What follows in the next 2 posts is an attempt to address a theme that emerged out of some vibrant conversations I have been having this week. 

We have 3 good contemporary interpretations of ‘Original Sin’ on the table for discussion. I will call them:

  1. Evolutionary
  2. Realist
  3. Web -Networked.*

Evolutionary Types might talk about our ‘conflicted desires’ or ‘contradictory impulses’. This has been my favorite way to talk about what the ancients were attempting to describe with the idea of ‘original sin’ in the past. Something is wrong and we know it.

Even the Apostle Paul touched on the idea in Romans 7 by acknowledging that we don’t even do the good that we want to do! That is really saying something.

Evolutionary Types are fond of pointing to the conflicted nature of modern men to A) raise their offspring in a stable environment (like the mutually-beneficial social arrangement of marriage)  B) that is in conflict with another biological yearning to spread their seed far & wide to make more offspring. That is the most brute and easiest example.

Admittedly, this is not a very ‘christian’ perspective in some people’s estimation but I think that it illuminating.

  • Q: What if original sin is nothing more than what is going on at the ‘hard wiring’ level underneath the religions language?

Reinhold Niebuhr is famous for an approach called Christian Realism. He said some really interesting things about sin.

Aurthur Schlesinger Jr. says Niebuhr “emphasized the mixed and ambivalent character in human nature – creative impulses matched with destructive impulses, regard for others overruled by excessive self-regard, the will to power, the individual under constant temptation to play God in history. This is what is known in the ancient vocabulary of Christianity as the doctrine of original sin.”

James Cone summarizes this way:

“Because human finitude and humanity’s natural tendency to deny it (sin), we can never fully reach that ethical standard.”

He was speaking of love and justice. Cone comments, “Since Niebuhr saw justice as a balance of power between groups, whether classes, races, or nations, he saw it always in a state of flux, never achieving perfection in history.”

  • Q: What if original sin is better thought of as a deadly combination of human limitation and the natural tendency to deny it? 

A web approach can be heard from thinkers like Terry Eagleton in ‘On Evil’ and was suggested by Bo Eberly (also know as ‘Bo East’).

Eagleton on Original Sin:

“There is a sense in which freedom and destructiveness are bound up together. In the complex web of human destinies, where so many lives are meshes intricately together, the freely chosen actions of one individual may breed damaging, entirely unforeseeable effects in the lives of countless anonymous others. They may also return in alien form to plague ourselves. Acts that we and others have performed freely in the past may merge into an opaque process which appears without an author, confronting us in the present with all the intractable force of fate. In this sense, we are the creatures of our own deeds. A certain inescapable self-estrangement is thus built into our condition…

This is why original sin is traditionally about an act of freedom (eating an apple), yet is at the same time a condition we did not choose, and one which is nobody’s fault. It is ‘sin’ because it involves guilt and injury, but not ‘sin’ in the sense of willful wrong. Like desire for Freud, it is less a conscious act than a communal medium into which we are born. The interwoven of our lives is the source of our solidarity. But it also lies at the root of our mutual harm…

Original sin is not about being born either saintly or wicked. It is about the fact of being born in the first place. Birth is the moment when, without anyone having the decency to consult us on the matter, we enter into the preexistent web of needs, interests, and desires-an inextricable tangle to which the mere brute fact of existence will contribute, and which will shape our identity to the core. This is why in most Christian churches babies are baptized at birth…they have already reorder the universe without being aware of it.”

He goes on:

Original sin is not the legacy of our first parents but our parents, who in turn inherited it from their own. The past is what we are made of. Throngs of ghostly ancestors lurk within our most casual gestures, programming our desires and flicking our actions mischievously awry. Because our earliest, most passionate love affair takes place when we are helpless infants, it is caught up with frustration and voracious need. And this means our loving will always be defective. As with the doctrine of original sin, this condition lies at the core of the of the self, yet is nobody’s responsibility. Love is both what we need in order to flourish and what we are born to fail at. Our only hope is learning to fail better. Which may, of course, prove not to be good enough.”

  •  Q: What if the doctrine of original sin is addressing a tangled web of human desires and destinies that lies at the core of every self but for which nobody is responsible?

In part 2  I will attempt to address how the tangled web of inherited meanings and desires plays out when pastoring – but for now I would like to hear your thoughts on these theories.

* I am not that interested in conserving outdated discussions of ‘essence’ or ‘substance’ and how classical, patristic or Calvinistic understandings of century’s past may have framed it.  But if that is where you are at, you can simply state that and let it stand on it’s own merit. I don’t speculate about the details of ‘an’ original sin even while I am interested in the reality behind the concept. 

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