Sinfulness, fear, and the toxicity of faux-Christianity

Good_versus_Evil_by_curua

Dear John:

I was wondering how you deal with the concept of original sin. I believe it is a corrupting idea that has led to much misery.

Being gay, I have experienced being on the receiving end of this doctrine, but I have also seen it undermine the self-worth of my parents, sisters, and members of my extended family. I have also seen how it is used by preachers to maintain power over their congregations. Also, without it, there would be no need for a redeemer or a blood sacrifice (which is barbaric).

An argument can be made that this notion (and the fear it generates) appears to be the glue that holds Christianity together. And it appears to the argument that fundamentalists use against gay people all of the time: human nature is flawed, you are evil, you need God’s love to be redeemed, etc. So, I guess my question is: Why should I believe in a system that generates fear—and then says that it offers “love” to solve the problem of the fear it generated. Wouldn’t it be simpler to believe in a system that says, “God loves you, and here is how to live a kind and loving life”?

With this one, lemme try doing that thing where I rerun the letter, inserting my thoughts in bracketed blue as I go along.

I was wondering how you deal with the concept of original sin. [I don't trip about it, because I understand what the concept of original sin is supposed to be about; what it's meant to reference. And what the concept of original sin is pointing toward—what the story of Adam and Eve is a metaphor/allegory foris a reality that has zero to do with Christianity, and everything to do with a simple fact about human nature. And that fact is that all people are born with the will to survive. And what that necessarily means is that all people—Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, insurance salesman, literally all people—come hardwired with a distinct and (let me stress) entirely natural predilection for a whole range of thoughts, emotions, and actions that are not exactly fueled by another thing that all humans are born with, which is a drive toward altruism. Every human will, time and time again, no matter how hard they strive not to, behave badly: they/we will be selfish, arrogant, greedy, rude, too quick to anger, overly defensive, obnoxiously intrusive, etc., etc. We all have an aspect of our core character that is less than stellar. What "born into sin" really means, or is supposed to mean, is born—period. If you're human, you're automatically born to sin—you have a sinful nature—insofar as "sin" means to do or even think something that hurts another person. In ways large and small, we all hurt someone every single day of our lives—which is to say we all, at one time or another, in one way or another, choose ourselves over someone else, even if (and usually especially) that someone is someone we love. We cannot help but do that. We cannot help that because we're human.]

I believe it is a corrupting idea that has led to much misery. Being gay, I have experienced being on the receiving end of this doctrine, but I have also seen it undermine the self-worth of my parents, sisters, and members of my extended family. I have also seen how it is used by preachers to maintain power over their congregations. [Well, what's actually corrupting isn't the idea that all people are born to sin: all people are born to sin. What's corrupting is the idea that there's any way to stop sinning, to be and remain so pure and enlightened and in-tune with God, or whatever, that you rise above sinning. That is an abominably toxic idea, which leads to all manner of  abuse. But the idea that one can elevate oneself above the state of sinfulness by doing, saying and/or thinking the right things is hardly unique to Christianity.]

Also, without it, there would be no need for a redeemer or a blood sacrifice (which is barbaric). [Well, there will always be a need for a "redeemer," insofar as all people long to be rescued from that part of their nature that they wish wasn't there. Again: a saving hero is hardly an exclusively Christian concept. And by "blood sacrifice," of course you're referring to the Christian doctrine of atonement. The atonement of Christ on the cross is indeed the cosmic phenomenon of which Christians avail themselves as a means of at least once more starting from scratch: of relieving the guilt that all humans feel for all the times they act rude and selfish and crazy towards others. That's what "Christ died for our sins" means: that Christ took into himself—physically, into his body—all the bad karma that any human ever had, was, or will generate or caused to be generated, and then obliterated it all by allowing his body to be slaughtered. Christians believe that if they remember that God, as Christ, did that for them—that for them he sacrificed himself in that most dramatic and painful fashion—then they can ... experience that truth, feel a whole lot better about things, and then get back out there and try to be worthy of that very intimate relationship with God. (And then, inevitably, fail at that, feel guilty about that failure, and return to the cross. That's ... the whole Christian life, right there.)]

An argument can be made that this notion (and the fear it generates) appears to be the glue that holds Christianity together. [It's certainly true that the fact that humans are forever falling short of their own ideals is the glue that keeps any system of improvement in operation, be it a religion or ... a gym. And the fear you mention is already there. All fear boils down to the fear of death—and, again, that's not a Christian phenomenon. Fearing death is a timeless and universal human phenomenon. It's terrible if that natural fear is in any way capitalized on or exploited, of course.]

And it appears to be the argument that fundamentalists use against gay people all of the time: human nature is flawed, you are evil, you need God’s love to be redeemed, etc. [That's the fundamentalists' message to everyone, not just gay people. They tell their families that. They tell everyone that—though I know what you mean: they're especially fond—and especially these days, when they're feeling so particularly threatened by "the homosexual agenda"—of using that message as a weapon against gay people. And, again, to the extent that they use they or anyone else add to anyone's pain, they are morally failing.]

So, I guess my question is: Why should I believe in a system that generates fear—and then says that it offers “love” to solve the problem of the fear it generated? [Well, you're already in a system that generates fear: you're human, and that fact alone generates for you, me, and everyone else, a whole ton of fear that has nothing whatsoever to do with Christianity. That core, organic human fear is way, way pre-Christianity. To be alive is to live with fear. To willingly participate in a system that generates more fear—that exploits people's natural and inborn fears for any nefarious or self-serving reason—is of course an awful mistake. Conversely, being a part of any system that combats human fear with love is terrific, and should be encouraged.]

Wouldn’t it be simpler to believe in a system that says, “God loves you, and here is how to live a kind and loving life”? [Well, A: That's hardly a simple proposition for a simple way to live: feeling constantly loved, and living a kind and loving life, is the biggest challenge there is in life. And B: What you've described is the very essence of the Christian system. In a nutshell, Christianity is, "God loves you; here's how to feel that and act accordingly." Don't confuse the rest—don't confuse all the nasty, aberrant crap you're talking about—with what Christianity really is, and is really supposed to be. Yes, lots and lots of Christians get it all wrong. But that's only because lots and lots of people get it all wrong—and lots and lots of people are Christian. We're all getting something wrong, all the time. And that's why people have always, and will always, look to the heavens for help. I personally am extremely comfortable with the idea that in Christ God delivered that help. But of course every person has to deal for themselves with the, shall we say, downside of being human. Choose Christianity, and/or choose some other way. But you will choose some way. We all do. We all must.]

About John Shore

John Shore (who, fwiw, is straight) is the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question, and three other great books. He is founder of Unfundamentalist Christians (on Facebook here), and executive editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians group blog.  (In total John's two blogs receive some 250,000 views per month.) John is also co-founder of The NALT Christians Project, which was written about by TIME,  The Washington Post, and others. His website is JohnShore.com. You're invited to like John's Facebook page. Don't forget to sign up for his mucho-awesome newsletter.

  • http://500px.com/wgeorgecook William

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that original sin is a distinctly western concept. It is rarely found in eastern theology or in Judaism (though I believe the orthodoxy places blame on Adam for the sin of humanity, but the understanding is different). Original sin doctrines are also absent from most Islamic theologies. Don’t feel that you have to believe something just because it’s what is taught here. There are many Christians who find many criticisms with the doctrine that they also feel are incompatible with Christianity. I would suggest you do some more research into it if you want to know more of what is out there :)

    • Tim Northrup

      Original sin as such is a Western/Christian take on a broader phenomenon–Buddhists and Hindus would in various ways cite the same self-destructive and selfish tendencies as the block to full enlightenment–what keeps someone from Nirvana or becoming a Buddha (among other things, depending on the sub-grouping). Taoist belief about the fundamental challenge of balancing yin and yang has some similar overtones. Islam doesn’t have a doctrine of original sin–blaming Adam and all–but they have a theology which stipulates that everyone (or nearly everyone) does sin, and that thus all have to receive some punishment . so, the underpinnings are there in most systems. The source/blame/remedies differ wildly.

    • Jay

      Yes, original sin is a Western concept. We Orthodox Christians have a very different understanding of sin and of the Crucifixion as well.

      • http://fordswords.net David S

        Jay,

        I’d love to hear more about your perspective on these differences if you’re willing to expound.

      • Jill

        Yes, I want to know more as well.

        • gregory

          … I am very interested also, in the contrast of this idea, John S, and other brilliant minds here – of the most basic general difference in East and West religions. For me, in the “coming out” process (having been born/raised/fully committed to “one-ness, holiniess, Pentecostal fundamenalism), finally realizing- thankfully in my early adulthood- that all my gruelling, 3 hour prayer shifts, 7 day fasts, denying, sabotaging my very soul begging God to change me, or take away my same-sex exclusive attraction, and “fix” me had merely led me closer to the truth that I was “gay as a goose :)” and that’s just the way I came hard-wired from my very earliest memories and recollections. It was in that moment, alone with God, when it was as though a beautiful, clear and profound epiphany occurred when God said – you are beautifully made/created, an individual and distinct soul with a purpose, contribution to make to the life journey – and that He/She couldn’t love me more fully – as long as I insisted on sabatoging myself, condemning myself for being gay. Stepping out in that moment it seems that it was my bravest, most redeeming, intimate and personal union with God, as though I had to set myself free … He had taken care of all the rest. Of course, it meant for me letting go of my solid, black and white, absolutist single-minded belief system – immediately outcast from a lifetime invested entirely, rejected by friends, family, church, religion . This was desperately painful, as God and the church had been my largest, most important sense of faith, emotional comfort and solace .

          Through a world history one class (in first year of college), to which I would bring my Bible (ammunition) , and do my best to challenge and proclaim my non-questioning view of creationism, literal bible thinking – I began to realize that professor had made a crack in my small-minded, resisting, stubborn( having been taught to fear ever questioning lest I commit the one unforgivable sin “and be turned over to a reprobate mind”! ) – and that he, I think more than all the other terrific professors, had really shaken me, and taught me to think intellectually, with open thirst for knowlege, light, truth, which was only deepened/enhanced in my questioning.

          This brief reference that I had of Eastern religious principles helped vastly, to reject the damning aspects of my holiness pentecostal, judgemental, harsh, fundamentalist attitude.

          During those early years of being “out”, my leanings, readings, meditations, and spiritual comfort came through these more eastern concepts, especially from the core aspect, as I understood – was a belief that we are instead, most naturally, most purely, beautifully created with an innate light, truth, richly emotional and kind – MORE intrinsically than being launched from the birth canal full of evil and sin, and a terrible wretch, to forever seek and struggle in spite of being basically “unworthy” of God’s grace- which I would need in massive proportions, as I was “born into sin”. –

          So I’d love to know a bit more of how you all may rectify the two.

          I am so grateful to you John, and this community here, which so thoughtfully, intelligently and generously share here! Each and every time i find myself at this site, I find myself literally, challenged, embraced, tearful, yet feeling nearer truth, and as though I been kissed by the angels, with a big hug!

          • http://500px.com/wgeorgecook William

            Thanks for sharing, Gregory!

            It is truly amazing what happens once one’s worldview is allowed to become more fluid. I am deeply sorry for the things you had to endure to get there, but damn if I don’t praise God for where you ended up!

          • http://fordswords.net David S

            Gregory. This is beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing it.

  • charles

    John, that was utterly breathtaking. CS Lewis would be proud.

  • Anne

    Brilliant, John. Thank you.

    Side note: I think part of the problem people have with the concept of original sin is the use of the word “sin”. We (at least in American culture) think of “sin” as: bad, deliberate, a choice or action rather than a state of being. Finding another word would be great.

    • vj

      I think you’ve hit on something key here – if we are taught to think that “sin” is necessarily a deliberate choice to do something evil, then we will naturally be reluctant to admit (even to ourselves) that we have sinned, and start to be critical/judgmental of any wrongdoing (by ourselves, or others). Instead, we need to see that “sin” is inherent to us all. To paraphrase something I read recently, the reality of the human condition is that the most morally upright person, of utmost personal integrity, with the very highest ethical standards, operating always out of only the very best intentions WILL, sooner or later, do something (however inadvertently) that is selfish/hurtful/head-smackingly stupid that requires us to apologize/seek forgiveness/make restitution/try not do it again. When we can accept that, then we can be gentle with ourselves, and others, when the inevitable mess-up happens…

  • http://fordswords.net David S

    Mr. Shore –

    I LOVE what you say about original sin. “all people—come hardwired with a distinct and (let me stress) entirely natural predilection for a whole range of thoughts, emotions, and actions that are not exactly fueled by the other thing that all humans are born with, which is a drive toward altruism. ”

    That’s *exactly* how I think about original sin. There’s a duality to human nature and “the fall” is representative of that part of our nature which is not of God.

    I think the letter writer is describing the doctrine of “total depravity” which takes original sin and makes it central to our person. That is, we are all born into a vat of goo called sin which makes us detestable to God, and we need to work our entire lives to try to get the goo off so we are presentable. Only those who are truly saved can see just how detestable and unworthy they really are.

    I agree with the letter writer that the doctrine of total depravity is harmful. It encourages a cult-like self loathing a distrust of (or maybe a disdain for) humanity itself. When taken to the extreme, self-hatred becomes a sign of Godliness.

    If we’re taught and believe that we’re all miserable bastards, how are we supposed to reach out to a world with Christian love? If I see myself as depraved and unworthy of God’s love, what does loving my neighbor as myself become?

    • Soulmentor

      Thanks David. Your thoughts about worthiness mirror mine. I was raised in a conservative, Republican, conservative(not progressive) Lutheran farm family that went to church every Sunday where I learned to “celebrate” by sitting still and mouthing words that meant nothing to me, EXCEPT the words of the litany, “Lord, tho I am unworthy…..” THAT, along with growing up gay in that conservative, small town small school world crippled me for life. Tho I’ve mostly learned how wrong it all was (and still is for so many), the residuals still influence my life in some ways. I expect I will never be totally free of them.

      Jesus invited us to be “Godly” and live godly lives. If he didn’t think we could do that, I doubt he would have extended the invitation. And in the last couple decades I’ve come to another conclusion about our worthyness. If Jesus did indeed die for us, and we are genuinely unworthy of that love, then He was a fool to go thru all that for us low creatures…..and I believe he was no fool. Thus, I am worthy indeed. That is a truth that set me free to be.

      • http://fordswords.net David S

        Soulmentor –

        There’s so much I relate to in your comment. I’m glad to know I’m not alone.

        I think you’re absolutely right – we’re worthy of God’s love because He deems us so. Isn’t that the essence of grace? The moment I understood that I was a child of God was a spiritual epiphany for me.

        • Squirrely Girl

          Soulmentor and David….thank you so much for those words. I thought maybe I was alone in my belief that I should rise above the ‘unworthiness’ I was taught most of my life. It finally came clear to me when my son almost died with cancer and I related what I was going through with the representation of God giving his son….how much must God have loved us and thought how worthy we were to make that sacrifice. I have never doubted again that even though I do continue to fall short of what Jesus ask of us the most…”to love everyone…yes..even those I find very hard to love sometimes…as I love myself’…..He still loves me and finds worth in me. How very true that if despise ourselves…and then try to love others ‘as we love ourselves’??? It makes no sense. It didn’t make sense when I was five…and it doesn’t make sense now. I do wear an earthly robe of flesh that will cause me to be weak and stumble…but Jesus took on that same robe and showed us how to live and what should be a priority . If “His eye is on the sparrow”…well…you know the rest. Of course we are worthy or Jesus sacrifice was useless. Trying to reconcile that we do need him but still worthy is what “Amazing Grace” means to me. Thank you both for speaking to my heart.

          • http://Fordswords.net David S.

            SG,

            So beautifully said. Thank you!

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

        A choice bit of reasoning very nicely said, Soul.

        • Soulmentor

          Thank you John and SG and David. John, you and your blog and this blog family has helped me focus my own personal thinking about God and Faith and Love and Spirituality. Several of the family come instantly to mind but I can’t name a few because I would of necessity leave out others. So just say I wish I could share time with you all personally. From what I’ve been reading here, this is only second best. But second best is so very good that I hardly dare to imagine what an hour or an afternoon would be like with each of you in person.

          God bless everyone here and John…..well, he’s obviously blessing us thru you.

      • sasha dence

        This is fascinating. While the original question was written by someone villified for being gay, I found in my upbringing, such as it was, that being a ‘traditional’ female, that is, wanting a husband and family, was ‘gah’ — almost evil. I was raised to be a fundamentalist feminist — so what I’m seeing is that fundamentalism in general is toxic. Many feminists have tried to show me that it is a liberating, true movement for my benefit but I never experienced it as anything except damning me for my ‘real’ self. What I”m getting at, is any set of beliefs can be used to attack some people and then we get a sense that in our core, and I’ve come to think that our sexuality is central to our identity, we aren’t ‘right’. Thus ‘being saved’ means accepting beliefs that in our core we aren’t right and getting right according to the beliefs. Christianity has become associated with traditional social beliefs around family and along with a tiny # of bible verses, that has meant an attack on gays. Whatever — there are a lot of reasons why we don’t ‘feel’ worthy. I think one of the ones that Christianity is supposed to address has nothing to do with social beliefs so much as that inner sense that yeah, we have NOT been altruistic. And as John has pointed out, even when we try to be, we fail! the despair at being what we want to be — add that on top of having a sense that in our very nature, that is, our sexuality, we are ‘wrong’ — how can we avoid hating ourselves? The way the whole ‘worthy-but-worthless’ conundrum was explained to me is that we BECOME worthy through God’s love — etc. and etc. That is not real helpful because that means we don’t, of ourselves, have any intrinsic worthy, we just get worth by being with God. Right. I can see a way that that idea makes some sense, but from another angle it is real toxic. And ridiculous, because all of us have felt, in our bones, in our blood, in our mind and heart, the essential worth of child or a baby even when s/he acts like the little soother-sucking dictator s/he is. I think in this sense Love can be seen as a civilising, discipling, maturing process whereby we play to our best side more and more and cave to our survival based fears less and less. But both are there from the beginning and even the base side has worth, finally, because without it, what would our hardwon altruism be other than a ‘given’ that is like natural beauty, hardly worthy of merit since we never earned it. In a sense it isn’t really ours, is it, unless we ‘choose’ it and by choosing it, do the hard work of struggling to resist that which is meanest and most self-serving in ourselves? Perhaps being human is all about this struggle to be like God here, where it is hard, and in a way, almost impossible.

        • Mark H. Rowland

          Thank you. Fundamentalism of almost any flavor du jour is more terrifying to me than the Devil and Sin. Oh, wait, now I’m having trouble telling the difference…

  • Sergei

    It’s great! I especially liked the thought that problems Christians face are human problems, not Christian problems. We are humans, and, being humans, we are messed up – it is part of the package called “life” – it is a big relief to learn not to feel guilty about this side of our nature (even though we still feel guilty at time and learn not to feel guilty about feeling guilty :) ).

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      Ha! That last part of what you said is a bit of trick, isn’t it? It’s such an interesting way of looking at that … common thing.

  • http://beingperfectlyhuman.blogspot.com Eric Fry

    Thanks for the great and insightful post, John. I really enjoy the way you make me think about things.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      That’s awfully nice of you to say. Thanks, Eric Fry.

  • Jill

    *Sigh.* These are the posts that make me happy to be here.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      And that’s the type of response that makes me glad you are, Jill.

  • Brian W

    John,

    I must say, one of your best responses ever, well written as clear and simple as can be, wonderful!!

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      Thanks, Brian W! I appreciate that.

    • sasha dence

      Agreed! So enlightening and so relevant. the crux really of our faith.

  • Lymis

    Brilliantly put, John. Exceptionally well written and clear.

    One thing I’d add, and only because I don’t know how familiar the letter writer is with the body of your work, is the explicit recognition that just because Christians can have the nuanced and compassionate interpretation you share, it doesn’t mean that you are in any way claiming that they all do. I know you are explaining your (to my mind, very accurate) view on this subject. I also know you aren’t trying to say that the letter writer misunderstood what all the Christians he’s run into believe and everyone agrees with you on this point.

    One of the ongoing challenges I have in trying to explain (or defend) Christianity to people who have been badly hurt by Christians is that generally, everything they complain about, all the pettiness, all the hurtfulness, all the hypocrisy, all the childish interpretations of Scripture, are sadly accurate descriptions of all too many people who not only proclaim themselves to be Christian, but bluntly say that all those hurtful things they are doing prove their Christianity.

    For me, I’d say that the letter writer is absolutely right to reject that kind of Christianity, but babies and bathwater, that’s not the only way all Christians experience their own Christianity.

    Sometimes, I get thrown back at me things like “Are you trying to tell me that Christians aren’t like that?” And the answer is that indeed, some of them are, and Christians and non-Christians alike are right to condemn that form of Christianity.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      Yes, L. Exactly. Thank you.

    • Soulmentor

      Lymis…..you too are brilliant. I enjoy your writing so much. It bespeaks a sharp focus and clear analysis all put together in very readable, smart comprehension.

      I like seeing you here.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

        Lymis is definitely one of the great blessings of this blog, for sure. As are you, Soul.

        • Soulmentor

          Wow, thanks John. Coming from you, it’s a most gratifying compliment.

  • Lymis

    Your take on this also works for me in another (related) way.

    One of the biggest problems I’ve long had with the view of a single Fall and a single Redemption, as opposed to what I agree with you about our dual nature as humans, is that the “Adam and Eve sinned, so everyone was condemned until Jesus redeemed us” is why the Fall seemed to stick, and the Redemption doesn’t.

    If Adam and Eve’s sin carried over to their children and grandchildren all the way down to the modern age, then why didn’t my grandparents’ and parents’ (believing, baptized Christians all) redemption through their acceptance of Jesus carry over to me? Why would sin be so much more powerful than Redemption? We’re to believe that had Adam and Eve not sinned, Cain, Abel, Seth, and their brothers and sisters would have been born without original sin. So why didn’t Fred and Katie’s acceptance of Christ mean the same for my siblings and I?

    And of course, for that idea to work at all, Adam and Eve had to be literal, historical people, or that view of things unravels nearly instantly.

    The view of all this that you discuss here doesn’t hang up on any of those issues. It also places the responsibility for my relationship (or lack of it) with God squarely on me and God, not on some unidentified forebear that I am the victim of. It’s not because our ancestors were special kinds of sinners. It’s simply because they are human.

    • sasha dence

      Really good point! If one was a ‘one time only’ event that we all must endure, whether we were in Eden or not, why is the redemption not equally something we inherit? We didn’t consent to the ‘one sin’ at least, not as far as most of us can remember, so why do we have to consent to the redemption? Excellent point.

      Also, I love John’s explanation here. Well put and I think, essentially true. We did inherit this condition which is, essentially one of fear given how hard life really is and especially was before modern technology — and that fear makes us, to some degree or another, selfish and cruel. This is true of animals as well. We need help to live a life of kindness when we’re frightened on so many levels a lot of the time, whether consciously or not. God gives that help and Christ personified God’s essential kindness to us — having compassion on us in our fear. So it isn’t a matter of ‘accepting redemption’ so much as choosing to accept the coaching of one who showed us how to live under these conditions which generate fear, with love. That’s the choice. But Christ redeemed everyone — not just those who ‘accept’ him if Adam condemned everyone by sinning. Exactly.

  • PS

    I am Catholic. My faith teaches about original sin and the need for baptism/a relationship with Christ to commit ourselves to a renewal of self.

    I have always struggled with explaining original sin to those who don’t agree with it or who think it’s used to browbeat or instill fear or shame. I do not believe that was the, well, original intent of such a teaching, but rather to acknowledge our flawed and selfish nature as humans, and how we have to wrestle with that every day to achieve good… a battle that, sometimes, we lose. Sometimes that loss is according to Godly standards, sometimes personal, sometimes both.

    I think your explanation of this is one of the most intelligent, eloquent explanations I’ve come across – and we may not come from the same traditions, but what you said still aligns very much with what I believe and what I understand in regard to my faith’s teachings. I will certainly be borrowing it going forward if/when I encounter someone who asks about it again.

    I love everything that you had to say here. Bravo. I agree with you and others that the type of “Christianity” this person has encountered is not genuine, and that it is perfectly okay to overturn that stone, examine it, and reject the parts of it that are simply not true. I think we’re in a time where it’s necessary because we’ve had too many previous generations pound their fists on some pulpit and say we do it THIS way because that’s how it’s always been… well gee, what if we’re wrong? What if exploring that leads us closer to Christ and therefore makes us better people? It’s worth a shot.

  • Richard W. Fitch

    Just throwing out some ideas that others might want to ponder. Matthew Fox wrote the book “Original Blessing”. It has been too long since last looking at it for me to remember is mode of apologia, but it seems that it the interaction with the worldly tensions that brings out our side which “misses the mark (hamartia)”. Jerome seems to have been the ‘thinker’ that inflicted Christianity with the idea that there will be an eternal punishment or eternal reward for for all human kind rather than the doctrine of Universal Salvation that had been taught in all the schools of Christian thought prior to the 5th century. When one reads the NT carefully there is strong support for the teaching that the Atonement is only for our shortcomings prior to entering into the Jesus Faith. If you go to make a sacrifice, tribute to God, and remember that you have acted cruelly toward another, then you must first seek to get right with the one you have done wrong, asking for an ‘at-one-ment’ with them before you can meaningfully present your offering to the Lord.

  • Matt

    I had a negative reaction. Quite a frightening miasma of emotions, actually. But that’s okay. It had nothing to do with your writing; you were definitely clear. Just a lot to meditate on, as so often happens when I read your work. This is one I’ll have to re-read several times, I can tell.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      What’s the problem, you think?

      • Matt

        Hmmm…maybe I’m having trouble with the idea that you are *okay* with the idea of us being born with a less-than-great side to ourselves, and call it “natural.”

        Ah, okay, I think I’ve got it pinned down. Growing up in my house, we weren’t allowed to be human, basically, especially my mother and I. And of course you’re speaking of human nature, so naturally my mind resists it (“No, I can’t possibly have ordinary human weaknesses and fears–that’s bad and negates any possible good I might have in me!”).

        So, less of a strictly Christian problem than a human relations problem. But like you said, they’re hardly mutually exclusive.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

          Well, I didn’t actually say I’m okay with humans being born with a whole range of predilections and propensities that are less-than-good. I said it’s a fact that all human are born with that dark side. Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s good.

          But the fact that it’s there at all of course raises the question: Why are we designed like that? And for a person of faith, that question necessarily becomes, “Why did God make us that way?” For a Christian, the answer to that question goes like this: We act like dicks; we feel guilty for it; guilt is a horrible burden; we ask God to grant us complete forgiveness; we experience the truth that, through is incarnation as Jesus, he’s already given us that forgiveness; we get back up on our feet, wipe our eyes, feel cleansed, and get back out there and try again.

          That’s the Christian way–or at least that’s the system that Christians believe God offered the world through his sacrifice as Jesus Christ. Works for me. Works for lots and lots of people. Always has. Always will. Sure, people fuck it up. What don’t people fuck up? But the system itself is superb, and perfectly structured.

          • Matt

            I should have been clearer–you’re definitely not okay with it as in, “Oh sure, go murder that person, no big deal.” You acknowledge that it exists without automatically shaming or looking down on others for it, something that I found hard to wrap my mind around, but it was ultimately very refreshing. And yes, natural doesn’t always mean good–snake venom is as natural as natural gets, but good luck trying to get someone to ingest it.

            I get the Christian system of forgiveness (it works for me too). And that free will is why we can do just about any horrible thing imaginable. But I’m not sure why that answers the question of why God gave us the dark side. Is it a way for God to show us His love through His sacrifice? Or is there something I’m just not getting?

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

            You’re a smart young man, Matt. Give it a ponder for a bit, and see what you come up with.

          • Matt

            Yes, I will. Thanks for being patient with me.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

            I’m not being patient with you; it’s not like I’m waiting for you to arrive at any particular conclusion. I’m genuinely curious how you’d answer the question of why humans come hardwired with a drive toward destructiveness–if, indeed, they do at all. Seems like a reasonable thing to contemplate whilst standing in line at the grocery store or driving to work.

          • Stephen

            I’m curious if anyone has an answer to that too. Why humans are naturally driven toward destructiveness. It seems our natural instincts are for survival…and we tend to be very selfish, judgmental and hurtful UNLESS we consciously work at not being that way, with the help of God. So maybe we are wired that way as a means to rely on God’s grace for help….the whole dependent upon God and others thing. I dunno….just putting that out there.

          • Christy

            Stephen, anthropologists and neurobiologists call this the four F’s of the reptilian part of the human brain. Reptiles being the oldest (evolution wise) brain-bearing creatures, the most basic. The four Fs are: Feeding, Fleeing, Fighting and Reproduction. We come hard wired for survival. Those four are the basics of survival. Why? Because they are. Otherwise, we die and our kind dies out. Not because it will lead to problems and God wanted us to need to be saved from our problems.

            The four Fs lead us to be fearful, distrusting, and selfish. It makes us tend to insulate ourselves from perceived threats and harm creating social structures that are tribal and are innately xenophobic in nature of “the other.”

            However. Humans also are hard wired for good. We come programed for care and compassion and nurture. We long to love and be loved and feel a sense of connection and belonging. This too builds social structures that are tribal and tightly connected.

            What we learned over time is that we have the capacity as humans with higher brain function for cooperation and that cooperation and trust can build coalitions that affect more positive outcomes than staying small, isolated and distrusting of others. Humankind learned by experience to become more open and less closed off to others, expanding our small insular communities to ever widening social networks. No longer confined to loyalty to our tiniest in-group, we learned to love and trust others different from ourselves and to become less selfish and less fearful – because? Because cooperation works and once we learn not to fear others and see all others as enemies and as a threat – we find more meaning, peace, connection and fulfillment in life. Compassion works. Compassion transcends our selfish nature.

            This is the wisdom and the success of the Golden Rule and it is consistent with what Jesus taught about the Kingdom of heaven being within us. We hold the potential to being the kingdom here and now… if we learn to live in the way of Jesus.

          • http://washedintears.wordpress.com Russell Miller

            Personally I think it’s because of how the Universe is designed. This kind of “original sin” is coded into the Universe from its very beginning. It’s called entropy. I think our god-like nature is that which realizes that this entropy is fundamentally not a good thing for life in the long run. And I think fear is where those two natures clash.

          • Jill

            I agree. The more real I get with finding the heart of Christian belief and living, the more I understand faith-filled, joyous followers ask questions, have doubts, understand with the deeper things of faith come attached the deeper experiences of inquiry. We all hold ‘answers’ to the same questions, in our own ways and our own times.

            A more complete answer, if you will, seems to most often come through thoughtful, considerate people pooling their collective wisdom and piecing the whole together.

          • Elizabeth

            Oops. Oh, yeah. Don’t apologize or tell John he doesn’t need to be polite. He’ll have no clue what you’re talking about. He’s really just thoughtful and generous. So weird.

          • Matt

            *laugh* Thanks, Elizabeth. I’m so used to being condescended to, especially by the elderly people that I care for. I almost dread it when they ask how old I am, because that starts the litany about, “You obviously know nothing…” Which makes me want to respond, “Okay, which of us is the one entrusted to wield sharp needles?”

            In that case, I think God made us with a tendency toward self-destructiveness because otherwise His love would have no real meaning. It’s ridiculously easy to love someone who always says and does the right thing–and it’s also a very shallow love, because there’s nothing to challenge and complicate the lover’s feeling towards the love-ee. It’s static, and I would argue that it would eventually go stale and wither, because a perfect person doesn’t change and grow–what’s the point, when the end point is at hand?

            On our end, destruction causes pain. Without that pain, we have no need to seek out God or draw closer to Him. We might do it were we without that dark side, but I have a feeling that again it would be shallow. That’s not what God wants, because he loves us too fiercely to let that happen.

            God seems to have made a world that’s designed to be in constant flux and change (the Second Law of Thermodynamics aside, which doesn’t apply to our planet Earth and much of space). So it wouldn’t make sense for humans to be perfect and unchanging; we literally wouldn’t fit in our own universe. The conflict between our dark sides and light sides leads to what you just described so perfectly, John–we fuck up, we go back and are forgiven, then we pick up and try again. This conflict and pain also gives us some of the most beautiful experiences that life has to offer. If I wasn’t born transgender, and experienced that awful pain, I could not then have the other side of gender euphoria, a feeling so intensely pleasurable that it comes second only to falling in love.

            I also think that the creation of our dark side gives ultimate expression to our free will. If we lacked a dark side, and in theory exercised only our free will in our altruistic side, would we actually be free? Free will is supposed to lie in the fact that at any moment we are free to do absolutely *anything*, barring physical impossibilities. If we’re prevented from hitting someone because all we have is feelings of love, not from actually, you know, not hitting them, that seems to be just another form of slavery.

            So after a good night’s sleep, this whole thing just makes a whole lot more sense.

          • Jill

            I am finding more and more, as I study and apply the Christian view of living, how much it dovetails into other beliefs and philosophies that already work in my life.

            A quick reply from me, as I am not running on all cylinders this morning with this headcold of mine, is that Eastern religious traditions have helped me better understand the “why”, while Western Christianity is helping me deal with the “how”, as in: How do I manage the why I’m so naturally, inextricably, often painfully human and ALL that being human means?

            I believe there are questions at every level of depth that we reach in our life journeys. As Zora Neale Hurston said, there are years that ask questions and there are years that answer. When I don’t hold a definite answer for what I am searching for (and I am NOT known for my patience…), I remember this quote. And then I go seek out my support system of friendship and I sink deeply into that well of love. And I find even more creative ways to give love away without expectation. And that’s what keeps me from falling into self-doubt oblivion.

          • Elizabeth

            Feel better, Jill!

        • Lymis

          Matt, would it help to think in terms of the idea that perfection is the goal, not the given?

          The greatest works of art start with raw materials, and some of those raw materials aren’t something you’d display in your home in their natural form.

          Whether or not the raw materials are beautiful or valuable in their raw form, the artistry comes with what you do with them, how you use them, and what you make of them.

          But denying them the reality of what they are prevents us from fully using them to create what they can become. And there’s a beauty and nobility in acknowledging that, even with things we fully intend to overcome. We all start where we start, and work with what we start with.

          • Jill

            Ah, but for perfectionists, the word perfection blinks at us like a broken neon sign just outside our bedroom window, keeping us awake at night.

            I know I don’t want to believe that my path requires me to fully overcome what we’re referring to as imperfections. Not humanly possible.

            I know I’m splitting hairs here, because I know Lymis, you are not implying anything unkind. I’m only adding that I see there is beauty in our brokenness too.

          • Lymis

            Good Lord, so do I. My comment was in direct response to Matt, not intended as a stand alone comment.

          • http://www.enesvy.com Nicole

            I’ve always liked the old archery analogy in which the word “sin” meant that your shot missed the mark. We all have ideas and goals of how we want to live and be in the world, but we can’t always hit the bullseye. So we practice and get better.

            It never hurts to notice places in your life where you don’t “miss the mark” because you’ve practiced and are so good at it.

            “Sin” for me is an innocuous term. I know what I’m aiming for. When I miss it, I repent and work to aim better next time.

          • Matt

            Thanks, Lymis. That helped a lot as I was working through what I said above.

        • Jill

          Matt, you tapped into a deeply rooted point that I too have had to address, and continue to, in my own life: you were not allowed to be human.

          So much shame came from my humanity: panic attacks at night, causing adolescent bedwetting for years and years. Laundry day in my house was nothing pleasant. Pile on the shame. I could go on, but suffice to say, the outworking of the human condition (panic, fear, bodily functioning, etc, etc) was nothing good for half my life. Then I got older and began to see the world around me, and destructive human behavior full-on, and I nearly collapsed inside myself (formerly known as the nervous breakdown).

          Perhaps, like me, you have been made to feel ashamed of being human.

          Echoing John’s words, we have the capacity to be heartless jackasses. He says it more artfully than me. Perhaps that’s where things are at for you now, but there is a bigger picture on the horizon that I believe will give you more peace and clarity that will speak only to your soul. I also know that you’ve had many answers for my life that I didn’t see before. You have more in you than you probably take credit for.

          • sasha dence

            Not sure if I should attempt to explain what I think — can’t be a short message but I want to try. This may sound kind of abstract but I’ll have a go at it.

            My parents were atheists and I had a miserable childhood — and started ‘searching’ for meaning at a very young age. Found God when I was 16 in the backseat of a Peugot whilst in Italy with my sister and ‘parents’. I had lived without love and had no idea really what it was — just that the hole its absence generated was like a black hole –constant pain. Anyway literally between one breath and the next, I was ‘in’ heaven. It was astonishing — just astonishing — I don’t have words and it was 45 years ago, so… But a whole bunch of things got clear — like more or less instantly — one, I loved everyone and everything. It was as natural as breathing. More so. God IS love. Love is God. God isn’t ‘loving’ as in one of ‘his’ attributes (along say with righteousness or justice or whatever) God’s very essence is love — like a lightbulb’s is light. And it was unconditonal — and it generated the most intense happiness imaginable. I also remember thinking ‘oh, now I’m back to normal’ — as in, God was familiar — heaven was home — I was ‘back’ — not to stay as it turned out — but just for a brief visit. And then (how long later I can’t say — time was not ‘real’) I was ‘back’ to being me, as I had thought I was. But I realised that the self we think we are is what we are in this body, in this world, and it isn’t our ‘real’ self. God and heaven ‘felt’ so much more real than what we think of as reality. But at the same time, this ‘reality’ is somehow necessary. If we can love like God is — here — that is — unconditionally, in a realm of strident conditions and limits — then we can make heaven on earth. We can live love on earth as it is lived in heaven. Does that make sense? Real hard to explain. But our ‘real’ selves are as loving as God is — we’re drops — ‘he’s’ the ocean — we’re the leaves — he’s the tree. Our real selves are sublimely beautiful. Everyone is. But. But the nature we inherit with the body is a nature that is bent on survival here where God is not in charge, or at least, not obviously. Jesus called the one ‘who’ is, ‘the prince of this world’ and ‘he’ isn’t love. However we want to think of those words, it was real clear to me when I ‘returned’ to this condition that I wasn’t my ‘real’ self. I wasn’t that person who loved everyone and everything. In fact, I had huge reservoirs of anger and terror that made me feel horrible and that everyone around me also had such reservoirs and felt awful most of the time. The difference between here and ‘there’ (heaven) was not possible for me to exaggerate. But one was familiar, right, ‘sane’, ‘normal’, home, the-way-thing-are-supposed-to-be and the other was here where ignorance, pain, and fear are ‘normal’ — why the body has this nature is, I now believe, because to have it means we become able to choose the kind of love God is, freely. While I was briefly in heaven, it was impossible to ‘choose’ God. God is the air and the ground and the self and everything. Love was everything. I couldn’t choose it any more than I could choose life once I’m alive, or to put it in other words, choose to have my heart pump. It just does. In short, in heaven, love is automatic. It is how everything works and it works without stopping every second and deciding to ‘be’ that way. It is ‘taken for granted’ if you like. Here? Here we have something to compare love to, don’t we? We have a different normal. Here we have to choose love daily or it isn’t here at all. There is something to compare love to isn’t there? Here love is only going to be the norm if we decide it is. And I think that’s why we inherit a scared body that sees life here as the only life there is — that believes if it doesn’t get what it needs (or wants) now, here, that’s it. In short — we inherit a body that believes it starts at birth and ends at death and has a limited time to get what it wants. Moreover, the body is constantly threatened. Will I be allowed to exist? To be fed? To be free from pain? The body by definition is condtional, so it is the perfect counter to the unconditional soul that inhabits it. It is kind of like resistance training. The muscle gets stronger to the extent that it is resisted. Our souls grow to the extent that we exercise them against what counters them. That’s the tension between our ‘natural’ altruism and our ‘natural’ fear and the cruelty it generates. That tension is where we grow, become, transform, eventually, into people who can bring in the kingdom, i.e., bring heaven to earth. To learn to love unconditionally in a real and body that is determined by strict conditions is what, I have thought since that experience, our vocation as humans is. It is a discipline, which is why we’re called disciples. Better stop — I’ve left a lot out — but I think if we know there is a reason we have a ‘dark’ side we can accept it as ultimately helping us become what we couldn’t become without it — people who freely choose God, maybe knowing God fully (having experienced ‘his’ absence and the agony that absence causes) in a way we never knew ‘him’ ‘before’.

          • Bill Hooson

            Beautifully and eloquently stated…

          • http://www.enesvy.com Nicole

            Your thought process is really interesting. Thank you so much for sharing!

          • Mark H. Rowland

            Wow! Deep, important, beautiful, artistry. THANK YOU, Sasha.

  • http://www.glowfishfilms.com Don Martin

    John…brilliant and brilliant! What a great correction and summation of the heart of what all this means. Thanks.

  • Tricia

    I don’t understand the concept of sin. I never have. When I was little, and my parents made me go to confession, I would make things up, just to have something to say.

    I understand that people who lie, or steal, or punch each other are sinning.

    But the “everyone sins” idea baffles me. It seems that a lot of the “behaving badly” you mention is caused by a refusal to admit and allow everyone the right to strive for things. I see “selfish” behavior, and I can generally understand it if I try to see it from the others’ perspective. And sometimes the problem is my own expectation about who I wish someone to be, and how I wish they would relate to me. It seems, to me, that the real problem is that we don’t have enough words and processes for working through our grief about that. When I look at the vast majority of people around me, I don’t see sinners. I just see people, who aren’t just like me.

    • Lymis

      I agree that I find something deeply toxic about defining all the people around you as, first and foremost, sinners, especially if that’s seen in terms of the punishment that they are earning for themselves, and as the foundation for smug self-righteousness (God never seems to be as upset about the sorts of things the Righteous sin about than what those people get up to.)

      But a long time ago, I started seeing sin, not as breaking rules, but as not measuring up to the highest standard of who we know ourselves capable of being. That’s something all of us do.

      I think a lot of people get it backwards – the old speck in their eye, plank in our own idea – and that how it’s best to think of it is that where I myself am concerned, an awareness of my own failings is an invitation to be a better person and strive for being who I know I can be, while where others are concerned, an awareness of their failings is an invitation to compassion and being willing to love them in spite of their flaws.

      And of course, loving others as I love myself, means that I also cut myself some slack for being human and also invite others to be inspired to reach higher toward their own greatness.

  • Steve W

    As Elvis Costello said, “There’s no such thing as an original sin.”

    Personally, I don’t really go for the dual nature thing though. Too neat and tidy, and it makes me wonder where this nature is located. We do bad things, we do good things. That’s it. Sin is an action not a condition. Even thinking bad things is an action, even if only in the brain. Doing & thinking good is again an action. It’s about what we do not what we are.

    Natural is as nature does. Nature is neither good nor bad; it’s just what is.

    • Lymis

      I don’t think John’s point was that being human is tidy.

      I’d dispute that sin is an action. Sin isn’t in what you do, it’s in why you do it, what your considerations for it were, what your motivations for it were, and, in the majority of cases, how you took into account the effect your actions would have on other people.

      Deliberately taking a knife and shoving it into someone else’s body is a very different thing if you are robbing them or performing surgery, if you are torturing them or intending to save their life.

      And even granting your point for the purpose of discussion, we do a great deal of what we do because of who we are and what we are, and the choices we make about who we choose to be inform our future choices about what to do.

      Each decision we make about what to do next is not made in isolation from the rest of our life choices, or from the inner drives and experiences that come with being human. We get hurt, we get angry. Then we choose our response to that.

      Sure, maybe a strict duality doesn’t fully reflect the complexity of human motivation and experience, but it’s not wrong to point to specific areas of that spectrum, as John did, and discuss them as being in tension with each other. He even went out of his way to specifically say that each of the things you call “duality” are “whole range of thoughts, emotions, and actions.”

      “Natural is as nature does. Nature is neither good nor bad; it’s just what is.”

      True as far as it goes. But the fundamental experience of being human is finding and choosing meaning in the world around us. Nature may be what it is, but we experience it in terms of enormous levels of meaning, symbolism, intercausality, and often, Something Outside Ourselves.

      That aspect of human experience, that quest for meaning and that experience of the Divine is just as much something that “is what it is” as any other aspect of reality.

  • Carla

    No matter what area of our world that we address, all things are balanced between the opposite characteristics of their natures, and that balance has a certain tension to it.

    Glass looks solid but has liquid properties. Sub-atomic particles can waver between opposites states. Quantum physics tells us that our reality is only one of an infinite number of mathematically possible realities. Humans have both physical and spiritual forms. Homosexuality exists in most, if not all, mammal species and some species of life (plants, as I recall), can actually have two different genders within their life-spans.

    To take it to a philosophical level, we have a good side and a bad side to our natures. If there is a Creator, there is a Destroyer. Where there’s peace, there’s war; feast, famine; love, hate – and so on.

    We are not born with sin; we are born with a tendency to one type of personality or another, a tendency toward introversion/extroversion, etc. But not “sin” as in the concept of Original Sin due to something Adam and Eve did. Do we have the tendency to sin? Not necessarily.

    You see, we define “sin” almost universally as a religious concept. It’s defined as some type of offense against a divine law. If you don’t believe in divinity (ie, God or someone like God), you really can’t “sin” so to speak, let alone have “Original” sin. (And trust me that all possible “sins” have probably already been committed so we can’t even find anything original to sin about. Just kidding.)

    As for the blood sacrifice, I think much of Jesus giving his life for the forgiveness of sin is taken way out of the context of his life. Just for the sake of discussion, if we view Jesus in a way other than a Christian Savior – as an Ascended Master, or Time Traveler, or Itinerant Preacher, whatever! – he was incredibly aware of human nature, injustice, and how people of wealth and power wielded an incredible ability to manipulate the lives of people. And I believe, whole-heartedly, that he knew that he could pay with his life when he started his whole journey into changing the hearts of humanity.

    If we look at him, he supported changing the status quo from power-mongering to social justice. He asked all peoples – the wealthy, the poor, the strong, the weak , etc – to follow him. He didn’t call himself the Son of God as much as he referred to himself as the Son of Man.

    Christianity, up until about the time of Constantine, allowed room for the Gnostics, Essenes, the Greeks, etc. It’s only when things went from spiritual to political – internally within Christianity and externally with the Roman Empire – that things got way, way, way off track.

    For me, I have such a hard time with most things religious. I have much greater love in my heart when I look to the historical Jesus. And I go toward the Dark Side of the Force when I try to pen myself up in a corral of dogma.

    And I’m with the original post. It is much easier to have the guidelines of loving one another and having simple ways shown to us on how to do that. And the way to determine the love within our actions is really simple after all. If we act with the Jesus who promoted loving God with our whole heart (and one another and ourselves), who promoted hope and charity, and who believed and was willing to die for social justice, then how we should act is clear.

    We just need to ask: Does this action promote love, hope, charity, and social justice? Really, it’s that simple.

  • otter

    i have often discussed this very point in comparing and contrasting Christianity with Buddhism. The person who asked this question might find Buddhist perspective to be valuable.


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