One of the common claims in many progressive Christian circles is that original sin is an idea that can be readily dismissed. For many, in fact we are morally obligated to set this doctrine aside as positively harmful to humanity’s self image. I remember a UCC pastor who told me that he didn’t like original sin for that reason. My response was that I didn’t like it either but I think it’s one of the best descriptive tools we’ve got.
In that, I’d like to make a progressive Christian case for original sin. But to do that means I’ll have to dispense with a number of views that gets associated with that doctrine. In doing so, I hope the descriptive power of original sin can be more apparent. But it will also involve reconstructing the idea in a way fitting to what we know about our world today, including our evolutionary story. For Mordechai Kaplan, to reconstruct a doctrine is to imagine what positive power and role it had in the past and to re-interpret it in ways that allow that same function to continue today.
To talk about original sin is not to talk about a “fall“. Sometimes “The Fall” is used as shorthand for original sin. That is, a long time ago, we humans had it right, were perfect but then something was done to undo that. We can think of Adam and Eve eating the apple in the garden which undid their idyllic state. But the idea that there was a perfect past that we have fallen from or need to return to appears in so many cultures that it could be a primordial myth that we are saddled with.
But our knowledge of history should make us discard this view. First because moral progress has happened, consider slavery or the status of women. And we’ve had a revolution in knowledge about our world through many disciplines over the last few centuries. Accompanying this has been a technological revolution that has raised life expectancy, reduced the contingencies of nature, and connects human life together more then ever. That’s worth celebrating. And it’s worth considering that many of the problems we see today can be found in reading literature from the past.
The larger problem with the fall is its cosmic story. At one moment in time because of humans, sin enters into the world, and also death. But our evolutionary story should make us aware that death has been here since the beginning of life and that most of the earth’s history does not involve the human race at all. The moment Genesis is taken as a historical record is the moment that it can be dismissed. And unfortunately that means that whatever resources can be found in Genesis will likewise be dismissed. Myth made literal loses it’s descriptive power.
So I would propose we do away with the fall and separate it out from original sin. Instead of thinking of original sin in temporal terms, ie the first sin, I would propose that we take a page from Aristotle. First cause, for Aristotle was not the first event to happen, it was the grounding, the conditions for any event. I would make that same claim for original sin. Original sin is the origin, the grounding, from which and any action follows. It’s all inclusive in its description.
Which is why I’d also like to separate original sin from the language of sex, and shame and guilt. Augustine, who is largely seen as the author of original sin though there was prior thought building up to it, thought original sin was somehow passed through sexual intercourse. There’s been a tendency in Christian history by many to equate sex with sin. While sex can be an engima, it can hardly be the center of moral thought. It can be a key to unlock all sorts of human actions to be sure. But its importance has been inflated so much so that to think about “morals” apart from sex is hard to do in our current discourse. To think of how we organize the economy, relate to the poor, questions of war and peace, is to equally be engaged in moral thought.
Now Matthew Fox says that Jesus knew nothing of original sin. Rather it comes to us from the 4th century. This appears to be an argument against original sin, though I don’t know why. When I claim Christianity, I’m claiming to be participate in a 2000 year tradition. In that I want to relate to the full resources that this 2000 year conversation has developed. I don’t want to be stuck in the first century, which was no more an idyllic time then our own. Jesus knew nothing of the reformation, nor of modern democracy, not even Tillich, but they are also part of our tradition.
Of course, not everything in the tradition should be embraced. Some of it can, some of it can be argued against and even discarded, while some of it can be reconstructed. I’m seeking to do the latter with original sin. Why? Because I think our description of sin has been too tied with discrete actions willingly chosen by individuals. If original sin has been tied with guilt and shame it’s because the descriptive power it could have has been removed . That power comes from describing the very structures of existence, including our own that provides the context by which we act and live. That goes far beyond volitional choice, which is a small piece of what we do and why.
One example of such a structure could be thought of in terms of history. I used to live in Wyoming, right by the Bighorn Mountains. If you go a few hundred miles east, you will hit the Black Hills of South Dakota. It’s gorgeous. And the land between was promised in the Treaty of Ft. Laramie in 1868 to the Sioux. But when gold was discovered in the Black Hills, this treaty was ignored and the land taken. The land I was living in was stolen land. It was not a choice I made and yet I benefited from it. If you were to drive to any of the surrounding reservations, the consequences of such an action is also readily apparent. That is not to make you and I feel guilty, that is simply a descriptive account of the reality we all live in and relate to today.
There are many formative events which shape the context by which we live. The transatlantic slave trade has forever shaped our country. America was born in slavery resulting in the civil war, the civil rights movement, the incarceration and disenfranchisement of African Americans today, the “southern strategy”, we are shaped from childhood, before we could speak about “choice,” onwards when it comes to racial matters. That history shapes us and the context by which choices can be made today. They provide the field of relevant possibilities we have as a nation. For those on the “wrong” side of the racial divide, that is keenly felt but it impacts us all.
To be able to address systematic injustice, we have to have descriptive tools and form lines of inquiry that ask about the structures that shape our lives and our society outside of individual actors and their free will. Whether it is racism, sexism, class structures, or the history of violence. For instance, is America’s violence tied to our own founding event, in this case a war?And to the mythologies which arise from it? To recover original sin is to recover the ability to ask such questions.
So history is a good context. And one which is an important place for progressives to start. But it is possible to look at broader categories. For Josiah Royce, individuation becomes both necessary for a full life and the occasion of the estrangement we experience from one another. Anybody who remembers adolescence can sympathize with this. In our ability to get a handle on our self hood we have to define our self as not someone or something else. Siblings do this, nations do this, races do this, religions too. And they must because it is our own uniqueness which is our contribution to the whole. And yet the violence done to others in this, is real too. In that, original sin can speak of how necessary structures support virtue and vice, often at the same time.
Another example of this could be our finitude. We are aware of our own demise. The kind of psychological inquiries and imaginings which result from this knowledge could fill libraries. I recommend John Shelby Spong’s book, Eternal Life, which grapples with the destructive ways we seek to avoid our finitude and the ways we can embrace and transcend it. That produces a dialectic that Reinhold Neibuhr writes about, that we are creatures and we have the ability of self transcendence. If we live as creatures we forget any higher calling in life. And that precludes adding our own contribution and value to life. And yet if we over estimate ourselves we forget our finitude and engage in hubris, the ends of which are likely to be destructive.
For instance, how many cruelties do we inflict on others because of our certainty of our own rectitude? How many injustices because some one else’s contingent experiences differ from our own? When Hegel assumed that 18th century Prussia was the apex of all history, we can laugh but are we far off of our own estimation of ourselves? And think of the reverse, when we don’t value or we underestimate ourselves. How many times have stories been told about women, various minorities, oppressed populations that are often believed by those populations? That women can’t do such and such, that such and such a culture is not as developed as our own?
There could be other candidates for original sin. But while all of these candidates provide descriptive power in understanding who we are and how we act in the world, they find their basis not on any one individual bad decision that someone else does. They find their rooting rather in who we are as human beings. As such, original sin is a common experience we all share and participate in. Hopefully that can introduce a bit of grace in our dealings with one another as opposed to looking for a scapegoat to blame all our troubles on. We’re all in this together.
And that grace is needed. Because a systematic examination of the conditions which mark our common life can bring despair. How can we ever learn to live well with each other? How can we leave an environment that is sustainable for the future? Can we ever move beyond war? Am I doomed to participate in structures of injustice? Forgiveness and grace take on new meaning in this and give us the means to act in the world, knowing we’ll miss up and have blind spots. The practices of confession and absolution are not curious artifacts of a bygone era but are needed more then ever.
Dwight Welch is the campus minister at Ecumenical Campus Ministries at the University of Kansas.