Cain Fleeing Abel
William Blake, 1826
We’ve known for a long time, now, that human nature has some kind of basic flaw that will lead us into doing evil if we don’t counter that nature with something. We don’t have much direct evidence from pre-literate times except for the murky hints we get from our earliest literature, which, business records aside, seems to be almost exclusively concerned with this concept.
From the ancient Hebrew people of the Middle East we get the stories that shaped the “Western” conception of this as evil within every human that must be resisted – we get the name of this evil as “sin” from the same source. Genesis and parts of the other books of the Pentateuch were redacted from some of the oldest human literature that still survives in modern culture, nearly as old as the Sumerian Gilgamesh epic.
The ancient Greek dramas were a little later, but grew out of the Homeric literature that probably represents the first Greek attempts to write down their oral foundation odes, and though they found lighter themes in the Comedy, the Tragedy was the quintessential literary statement of that culture, and reflects the same theme of human flaws being the wellspring of all misery. The Hellenic world’s synergic culture clash with the Semitic one led to a “melting pot” of ideas that sprang dozens, if not hundreds of new schools of thought into being, many if not most finding new things to say about our tragic human flaws.
The school of thought that succeeded in dominating all European cultures for the next twenty centuries, Christianity, had many forms throughout its formative period, and the ones that survive today did so, paradoxically, primarily by killing off the others; heretics, as they called them. Paradoxical, of course, because the most radically new concept of the new schema was an injunction to love not only your family, your tribe, your neighbors, but even your enemies. Part of what is wrong with us, apparently, is that we aren’t able to follow the best ideas we can come up with, even the ones we most ardently embrace!
The school of thought that now dominates the Middle East and much of Africa and most of the East Indies, Islam, appeared about seven centuries later from the the same Semitic tradition, its great literary work, the Qur’an, retelling many of the same stories as the Pentateuch. Though they each have a superficially similar set of rules to follow, the major difference I see among these three great systems of thought is in how they approach the remediation our tragic human flaw, sin.
The oldest of the three, Judaism, originally expiated sin through animal sacrifice, which became untenable once the only sanctioned place (by then) for that sacrifice was destroyed by the ancient Romans, whereupon a new Rabbinic culture was promulgated to study all the Torah’s laws, and use reason and dialectic to tease out any more abstruse meanings the ancient texts may have, and expound these meanings for a modern Jewry. Thus the way to combat sin is to study and converse on the nature of God’s commandments, in order to keep those commandments.
The winners of the Jesus Wars mostly believe in Saul of Tarsus’ (Saint Paul’s) interpretation that Original Sin was passed down from the ejection of humans from the Garden, and can’t be washed away permanently except by faith in the postulation that a savior was killed as a scapegoat for their sin. Thus the way to combat sin is to suspend critical thinking.
The most recent offshoot of the monotheistic tradition venerates the prophets of the other two, but claims that their Messenger was the last one. They deny that people are born with original sin, but find that sin is that very thing that got our mythic ancestors evicted from paradise – disobeying God. The very name Islam means obedience, and that is the way to combat sin.
Unfortunately, in all these systems, the local and temporal customs of the various cultures of the people who practice them are often imbued with the aura of divine commandments, so the face of their orthopraxy varies from place to place, and even more markedly from century to century. This is just a schematic view of the three, of course – I know much less about the way other faiths, such as the various flavors of Hindu, Jain, Sikh, or Buddhist thought, approach the concept of sin, so I’ll just stick to what I know best: the three offshoots of the ancient Hebraic traditions that still flourish today, and have always affected the civilization I live in, the one we call Western, and continue to do so.
Perhaps it is because I am a child of this civilization that I see the tragically flawed nature of humanity as a pivotal issue, on which the fortune and fate of the world of humanity has always ridden. The desperate cravings we have to pile up material wealth, and to lord power over others of our kind do seem to have wrought tragedy after tragedy in the long trudge down the ages, though, and in the short time I’ve been in the world.
Great changes are always stressful to those who live through them, and everything born, dies. It may not be of any account to the universe, really, that we humans have set off the sixth great extinction event the planet has seen, or even that it is likely to be many orders of magnitude faster than previous ones, leading to the possibility that humanity’s greed and distaste for learning enough to see the big picture may sterilize life from this planet. But to my way of thinking, there can be no greater sin.
Paradox reigns supreme in human affairs – in every generation there are inspired tzadiks, who come up with ways to live that inspire the rest of us with their unique visions of better ways to live; paradoxically, we tend to kill them. We tend to promise to take their teachings to heart, but can’t seem to do it – we are all sinners.