography of a person living in Babylon in 605 B.C., when Nebuchadnezzar became king, it mixes eye-witness accounts with weird dreams. Four of its passages are written not in Hebrew but in Aramaic, the vernacular of Palestinian Jews living at the end of the pre-Christian era. Scholars date much of this story to the years 167-165 B.C., thus making Daniel the latest book of the Bible. Why is the dating of Daniel so interesting? First, because it is the only place in the Old Testament (Daniel 9:25 and 26) where the word Messiah is used, and secondly, because the history recorded in the Old Testament extends only to the re-establishment of the Jews in Jerusalem at the end of the fifth century B.C. (That same century, remember, when Chapter One was written in Genesis!) It would be four hundred years before Jewish history is picked up again in the New Testament. Those four hundred years are called "the silent centuries," although within that time the fourteen books of the Apocrypha (called so because their authorship was questionable for the scholars of the time) were written. So we have no totally accepted biblical record of Judea from the end of the fifth century B.C. until the writings of Daniel in that last century before the Christian era.

Tremendous changes had occurred in Jewish history since the capture of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C.and the 48-year bondage in Babylon. First, when Cyrus permitted them to return to Palestine in 528 B.C., many remained in Babylonia and prospered, becoming known as part of the "Eastern Dispersion," or Diaspora. The rest fled westward, to settle in cities bordering the Mediterranean. A hundred years later Judea was still a tiny part of the mighty Persian Empire, and it continued to be a petty province until Alexanderís conquests in 332 B.C. By then the Jews of the Western Diaspora were thoroughly Hellenized by Greek culture spread by Alexander. After his death in 323 B.C., Palestine was under the control of Ptolemy in Egypt, and then by Syria, under another of Alexanderís generals, Seleucus, until he was defeated by the Syrian king Antiochus III in 198 B.C. These 125 years between Alexander and Antiochus III were relatively peaceful for the Hebrews. Then in 168 B.C. Antiochus III was replaced by Antiochus IV, who, encouraged by the Hellenized Jews of Jerusalem, determined to do nothing less than destroy Judaism. I defer here to the editors of The Dartmouth Bible (p. 712), who tell this story so well:

In the year 168 B.C. he erected in the Temple an altar to the Greek Zeus on which swine were sacrificed, and all over Palestine he enforced the same policy. His officers leveled the walls of the city, banned Scripture rolls and burned those discovered. Mothers permitting the circumcision of their sons were hanged with their babies dangling from their necks. Thousands who refused to yield (though many apostates are recorded) were slaughtered or sold into slavery and others fled the country. Such brutality at last led to revolt under the leadership of a local priest, Mattathias, and his five sons. This heroic struggle for freedom, against overwhelming odds, is graphically told in the Books of Maccabees....In the early months of this rebellion, it is believed, but before the rededication of the cleansed Temple in December, 165 B.C., Daniel was written.

No wonder the Book of Daniel is full of vision, of a future full of reward by God for valiant resistance to tyranny, and the emphasis on a Messiah who shall restore the earth to holiness--even unto everlasting life. The flow and rhythm of these words from the Book of Daniel pull a reader along at a breathless pace:

...and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time: and at that time thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book. And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness, as the stars for ever and ever.

(Daniel 12:2-4)

Although a Messiah is mentioned in Daniel, there is nothing to suggest that he might be the means of canceling Original Sin--unless that mention of "restoring the earth to holiness" can be taken literally, as well as the possibility of everlasting life. However, in Daniel the idea that suffering as the Divine retribution for wickedness is still very much intact (Remember those who will experience shame everlasting). As much as we would like to avoid it, one more problem confronts us as we examine the Tar Baby of Original Sin: the character of God.


In The Power of Myth Joseph Campbell writes: "One problem with Yahweh, as they used to say in the old Christian Gnostic texts, is that he forgot he was a metaphor. He thought he was a fact. And when he said, ĎI am God,í a voice was heard to say, ĎYou are mistaken, Samael.í ĎSamaelí means Ďblind godí: blind to the infinite Light of which he is a local historical manifestation. This is known as the blasphemy of Jehovah--that he thought he was God."

Maybe this is the reason for his insecurity, his need for such explosions, spewing forth destruction like lava from Mount Sinai? At times his vengeance seems downright stupid. In Exodus Moses has to remind him that He has just rescued his Chosen People from Egypt--why, then, just because they have worshiped a golden calf, must he kill them? Ah, well, Moses, God seems to say (like some Neanderthal stumbling out of his cave), Duuuh--O.K., Iíll kill just three thousand of you. Why is he so jealous, angry, and paranoid? He is scared to death that his people will worship another god. Evidently there were plenty of other gods around--and he truly, truly believes in them.

He especially believes in that golden calf. And therein lies a secret into the true character of Yahweh. It is not just a calf. It is the goddess worshipped by the Canaanites. It is WOMAN. In Yahwehís male-god-oriented tribe that female goddess represents everything dangerous to that tribeís survival. It must be destroyed, annihilated, wiped out. Just listen to these words from Deuteronomy. They are on fire with hatred:

Thou shalt surely smite the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, destroying it utterly, and all that is therein, and the cattle thereof, with the edge of the sword.

And thou shalt gather all the spoil of it into the midst of the street thereof, and shalt burn with fire the city, and all the spoil thereof every whit, for the Lord thy God: and it shall be an heap for ever; it shall not be built again. (Deuteronomy 13:15-16)

Things get worse in Chapter Twenty. Here we have marching orders from God-the-Ultimate-General, with specific commands directing murder and destruction:

And if it will make no peace with thee, but will make war against thee, then thou shalt besiege it:

And when the Lord thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword: But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the Lord thy God hath given thee. (Deuteronomy 20: 12-14)

He ends the tirade in Chapter 20, Verse 16: "...thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth." This is viciousness bordering on insanity. What have the Canaanites done to deserve such damnation? Why is Yahweh raging against them? The answer might be found in their goddess--in the nature of woman.

The snake, with its shedding skin suggestive of reincarnation, has been, in most cultures, a positive symbol, as if, by defying death, it becomes eternally alive. And more than this, it represents the sacred power of life. Woman, too, in the old matriarchal cultures, reflected the deepest sources of life. But now, with Eve taking the apple from the Serpent and giving this incarnation of evil to Adam, Woman is now identified with sin, and the snake is now connected with death, not life. When Bill Moyers asks Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth, "Does the idea of woman as sinner appear in other mythologies?" Campbell answers: "No, I donít know of it elsewhere. The closest thing to it would be perhaps Pandora with Pandoraís box, but thatís not sin, thatís just trouble."

It has often been said that people invent their gods from their own needs--and more often than not with their own personality traits. Like their God, the wandering Semitic tribe called Hebrew were nomads needing real estate--and therefore a god who could be a real estate dealer--as long as the real estate belonged to somebody else. Then all is fair in love and war, with the orders to rape, kill and utterly destroy coming from the Man Upstairs. These landless nomads were naturally insecure. They not only needed land, but an uncontested deed, a source of power to protect oneís borders, oneís inheritance. They needed a Chosen Land for a Chosen People. We find that need more than satisfied in Deuteronomy, Chapter Eleven:

Every place whereon the soles of your feet shall tread shall be yours: from the wilderness and Lebanon, from the river, the river Euphrates, even unto the uttermost sea shall your coast be.

There shall no man be able to stand before you: for the Lord your God shall lay the fear of you and the dread of you upon all the land that ye shall tread upon, as he hath said unto you....

Are they not on the other side of Jordan, by the way where the sun goeth down, in the land of the Canaanites, which dwell in the champaign over against Gigal, beside the plains of Moreh?

For ye shall pass over Jordan to go in to possess the land which the Lord your God giveth you, and ye shall possess it, and dwell therein.

"On the other side of Jordan, by the way where the sun goeth down." The West Bank. God help the Palestinians!

When we read of the Inquisition, of the atrocities of the Crusaders, of the slaughter of the American Indians, we think of all this as in the past, that surely such a vengeful, ravenous God could not be the one we worship every Sunday. Or we conveniently separate the two, even when eyewitnesses tell us otherwise. In Jared Diamondís anthropological study of human societies, Guns, Germs, and Steel, we read with repugnance of the trickery, in the name of God, that Pizarro used to eliminate the Incas. If we did not have the words of his companions, including his brothers Hernando and Pedro, we could hardly believe that such treachery, such butchery, existed in a culture calling itself "civilized." Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. You are about to be transported back to November 16, 1532, that day at Cajamarca when the conquistadors congratulated themselves on being good Christians. What they are about to do "will be to the glory of God, because they have conquered and brought to our holy Catholic Faith so vast a number of heathens, aided by his holy guidanceÖ." The account goes on:

"Governor Pizarro now sent Friar Vicernte de Valverde to go speak to Atahuallpa in the name of God and of the King of Spain that Atahuallpa subject himself to the law of our Lord Jesus Christ and to the service of His Majesty the King of Spain. Advancing with a cross in one hand and the Bible in the other hand, and going among the Indian troops up to the place where Atahuallpa was, the Friar thus address him:

ĎI am a Priest of God, and I teach Christians the things of God, and in like manner I come to teach you. What I teach is that which God says to us in this Book. Therefore, on the part of God and of the Christians, I beseech you to be their friend, for such is Godís will, and it will be for your good.í"

The Inca Atahuallpa took the book, then threw it to the ground.

"The Friar returned to Pizarro, shouting, ĎCome out! Come out, Christians! Come at these enemy dogs who reject the things of God.

That tyrant has thrown my book of holy law to the ground!....March out against him, for I absolve you!í

"The governor then gave the signal to Candia, who began to fire off the guns. At the same time the trumpets were sounded, and the armored Spanish troops, both cavalry and infantry, sallied forth out of their hiding places straight to the mass of unarmed Indians crowding the square, giving the Spanish battle cry, íSantiago!í

....The Indians were so filled with fear that they climbed on top of one another, formed mounds, and suffocated each other.

Since they were unarmed, they were attacked without danger to any Christian. The cavalry rode them down, killing and wounding, and following in pursuit. The infantry made so good an assault on those that remained that in a short time most of them were put to the sword.

"If night had not come on, few out of the more than 40,000 Indian troops would have been left alive. Six or seven thousand Indians lay dead, and many more had their arms cut off and other wounds....

Truly, it was not accomplished by our own forces, for there were so few of us. It was by the grace of God, which is great."

"It was by the grace of God, which is great." The slaughter of unarmed Indians, who came out to meet these strangers, with their swords, guns, and horses. What an insufferably self-righteous account, to be rendered again and again, across the globe, from Teotihuacan to Wounded Knee. As for the Inca Atahuallpa, the absolute monarch of the largest and most advanced state in the New World, he was a dignified, quietly defiant prisoner. As instructed, he filled a room with gold. That was not enough. Promised his life if he accepts the Christian faith, he allows himself to be baptized. That is not enough. His sentence is reduced from being burned at the stake to being strangled by a garote. Pizarroís idea of Christian charity is satisfied.


Who are Christians? Does original sin have anything to do with a definition? On the front page of our local paper two weeks before Palm Sunday, this question was answered by some local ministers. The Episcopal said that baptism "refers back to the Old Testament sign of circumcision. From the beginning, God chooses his people, including children." Where is Original Sin? The good Episcopal priest continues: "God told Abraham to circumcise his son as a sign of the covenant he was making with Abraham and his descendants. Baptism in the New Testament replaces the Old Testament act of circumcision as Godís covenant sign." Still no mention of Original Sin. Is baptism, like circumcision, merely an ID badge, like the "dog tags" worn by GIís in World War II? The Methodists avoid using the word "sin." According to the newspaper, they "view the baptism of infants as a New Testament sign of Godís covenant with his people." The Lutherans confront the problem squarely: "We believe through baptism a child is put in a right relationship with God and original sin is washed away." The Catholics priest refers obliquely to the Fall, after emphasizing membership in the church: "Through baptism, a child becomes a member of the church. Baptism is entrance or key to salvation...." So baptism is a sign, like circumcision, of being a Christian, a membership card, if you will, a kind of credit card for future grace? Was it merely that for Atahuallpa who, once he "accepted the faith," was given the lesser execution of strangling (rather than being burned at the stake) for his compliance and "conversion"?

One feels that, surely, conversion must go deeper than that. And, unfortunately, for some believers, those subterranean forces of Yahweh are still at work, underneath any mere "sign" or "membership." I had the misfortune recently of having a delightful conversation with a little woman with bright eyes and sweet smile, an Italian-American who spoke nostalgically of her immigrant father, who left his vineyard in Italy to work in a Pennsylvania coal mine. All his life he longed for the sunshine, and in his off hours tended a magnificent garden for his wife and ten children. The woman I spoke with was one of those children, who in her teen years decided to leave the Catholic Church for some minor Protestant sect in her neighborhood. Her mother joined, too, but her aunt refused. "Then one day," the little woman said in a hushed voice, "this aunt came to our house, all crippled, hardly able to walk. She had Alzheimerís disease!" Her face broke into a delighted smile. "But you canít mean...." I said. "Oh, yes," she nodded. "He is a loving God, but He is a just God!"

I sat stunned. She actually believed that Yahweh--or Jehovah--or Whoeveróhad given this woman a dreaded disease because she had refused to change churches!

If this god was so just, I wanted to argue, why didnít he do the same for Hitler? For Stalin? Why did he pick on some poor little woman who refused to leave the Catholic Church (that haven of the Inquisition and Pizarro)? Unless (and this rebellious thought came to me) the silent outrage mankind feels but cannot speak against Original Sin had caused my little friend to pass the buck to God. God now represents humanityís need for a scapegoat so they wonít have to ask the central question: Was Original Sin necessary? And even if it was, did it make any sense to pass it on to all the descendants of Adam and Eve? Furthermore, this is a god who solves all problems in His own inscrutable way--and by calling his way "inscrutable," we let ourselves off the hook. We canít understand, and we donít try.

Nowhere in literature do I find a better explanation of this situation than in Dostoevskyís The Brothers Karamazov. In that novel a chapter called "The Grand Inquisitor" tells with great irony the story of Christís return to Seville, Spain, fifteen hundred years after His death. He comes unobserved and unidentified, during the Inquisition; in fact, "on the day before almost a hundred heretics had, ad majorem gloriam Dei, been burnt... in a magnificent auto da fe, in the presence of the king, the court, the knights, the cardinals, the most charming ladies of the court, and the whole population of Seville." There is something strangely compelling about this newcomer. The people are drawn to him. "The sun of love burns in His heart, light and power shine from His eyes, and their radiance, shed on the people, stirs their hearts with responsive love." An old blind man in the crowd feels His presence and calls out: "O Lord, heal me and I shall see Thee!" He is healed, and the crowd weeps and sings. The mother of a dead daughter, whose coffin is at the door of the cathedral, throws herself at His feet, begging that He raise her from the dead, which

He does. The news spreads, and the ancient Grand Inquisitor, ninety years old, has Him arrested. In His cell the fumbling, feeble Inquisitor lashes out at Him for giving man, by His sacrifice on the cross, the gift of freedom to believe. But, the old man assures Him, although people still think they are free, "they have brought their freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet." Why? To be happy. Man was born a rebel, and rebels canít be happy. Only those who forfeit their freedom--which they canít understand, anyway, with its terrible burden of choice--can be happy. They can easily be bribed to give it up in return for bread--the comforts and conveniences of this earth. "They will be convinced, too," the old man goes on, "that they can never be free for they are weak, vicious, worthless and rebellious." They are suffering, in other words, from Original Sin. "In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet, and say to us, ĎMake us your slaves, but feed us.í"

Christís big mistake, insists the Grand Inquisitor, was when He refused to come down from the cross and thus show, with a miracle, that He was truly God. He craved "faith given freely, not based on miracle." The old man brags that the Church has made no such mistake. Since men are "weak and vile," the Church has taught them that "itís not the free judgment of their hearts, not love that matters, but a mystery which they must follow blindly, even against their conscience....We shall tell them that every sin will be expiated, if it is done with our permission...and the punishment for these sins we take upon ourselves, and they will adore us as their saviours who have taken on themselves their sins before God." They will tell the priests their most painful secrets. "And they will be glad to believe our answer, for it will save them from the great anxiety and terrible agony they endure at present in making a free decision for themselves." Beyond the grave "they will find nothing but death. But we shall keep the secret, and for their happiness we shall allure them with the reward of heaven and eternity." Thus Dostoevsky, in this remarkable story, has mankind exchange his freedom for an empty miracle promising everlasting life. Original Sin has come to be a bargaining chip for power over conscience and hope-- even, in the fires of an auto da fe, over life itself.

What a strange story! Although iconoclastic and fictional, it explores at its core the hard truth that much of Christian doctrine was often excessively fervent in its application of misguided zeal. Underneath these enigmatic theological twists and turns, Dostoevsky may be struggling with something very like Brer Rabbitís Tar Baby-- a single question, "Where did the Grand Inquisitor get his attitude toward man, that he is a vile and stupid rebel too morally weak to take on the responsibility of freedom?" One must answer: "From the Garden. From Original Sin."

Has the concept of Original Sin really been that significant in the development of Western culture? It has certainly left its signature on Renaissance art. When I taught a course in art history my students were amused when I pointed out to them, in Rogier van der Weydenís Descent from the Cross, painted in 1435, a skull in the left- hand corner. It seemed incongruous--almost an absurdity-- in this scene of great pathos as Christís body is being lowered from the cross . Yet, the more you study the picture, as your eye follows the soft shadows and glowing colors, your attention is drawn to the grief-stricken gesture of Maryís open, empty hand. Just below it rests this skull, which, if it had eyes, would be staring up at her. It has no jaw, just a row of broken upper teeth. It is as if the anguish of a final cry, so powerful that it has blown that part of his face away, is still there--and, although silent, can still be heard. (Perhaps heard even more because it is silent...?) This is the skull of Adam, which had, by this time, become a theological trademark for artistic crucifixions. The Dutchman Hieronymus Bosch included Adam in his Crucifixion forty-five years later. He, too, places Adamís skull near Mary, this time adding a few scattered bones. Could one of those bones have belonged to Eve?

What are we supposed to be reminded of? That sin is forever? And inherited sin is deeper and more far-reaching than forever--an unblottable, unforgivable pain? That one disobedience against Yahweh brought this torture onto humanity for all eternity? What was that disobedience? Curiosity. Wanting to learn. Wanting to learn about good and evil. But donít we try to teach our children right from wrong? Could knowing right from wrong be so bad? Enough to call down on oneís whole family for generations the unspeakable calamity of damnation? How could I tell my students--(of all people!)--that LEARNING IS BAD? In the Book of Job, whenever Job asks "Why?" God zaps him with misfortune. Finally, at the end of much misery and undeserved punishment (for Job was a good man), God answers (as one of my students might) "Thatís just the way the cookie crumbles." Now if Job was written in the fifth century B.C., as many scholars think, we have a problem. What of the Greek influence in Genesis? The Greeks were always seeking answers, in their philosophy, their science. Suddenly, I realized why our culture is so schizophrenic, torn between the disparate needs of science and theology. Science asks "Why?" But when you dare to ask Yahweh that question you may be risking eternal doom. "God is loving--but JUST," the little Italian woman said. In what way just? To punish evil? Or to justify evil? ("Itís Godís will.") Just because we might reject original sin doesnít mean we reject God. Why do we torture ourselves with questions? Maybe that is the definition of a Tar Baby--a bundle of unanswered questions.

Now, at last, we come to the most interesting question. If God created everything He must have created Satan. From certain events in the Garden, we suspect that Satan might just be the first Tar Baby, for God set him in the Garden much as Brer Fox set Brer Rabbitís nemesis in the middle of the road. Is Adam then Brer Rabbit? Well, not hardly. Adam is not cunning enough. Nor is Eve. But Satanís helper, the Snake, is. It is the Serpent who takes on not only the qualities of a Tar Baby but of the Trickster common to so many myths. Carl Jung, in Man and His Symbols, speaks of the many animal manifestations of the Trickster in different cultures--the rabbit, the fox, even the monkey. Why not a snake? "Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field," we are told in Genesis. Note that it is to Eve that the snake addresses himself, asking her to verify Godís invitation to eat of every tree in the garden. He knows, if she is curious, that she will remember the ONE tree they canít use, lest they die. She does, and he holds out the first bribe--to her feminine ambition. God doesnít want you to eat of it, he says, because He knows that if you do, you will "be as gods, knowing good and evil." And the rest is history.

Yet underneath this story is another, perhaps even more profound, for it affects us daily. What have we learned in the Garden about the nature of man? First of all that he is a rebel. He is conniving and clever, but not nearly as clever as he thinks. There is only one way to deal with him, as God knows. CONTROL. Not just control, but control through fear. Fear of hell, of losing Paradise. Fear of a monstrous, vengeful, unforgiving Controller who never forgets, who will seek you out (even in the belly of a whale) and slaughter you, your children, destroying everything you have. A Heavenly IRS. One thing this rebel must be convinced of: There is no place to hide.

This rebel is also selfish and self-indulgent. He seeks satisfaction for his desires and when he is caught, plays the not-so-clever game of blaming somebody else. Such a game is an insult to the Great Controller. But through these shenanigans the Controller has learned one thing, and it will be the secret weapon, the ultimate triumph over this would-be little god: Adam is a slave to his own desires, his own curiosity. Like Eve he wants to know--not for wisdom, but for power.

That desire will be the clue for all future victories over this devious, self-centered eternal adolescent ruled by his taste buds. And his ego. And his fear of independence, of standing on his own feet, for at heart, although a rebel, he is a wimp. Let him think you will take care of him lavishly and forever and he will obey only you. He will gladly agree, because the alternative has been firmly embedded in his mind. The fear of hell comes in countless disguises--failure in love, with money, reputation--loss of power. The list is endless. He will forget that he has the power within himself to solve his own problems.

And forget to arm himself against the ultimate invader who can conquer him--another of his own species, a man like himself. We are about to meet the biggest Trickster of them all, another eternal adolescent, who, like the Snake, is a follower of the Lord of Darkness. Tricky as Brer Rabbit, he wears a residue of sticky tar ("Concern for the workers, your welfare, your future") that conceals contempt. He will destroy you with your own desires before he bounds away like a rabbit. And, like a rabbit, he has been multiplying ever since.


by courtesy & © 2002 Clara Rising

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