Last Wednesday’s installment of Saving Jesus at my church took aim at original sin, but it quickly became obvious to me that neither my minister nor the theologians featured on the DVD had any idea what the doctrine meant. Wikipedia, that source of all that is good and true, has a reasonably good overview here. Highlights:
The Augustinian tradition makes a clear distinction between sin which is the result of freely and consciously chosen actions, and the impersonal nature of original sin; namely the unchosen context and situations into which the child is born and which surrounds the baby, and into which the child might be educated and formed. Effectively, the Augustinian teaching says that even though the baby has not made any conscious choice, it is nevertheless personally affected by—and subject to—sin, and that God’s grace is essential to give hope and salvation. The Augustinian view is seen by some scholars as a negative view of human nature, since Augustine of Hippo believed that the human race, without God’s help, is depraved.
Original sin, from the Augustinian perspective, is not a free and individual choice by a baby; but rather the effect of the sum total of “world sin”, taught analogously through the story of the sin of Adam and Eve. The Augustinian doctrine of original sin teaches that every individual is born into a broken world where sin is already active; that they are inevitably influenced personally by the actions of others and the consequences of choices made by others. The Augustinian effectively believes that human nature—and hence every individual person—is flawed. The Augustinian remedy for original sin is baptism; the ritual washing away of the unchosen but inevitable condition of birth sin; and a vigorous declaration by Christians that sin shall not prevail, but that God’s grace can overpower it with our free cooperation….
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that in “yielding to the tempter, Adam and Eve committed a personal sin, but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state … original sin is called “sin” only in an analogical sense: it is a sin “contracted” and not “committed”—a state and not an act” (404). This “state of deprivation of the original holiness and justice … transmitted to the descendants of Adam along with human nature” (Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 76) involves no personal responsibility or personal guilt on their part (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 405). Personal responsibility and guilt were Adam’s, who because of his sin, was unable to pass on to his descendants a human nature with the holiness with which it would otherwise have been endowed, in this way implicating them in his sin.
Though Adam’s sinful act is not the responsibility of his descendants, the state of human nature that has resulted from that sinful act has consequences that plague them.
It seems to me that of all the Christian doctrines, this one would be the easiest to believe. No one who takes an honest look at themselves, let alone the world, can deny that there is always a gap between our moral ideals and what we actually do. All the willpower and wisdom of our ancestors has failed to produce utopia. In fact, the grander our schemes to eradicate human evil, the more likely we are to descend into tyranny and totalitarianism, viewing others as mere obstacles to our plans to cleanse the species.
What a bummer.
So I understand the appeal of Matthew Fox’s alternative, “original blessing,” which was the focus of this week’s DVD presentation. Fox is a joyful mystic who reminds us that God’s original design for the world was good, and that we can still encounter Him in every aspect of creation. Classical theologians have often exercised far more imagination in painting the torments of sin and hell than in depicting the beauty and holiness of God. Fox invites us to see the “cosmic Christ” in all living beings (something like the “Buddha nature”). When we chop down a forest or drive a species to extinction, we are killing Christ, he says.
Anything that motivates Christians to care about the environment is fine with me; the post-Enlightenment West has been captured too long by a mechanical, exploitative view of nonhuman creatures. But…nature is more than just the waving trees and soaring seagulls on the DVD. When a lion eats a zebra, is he killing Christ? The Creation also fell when humanity sinned. Pain, suffering, death, the scarcity of resources that means we all live at another’s expense — these are original sin as applied to nature. The Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer’s famous engraving
of Adam and Eve shows the moment before the fatal bite into the apple: Adam’s foot is on the tail of a mouse, while a cat watches stealthily, as if to signify that predation is about to enter the world.
Christianity exists to answer the life-or-death question: what do we do when we come up against the limits of our own goodness, individually and as a species? What if Atlas CAN’T hold up the world — because he’s part of it?
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit. (Romans 7:15-8:4, NIV)
I cited this passage in the discussion period of “Saving Jesus” last week, after my minister said there was no Biblical support for original sin, and he said, “Well, I’m glad that works for you, but the doctrine that you find appealing may be a turn-off to somebody else.” (He also said “heresies are neither right nor wrong, they’re just different expressions of how people experience Jesus”.)
And that’s the heart of our disagreement. For the “Saving Jesus” crowd, religion is about producing spiritual experiences. For me, it’s about understanding and coping with reality. Heresies are heretical because they don’t work. They fail to explain important aspects of human nature, or lead us further from ethical behavior, or produce cramped and judgmental souls instead of strong and joyful ones, or just make no logical sense. “One true faith” is no more imperialist than “one true science”. I would like to see Christianity become more like science in this sense: to once again understand itself as a truth-seeking enterprise, premised on a single shared reality, yet recognizing that its descriptions of that reality are evolving approximations, and displaying a democratic and humble openness to consider new information from every source. Now that would be original.