People filled the lecture hall of the Alumni Memorial Building on Tuesday night as Dr. Paula Fredriksen, this year’s scholarly orator for the annual David L. Dungan Memorial Lecture, presented on the controversial topic of sin.
Dr. David L. Dungan was a beloved and well-renowned scholar here at UT who passed away in 2008. As the long-time head of the Department of Religious Studies, Dungan specialized in early Christianity and the Christian New Testament. After his death, UT established a memorial lecture in 2010 to honor his life and legacy.
“The goal of the lecture series is to bring eminent scholars to Knoxville who specialize in early Christianity and the resources for studying early Christianity, as well as renowned speakers on the contemporary religious issues that so concerned our late colleague, such as the environment, war and peace, missions and the future of Christianity,” reads the description of the memorial lecture on utk.edu.
It is no surprise that this year’s keynote speaker had quite the credentials herself. Fredriksen currently serves as the distinguished visiting professor of comparative religion at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem while also holding her position at Boston University as the Aurelio professor of scripture emerita. Her latest work, "Sin: The Early History of an Idea," was the central topic of Tuesday night’s lecture.
Fredriksen discussed the topic of sin by comparing two “gentile” theologians, Origen and Augustine. She said it is imperative to understand sin as these two philosophers did because they each had a significant influence on not only the early Christian teachings but also on today’s widely accepted teachings of Christianity.
She summarized Origen’s philosophy as a belief in the perfection of God. All other beings, incapable to remain perfect, are doomed to sin. Thanks to God-given free will, Fredriksen said, Origen believed that humans could repent.
On the other side of the equation, Augustine felt sin was part of human nature, Fredriksen explained. After Adam committed the original sin, all people now have defective wills instead of free will. This stark contrast between Augustine and Origen leads the former to stress that the only hope for humanity is God’s grace.
Fredriksen pointed out how these controversies of sin and grace bring into question God’s fairness.
“How fair is God in punishing sinners if they cannot help but sin?” she asked the audience.
One member of the audience, Alissa Reeves, senior in English rhetoric writing and religious studies, was particularly interested in Fredriksen’s insights on the formation of Christianity.
“Dr. Fredriksen’s lecture has an impact on how we view, not only modern day Christianity, but also how that relates to ancient Hebraic society and the formulation of Christian tradition based on the early apostles,” Reeves said after the lecture. “I was especially interested on Dr. Fredriksen’s special interest on the apostle Paul, which ties into a senior seminar I am taking this semester regarding orthodoxy and heresy concerning the early church.”
Hoping to eventually study Middle Eastern archaeology herself, Reeves especially enjoyed the visit from someone with so much experience in the region.
For her part, Fredriksen said she hoped that listeners appreciated the importance of sin to world understanding.
“It brings everything else into focus, including the idea of God,” she said.