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James K.A. Smith on Original Sin

"Lost in Translation: Versions of the Fall", in Books and Culture (Nov/Dec 2007).

Mulhall persistently takes it that the doctrine of original sin specifies that the desires of humans are sinfully perverted “by virtue of their very condition as human.” In a favorite turn of phrase, Mulhall repeatedly emphasizes that humans are “always already” errant, corrupted, and misdirected. To be human, then, is to be “essentially” sinful, “sinful simply by virtue of being human.” But this is decidedly not the orthodox doctrine of original sin. Rather, what Mulhall give us is an all-too-common Gnostic rendition of it (one which, admittedly, evangelical Protestants are sometimes prone to confuse with the real thing). This is to read the Bible as if it began with the third chapter of Genesis. The paradox is that an orthodox understanding of original sin does not posit sin as properly “original”; that is, it does not regard sinfulness as coincident with being human and finite. And when such a misunderstanding of original sin is coupled with some hope of redemption, we find the contorted philosophical acrobatics that Mulhall finds in Heidegger and Wittgenstein: redemption from this condition of fallenness requires redemption from being human. What is consistently lacking in these secularized or formalized versions of the Fall is the distinct nuance of the Christian vision, viz., the ability to imagine the world otherwise. Without the prior goodness of creation, there is no Fall. Our present condition is “not the way it’s supposed to be,” as Cornelius Plantinga so aptly put it.