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  • Flawed Subjectivities:Cyril of Alexandria and Mahāyāna Buddhism on Individual Volition, Sin, and Karma
  • Thomas Cattoi

What is wrong with the world? What is wrong with us? In his magisterial work Religion in Human Evolution, Robert Bellah charts the transformation of the religious imagination of humanity around the fifth century BCE that marked a shift in the approach to religious practice from primarily transactional to ethical and transformative.1 Before the so-called Axial Age, religious rituals were performed to obtain practical favors from deities and supernatural forces; later on, religious practice acquired a moral dimension that was closely associated with the policing of individual behavior and simultaneously reflected an increasing preoccupation with existential questions such as the cause and meaning of suffering and death. In other words, most human cultures, despite vast differences in social, cultural and economic conditions, came to the conclusion that something was "off" with the world and that perhaps religion could do something to alleviate or overcome this problem.2 Bella views the Axial Age as the catalyst for the emergence of all major religious traditions that have accompanied humanity for the past twenty-five centuries, and that have continued to ask the same existential questions, with answers that were sometimes similar and sometimes widely divergent. To paint with the broadest of brushes, Abrahamic traditions have largely conceptualized the problem of evil in terms of a ruptured relationship with a creator God, whereas the religions of the dharma eschew the notion of sin and uphold the notion of karma, an impersonal mechanism whereby all individuals—or indeed, all sentient beings—reap the fruits of their actions without the ultimate intervention of a deity.

The purpose of this essay is to explore two representative examples of these two approaches: the theology of ancestral sin developed by Cyril of Alexandria (376–444) and the Yogācāra understanding of karma and enlightenment. In highlighting the similarities between these two conceptual paradigms, I do not propose to question the irreducible differences between these two accounts, which include significantly divergent understandings of subjectivity and free will, as well as the fact that Cyril's anthropological vision functions within a theistic paradigm, whereas Yogācāra rejects divine oversight and leaves individual moral agents fully in charge of their own [End Page 29] destiny. What I propose to accomplish—more modestly—is to foreground a number of points of contact between these two traditions, inviting Buddhist thinkers and Christian theologians to ponder the communalities between their fundamental understandings of good and evil, and then to reflect on the speculative and theological particularities of their own claims.

First of all, why Cyril? For the past sixteen centuries, Western Christian theology has thought of original sin using the theological categories of Augustine of Hippo (354–430). According to his highly pessimistic anthropology, every member of the human race is personally guilty in God's eyes for the sin of the first parents, which is transmitted through the sexual act and can only be erased by the sacrament of baptism.3 In the Christian West, this approach was enormously influential, exerting a major impact on the development of medieval atonement theology and Calvin's later teaching on total depravity and dual predestination.4 While some contemporary authors like Karl Barth retained a profoundly Augustinian vision well into the twentieth century, the last few decades have witnessed a gradual deconstruction of Augustine's understanding of the fall.5 On one hand, his notion of our individual accountability for the sin of Adam is based on a highly idiosyncratic reading of certain passages in the letter to the Romans that few contemporary exegetes are willing to endorse. On the other hand, ordinary Christian believers find it increasingly impossible—and indeed, ethically objectionable—to believe in an omnipotent God holding all members of the human race accountable for a sin committed by distant, and possibly mythical, ancestors.

In his work Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, which charts the development of Christology in the writings of the Greek fathers in the first eight centuries of the Christian era, Eastern Orthodox theologian Paul Meyendorff introduced the Western audience to an alternative and often little-known anthropological...


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