Paul Griffin offers an autumnal corrective to the concept of sin

Despite its occasional and regrettable use as a bludgeon, the doctrine of Original Sin should not be hard to accept. Yet my agnostic friends frequently mention it as a prime example of the folly of Christian belief. Their reasoning presumably is that they were there at the time of their birth, and they should know they were not evil creatures.

In vain do I assure them that they were indeed good creatures of God, but that they none the less had a tendency to evil, which was quickly evident in the selfishness of young things. A baby is a loveable and loving little beast, but also a selfish little beast, as any parent knows. He or she needs to survive, and that need persists into adulthood. Education needs to convince the child that the selfishness natural to the early years can go too far, and that maturity and grace can bring about a Christian human being.

This matter has lately been aired in correspondence [ND September]. The writer said quite rightly that a child was born a morally blank slate: as the slate begins to be written upon, there is a distinct tendency towards the welfare of the self. This tendency is surely what is meant by original sin. From that selfishness arise the seven deadly sins.

The writer of the original letter quoted Clement of Alexandria as saying this: ‘Let them say where the new-born child committed fornication, or how that can have fallen under Adams curse which has not yet performed any action?’

Oh, dear! Who on earth is accusing babies of fornication? You might as well say that babies are good people because they do not profiteer or deal in drugs; or that they are bad people because they do not go to church or give to charity. Fallen (sic) man can say some remarkably silly things, but this takes the biscuit.

Ideas taken up by professional thinkers too often become twisted into versions that frighten sensible horses and give us the task of restoring their original simplicity, in the hope that those who have given a new version will be willing to listen.

It will be said that the legend of Adam and Eve is at the root of the problem. On the contrary, that story well shows how humans are created in the image of God but by selfishness and greed deface that image. Adam and Eve are you and I, starting as a blank slate but following the universal process towards sin. The comment on that story is not that it is fanciful, or masculine rubbish that offends against the proper equality of the sexes, but that it is incomplete. Mercifully, there is more: and that more constitutes our faith. It brings us to baptize and confirm young people, thereby showing the progress of humanity back towards the Eden from which they were ejected; which we call Heaven.

Augustine of Hippo, who knew about these matters, said that we made a ladder out of our vices if we trampled the vices themselves underfoot. He was one of many who look on their youth with shame, and their life as a climbing out of the mire; but I doubt if even his belief in original sin would lead him to see a newborn baby as a sort of off-the-peg devil. It would be good if that strange idea could be banished for ever.