James Boyce is an honourary research associate of the School of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Tasmania, and a multi award-winning author. His new book, Born Bad: Original Sin and the Making of the Western Mind explores the history of the Doctrine of Original Sin and how its effects can still be seen within Westernalised culture today. Our blogger, Laura, caught up with him to find out more.
1. You obviously did a huge amount of research for the book, how long in total did the book take to write?
The focussed fulltime work was 3 years. However, it's been a bit of a lifetime journey! Where I've been reading and thinking about the questions since late teens.
2. What first piqued your interest in the topic?
Definitely my early Christian experience was incredibly important in defining. I spent some time in England and at Lea Abbey. Also, university. The problem was: I was incredibly attracted to Christianity, Jesus, community – but I was on the fringes of the Church because I didn’t understand why God was seen to be judging some people. Why the saved was only some people who us human beings seemed to define and part of me wanted to be out there with the unsaved rather than the saved club. So I was trying to understand the salvation understanding of the church.
Then, I became a social worker and I nticed people would make assumptions on human nature, psychological theories etc. What it means to be a human being? Often this is not very explored, and I wanted to understand this further.
Additionally, I wanted to understand myself, especially in my twenties I had an experience of not being “quite right”, as if there was something wrong with me! I did feel a legacy of guilt that was not a consequence of any action, it just seemed to be innate. As I’ve gotten older I see many people seem to share both within Christianity and outside of the faith some sort of problem with being human. A lot of advertising is targeted towards this. Culture is orientated around this dissatisfaction with ourselves. Original sin is critical to this. It’s our cultures creation story.
3. Who/ what do you think has the biggest influence on Westernised thoughts around original sin?
Historically, St Paul – a lot of the ideas go back to him. Interpretation of the Genesis story which is specific to the Western culture. Muslims, Eastern Christians etc. have not done this.
The idea that the sin of Adam is transmitted to every human being – transmitted guilt and wrath of God. The way of explaining why “everyone needs to be saved by Christ” wasn’t easy for church to explain, at the time, for example: why this was necessary and why Catholic baptism was necessary. There was an emphasis not just on sin but also on Grace. The doctrine wasn’t fully formulated until 5th Century by St Augustine (as Roman empire was breaking up and the West was being formed). There were barbarians fighting and a lot of uncertainty so the Catholic church took over as authority figure and original sin became its foundational doctrine. From this they made Catholic Baptism essential.
However, equally significant, if we move 1000 years forward: Protestant reformers. Augustine emphasised by Grace alone, this was critical, as within the Middle ages there has been a real salvation industry. The idea that you had to keep working on your salvation (pilgrimages, indulgences, masses etc.). The reason reformers (Martin Luther King & John Calvin) emphasise salvation by faith alone is because of original sin. Reasserted original sin. – sin is within is- our identity in God’s eyes was a sinner! Central to reformation.
Following this there was a Catholic council which reaffirmed this.
4. What, if anything, do you think is the most harmful consequence of believing we are “Born Bad”?
There is such a complex heritage, one journey for me in the book was to discover that the tradition has caused enormous suffering but also wisdom which contains the fullness of humanity. The pain is fairly easy to see especially in times of high infant mortality- parents were in great anguish about whether their baby would end up in hell. That sounds like a ridiculous fear to us, that God would do that, but this was unfortunately one aspect of the tradition. Also for children as they were growing up, a view of them as innately bad – children would do normal children things, but this was seen as the evidence of original sin and this needed to be trained, disciplined or beaten out him. Even in the protestant tradition- John Wesley for example.
Also, the feeling of wrongness – being human there is a guilt just associated with being human. There’s something wrong with us just for being born.
The positive side, paradoxically, there’s also an acceptance within human frailty and weakness. No one can be perfect- everyone is going to stuff up! That’s part of being human. There’s a liberation in that in terms of how we feel about ourselves and others. Rather than externalising the bad people – we’re all bad people. There’s a solidarity of sinners. That’s important within the movements towards democracy, anti-slavery. Original sin was used to control people but also to liberate people. For the slaves, their masters were sinners too. For the colonists looking towards independence, the King was a sinner too. It would be used for control but it would also be used to undermine.
There’s a sense of universality. It’s actually quite difficult to form a brotherhood/sisterhood of goodness because not all of us are good. You distinguish between people when you do this. But when you talk about all of being sinners, bad etc. you can form a solidarity.
For me, the idea of new born babies or still born babies being sent to hell I felt was very harmful and I’m glad this has moved on
That’s been the most contentious issue throughout the history, I think most people of faith have found this difficult. But the church, even people like Calvin held on to it as they felt, otherwise, it compromised original sin and the idea of salvation by faith.
The indigenous Christianity of the British Isles, Celtic Christianity – they believed that when you looked into the face of a new born baby you saw the face of God- they did not believe in the doctrine of original sin. Sin was something you did later and you were corrupted by later. But it wasn’t something that changed the essential goodness core of human nature which we could see most closely in the face of a new born baby. This is the legacy of the British church and I don’t think that’s ever gone away.
5. Why do you think this idea isn't prevalent in the East?
They do have an idea, the language can get confusing – they do talk about original sin and the fall. But original sin can be the first sin, the sin of Adam.
For Eastern Christians there are lessons to be learnt from Adam – disobeying God, the journey into full human consciousness. The fundamental point of difference is they do not talk about an inherited guilty – we do not carry the sin of Adam with us. The Eastern church parted company on this, it did not accept that idea. There was also dissent in the Western church regarding this.
There was much diversity and there still is- and we can learn from that- the diversity within Christianity now is not new. There’s always been difference, especially in the first four centuries after Christ’s death. There were riots in Rome over the doctrine of Original sin, 18 bishops were expelled from Rome because they refused to accept it. We can take some comfort from that, none of it implies that faith is not alive or dynamic – in fact it suggests the opposite. If the questions and probing are from a faith perspective, it’s a sign of life.
6. I found the ending of your book really uplifting where you say that if the West is to move beyond original sin then this can only come by bringing grace to Earth, are you hopeful that this can happen soon?
Yes, I think it’s happening! It’s hard when we’re caught up in it. Historians can look back and put order in it. But there’s so many I think that’s happening in the Christian tradition and outside in the spiritual search – the age old questions of what it means to be humans, what it means to be divine - are incredibly urgent. Part of the emphasise increasingly is on God’s presence in all of life. Our arrogance has been challenged. Many people are less willing to define who God is with, who he favours or judges – we’re trying to open our eyes. We’re bringing Grace back to earth. That is part of the Christian tradition. Strong in Celtic, mystical tradition – it’s part of our history that we can hold on to.
I hope that what people get from the book is that it’s very important that we talk to our ancestors. Our conversation can get shallow and shrill because we’ve lost the ability to talk to our ancestors, these sort of questions are not meant to be answered a new by each new generation. We have memories, it’s what makes us amazing and unique. If we want to be able to have a conversation and learn from them in terms of learning from their wisdom, we need to understand how they saw the world and the language they used- I hope people will get that from the book.
I’m not saying get rid of original sin and believe this – the richness of original sin is essential to our history but let’s become aware of and look at our history, see where we’ve come from. Hold on to the wisdom but also move on and keep the faith relevant and moving. It’s a history book – I hint at my spirituality but my concern as a historian is to bring into the light what is currently hidden and try and act as an interpretation. I don’t want to deny the suffering and closet over it, face that but also learn from it. I think that’s what the role of a historian is.
Grace on earth is important to lots of people, we don’t want a God who is just in heaven anymore. Celtic tradition says sin was obscuring God but as we listened and learned we would move closer to God – that’s undergoing a renewal in the world, as an alternative tradition to original sin.
7. What role do you think the church can play in addressing the obsession with original sin and this idea that we are born bad?
I think it’s very important theologians engage with history. They’ve done a lot of work on making original sin relevant to the world. But for me, as a historian, I still see a sort of limit to how we can with that until we face for the fullness of history. It’s not the history of an idea it’s the history of what it meant to be a human being, we carry aspects of that inheritance- we’re not born with a clean slate, we’re all born into a culture. We might believe, when we’re young we can reject our parent’s values and start a fresh, but with wisdom and growth we know that we carry our parents with us, for better or worse. We’re not just a human thing in isolation we’re connected.
We need to recognise this isn’t about an intellectual argument these ideas are part of our cultural inheritance – the fullness of our history. They’re not abstract ideas- pain, suffering, liberation. The church doesn’t do that well, and I think it creates shallowness and exaggerates difference – people are too closed off on what is Christian and what is not. Engaging fully with our history will help us in terms of our current conversation.
8. Are you writing anything else soon/ have you got another book planned?
Always! Serious history for a general reader, I never assume knowledge but try not to dumb it down. I’ve never wanted to be an academic historian. I range widely, mostly focusing on colonial Australian. At the moment I’m writing a book on the Fens area in Eastern England- and the resistance by local commoners about the drainage and the changes there. But essentially it focussed on this idea of “How do we make home on this earth?” There’s so much in history – fighting to save wetlands isn’t a new thing. There’s hope in history.
I’m also writing on my home country, a bit on the terrible politics of gambling in Tasmania, a vested interested. This is an old evangelical issue that I hope that church has reengaged with. A lot of it has been forgotten. One of these issues is gambling, also: Sabbath and the alcohol industry. I think the Evangelical church needs to reengage with these. Until the 1950s they were engaged. In my home country there’s one company who has a monopoly over the gambling industry and I’m exploring the history of that - it might get me in trouble, so I’m not looking forward to that coming out!
9. What Christian books or authors do you recommend at the moment?
I’m reading Stephen Cherry’s book on sin- The Dark Side of the Soul: An Insider's Guide to the Web of Sin, obviously it’s connected to mine. I thought it would make a nice bit of holiday reading. It is different to mine. It wants to look at the wisdom that’s in the tradition, there’s a lot we can learn from the past amongst the pain. It’s very practical, it helps people with battling through this complexity of being human being.
A huge thank you to James for taking part in our interview, we'll be looking out for your new books soon!
May 20th, 2016 - Posted & Written by Laura White