The Dumbest Idea Ever

St. Augustine was obsessed with sex. He thought incessantly about getting laid. At the same time, he believed that his desires were sinful. In this he wasn’t much different from a lot of sanctimonious Repugnican moralists today. We know all this because Augustine was the original provider of Too Much Information (copiously supplied in his Confessions, written between AD 397 and 400). So tormented was Augustine by this contradiction in his own character that he decided that we are all BORN EVIL and deserving of hell and can only be saved by God’s grace, extended to us through the Church despite our essential, defining unworthiness.

I know. This probably seems totally nuts to you, because, well, it is. The notion that a newborn child, having done NOTHING yet, is nonetheless deserving of eternal punishment for his or her wickedness may well be the dumbest idea that anyone has ever taken seriously. But under the name of the doctrine of Original Sin, it’s still the official line of most Christian denominations. Augustine even imagined a mechanism by which newborns acquired this essential wickedness: they inherited it.

Long, long ago, his story goes, our first ancestors, Adam and Eve, did this really terrible thing, something so wicked that they and all their progeny, forever, deserved to grow old and die and then suffer not temporary but ETERNAL, excruciating torture. What crime, you might ask, is so terrible as to deserve such punishment? Well, they ate a fruit that they weren’t supposed to. Because no amount of repentance, over generations, is sufficient to atone for so heinous a crime, we are forced to conclude, according to Augustine, that newborns are a bad lot.

Fortunately, again according to Augustine, the Church was given an instrument of the Divine Grace, sacraments like baptism and communion, by which ritualistic means people could cleanse themselves, stand thus cleansed before God, and go happily about their lives.

But those weren’t enough for Martin Luther. He was a nervous fellow. He suffered terribly from intestinal distress and constipation not helped by his constant guilt and worry that he wouldn’t be good enough to be a priest—a representative of God on Earth. He worried that he wasn’t good enough to be himself saved, much less bring others to salvation. So, as his own ordination to the priesthood approached (AD 1507)—as he readied himself to take the sacrament that was supposed to cleanse him and make him worthy enough—he thought, no, this isn’t possible. Nothing can make me good enough for God, miserable worm that I am. So, he embraced the Augustinian doctrine and upped the ante—nothing that you do, he decided, no amount of good in the world, no amount of taking sacraments and following the law, will save you. ONLY via grace is salvation possible.

There followed several centuries in which those who adhered to the traditional Augustinian doctrine (the Catholics) and those who protested that doctrine (the Protestants) hacked one another to death in prodigious numbers under the banner of the Prince of Peace.

Such is the role of bodily desire and bodily functions in religious history.

Copyright 2018. Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.

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About Bob Shepherd

interests: curriculum design, educational technology, learning, linguistics, hermeneutics, rhetoric, philosophy (Continental philosophy, Existentialism, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, ethics), classical and jazz guitar, poetry, the short story, archaeology and cultural anthropology, history of religion, prehistory, veganism, sustainability, Anglo-Saxon literature and language, systems for emergent quality control, heuristics for innovation
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