Original Sin

The picture shown here is from an internet church sign generator, not a real church sign. But it was made by a real Unitarian Universalist and it expresses the feelings of many religious liberals: there is no such thing as Original Sin. I was born right the first time, thankyouverymuch. Anna Snoeyenbos, a UU living in Atlanta, has an excellent discussion of this on her blog Deep River Faith.

Original Sin, for those of you who are Sunday School dropouts, is the Christian doctrine that says because Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, a “sinful nature” has been inherited by each and every person. Though Original Sin is not defined in the Bible, it is a cornerstone of orthodox Christian belief: we have a sinful nature, therefore we sin, the only atonement for sin is a perfect sacrifice, and since all humans are imperfect, that sacrifice can only be achieved by the Son of God.

Our reason correctly tells us the doctrine of Original Sin is false. There was no historical Adam and Eve, there was no Garden of Eden, there was no first sin. And even if there was, we don’t hold children accountable for the misdeeds of their parents – the U.S. Constitution explicitly prohibits the “corruption of blood.” If this is true – and clearly it is – there is no need for a perfect sacrifice. Al Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, uses this as his primary reason to reject scientific evolution despite the overwhelming evidence for it – if there was no historical Adam and Eve, the entire fundamentalist house of cards will fall. It is no surprise that we religious liberals gleefully knock down the card of Original Sin.

Yet our experiences tell us something very different. Our experiences of violence, cruelty and infidelity tell us that something is wrong. Our own struggles with dishonesty, compulsion and addiction remind us that we are most definitely not perfect. Our experiences of guilt, shame and brokenness give lie to the claim that our souls need no salvation. While the doctrine of Original Sin is clearly false, the myth of Original Sin is just as clearly true.

Let’s begin by looking at reality – the reality of evolution. Evolution is concerned (if a blind, intentionless process can be said to be “concerned” with anything) with the propagation of species. If a physical characteristic or an instinctive behavior helps an individual to survive and reproduce better than those individuals who lack that trait, the trait will be passed down to more and more succeeding generations and the species will have a better chance of continuing. The traits that were naturally selected over millions of years of evolution to help us survive in the wild do not necessarily serve us well in the modern world, nor do they necessarily serve us well as we attempt to evolve spiritually.

Left to our instincts we will eat too much. For millions of years food has been scarce – it was to our advantage to eat more than we needed when we could. You simply didn’t know when food would be available again. The ability to eat more than we need and store the excess as fat was a wonderful evolutionary development. But when we live in a society where food is overly abundant, this trait no longer serves us well.

This is one example. Others include sexual infidelity, greed and materialism, and aggression toward other tribes / cultures / nations. I’m sure you can think of many more. They are natural, but so is arsenic – “natural” isn’t synonymous with “good” and “helpful.”

Millions of years of evolutionary genetics and brain chemistry are in constant tension with a couple thousand of years of civilization. This is what St. Paul was unknowingly describing when he said “I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19, NIV).

Intellectually knowing this fact is a start, but it only goes so far. We need constant emotional and spiritual reinforcement of our higher goals and principles and constant practice of techniques for achieving them.

The religions of the world have arisen – in part – to provide this reinforcement. Some have strict rules. Others teach techniques for quieting the mind and releasing unhelpful impulses. Still others celebrate these impulses but confine them to ritually prescribed seasons and ceremonies.

Any of these approaches can be effective but none of them are perfect. We are human, we are imperfect, and we will at least occasionally fail – sometimes in ways that are painful for ourselves and for others. We need ways to be reconciled with those who we have harmed or offended, including our own better selves. This may include confession, restitution, an honest and heart-felt recommitment to the practices that help us effectively deal with this evolutionary tension, and a willingness to try new approaches if old ones consistently fail. This is salvation – the restoration of a soul to his or her place in a community and in Life.

The call to reconciliation is like the call to dinner. It is good and it is necessary, but it can be overdone. Some religions overeat – they focus so strongly on sin and salvation they talk of little else; they devise elaborate recipes of Original Sin, guilt, hell and damnation, and divine human sacrifice. This leads us to see ourselves and others as far worse than we really are and ignores the great good we are capable of doing.

The insistence of some religious liberals that we are really perfect but just don’t realize it is the other extreme. It allows our souls to starve while insisting we have no need to eat. This leads us to see ourselves and others as far better than we really are and ignores the great harm we are capable of doing.

The Truth, as is usually the case, lies somewhere in between.

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