“Yet the quality of a religious system depends perhaps less on its specific doctrine, than on the choice of problems that it regards as important, the areas of human experience to which it directs attention.” — Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo
Peter Brown (who wrote one of the most highly-regarded biographies of Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, and the greatest influence on the Christian Church after Paul and before Aquinas) gives us a perch from which to regard one of the great controversies that Augustine was determined to stamp out.
Augustine’s disputation with Julian, the young ex-bishop of Eclanum, on the origins and effects of original sin, is described by Augustine as an explanation for the misery and suffering of the human race. Their battle comes late in Augustine’s life, the old lion up against a whip-smart and ruthless opponent half his age for whom this battle is personal.
Brown makes it clear that Augustine’s loathing of sex, even within marriage, determines his view of Adam and Eve falling into sin through their unbridled lust for one another. The behavior which Augustine assumes as evidence is their shame at their nakedness after eating from the tree. Everything flows from this. Fully developed, the doctrine then requires baptism for sin in order to escape the horrors of hell—even infant baptism—because even newborns do not escape the stain of original sin. Everyone who is born of a woman is the result of lust; it follows then, infers Augustine, that everyone is born in sin, preternaturally bent from the moment of conception to choose the wrong, to stain the holy, and to willfully, at every turn, gallop off the path of righteousness.
It’s a tortured and torturing logic, one that has inflicted untold pain on Christians since the time of Augustine. In contrast to Augustine, Julian upheld the view that God was, above all, a god of equity. God’s justice was toward each of us individually, not all of us lumped together. We were responsible for our own failures, but God’s grace would be sufficient for us.
What Augustine did in the service of theology — and what many following him in the Church have done from his time to the present — is to ascribe our human propensity to fall and to fail to the weakness of Eve. This has serious consequences. It means that we deflect responsibility for our own state of separation, as Paul Tillich characterized the effects of sin. It builds in moral passivity and projects onto others the motivations for our own deceit. It calls into question whether even God can reach beings so utterly corrupted and debased.
But most of all, it perpetuates sexism because it lays the blame for the world’s misery on women. To paraphrase Paul: “And thus abideth racism, xenophobia, and sexism. But the most pervasive of these is sexism.”
We are, all of us, without exception, complicit in the sin that Adam and Eve committed. Nor do any of us need convincing about the horrors humans can perpetrate on one another. So, we’re not denying that evil can have a human face. It’s just that for millenia the face that appears most often in the Church’s grand narrative of the Fall is that of a woman.
It is interesting that in Paul’s recounting of the story sin entered the world through Adam, not through Eve. But the story that the Christian world accepts — and it could be argued that the world accepts — lays the blame on Eve.
If it is true, as Brown reminds us, “that the quality of a religious system depends . . . On the choice of problems” it gives its attention to, then such a religious system is only as strong as its weakest link. The blame for sin that is laid on women derives its power from assumptions that underlie not only matters of theology, hermeneutics, and worship, but also policies and hiring decisions. Its direct application in churches around the world weakens the hope for redemption that we are encouraged to hold. When people use it to denigrate women and “keep them in their place” they are not only wronging women specifically, but they are also trivializing the real issues of grace and redemption.
Brown’s epigram asks us to take seriously where our attention lies, as a church and as Christians. How long are we going to punish women? What are the problems that consume our time, energy, and money?
But if all our essential beliefs are meant to point us to the burning bush of God’s saving love, then we should at least examine that through which we have relegated fifty percent of the human race to the flickering shadows at the circumference of that light.
This prejudice runs deep, as unseen and seemingly innocuous as the air we breathe. It begins early in our lives, with the first telling of the temptation story, and it remains part of our cellular structure until we realize how extensive its roots really are. If you’re a Christian, you know what I mean. In fact, if you’re Western — no, make that human — if you’re human, you know this is the primal prejudice, the one most difficult to overcome because it seems to be the natural order of the world. Augustine’s attitudes towards women were no doubt influenced by his own proclivities and the temptations he wrestled with, but they are not prescriptions for contemporary life. His attempt to derive a theological explanation from biological and emotional responses need not be our default position nor should the Church’s hardening on the role of women be accepted as a fait accompli.
We might begin with the original myth itself — ‘myth’ being defined as an archetypal story about our human origins, not a story that is untrue. The Genesis story of the Fall can be interpreted in many ways, but one central note is the exhilarating paradox that reveals our moral freedom as both liberating and binding us. We are subject to the dizzying expectations of both obedience and independence. We need obedience to claim our independence; we need independence to be freely obedient. It’s a setup for a tragicomedy. Granted, from outside the Garden we literally can’t imagine human existence without the failures of sin built in, but we can imagine (and live) the joy that comes when we know we are accepted by God. Can we accept that we are accepted, as Tillich so powerfully stated in one of his sermons?
There is a streak of sadism that runs through the administering of Christianity. It’s the belief that salvation is only as real as the guilt that makes it necessary. The greater the feeling of guilt, the sweeter the salvation — and there are always people willing to tighten the screws in the service of compliance. All of that for our own good, of course.
But our dilemma is that we do that which we ought not to do, and we do not do what we ought to do. We don’t do the ‘oughts’ because we can’t see how or why they would help us. And we can’t imagine how they would help us because we can’t trust that which we did not make. It’s our desire for independence that brushes aside the ‘oughts’, but it’s that very independence which can turn the ‘oughts’ into that which we desire with all our heart.
After they turn to leave the Garden, we do not read of Adam and Eve talking to God again. A force field has been raised behind them. Nor do they seem resentful at their loss. Stoically, they set about making a life east of Eden — ‘Eden,’ the Hebrew word for ‘delight.’ Once they lived in the innocence of children; now, with experience, they have shouldered the responsibilities that come with consciousness. We wonder, too, if at the end of a long day of toil, they find satisfaction in that which they have hewn out of the hard rock of endurance. There is heartbreak ahead for them, but they will suffer it together, alone and in silence. There is joy in the midst of pain.
They hope for us what they cannot taste: the sweetness of unexpected grace and forgiveness. And we look back, almost wistfully, longing for even the shards of memory which they hold of the Garden.
No promise but that which heals could foreclose on Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, for all the anguish it has caused and all the anger it has raised. Among the rifts between people that we Christians have driven wedges into over the centuries, this one that casts women into a ritually inferior state must be bridged.
“Let us say
We are all confused, incomprehensible,
Dangerous, contemptible, corrupt,
And in that condition pass the evening
Thankfully and well,” says the Countess in Christopher Fry’s, The Dark is Light Enough. “In our plain defects
We already know the brotherhood of man.”
Photo: Anqi Lu, Unsplash.com