Humanity was originally created to rejoice in God, knowing the Father through the Son in the Spirit. In this knowledge and communion humanity would have enjoyed immortal, incorruptible life. But something went awry and a spanner was thrown into the Edenic works. Man freely turned his inner vision away from God and focused his attention on himself and the sensory pleasures of the world:
Thus then, as we have said, the Creator fashioned the race of men, and thus meant it to remain. But men, making light of better things, and holding back from apprehending them, began to seek in preference things nearer to themselves. But nearer to themselves were the body and its senses; so that while removing their mind from the things perceived by thought, they began to regard themselves; and so doing, and holding to the body and the other things of sense, and deceived as it were in their own surroundings, they fell into lust of themselves, preferring what was their own to the contemplation of what belonged to God. Having then made themselves at home in these things, and not being willing to leave what was so near to them, they entangled their soul with bodily pleasures, vexed and turbid with all kind of lusts, while they wholly forgot the power they originally had from God. (Gent. 3)
The above passage from Contra Gentes is critical for understanding St Athanasius’s understanding of original sin and humanity’s need for salvation. Sin is the turning away from the contemplation of the Holy Trinity and embedding oneself within oneself and the sensory experience of the world. It is a redirection of vision and thought, a decisive movement away from one’s proper end and good towards creatures and self. The result is a form of captivity to the body. As Athanasius phrases the matter, we have chosen that which is nearer or closer to ourselves, our physical, sensual existence. This may sound as if Athanasius is denigrating human embodiment; but in fact the opposite is the case. Embodiment is proper to human being; but it was not intended by the Creator to be the center and focus of human selfhood. Khaled Anatolios explains:
Whereas the Platonic tradition tends to portray the body as representing an estrangement from the true intelligible self, for Athanasius the significance of the body is precisely that it is “what is closest” to us and thus represents the danger not so much of self-estrangement as of self-indulgence. The body is meant to be the point of departure, as it were, for the ascent of self-transcendence. When it becomes instead the end-point of an orientation to self-indulgence, its proper ontological dynamism is inverted. … [T]he soul, instead of piloting the body in conformity with the ascent of the mind, becomes enmeshed in the desires and fears of the body, inverting the proper teleology of the human structure and replacing it with a sheer indulgence in its own undirected and self-intoxicating movement. The result is that the body also then performs actions that are “the opposite” of its natural movements of self-transcending ascent. (Athanasius, pp. 45-46)
Instead of being the platform for the ascent to divinity, the body has become “the very point of human separation from God, not because of its materiality, but because it has become an idol” (John Behr, Nicene Faith, I:177). We have made our home in the world and its pleasures; and once having alienated ourselves from our loving Creator, we find ourselves embroiled in shame, guilt, disordered desires, idolatry, violence, and death:
But the truth of this one may see from the man who was first made, according to what the holy Scriptures tell us of him. For he also, as long as he kept his mind to God, and the contemplation of God, turned away from the contemplation of the body. But when, by counsel of the serpent, he departed from the consideration of God, and began to regard himself, then they not only fell to bodily lust, but knew that they were naked, and knowing, were ashamed. But they knew that they were naked, not so much of clothing as that they had become stripped of the contemplation of divine things, and had transferred their understanding to the contraries. For having departed from the consideration of the one and the true, namely, God, and from desire of Him, they had thenceforward embarked in various lusts and in those of the several bodily senses. Next, as is apt to happen, having formed a desire for each and sundry, they began to be habituated to these desires, so that they were even afraid to leave them: whence the soul became subject to cowardice and alarms, and pleasures and thoughts of mortality. For not being willing to leave her lusts, she fears death and her separation from the body. But again, from lusting, and not meeting with gratification, she learned to commit murder and wrong. (Gent. 3)
St Athanasius’s analysis of the human condition is spot-on. Clearly he has reflected deeply, not only on the Genesis account of Adam and Eve in the garden, but on life as it is lived and experienced. For human beings sin is typically not a great Luciferian event—”Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.” It is far more subtle. It’s as simple as attending to that which compellingly attracts our attention or promises immediate gratification. What is closer to us than our bodies?
May I offer you an apple?