Original sin is the deprivation of original holiness among men. Properly understood, such a deprivation is, to use a skeptic’s buzzword, empirical. Wrote Lewis:
The key is history. Terrific energy expended — civilizations are built up — excellent institutions devised; but each time something goes wrong. Some fatal flaw always brings the selfish and cruel people to the top and it all slides back into misery and ruin.
We do not bear particular guilt for original sin, but we suffer under it all the same.
Confucian Taoists explain this through a dualism, giving equal force and substance to evil as well as good, assigning equally matched agents to each side. Marxists, for their part, explain this observation with a similar dualism, dialectical materialism, offering also the hope that utopia is just around the corner. Buddhism blames attachment. In each of these, some men are really evil— in the case of Buddhism, we replace these scales with measuring attachment to things and persons. It takes only a civics course here in the United States to learn that our restricted government is thanks to the very similar observation that no man in high office should be trusted with much power.
If we approach original sin with this understanding, we see the outstanding thing about it very clearly. Original sin is essentially hopeful.
Unlike other creeds, Christianity not only convicts men of a lack of total holiness — if anything is empirical and obvious about men it is this — but also to convict them of essential, real goodness. Not just the yin are called to goodness but the yang exactly as much. Even when is the fault of fellow men that we are not entirely holy, we have no excuse to surrender ourselves to the black wind of the second circle, even in the little things of which we would absolve ourselves if we could.
For that matter, we see that original sin, and therefore a fixed nature shared equally among men, fits the data better than other explanations. Putting aside theological concerns — forgiveness would be less necessary for some than for others if dualism were true — we see in history that men in all ages and all places are neither wholly perfect or wholly imperfect, and no self-described utopia has ever arisen which did not pass away. Utopia is famously a pun on being “no place” as much as “good place,” after all; what is clear to every great moral leader in history is that the struggle between something like the City of God and something like the City of Man can only be resolved a great unveiling, which is, illustratively, always understood as an apocalypse. As Chesterton notes:
The world is what the saints and the prophets saw it was; it is not merely getting better or merely getting worse; there is one thing that the world does; it wobbles. Left to itself, it does not get anywhere; though if helped by real reformers of the right religion and philosophy, it may get better in many respects, and sometimes for considerable periods. But in itself it is not a progress; it is not even a process; it is the fashion of this world that passeth away. Life in itself is not a ladder; it is a see-saw.
To deny original sin is to say that either we are continually getting better by force of will or to say we’re about as good as we’ll ever be, therefore denying the good of charity. Like a Marxist, we may come to believe that, despite the evidence, utopia will come upon us like a salvation some day, only passing through arson and not fire. Like a pantheist, we may resign ourselves to seeing the good of a slum, shrugging the shoulders and wondering half-aloud, “What could I really do?” Christians are very clearly called to believe no man is beyond hope that we may love him.
In rejecting the clear fact that men are not perfectly holy and are somehow incapable of perfect holiness, we must reject enough else that Christianity ceases to be a thing Lewis, or Chesterton, or Vincent of Lérins would recognize. We reject salvation, the reason to be Christian. I have a sneaking suspicion that this is precisely the goal.