All human beings have rights to food, clothing, shelter, personal dignity, and safety rights that have to be honored if the human community is to be humane. Earth is populated with billions of people, millions of whom are malnourished, homeless, poor, oppressed, illiterate, exploited, dying from treatable diseases, living the social and economic consequences of the debilitating cycles of poverty, domestic violence, autocratic political regimes, racism, colonialism and militarism. Humans participate in the genocide of other humans. It is sometimes referred to as ethnic cleansing, whereby one group of people from one ethnic or cultural background insists on its natural superiority over another and justifies its violence in attempting to eradicate some humans from the face of the earth. These realities dehumanize human existence and leave the human community anything but humane.
Then there are decisions made by industrialized nations about the use and abuse of the environment, decisions that have long-term consequences for the whole world with respect to air, water, and land. Environmental theory says we may all live by robbing nature, but some standards of living demand that the robbery continue excessively and indifferently. As a result of excessiveness and indifference, innocent people suffer. At times, the guilty go free and injustice prevails. Such injustice is often passed on from generation to generation. Fear, guilt, despair, estrangement, anxiety, and violence seem, then, to be as much part of the human saga as the experience of loving relationships, joy, interpersonal and social harmony, respect, creativity, physical and emotional security, and hope.
Intelligibly explaining this complex and often contradictory human condition into which we are born is the challenge for those attempting to support the psychosocial and spiritual development of children and adolescents. Those who study and write about children, such as the psychiatrist Robert Coles, report that at an early age, children start wondering about the nature, complexity, and destiny of their lives. Furthermore, awareness of anxiety begins early in life and focuses on why bad things happen to good people or simply on why things are the way they are in a seemingly unjust world. It is quite common in the early years of religious training for children to realize that the world as they know it is not the world intended by the God of their religious tradition. Such moral and spiritual sensibilities take shape in the early formative years. Children can be aware that some of the entanglements they experience in their young lives do not arise from their personal choice, desire, or will. Original sin is a Christian doctrine or faith-based teaching that attempts to make sense of this experience that there is something terribly awry with the world.
The Creation stories in the Hebrew Scriptures in Genesis 1 and 2, while distinct from each other and written over 500 years apart (Genesis 2 being older than Genesis 1), reveal a Creator God active in designing the features of the universe with creation's centerpiece being humans, male and female, made in God's own image to share with God the stewardship of all creation. As the Genesis story unfolds, the tale of Adam and Eve in the garden describes a decisive moment that damages the covenantal relationship between God and humans. The choice to disobey God turns paradise to predicament. Adam, Eve, the Garden of Eden, the cunning serpent, fruit trees, fig leaves, egoism, terror, shame, and banishment, all are symbols in this powerful story of The Fall. Christian theology teaches that with Adam's "fall" all humanity sinned. This original sin ruptured the primal flow between Creator and creatures albeit without severing God's unconditional love for His creatures and creation. The stories that follow in the Book of Genesis are illustrative of the predicaments humans encounter following Adam and Eve's disastrous choice to disobey God. Cain and Abel are brothers, yet Cain hates and murders his own brother (Gen. 3:1-26). There is the story of Noah and the great flood; a story of God's desperation with human wickedness and God's decision to keep covenant with Noah and future generations (Gen. 5-9). The Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11 is yet one more example of the residue of original sin in the curse of human miscommunication and failures to understand.
The award-winning author of books for children of all faiths, Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, takes such biblical tales and recasts them as means to explore themes of jealousy, anger, fear, and violence. In a number of her children's books, including Cain and Abel: Finding the Fruits of Peace, she teaches that as much as we might wish, we cannot shield children from the hurt and rejection that exists all around them. These mythically truth-telling stories explain how sinfulness interrupted God's original plan.
While many of the world's religions explore the fallen state of human nature, Christianity has done most to develop the doctrine of original sin. From a biblical perspective, Adam's sin has been interpreted as one of hubris, meaning great pride, believing he could chart his own course without God. His prideful display inaugurated an inseparable breach between God and humanity. In this breach is born shame, guilt, suffering, death, and the desire for salvation that is a never-ending consequence for himself and his descendants. While the figure and symbol of Adam is prominent in the development of this Christian doctrine, the woman Eve has carried the primary blame for the origin of sin. For millennia, her indictment as Adam's temptress has been used to reinforce the subordination of women in Western patriarchy and religion. It is from a literal interpretation of the Genesis story of The Fall that women have been collectively branded "Eve, the devil's gateway."
Although such patristic theologians as Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen espoused original sin as inescapable universal sinfulness, no one has been more influential on the topic than the father of Western Christian theology, Augustine (354-430 C.E.).
Augustine claimed that the fall of Adam was so great a misuse of human freedom and so great a sin that human nature itself became "fallen." Furthermore, human nature became not only sinful but also "a breeder of sinners." According to classical Augustinian theology, the inbred human propensity to sin leads to its actual inevitability because the tendency of Adam's sin, hubris, is transmitted through procreation and not primarily through bad example or personal decision. Thus, for Augustine, the first step in gaining help to limit the effects or remove the stain of original sin was to take an infant to receive the grace of the sacrament of baptism. While guilt over inherited or original sin was countered by the grace of baptism, the weakness to sin remained. Doctrine develops with the new insights that each era brings to the central teachings of the Christian faith. While the basic notions of original sin from the classical tradition remain operative, other areas of the teaching have changed and developed. For example, the transmission of original sin by sexual intercourse is no longer a part of the contemporary understanding of original sin. Mainline Christian theologies today promote the essential goodness of human nature, including the sexual/relational dimension. Modern Protestant theologian Paul Tillich understood original sin as estrangement from one's essence that is an inevitable fact of birth. Tillich suggested that threats to self-actualization or realization are so tied to daily existence that the human birthright, so to speak, is riddled with anxiety. Twentieth-century liberation theologies, including feminist theology, have probed new theological territory in questioning hubris or pride as the sole denominator of original sin.
Today, original sin is described as a universal fact, a source of our collective guilt, universality and historicity of finitude, a disruption of essential unity, an estrangement from true being, a tendency toward narcissism, and the unhealed structures of society, all of which result in the potential failure to make human life in all of its manifestations, truly human.