Meanings of Original Sin

By Gregory

A central aspect of Christian, and some Jewish theology, is the notion of a Fall or primal act of disobedience to God on the part of our original ancestors that damages humanity’s relationship with the Divine and unleashes cascading effects that play out through creation eternally.

Or at least that’s one interpretation – and although the dominant one – not the only interpretation.

There is no argument that we live in an imperfect world and that evil exists. Disease, accidents, natural disasters, and death are a visceral part of reality and our lives. And who would deny that the human heart is capable of atrocity, hatred, murder, revenge, bitterness, lust and envy?

Christianity and Judaism use the first chapters of Genesis to help understand and explain the above – yet not all Christians and Jews read the texts in the same way.

The Genesis Accounts

In the first few chapters of Genesis we find an amazing array of cosmological and anthropological statements – we read the early authors’ poetic and mythic attempts to provide foundational insights for how they understood the nature of reality and human nature.

Ancient Jewish cosmology posited a God who created the world through fiat and spoken word. God calls forth order and being through creative encounter with the void of dark emptiness – interpreted both as prime matter or nothingness.

The pinnacle of this creation is the human family – creatures made in the image and likeness of God. This sacred vision of humanity is expressed in the words B’tzelem Elohim – Imago Dei which capture the insight that a purposeful, evolutionary unfolding of the universe has yielded life, goodness, and beauty; and that human beings are the personal expression of the Divine impulse and power in the world.

The texts therefore also affirm that each human person possess an ontological value, an inherent dignity, and a sense of worth that is grounded in our very being and is not merited or earned. We are beings of intense, immense dignity – a dignity rooted in God and nature.

The metaphor of the garden – especially to a desert people – is one of paradise, of abundance, and of easy living. Further, the texts describe our original ancestors enjoying an intimate relationship with God.

Any meaningful relationship naturally includes boundaries and parameters – and the relationship between God and humanity includes God’s prohibition to eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that stands in the garden.

Well, we all know how the story goes – our earliest ancestors – mythically represented as Adam and Eve – do what God says not to do – they disobey and transgress – and suffer the consequences.

However, how one interprets and understands those consequences is vital for the entirety of their theology and view of spirituality.

Alternative Approaches

The ancient Jewish communities did not read the story in the same as did the early Christian community.

Jewish interpretation of the accounts include notions of a loss of innocence, a maturation of humanity, the final step of evolution of humanity into sentient, rational, and therefore moral beings, as well as a story having hints about the ancient social change from the people as hunter gathers (picking fruit in the garden, living off the land) to an agricultural society engaged in systematic farming – and the enormous social consequences involved in that development.

Most Jews read the Genesis accounts of creation and the events in garden not from the perspective of original sin and separation from God, but as mythic attempts to understand the human condition. A reasoned, Torah-based analysis rejects notions of original sin, total corruption, and depravity. While human nature is imperfect, it is inherently dignified and owes no cosmic debt to, nor suffers any self-inflicted separation from, the Divine. The Genesis stories are ancient attempts to explain the imperfection of the world/humanity without blaming God.

The above understanding of the story is argued for by reading the text itself – nowhere in the pronouncement of judgment does God say the couple is damned or cut-off – they are removed from the garden, will have to toil for their livelihood, as well as notions of pain in child bearing, and so on. The serpent gets the worst of the judgment – not humanity.

Further, in the next verses right after the judgment, God is seen making clothing for his children, not exactly the behavior of a God who is now eternally and cosmically “separated” from them. Just a few chapters after that, God is making eternal Covenants with Noah, Abraham, and the human family – again, not the behavior one expects from a God who is supposedly now on the other side of an infinite, unbridgeable chasm of disconnect and rejection.

One is free to offer alternative interpretations – as does orthodox Christianity – but those doing so must admit that their interpretation is not fully justified by the texts itself and that notions of eternal, spiritual separation from God border on the speculative, at best.

Christians have interpreted these early narratives and the concept of the Fall differently – not all Christians engage in notions found in what is often called “The Four Spiritual Laws” or “total depravity” or other notions that state that because of initial disobedience, some eternal severing of the relationship between God and humanity occurs.

As earlier mentioned, the interpretation of these early accounts is fundamental to one’s consequent theology – and vice versa. This becomes obvious when Christians explain the meaning of Jesus’ death in terms of substitutionary atonement replete with claims of cosmic justice, God’s wrath, and perfect blood sacrifice being fulfilled through Jesus’ death.

The Human Condition

While many Christians and some Jews do accept the orthodox meaning of original sin, not all do. Nor is such acceptance necessary for one to be a Christian or a person spiritually engaged in what we call Judeo-Christianity.

The Christian tradition has always entertained alternative explanations. And today, the growing movements of Progressive Christianity and Emergent Christianity are moving many churches and traditions away from the theology rooted in the Four Spiritual Laws or total depravity – as well as a way from substitutionary atonement.

Whatever interpretation one gives to original sin and “the Fall” – one must admit that these teachings have a certain validity – they resonate with our experience of living in an imperfect world.

Personal failings (sin) are real – we are limited, imperfect creatures living in a semi-chaotic, free-flowing world. Wholeness is illusive. We tend to lose our sense of place in the world, our inherent connectedness – thus creating cascading imbalances and soul disorientation. We miss the mark, failing to live in full accord with the truth of our dignity and nature.

We cannot satisfy our deep yearnings for permanence. We tend to lose our sense of place in the world, our intrinsic connectedness – thus creating cascading imbalances and soul disorientation. We end up living in disequilibrium, harming ourselves, others, and the environment. Instead of affirming our connection to nature and to others, we too often experience fragmentation, alienation, and separation.

We experience both the dignity/sanctity of human life and the forces of dehumanization and death that rail against it.

The human condition – what many would describe as original sin – to me is best explained this way – we are creatures made for love and self-donation. Life has a way of diverting us from this truth and we live for ourselves and give ourselves to realities that don’t deserve us. We therefore live scattered, unconnected, disharmonious, fragmented lives.

We are made whole by kenotic love. When we give ourselves away to realities that deserve us – we are returned to ourselves healed, whole, and transformed through divine energy – reconnected to our better self, God, others, and nature. Kenotic love restores and saves.

In my thinking, the arc of scripture attests to these insights.

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