Monday, September 17, 2007

Original Sin: The Need for Justification

Among the least understood dogmas of the Christian faith, especially among Christians, is original sin. It is one of those necessary doctrines, like the Blessed Trinity and the Incarnation, without which, or even improperly understood, faith fails to make sense and cannot be translated into a mode of life. Perhaps one reason this teaching is so misunderstood is the use of the word sin. Typically and correctly, when we think of sin we think of an act that we know is wrong and choose to perform it anyway. If this is the understanding of sin we bring to original sin we are left with only two options, both of which are misunderstandings. The first misunderstanding is confusing original sin with actual, or personal, sin. Put simply, this view sees each one of us as guilty, personally culpable, for the state into which we are born. There is no personal culpability with regard to original sin. This issue arises often in the preparation of parents and godparents for the baptism of infants and small children. The second possible misunderstanding does not see us as guilty of original sin, but holds that we are being punished for it nonetheless. This means believing that we are being punished for somebody else’s sin. Both of these understandings indicate that God is neither just nor merciful. According to the second article of faith of the religion in which I was born and raised, Mormonism, which rejects the doctrine of original sin, “men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression” (Smith, Pearl of Great Price 60). This article of Latter-day Saint faith sums up nicely the second possible misunderstanding that results from putting too much weight on the word sin in the formulation original sin. Original sin is best understood as a dysfunction in the human family. As such it is passed on just as dysfunction often passes from one generation to the next in specific families, our families of origin.

To gain an appreciation of just what it is that the term original sin refers to, it is necessary to turn to scripture, specifically to the third chapter of the Book of Genesis. Before doing so it is useful to point out that one short-coming of the second possible misunderstanding mentioned above (i.e., that we are being punished for the sins of another person) is that it is rooted in a literalist interpretation of the narrative of the fall, or, better stated, humanity’s disobedience. When interpreted literally, as a narrative not about the why of creation, but about the how, the Genesis narratives are drained of much truth value. This siphoning off of meaning results is theological errors, like the explicit rejection of original sin, which, as Malcolm Muggeridge is said to have observed, is the most empirically verifiable fact in the world! That original sin is believed almost universally is borne out by a fact that has already been mentioned: Redemption is a major theme in all the world’s great religions because alienation is the existential experience of humankind. This means that original sin is the two word answer to the question, often posed in jest, about the reason for man’s existential angst.

In the second creation narrative that immediately precedes the story of humanity’s disobedience, after making the woman from the rib of the man; we see that there are three basic harmonies that exist. These harmonies are constitutive of the communion that God brought about in creation, what has been termed as original grace. The first harmony is between God and human beings. This harmony is depicted in the narrative as God communicating freely, in an immediate way, with the man and the woman and the two people speaking in the same way to God. In the dialogue that takes place between the two people and God it is God who speaks first. This is quite different from how we think about speaking with God through prayer, which we too often see as an initiative we undertake, and not as a response to God. The second harmony is between the two people. Their relationship is steady, even, and shows no sign of discord. The third harmony is between people and nature. They are free to eat the fruit of any tree of the garden, except the tree in the middle of the garden. They do not need to hunt or cultivate in order meet their needs because the garden has all they need. The tree is highly symbolic of our limitations, our ontological status as contingent beings, though ones created, male and female, in the divine image. Stating it simply, the tree and the command to leave it alone points us to the necessary relationship between truth and freedom.

Truth limits freedom, but not in a dictatorial way. Freedom not oriented to truth is the surest path to slavery. It is by abusing our freedom and giving in to temptation that we break communion and disrupt harmony, fall from grace, which is nothing less than our participation in the Trinitarian life of God, who is Father, Son, and Spirit. Freedom is necessarily limited because we are limited.

In the first instance we are created, contingent beings. Even in human society we recognize the need for both freedom and necessary limits on freedom. For example, here in the United States the first amendment guarantees us, among other things, the right to free speech. The vast majority of people agree that free speech is necessary for a free society and that a free society is the best kind of society. The question quickly arises, however, about whether this freedom is absolute, or whether reasonable restrictions must be placed on it. To grab a quick and pedestrian example, is one free to yell "Fire" in a crowded theater, thus causing a stampede in which people are either injured or killed? So, we recognize that there must be limits, even if broadly construed.

It is also true that by nature, we do not like restrictions. The original sin was humanity giving in to the temptation to be “like God” (ESV Gen. 3,5). What does it mean to be “like God?” It means being self-determining, deciding for ourselves what is good and what is evil, being morally autonomous.

These harmonies are disrupted when the serpent tempts the woman by telling her that if she eats the fruit of the forbidden tree she will be “like God, knowing good and evil” (ESV Gen. 3,5). Indeed, there is really only one temptation from the beginning of the world. It is this temptation to be "like God" in our own right, determining for ourselves what is right and wrong, what is good and what it is evil. Of course, the woman is eager to share this new knowledge with her husband. So, she offers him some of the fruit, which he accepts and eats.

In the aftermath of this event, God comes looking for the man and the woman, who, after realizing that they were naked and upon hearing God, quickly stitched together some garments and try to hide. But, God, who sees all, cannot be hidden from. Upon finding them, God asks the man, "Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat" (ESV Gen. 3,11)? To which, instead of taking responsibility for his own actions, the man responds, "The woman whom you gave me to be with, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate" (ESV Gen. 3,12). Then, when questioned by God, the woman blames the serpent. “The serpent tricked me, and I ate” (ESV Gen. 3,13). The disobedience results in the alienation of humanity from God, the blaming results in the disruption of harmony between people and between people and nature. Thus, communion is broken and the state of original grace is lost.

How original sin is transmitted is the same way that family dysfunction is transmitted, which is not genetically, but through the dynamics of human relationship, which were disrupted. We can no more avoid being born into a state of alienation from God than we can be born not needing to breathe air, or be born into a life not defined by our mortality, which necessarily includes our dying, which is another consequence of our fall from grace. Original sin is where salvation begins. In The Exsultet, which contains a soteriological density almost unrivalled in the Church’s liturgy, the deacon sings of this “Felix culpa,” the "happy fault," the "necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer" (The Roman Missal 184).

(A section from a recent paper, which is taken from a class on Baptism which I have taught for 10 years, but have never written down.)

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