All of the 20th century theologians that I have read seem sceptical about the possibility of a meaningful use of the symbol “Original Sin”. There is just to much baggage attached to it. Especially in German and other languages that has a term that signifies “inherited sin” it is very problematical. Of course it is not about inheriting anything, not even Augustine believed that. And, no: it’s not about sex either.
Still I cannot see how we could possibly do without it. While sin in the sense I talked about yesterday has the individual as subject, for original sin the subject is humanity as a whole. Rahner has a very good point when he says that original sin is not really sin in the proper sense of the word, but only in an analogous sense. Exactly as sin is about the individual not being what he or she essentially is – free – Original sin is about humanity not realizing its freedom.
From the point of view of humanity, original sin is a tragedy. I will not enter into the discussion on the causes of original sin, I will just refer to Tillich, because his reading of genesis three is pure poetry. But from the point of view of the individual, original sin is a source of comfort. What original sin says is that it is not always within the power of the individual to do what is right. When we fail the guilt is not 100% ours to carry. Original sin is about adding the context to the formula. When an individual is making a choice, it is not only the free will of the person making the choice. This choice is affected by millions of previous choices, made by other people. When a person makes a choice, that person is affected by the social context, by upbringing and education, by values in the society and so on. The sum of all these things outside of the person that affects a moral act makes up original sin.
This is why original sin is a key concept when we want to understand the current cultural situation. There are structures in our culture that make it impossible to live a life that is not destructive. We all participate in those forces that are bringing the world to ruin, and more often than not because of lack of alternatives. The international trade laws and the way we produce food are good examples. It is near on impossible to go buy groceries without inflicting suffering and increasing the injustice in the world. Still we need groceries.
The thing with original sin is that its cause is not known. Even the myth in genesis three leaves the final cause open, it only shows the structure of sin. We cannot point our fingers and say: he did it. It is just there, and we have to live with it. But it still diffuses a bit of the guilt of the evil we cause. Even though we are the acting subjects, we are not totally free in the act.
It is, however, not a reason to resign. By trying to understand the history we can try to separate ourselves from the system that affects us, and by being aware we can limit the impact original sin has on our daily life.
Is there salvation from sin? This is what Christianity claims. In what way is the Christ-event related to this situation? This well have to be addressed in another post.