By Nicola Morley
I “failed” a job interview once because I refused to agree that humans are essentially evil. Admittedly it was a job to teach at a conservative Christian school. At that stage in my life, I was very heavily immersed in conservative evangelicalism, but even then, I railed at the idea that that we are born evil.
These days I work as a midwife. I see humans emerge into this world helpless, crying and perfect. These days I am even more convinced that we are not born sinful. I cannot look at a newborn infant and see potential evil.
My views on Original Sin have varied greatly over the years. To be honest, they even took a significant shift in the process of writing this post. And they may change again tomorrow. That is the beauty of a progressive stand on theology – you are not permanently tied to one way of seeing things, but your ideas have the freedom evolve as you learn.
But I digress.
I was brought up in the Anglican church and attended a Catholic primary school. Both strong advocates of the idea of Original Sin. I accepted it along with everything else, as part of the catechism and creeds I was raised to recite. I maintained my conservative evangelicalism throughout my young adult years, but somewhere in the back of my mind, questions were forming. I saw human beings of all kinds as, most of the time, essentially good. Of course there were exceptions, and none of us are perfect. But almost everyone I met seemed to have a natural tendancy towards good, not evil. I didn’t know how to express this until my faith leaned more progressive, and I became a midwife.
A “proof” I had heard that we are born this way, is that babies are completely selfish – they do not have the capacity for empathy, or for putting the need of others ahead of their own. As for the first, this is not true. Literally from the moment of birth, newborn babies will watch the faces they see, and try and imitate the facial expressions. They will have “conversations”, taking turns vocalising and leaving pauses for responses. This is the beginning of social skills, and building empathy – an understanding of the “other” and holding space for them in their world. When babies do not have the opportunity to engage in this way with primary caregivers, it can stunt the development of empathy and social skills.
As to whether they can put the needs of other’s ahead of their own – what a ridiculous question. The infant is driven by a survival instinct and besides, in what possible way could a helpless newborn be expected to meet the needs of someone else? Their so-called selfishness is what allows them to survive. Furthermore, as they grow, the best way to ensure they become functional, empathetic, humans, with the capacity to care for others, is to meet their needs promptly and reliably. In other words, there is a link between being “selfish” as an infant and having the capacity to be “selfless” in the future. A functional aspect of evolution and survival of the fittest no doubt, but perhaps it is also a reflection of a creative, relational and redemptive God who takes the mundane essentials of survival and turns them into something beautiful.
The notion of “original sin” is not even particularly biblical. The concept is hinted at, at best, in Genesis 3 – as part of the curse of the fall. And it is possibly suggested by Paul in Romans – “for as in Adam all died, but in Christ all shall be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). But that’s about it. The words “original sin” do not appear in the Bible. They first appeared in the writing of Augustine of Hippo in the 5thcentury, and weren’t part of general church doctrine until the 5th-6th centuries.
The idea of the innocence (as opposed to sinfulness) of children is hinted at, at least as often in the Bible. In fact,there is strong suggestion that King David believed his child went straight to be with God when he died (2 Samuel). And Jesus took children on his lap and used them as an example to his followers of the innocence required to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:13-16).
The concept of Original Sin is rooted in ideas of patriarchy and sex. “In sin my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5) – the conception of a baby involves sex, and sex is sinful, especially for women. A pregnant belly is screaming to the world “I had sex!”, and so pregnancy has often been seen as something to be hidden away, and shameful. Even the words we still use around pregnancy and birth convey some of this – “confinement”, for example to describe women hiding away in the last weeks of their pregnancy and early days postnatally, out of sight, out of mind. Because who wants to be grossed out by the idea of a baby coming out of a vagina? One minute she has a small bump that can be hidden away, and the next time you see her, she’s got a baby – no need to think about the disgusting, messy bit in between.
From a midwifery perspective, though, there are also some hints that give credence to the idea of Original Sin. One of my favourite things to learn about is epigenetics – the science of how our genes and their expression are affected by the environment they are in. We’ve probably all heard about this at least at a basic level – for example someone might carry the genes for a certain type of cancer but that doesn’t mean they will develop it. It depends if that gene is “turned on” by other factors.
More and more evidence is emerging that things that happen to person while they are pregnant, can profoundly affect the future health of the baby in many ways – mental, physical and emotional health. Even things that happen to the grandmother of the child in her pregnancy with the child’s mother have an effect – because the ovum that will become the baby is already formed in the mother’s ovaries while she is a fetus in her mother’s womb. There IS a sense of that the biblical idea of“sins of father” being passed down through generations.Thanks to things like trauma, lack of nutrition, or war that happened to their mother or grandmother, some children are born with more of a propensity to antisocial behaviour, developmental delays, medical conditions and so on. In a way, original sin is “in our genetics”.
But it is not as simple as that. Our genetics are not definitive predictors of our future – remember the idea that those genes have to be “turned on” by the environment they are in. That environment includes everything from the mother’s body during pregnancy, to the social aspects of the family such as chronic stress, to the physical environment of the country where they live. And of course, there are many other non-genetic factors that influence how an individual turns out.
Overall, I have come to reject the idea of Original Sin. I believe that everyone – even those who grow up to commit terrible atrocities – is born completely innocent. Yes, there is the genetic potential, and the influence of other environmental factors, for a life more influenced by evil than good. But there is also the very distinct possibility that none of that will come to pass. I still find that most humans are kind, good people, who wish the best for those around them.
And that newborn baby, seconds old, who looks wide eyed to see what this new world is like and locks eye contact withtheir mother? In that moment, they are innocent and perfect. The concept of sin and evil has no place.