Genesis and Original Sin
Original sin is, as the name suggests, to do with origins. What were those origins? Science can tell us. We and the chimpanzees split off from a common chimpanzee-like ancestor only six million years ago. A huge amount has been found out now about chimpanzees, much if it through the direct observations of scientists like de Waal and Jane Goodall. Jane Goodall, in particular, pioneered first hand study of these significantly interesting creatures – significant because they are so like ourselves – by actually living among them in the wild. When she first went to Gombe she found peaceable and gentle creatures living in stable communities. This was the more remarkable in that, despite the ebullience of male hierarchies, in most primate societies stability is founded not on male hierarchies but female ones, because males leave their natal troupes while females stay. With chimpanzees it is the other way round. They are dominated by unstable, quarrelling males. How, then, was it that the chimpanzee societies at Gombe in the early sixties were so stable? Jane Goodall thought that the extraordinary devotion of mothers to infants was of great importance. Remarkably, her accounts parallel those of Winnicott and Bowlby, who found that stability in human adults is founded on identification with the mother in infancy. But, as in human beings, such a stability founded on affection rather than social hierarchy is extremely delicately balanced and fragile.
In 1973 the situation at Gombe changed dramatically. Almost overnight Goodall’s gentle chimpanzees became aggressive and violent genocidal killers. The delicate psychological structures within they had lived had collapsed. The parallel with human history can hardly be missed. In Rwanda and Cambodia and the Balkans , and in so many other places, people who had lived peaceably with their neighbours for years suddenly turned on them with the greatest violence, as if they were driven by demons. This is what original sin is, it is behaving not like human beings but like algorithmically driven chimpanzees, and not even like chimpanzees but like chimpanzees who were themselves not behaving in ways appropriate to their own species. The point to grasp about original sin is that it is not personally sinful. There is no such thing as positive evil, says Aquinas, only an absence of good. Original sin is the collapse of delicate behavioral structures that belong to our species and their debasement into behaviours that are characteristic of less highly developed evolutionary forms. It is hardly surprising, for we developed from them and still share their genes with them.
Because animals compete aggressively with each other at more primitive evolutionary levels, their aggression is contained by appeasement instincts. Male wolves, for example, fight ferociously for females, but a losing competitor rolls over and displays his underbelly, and his former opponent will then urinate over him in the most friendly manner. The price we, and to a lesser extent the chimpanzees, have paid for rationality is the loss of these instincts, which explains why we are so violent. But this collapse back into more primitive behaviours doesn’t necessarily have to take the form of mass genocide. Compulsive philandering, vain exhibitionism and devious scheming to do down rivals are all behaviours highly characteristic of chimpanzees. If there is anything atheists get upset about it is original sin. How can an innocent little baby be sullied by an evil that it has not itself committed? It is a misconception. If there is anything that science tells us Christian doctrine has got right it is original sin. We inherited it from our chimpanzee-like ancestor.
We profoundly misunderstand the story of Adam and Eve. In the popular version of the story God created Adam and then took one of his ribs and made woman, which explains why she is inferior to man. She not only sinned herself but prevailed on Adam to sin too, and God punished both of them by expelling them from Eden. But this is not how the liturgy sees the story. On the contrary, it greets it with cries of joy: O felix culpa, O happy fault. Nor is it the way the Bible tells the story either. Adam was not created by God first at all. The first human creation was ha-adama, literally ‘the earth creature’ that had no sex. Because the earth creature was lonely God sent it into a deep sleep and turned it into two, while mysteriously still remaining one. Man and woman were created at the same time. ‘In the image of God s(h)e created him, male and female s(h)e created them.’ Male makes no sense, Genesis tells us, except in terms of female and vice versa. They have moved from a biological entity, an algorithmic thing, into a higher unit – Jesus’s one flesh – a community of free sexed persons who find their identity in one another. In the Sumerian mythology in which the story originates the serpent god Ningizzida is consort of the goddess who dwells in the garden of immortality. In the garden there is a tree from which hang the two fruits of immortal life and immortal knowledge. Any initiate who wishes to eat of these fruits can only do so by first approaching Ningizzida. This is why the serpent plays the role that he does in the story. He is the gatekeeper of the garden. One of the most striking but rarely noticed features of the biblical version is that, on the face of it, it is not God who is telling the truth but the serpent. God told us quite clearly, Eve tells the serpent, that if we eat of the tree of knowledge we will die. But they don’t.
The account almost makes it look as if God’s prohibition was a ruse on his part to make sure that they did eat the apple, which is exactly what it was. We can only understand this when we appreciate that the story has an initiatory structure. Telling the initiands untruths to test them is a common feature of many intitiation rituals. In ancient Lydia, where the cult myth was descent from wolves, initiates were given wolves’ flesh to eat and were told it was human. In New Guinea the older men shout through bullroarers and tell the initiates it is demons coming out of the forest to get them. But it turns out that these apparent untruths are actually expressions of a greater truth that the initiation itself has created. There were indeed roaring demons, but they were within the unconscious minds of the initiates and the whole point of the initiation is to strengthen the self in order to deal with them. The Lydian boys were sharing human flesh, but it was their own, within a confirming bond that the initiation was designed to create. Here the serpent, the instrument of the initiatory test, -which the candidates passed with flying colours – was indeed telling them a truth but it was only a limited one. The point of the test was not to see whether they would be obedient enough to God’s command as not to eat of the fruit. It was to see whether they were free enough to behave like human beings rather than the algorithmically driven creatures that had preceded them.
Within the longer perspective of the biblical story God’s untruth held a truth that ironically held a still greater truth. In the end they did die, but death turned out to be the gateway to a greater life that the initiation itself – O felix culpa – was making possible. So God’s consort, the serpent, got it right. If you think of original sin as collapsing back into apelike algorithmic behaviours, eating the apple precisely wasn’t the original sin. They were no longer behaving as ha’adama, the earth creature thing, had been programmed to do. They weren’t apes any more. They made a free choice. They became subjective persons. They felt shame. There will be more rejoicing in heaven over a repentant sinner than ninety nine just, the Gospel tells us. It was better that the redemption took place than that it did not. But the condition of its occurrence was the felix culpa of Eden. There was, however, a first sin. It wasn’t eating the apple. But once they had done so and attained the freedom of which the apple is the symbol they immediately misused it. They didn’t behave in a loving way but quarreled with each other and blamed each other. They collapsed back into the genetic selfishness that biology tells us characterizes pre-human living creatures. They started once more to behave like the ha-adama, the apelike creature from which both we and the chimpanzees evolved, that they originally were.
Nor is God angry with Adam and Eve. S(h)e merely asks them how it has come about that they know they are naked. It is they who leap to the conclusion that God is angry because they have done wrong. On the contrary, God makes clothes for them with h(i)r own hands in the most kindly way. S(h)e drives them out of the garden ‘lest they return and eat of the tree of life’. I’m wondering if it could just as easily be translated – Hebrew being so rich in its capacity to hold contradictions in solution within the same term – ‘in order that they return and eat of the tree of life’. In the longer perspective in the person of a second Adam, that is exactly what they did do. If there had been no fault there would have been no redemption, and no God in whom a scientifically literate person could believe. It is significant that the tree of immortality in the Sumerian myth becomes the tree of knowledge in the biblical one. They were the first scientists. Why is the serpent told to walk for evermore on the ground? Because the serpent belongs to the goddess’s paradise, and the story is telling us that mankind has now reached a stage of consciousness when we have to awake from that mythological dream. We have to make difficult choices. They are driven out of paradise into the world of suffering, work and frustration in which we actually exist. Why? Because they had eaten of the tree of knowledge. They were the first scientists. But they were going to return one day to the mythological garden of dreams. It is a return that science too needs to make.