The last chp of Alan Jacobs’ Original Sin sallies from Pope Pius’ famous 19th century papal bull Ineffabilis Deus to Stephen Pinker’s evolutionary explanation of the mind in his book The Blank Slate.
The papal bull, of course, announced the official status of the Immaculate Conception, driven as it was by the concept of original sin. Pinker, at the other end of this chp, would have none of it and that is where Pinker’s and modern culture’s explanations simply peter out: either we affirm the noble savage or the goodness of humans, and do what we can to wriggle our way out of the obvious contradictions to each explanation, or we sit back and just admit that something’s wrong and original sin is about as good an explanation as we are about to find.
Squished into this chp is an elucidating sketch of Gregor Mendel, the fella who figured out all kinds of things genetic by studying peas … and boom! genetics was born and alongside them the awful prospects of eugenics (but this not by Mendel at all).
Mendel, Jacobs observes (but does not develop for some odd reason), provided us all with a linguistic carrier for explaining original sin: inheritance. It’s about inheritance, and genetics provides the DNA for theology.
In this chp was a study at Stanford I had not heard of — back in 1971. Good students — “good” is Zimbardo’s term — become evil when you divided them into two groups, with one group being prisoners and the other group prison guards. The project had to be abandoned after a week or so because it got ugly, leading Zimbardo to the inexplicable but confident conclusion that some situations make good people bad.
The dirty little secret today is this one: the question about where does evil come from is neither answered nor asked — let us say “unaskable.”
Anyway, in his Afterword, Jacobs lands on the five factors necessary in the Augustinian anthropology:
1. That everyone behaves arrogantly or with cruelty.
2. That everyone is hard-wired to act like this.
3. That such behaviors are wrong or sinful.
4. That everyone is “fallen” from an original innocence.
5. That only those who experience grace in Christ can be lifted from that condition.
Well done Alan Jacobs. I wish more English profs knew theology and the history of culture like this, and I wish more theologians could write like Alan Jacobs.