Sin belongs to groups, also to humanity as an entire group. Here is a sketch of how that might work.
The seed of my idea comes from Paradise Lost, book 9. Eve, alone and vulnerable in the Garden, is beguiled by Satan into eating forbidden fruit. When she comes to her husband and asks him to do the same, Adam responds first in thought, revealing his own inevitable succumbing:
O fairest of Creation, last and best
Of all God’s works, Creature in whom excelled
Whatever can to sight or thought be formed,
Holy, divine, good, amiable, or sweet!
How art thou lost! how on a sudden lost,
Defaced, deflowered, and now to death devote!
Rather, how hast thou yielded to transgress
The strict forbiddance, how to violate
The sacred fruit forbidden! Some cursed fraud
Of enemy hath beguiled thee, yet unknown,
And me with thee hath ruined; for with thee
Certain my resolution is to die:
How can I live without thee! how forego
Thy sweet converse, and love so dearly joined,
To live again in these wild woods forlorn!
Should God create another Eve, and I
Another rib afford, yet loss of thee
Would never from my heart: no, no! I feel
The link of Nature draw me: flesh of flesh,
Bone of my bone thou art, and from thy state
Mine never shall be parted, bliss or woe.
No Satanic temptation moves Adam–he suspects instantly “some cursed fraud of enemy.” But neither is Adam tied by the joys of Paradise or devotion to God. Instead he is drawn by “the link of Nature” to follow his wife, even into misery and death. Thus his answer aloud to Eve:
…I with thee have fixed my lot,
Certain to undergo like doom: If death
Consort with thee, death is to me as life;
So forcible within my heart I feel
The bond of Nature draw me to my own;
My own in thee, for what thou art is mine;
Our state cannot be severed; we are one,
One flesh; to lose thee were to lose myself.
It is Eve who draws Adam to destruction.
[There is no misogyny in this, for Adam is not excused by Milton for giving into “the bond of Nature” which draws him to his own. What about the bond to God in whose image he is made? Adam is God’s just as Eve is Adam’s, and both prove traitors. Had Adam but known that by righteousness Eve could have been saved! Jesus in Paradise Regained comes under temptation as well, and by resisting He redeems His lost people and undoes Adam and Eve’s failures. Adam by his choice fails to be redeemer to Eve, and instead joins her in perdition, which also breaks their designed harmony.]
This state of affairs speaks to the way in which sin enters human life and how it spreads. I think that if Eve had not been created, Adam could never have sinned. Again, I am not talking about women in particular. If Eve had been made without an Adam, she too would have been impervious to sin. It all comes down to how desires are manipulated. Human beings alone among creatures have a very dim understanding of how to live on earth, and therefore our desires are subject above all to words and personal influence. Animals are governed by instinct, or by the brute strength of others. Certainly humans have instinct and a hierarchy based on strength, but more deeply we are able to be led, taught, manipulated, deluded by other persons. Our trust or mistrust, love or hatred of those around us is the academy in which we learn to decide. Take for instance the ridiculous importance of parenting to the proper development of human children. Parents are not mere physical protectors for weak children, but catalysts for necessary emotional reactions in children as they grow. The absence or neglectfulness of parents often opens young people up to instability, obsession, imbalance, suicide. What parents say to us or think of us in our youth has an ineffable power over how we live when we get older. Love interests have a similar power. So do the words of charismatic businesspeople, politicians, philosophers, artists, preachers…
A man in the Garden of Eden with only God and animals has no scope for disobedience. The God who made Him and gives Him all things speaks to Him in words of blessing and of command. There is no other personal influence. He may gain knowledge on his own by exploring the garden or thinking abstractly about his condition, but without any chatter disrupting the clear signal from God, Adam’s understanding cannot be colored with doubt or discontent. Even the devil cannot disrupt Adam’s state of happy trust. This is key, because it also means that Eve’s temptation by the serpent would not have ended in her fall if she had been only one, rather than one of two. Satan actually has no personal influence of his own. He speaks through an animal’s mouth; there is no basis for trust in him. The human being who knows God as Adam did will laugh at the serpent’s assaults and get on with his gardening. God gives all things, including life. Why even consider ideas that run contrary to his Word?
The situation changes, though, when another person enters. Persons weigh down our choices. They draw us from one good to another like magnets. The peril of “male and female” is that Adam is introduced to another trustworthy, loveworthy, person. “Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.” Unlike the serpent, the woman is alike to him, able to reason and relate and suggest and react–just as God is. The result? A test of free will. There is now a good apart from God, something to weigh against His commands. This works the same for Eve, except that she never lived without Adam’s influence, as he did without hers. What was Eve thinking when she listened to the serpent? She was thinking of her husband, wondering whether he would side with the serpent or with God. Doubtless Adam had never contradicted God’s Word, but the very existence and personality of her husband made it hard for her to be sure. Perhaps the words of temptation resonated with something Adam had said once. Adam would have spoken to her about God’s command before, giving her a framework for the act of interpretation, hearing words and using thought to apply them to practice. She was now interpreting for herself, holding the words of God in memory, trying to apply them to obedience, as well as to what seemed best in light of her relation to Adam. When we know only God, our interpretation of His words is clear–obedience is the only “bond of Nature,” since our nature is akin to God’s. But when our nature is also drawn to another, we have to work out and harmonize the separate influences in our minds. The draw of Adam helped Eve to sin, and certainly her draw made him fall with her (as Milton relates). Relationship among human persons was Satan’s occasion to “mix wickedness into human nature” (cf. Gregory of Nyssa The Great Catechism).
Indeed, the more people who influence us, the more we are tempted to wickedness, since we seek the goods we seek mostly based on such influence. The draw of people, frankly, draws us away from God. Of course, in order for disobedience to result, a wicked influence must impose. There had to be suggestion from the serpent–otherwise the Garden and the first marriage were too happy to forsake. But after that first imposition, wickedness mixes like yeast into the influence-network of humankind. It was a confused version of love that made Adam and Eve fall together, but as early as the next generation, murderous hatred appeared. Cain was drawn to Abel in envy and rage (becoming a kind of human devil), committing a converse sin to that of his parents. So sin stays with human nature, not only because of each individual heart, but because of the lines drawn from one heart to another. We arouse confusion and disobedience in one another simply by existing and acting and speaking. My humanity, spoiled by bad influence, in turn spoils the humanity of my neighbor.
Yet, “it was not good for man to be alone.” It is no new doctrine that bad company corrupts good character. Orders of hermitage and orders of celibacy were set up to combat the social power of sin. The ideal of being shut up in the Garden, alone with God, has persisted through history. Yet, “it was not good for man to be alone.” The decree of God that placed a tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden also placed another temptation–a human relationship. Both tree and woman, however, were too good not to create. God was too loving to leave Adam alone, even knowing that man would leave his Father in heaven and cleave to his wife.
What, then? Human community is a great and necessary good. It is also a conduit of evil. Often, isolation seems to help with holiness. Distance from others cools the fiery drama of living–reduces fear, jealousy, envy, anger, discontent, greed, lust… In every society, among both the religious and the irreligious, there are those who withdraw from mankind for the purpose of purity. Yet it is part of God’s decree that humans shall be together in marriages, families, nations, churches, etc. We must come to grips with our social nature before God. I do not know how. Maybe the life of Jesus redeems human influence and sociality because of His perfect love. In that case, thinking in the vein of John’s epistles, the renewal of human personal influence by God Himself allows for the genesis of a human community of interpersonal love that is also reconciled to the personal influence of God. In the church, humans can be united both to God and to one another by uniting themselves to the sinless human-God Jesus. “We love because He first loved us.”
Still, we cannot too heavily idealize this community. Like all human influence, the interactions of church people carry the potential for great harm. History tells us this. Church community goes wrong, not just because it is made up of individual “sinful people,” but actually because it is a community knit tightly together. Every such community is full of heartbreak and disappointment; its members are each other’s stumbling blocks. St. John’s exhortation to “love one another” is so repetitive in his letters because it never expires. The church is the paragon of loving human interaction insofar as it is connected to Jesus, but it also must constantly be reminded to act the part. The church grows into its identity in this sense.
There is more to be said. The question of sin in the isolated person has to be addressed further. There are more Milton connections; there are particularly interesting questions to ask about the implications for marriage and celibacy; there are links to the “Social Trinity” conversation, to free will, to alternative interpretations of the original sin narrative, etc. Or this could all be fallacious. We’ll see.