I have to declare an interest in this. James is my friend and I was very honoured to be asked to launch the book in Hobart last month. But I am writing to tell you about it because I think it is a book which would be of great interest to Friends.
If you are familiar with James’s prize winning histories Van Dieman`s Land and 1835 you may think that a history of Western European thought is an odd choice for a colonial historian. But being a colonial historian is only one part of James’ identity.
James’s work background includes a stint as a social worker in Child Protection services, disability support worker and policy analyst for the Brotherhood of St Laurence and Anglicare Tasmania. He is well known and loved in Hobart, where he has earned great respect as a thoughtful analyst of social policy and an activist for social justice. Even today, after all his success as an historian, James is to be found every Friday working with a group of people, themselves disadvantaged, who provide a free lunch in a hall in central Hobart – a “No Bucks” for dozens of people who don’t have the money to buy food. So it’s not surprising really that James has turned his thoughts to why our society dismisses some people as being “no good”.
With apologies to those familiar with the doctrine, original sin is the idea that Adam and Eve sinned by defying God and eating the forbidden fruit, and that this sin is an hereditary stain, transmitted to all descendants of Adam. It is the doctrine that human nature is essentially bad, that we are born corrupted, or in modern terms, dysfunctional. It was St Augustine, the father of Western Christianity, who both shaped the doctrine and added sex and guilt into the mix.
Original sin is such a grotesque doctrine that it is difficult to grasp the weight it has been given in our history. But James’ book is a warning against what CS Lewis called “chronological snobbery”; the notion that our ideas are superior to those of the past.
James doesn’t just chart the influence of this doctrine on theological history, but also its influence on the thinkers of the modern era. He maps its influence on the thinkers of the Enlightenment, on the nascent social democratic movements, on the emerging discipline of psychology – and ultimately its insidious influence on us today.
James argues that the doctrine, about which the Christian churches have largely gone silent, is now so deeply embedded in our psyches that we don’t even recognise it for the cultural baggage that it is.
James’s book is a challenge to how you think. I read it and thought, could what he is saying be true of modern, secular Australia? Could we residents of the land of optimism really believe people are inherently bad?
And I thought about how our current political leaders treat people seeking protection in Australia as untermensch, less than men; how our sick and disabled people are “leaners not lifters”; how every young jobseeker in Australia, even those with children, are about to have all means of support taken off them for six months of every year because they are people with “sub-optimal behaviours”.
Clearly our leaders think whole groups of people are bad, lazy, avaricious or inherently dysfunctional. But I wondered if Australia’s strange acquiescence to these cruelties is because we have been conditioned to accept that view? That is the questioning journey that James’ book took me on. You may not agree with me, and I don’t know what your journey will be, but I guarantee you’ll be fascinated by it.
It’s not all dark. On your way you’ll meet beautiful and interesting characters, like the 5th century Celtic mystic, Pelagius, whose sunny view of people deeply irritated St Augustine. And you can dip your lid to the 14th century’s Julian of Norwich. Wanting to comfort the poor, whose hard lives were made harder by a church which told them they were wicked, she wrote the message so beloved of TS Eliot: ‘all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well’.
But there is another, even more compelling reason to read this book. The reason you must read this book is because it is the product of a unique man. James sees other people as fundamentally good and he is deeply kind. And those two things, so simple, so powerful, constitute a revolutionary way of thinking and being. His book contains two extraordinary challenges to how we think. One is about how we are to understand human being’s terrible propensity to evil.
Yes, James says, people are capable of terrible acts, and evil is pervasive in human history. But, he says, written history also has a bias towards describing the cruelty. He writes:
Documentary sources are largely produced by those with riches, honour, power and scribes. There are relatively few records of the “small” acts of kindness, compassion and self-sacrifice which, almost by definition, seek no recognition but keep children, communities and cultures alive. Honest history must admit that human beings seem capable of all things, and acknowledge that the history of original sin is not concerned with who we are, but who we think we are.
The second challenge is James`s questioning of what the history of western people might have been if we had had a different creation story, if we had not been taught we are so bad that our god left us alone in the garden of paradise. He asks, if we had had a different creation story, how different might our relationships with each other be? How different might our relationship with the planet be?
This book, like James’ other histories, like every conversation I have with him, left me believing that I could think differently and that I could be different in this world, and that that difference would make a difference. And that is the reason why I wanted to tell Friends about this book.
Jo Flanagan, Tasmania Regional Meeting
Born Bad: Original sin and the making of the western world by James Boyce. Published by Black Inc., August 2014. ISBN: 9781863956765. 272 pages; $34.99