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