Sin, Original and Otherwise

There’s trouble everywhere, and that’s not news. It’s not new, at any rate.

“Your princes are rebels and comrades of thieves; Each one of them loves a bribe and looks for gifts. The fatherless they defend not, and the widow’s plea does not reach them.”
(Isaiah 1:23)

“Yes, I know how many are your crimes, how grievous your sins: Oppressing the just, accepting bribes, repelling the needy at the gate!”
(Amos 5:12)

How come the world is such a mess, and has been at least since we started keeping records?

Some of our problems have seemed obvious: not enough food to go around, or someone hogging the supply; outsiders taking what we want or need; and disease.

But we’ve been pretty good, maybe effective is a better word, at making problems for ourselves.

Universities, Death, and Printing Presses

About a millennium back, European scholastic guilds formed the first universities.

Over the next few centuries folks like Hildegard of Bingen and Albertus Magnus, both Saints, were laying the foundations of today’s science. Designers worked the bugs out of Gothic architecture.

The Great Famine of 1315-1317; Black Death of 1346-1353; and Hundred Years’ War, 1337-1453; were major speed bumps in Europe’s history.

Johannes Gutenberg developed an efficient printing press using movable type around 1450 — about five centuries after Bi Sheng’s invention.

We might not know about Bi Sheng, if Shen Kuo hadn’t mentioned him in “Dream Pool Essays,” and that’s another topic.

Anyway, efficient printing tech let folks in Europe share ideas faster and in more detail: upsetting quite a few applecarts in the process.

Thirty Years’ War

I see the potential for a more egalitarian society and better-informed public as a good thing. Events like the Thirty Years’ War, not so much.

Printing presses didn’t cause the the Thirty Years’ War, but the new tech arguably made the Protestant Reformation possible.

That didn’t cause the war either. But northern political bosses arguably used the Reformation to gain increased independence from more powerful states in southern Europe.

The Roman Catholic Church was due for an overhaul — my native culture generally calls it the Counter Reformation, possibly because England ended up on the more-or-less-Protestant side. It’s also called the Catholic Reformation or Catholic Revival.

We had another one recently, much less messy, called Vatican II. Some folks are still upset by it, I’m not, and that’s yet another topic.

The Thirty Years’ War started when the Peace of Augsburg gave rulers of Germany’s 224 states a choice. They could be Lutheran or Catholic — and force their subjects to follow the ruler’s lead. The 1555 deal left Calvinists out of the power grab.

Forcing someone to “convert” is a very bad idea, and we shouldn’t do it, ever. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 21042109)

Anyway, Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire — we’re still cleaning up the mess he made at Verden — was a collection of largely-independent states by then. Like the fellow said:

“Ce corps qui s’appelait et qui s’appelle encore le saint empire romain n’était en aucune manière ni saint, ni romain, ni empire.”

(“This agglomeration which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.”)
(Voltaire, via Wikiquote)

The Holy Roman Empire’s new emperor, Ferdinand II, tried forcing everyone in the empire to be Catholic in 1618 — again, that’s a very bad idea. This time it triggered a massive turf war with religious trimmings.

Three decades and about 8,000,000 unnecessary deaths later, the war was over.

The Enlightenment – – –

Decades of fighting, famines, plagues, and witch hunts had killed more than two thirds of the people in parts of the northern Holy Roman Empire by 1648.

Small wonder that some folks were reevaluating old assumptions about authority, belief, and business as usual.

Depending on who you listen to, Aufklärung, “Enlightenment,” started when applying math to observable phenomena was catching on in the 1620s; or 1715, when France’s Louis XIV died.

I’ll grant that Louis XIV’s spin on the divine right of kings made a difference1 — and helped inspire the French Revolution.

Fans of the Enlightenment didn’t coin the slogan “Sapere aude,” “Dare to know.” That’s from Horace: “Dimidium facti, qui coepit, habet; sapere aude, incipe.” — “He who has begun is half done; dare to know; begin!”

I think it fits the Enlightenment attitude, though: seeing reason as a good idea. Also pushing ideals like liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state.

For folks trying to recover from the Thirty Years’ War, those ideals must have seemed really good.

– – – and the Idea of Progress

The French Revolution didn’t turn out quite as well as might have been hoped.

The Fête de la Raison, a celebration of the Cult of Reason, was among the revolution’s more colorful innovations.

“Festive girls in white Roman dress and tricolor sashes milled around a costumed Goddess of Reason who ‘impersonated Liberty’.” (Wikipedia)

Sounds like a toga party, but that doesn’t make reason a bad idea.

Even after the French Revolution, quite a few folks still assumed that since each of us is a rational being, folks would get along — once obstacles like authority, superstition, and potato blight were removed.

Then World Wars I and II happened, and the Idea of Progress lost appeal. I talked about that last week. (October 30, 2016)

About reason and the French Revolution — like I keep saying, thinking is not a sin. But worshiping our ability to reason, or anything other than God, is a bad idea. (Catechism, 21122114)

I was going somewhere with this. Let me think.

Universities, movable type, Thirty Years’ War, toga parties. Right.

We’re rational creatures. Using our brains, asking questions and thinking about what we find, is what we’re supposed to do. (“Fides et Ratio,” John Paul II (September 14, 1998); Catechism, 32, 35, 154159, 299, 1730)

So how come we’ve got problems even when we’re well-fed and well-educated?2

Evil and Time Bandits

This world is basically good, and so are we. (Genesis 1:131)

Something went wrong, obviously, but it’s not a design flaw.

Oddly enough, one of literature and drama’s most lucid discussions of evil and the Catholic idea of original sin was in a film by the Monty Python folks:

Kevin: “Yes, why does there have to be evil?”

Supreme Being: “I think it has something to do with free will.”
(“Time Bandits (1981) via

Like angels, that’s yet again another topic, we’re rational beings who can decide what we do. Unlike angels, we are also material beings: spiritual creatures with a body made from the stuff of this world. (Catechism, 311, 325348, 1704, 17301731)

Having a body isn’t the problem.

Believing that the physical world “…is evil, the product of a fall, and is thus to be rejected or left behind…” is not what the Catholic Church teaches. (Catechism, 285)

Satan, like all angels, has no body.3 That didn’t stop Satan and other angels from saying “no” to God. (Catechism, 385395)

Saying “no” is an option for any creature with free will. (Catechism, 330, 1730)

Sin is saying “no” to God. It’s deciding that I’ll do something I know is bad for myself, or others, and doing it anyway; or deciding to not do something I should. Sin is an offense against reason, truth — and God. (Catechism, 18491864)

It happens when I don’t love God and my neighbors as wholeheartedly as I should, or don’t see everybody as my neighbor. (Matthew 5:4344, 7:12, 22:3640, Mark 12:2831; Luke 10:2527, 2937)

Since conscience is a “law of the mind,” my reason should control my emotions and impulses, and all of the above would be conformed to God’s will. (Catechism, 1778, 1784, 1790)

I don’t exercise that control as often as I’d like.

That’s partly because we’re all living with original sin: the consequences of a really bad decision. (Catechism, 386389)

I’m responsible for messes I make, and that’s still another topic. (Catechism, 1781)

Our account of the fall in Genesis 3 describes a real event at the beginning of humanity’s long story: told in figurative language. (Catechism, 390)

Adam and Eve are not German, and I’ve said that before. (September 23, 2016)

Genesis 1:2627 says that we’re made “in the image of God.” We still are. As Psalms 8:6 says, we’re “little less than a god.” But “little less than a god” isn’t God. We’re pretty hot stuff, but we’re not omnipotent.

In Genesis 3:5, the serpent tells Eve that after eating the fruit “…you will be like gods…” — and we forgot that we already were made “in the image of God.”

You know the rest. Eve listened to Satan.

Adam, like a dummkopf, did the same — and then tried blaming his wife and God. (Genesis 3:12)

That did not end well.

We’ve been living with the disastrous consequences of that bad decision ever since. (Catechism, 396412)

There’s something wrong with each of us. We’re born — figurative language here — wounded. We’re “…subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin….” (Catechism, 405)

Original sin isn’t something I’m personally responsible for. My job is trying to act as love matters, anyway. (Catechism, 407409)


1 About the divine right of kings and getting a grip: rational respect for authority is important. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 18971917, 19511960)

That’s not even close to believing that some king, president, or anyone else in a top position, is above the law; much less has some divinely-ordained right to unthinking obedience. (Catechism, 1902, 1960, 2155, 22422243, 2267, 2313, 2414)

2 It looks like there are, on average, statistical correlations between socioeconomic status, education level, and getting caught doing something criminal: along with more-or-less-significant correlations between many other factors and getting caught. But folks still act badly. More:

3 “Spiritual” and “good” aren’t synonyms, Artists have struggled to present spiritual realities in visual form, and that’s a passel of topics for other posts.

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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