Original Sin

Alan Jacobs has a new book out. It is titled Original Sin: A Cultural History . Jacobs is Professor of English at Wheaton College and also author of a biography of C.S. Lewis (among many other books). In any case, one of the first things you notice about Original Sin are the reviews on the back cover. I love the one from Alan Wolfe: “I do not believe in original sin. I do believe in Alan Jacobs.” These are the kinds of endorsements that truly reflect some of the points made in the book about the deep ambivalence (or disdain, really) regarding the concept of original sin. 

For the Christian psychologist, the book makes one think about the implications for psychology of an Augustinian view of original sin. I was particularly struck by the final chapter dealing with contemporary psychology and, in particular, the work of Philip Zimbardo and the Stanford Prison Experiment conducted in 1971. After explaining some of the design and outcomes from the study in which students were randomly assigned to “guard” and “prisoner” status and soon after had some guards engaging in abusive behavior to fellow students, Jacobs points out Zimbardo’s conclusions that include that people are essentially good and can turn evil. Jacobs is right to point out that Zimbardo fails to argue for the inherent goodness of people but simply assumes it to be true. In response to those who say the word “evil” should have “withered” from our vocabulary, Jacobs raises the question: “But doesn’t Zimbardo’s book suggest the opposite, that the word [evil] is of wider application than most of us (especially Zimbardo) would want to admit? Doesn’t it make us wonder whether something is wrong with all of us?” (p. 252).

2 thoughts on “Original Sin

  1. I think that it’s appropriate to have a balance in how a therapist/psychologist handles the doctrine of original sin in his or her practice. If one emphasizes it too much he becomes self-righteous and legalistic. A counselee’s attempt to build self-esteem is demolished because her therapist tells her she is being “prideful” and should embrace self-deprecation because of her sinful nature.
    Yet we must realize that anything good within us in a gift from God, because we are born in the image of Adam and all he represents until God places us within Christ and He becomes our representative before God. It’s a delicate balance, because we do not want to be judgmental towards our clients (if the Lord blesses me to get that far in my education).

  2. I agree with you about balance. I find I am dealing with shame much more than I am a failure to recognize that something is wrong. Is an understanding of original sin helpful in that discussion? I think it can be, but it is a much different terrain than when one is dealing more with humanism and related assumptions. I do think that an accurate understanding of original sin may influence broader theories of personality. If the Christian psychologist does not endorse secular humanism as an assumptive premise, then what lays at the foundation of our understanding of persons? How such insights translate into clinical practice would, of course, have to be studied further, but it seems like an important consideration.

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