Pascal on original sin

Pascal on original sin

Some students of the Apostle Paul would vehemently deny that he is the originator of that (variously defined) doctrine called original sin.  Whether original sin was original to Paul or not, the 4th-century pastor and theologian Augustine sure thought so.  And it was through the towering figure of Augustine that this and many other doctrines came to be articulated and embraced in the subsequent history of the church.  Professor Alan Jacobs writes that of all Christian doctrines…

I know none—not even the belief that some people are eternally damned—[that] generates as much hostility as the Christian doctrine we call ‘original sin.'”

In Romans 5 Paul writes concerning Adam:

“…through one man sin entered the world, and through sin [entered] death, and in this way death came to all humans, because all sinned.” (v. 12).

Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul, discussing Jesus’ resurrection, states:

“…since death was through a man, resurrection from the dead is also though a man.  For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.  But each in turn:  Christ, the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.” (vv. 21-23; see vv. 45-49).

Supposedly I am a student of Paul, but I confess I’m still very much trying to get my head around the idea.  I picked up Jacob’s enjoyable read Original Sin a few weeks ago for an accessible, historical discussion of the doctrine.  He roughly defines original sin as “sin that’s already inside us, already dwelling in us at our origin, at our very conception.”

At one point Jacobs discusses Pascal’s thought on the matter, which is fascinating.  Jacobs writes:

“Divinity and bestiality are the futures available to us, says Pascal, and each of us will inherit one or the other. But while we are in this condition of duality, there is one key that will unlock our mysteriousness to ourselves, that will explain both our misery and our ambition for happiness: original sin.” 

Jacobs then quotes from Pascal’s Pensees.  The brilliant French mathematician and inventor writes that it is…

“…an astounding thing that the mystery furthest from our ken [ken means “awareness” or “understanding”], that of the transmission of sin, should be something without which we can have no knowledge of ourselves. Without doubt nothing is more shocking to our reason than to say that the sin of the first man has implicated in its guilt men so far from the original sin that they seem incapable of sharing it. This flow of guilt does not seem merely impossible to us, but indeed most unjust. What could be more contrary to the rules of our miserable justice than the eternal damnation of a child, incapable of will, for an act in which he seems to have had so little part that it was actually committed 6,000 years before he existed? Certainly nothing jolts us more rudely than this doctrine, and yet but for this mystery, the most incomprehensible of all, we remain incomprehensible to ourselves.”

Wow.  (Btw, Pascal was a leading scientific mind in his day, and his reference to “6,000 years” would have hardly been controversial at the time.  This is not the case, however, for his comments about original sin.)

What I appreciate about Pascal here, regardless of whether he is right or wrong, is his ability to genuinely contemplate and come to adhere to an idea that is “shocking to our reason” and seems “impossible to us” and “indeed most unjust.”  Instead of responding to original sin according to the transient cultural palate of his day, bowing mindlessly before either the momentarily popular or the personally preferential, he considers the idea in view of its explanatory potential:  can it enable us to comprehend our ever so mysterious selves?

Toward the beginning of the book Jacobs writes:

So we comprehend inherited affliction, collective and inherited responsibility, universally shared circumstances. It is the joining of these ideas that strains our minds. We struggle to hold together a model of human sinfulness that is universal rather than local, in which we inherit sin rather than choose it, and in which, nevertheless, we are fully, terrifyingly responsible for our condition.” 

Elsewhere Jacobs mentions G. K. Chesterton who observed–with his characteristically derisive and penetrating wit–that original sin was the only doctrine of the Christian faith that is “empirically provable.”

Why is it that we–especially we who are sons and daughters of the Enlightenment–react with so little enthusiasm to  an idea with so much explanatory power?

Any thoughts?

(More to follow…)

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