The innocence of children…

The doctrine of Original Sin is very challenging to our sensibilities. The idea that every human is “born sinful” seems so judgmental and negative that we shy away from it. Sure, we can agree that “Everyone makes mistakes”, or perhaps that “We’ve all done things that we’re not proud of”. But this is not the same as Original Sin, for Christianity maintains that every human being is inherently sinful and separated from God.

Probably the most frequent point of departure from the doctrine of Original Sin is the supposed “innocence of children” – particularly babies. Surely someone who has spent their life crying, sleeping and occasionally soiling the odd nappy (ok, more than occasionally) cannot be considered sinful? What can they possibly have done to merit such a charge?

There are a few responses to this, including a line of thinking involving inherited sin from Adam and Eve. Adherence to this doctrine usually requires an acceptance of a literal Adam and Eve – not just as real people but also as parents of every subsequent generation of humans. Whether this is  reasonable and/or theologically sound is not the issue I’m addressing now: I’m more interested in whether such an interpretation is even required for us to accept that every human is inherently sinful.

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Augustine of Hippo wrote his Confessions when he was in his 40s, and in it he reflected on the entirety of his life thus far – including his very earliest years. Of course, like any of us, he didn’t remember his time spent as a mewling babe, but he did use keen observation of other infants to draw some general assumptions about his own behaviour. He considers the actions of a baby through the understanding of an adult, and in doing so, he raises some profound challenges to the innocence of children.

Nor was it good, even in that time, to strive to get by crying what, if it had been given me, would have been hurtful; or to be bitterly indignant at those who, because they were older… and wiser than I, would not indulge my capricious desires. Was it a good thing for me to try, by struggling as hard as I could, to harm them for not obeying me, even when it would have done me harm to have been obeyed?

Augustine notes that it is not the actions of the child that are in themself sinful. But God is not concerned purely with our actions, but also with our intents, and the desires of our heart.

The desires of an infant’s heart are selfish and often self-destructive, and is this entirely absolved by its lack of power to act? Watching a baby flailing his arms petulantly – but ineffectually – against his mother, Augustine wryly notes:

…the infant’s innocence lies in the weakness of his body and not in the infant mind.

Of course, I’m not trying to suggest that infants are particularly selfish or are in any way “worse” than adults. But they are human, too. Satirist and social critic P. J. O’Rourke, reflecting on his own experiences as a father, wrote thus:

“When Saint Augustine was formulating his doctrine of Original Sin, all he had to do was look at people as they are originally. Originally, they’re children. Saint Augustine may have had a previous job – unmentioned in his Confessions – as a preschool day-dare provider. But it’s wrong to use infantile as a pejorative. It’s the other way around. What children display is adultishness. Children are, for example, perfectly adultish in their self-absorption. Tiny tots look so wise, staring at their stuffed animals. You wonder what they’re thinking. Then they learn to talk. What they’re thinking is, My Beanie Baby!”

Don’t get me wrong – of course we should treat children differently and make allowances for behaviour that we would find unbearable in an adult. Augustine makes exactly this point, in fact:

In what ways, in that time, did I sin? Was it that I cried for the breast? If I should now so cry – not indeed for the breast, but for food suitable to my condition – I should be most justly laughed at and rebuked. What I did then deserved rebuke but, since I could not understand those who rebuked me, neither custom nor common sense permitted me to be rebuked. As we grow we root out and cast away from us such childish habits.

…Yet we look leniently on such things, not because they are not faults, or even small faults, but because they will vanish as the years pass. For, although we allow for such things in an infant, the same things could not be tolerated patiently in an adult.

But children aren’t actually little angels – they’re human.

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Related posts:

Asked and answered

Children of God?

Forgive us our sins

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Note: A modified version of this post was published at Christian Diversity, as part of a broader discussion on Original Sin.

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11 thoughts on “The innocence of children…

  1. Repugnant and disgusting. You and Augustine have placed theological tripe above the love and tolerance you were shown when you were children. Of course, we need to outgrow some of our native traits. But it is the genuine love of our parents and tribe that improve us, not the judgment and threats of a cruel god.

    • Interesting reaction, Don.

      Love for all people, big and small, is a wonderful thing. And of course we should tolerate things in children that we would find unbearable in an adult. Augustine makes exactly that point, in fact:

      “Yet we look leniently on such things, not because they are not faults, or even small faults, but because they will vanish as the years pass. For, although we allow for such things in an infant, the same things could not be tolerated patiently in an adult.”

      But children aren’t actually little angels – they’re human.

      Note: I’ve now expanded on this comment and incorporated it into the end of the post.

  2. Doctrines like Original Sin (Judeo-Christian) and Original Ignorance (Hindu-Buddhist) are quite offensive at first glance. Looking deeper they’re explaining why it is that the world isn’t perfect. As a prescientific shorthand for biological, cognitive and genetic dysfunction that is inherited, nurtured and effected through through events and experiences of life they should be as neutral as the scientific explanations for “what the hell is wrong with us and our world anyway.”

    Having kids I can testify that they’re not angels! And yet, Godde is described as having the same feelings for us as we have for our kids. Simply amazing.

  3. The idea that we’re born defective and need something to make us ‘perfect’ appeals to some people. I find it repulsive, but I have to admit it is a successful meme. What surprises me is that good, smart people buy into it. Where is the payoff? Do you just think it’s true and you’re making the best of things?

    There is absolutely no scientific evidence for the Original Sin construct and I wouldn’t want it to be true anyway. If I were cynical, I’d think the Church invented it to make their brand of salvation seem necessary.

    • Err… ever heard of inherited conditions … like genetic and mental conditions or dysfunctional environments. You’re right, I dislike the idea. Let’s dismiss genetics and psychology too. Sure they’re scientific but we’re talking about our opinion and opinion trumps fact.

    • If I were cynical, I’d think the Church invented it to make their brand of salvation seem necessary.

      Do you think the same thing about Doctors who tell their patients they have cancer and need to take certain drugs? Are they just inventing it to make their brand of drugs seem necessary?

  4. >Godde is described as having the same feelings for us as we have for our kids.

    Do you have a torture chamber prepared for your kids when and if they rebel against you? No. Typical humans exhibit greater love than the Yahweh we’re discussing.

    • It sounds like your departing from a radically different point to me. Your point of view is very much rooted in a dysfunctional portrayal of Godde. Historically this developed apart from people experiencing Godde. There have been several reformations (note the little “r”) along the way as a critical mass of frustration with wayward “Christian” doctrine and politics has veered off course.

      Do you have a simple brush that you apply to all conversation around Christian theology? My philosophical crayon box at least has a variety of colours. In my actual experience Godde’s concern is for the wholeness of people and works toward that. The “bad news gospel of fire insurance” is one that many reject in favour of the “good news gospel of Godde’s actual work in history.”

    • Godde is described as having the same feelings for us as we have for our kids.

      While it’s a common mistake to think that ‘were all God’s children’ that honour is only ever given to the people of God – those adopted as sons in Christ Jesus. Until such point, we are described in the bible as rebels and enemies of God (though it is true that God even loves his enemies enough to send his son to die in our place that we might be adopted as heirs!)

  5. @Don Severs:
    I can’t say that I’m familiar with the “cruel, threatening god” of which you speak, but it’s in any case not relevant to the post.

    The point here is about people, not God: are we inherently inclined towards wickedness? I believe that we are; I believe that all of recorded history bears witness to that view; and I note that the Christian doctrine is also aligned with it.

    I find your comments intriguing, particularly where you say that you find the notion that humans are inherently flawed to be “repulsive”, and that you “wouldn’t want it to be true anyway”. Personally, I’m more interested in whether something actually is true than whether or not it appeals to my tastes.

  6. Sentinel :
    . . . I’m more interested in whether something actually is true than whether or not it appeals to my tastes.

    I don’t like the idea or the fact that people inherit problems that run deep, into the very structure of our psyche and genetics and spirit. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t acknowledge that the scientific and prescientific explanations are all “accurate” about the human condition.

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