Let’s Talk about Original Sin—Theologically
This is more than just a book review, but I will now mention a new book about original sin—Original Sin in the Twenty-first Century by Richard J. Coleman (Wipf & Stock, 2021). In the Preface Coleman writes that he would be amply rewarded (for taking up the challenge of writing a book about original sin in this time of peril) if someone wrote a book review that began: “I did not believe anyone could write something stimulating and relevant about original sin. I was wrong. The author quickly convinced me the twenty-first century is both an opportunity and an imperative to do just that.” (xiii) There you go, Richard Coleman.
However, as I said, this is not just a book review. In fact, it isn’t really a book review at all even though I highly recommend this book to you. It is only 93 pages long (excluding the Preface and the Endnotes and Bibliography). I read it in one hour. It might take you longer, but the time will be well-spent.
Several things stand out about Coleman’s book. First, he quotes from and refers to very contemporary and relevant books about the human condition—both religious and secular. Second, his writing is extremely enjoyable, even poetic. Third, it is very concise; every sentence is telling. Fourth, and finally, it is realistic about the contemporary human condition and about God’s grace.
If those points don’t get your attention, let me pique your interest in the book with this question: How many books of theology refer to Tik Tok?
One thing I like about Coleman’s book is its use of the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr. Chapter 6 is entitled “Reinhold Niebuhr—Then and Now.” Something Coleman and I share is a strong admiration for the theological anthropology of Niebuhr.
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Something missing from Coleman’s book that is also missing in Niebuhr’s massive corpus of writing about sin is any attempt to explain why sin is universal in human experience. How did (or does) our good humanity come to be corrupted? Like Niebuhr, Coleman offers to easy answer. He does not belief in a primordial, literal “fall” of a first couple in a paradise garden. He does deal with the narrative of the fall in Genesis 3, but he does not take it literally, as referring to historical events evidence of which an archeologist might discover.
There I tend to agree with both Niebuhr and Coleman. We cannot blame our sinfulness on our first ancestors; sin is a distortion of our good human nature in which we are all complicit. Why “all,” we don’t know. All we know is that this tendency toward evil that runs in and through all our tendencies toward good is inescapable even though it is not necessary. It is not a metaphysical fate built into us like finitude itself.
The most original part of Coleman’s book is the final chapter, Chapter 7 “The Challenge of the Twenty-first Century,” where he admonishes us to “BE VIGILANT”—of the potentials for evil embedded in new technologies such as AI (artificial intelligence) and CRISPR. While admitting that these and other new technologies have potential for good, Coleman rightly warns that they are also dangerous—given our human propensities for evil.
A problem I see, that I’m not sure whether Coleman sees, is that our society (Western) is increasingly secular such that traditional religious values of selflessness and compassion for the weak and vulnerable (I’m not claiming that all people who claimed to be religious lived by these values!) are losing their grounding. There does not seem to be any particular reason for the privileged few to avoid abusing these new technologies for their own flourishing at the expense of others. Coleman says “BE VIGILANT” but to Christians. What about to secular people? Why should they be vigilant and of what? Perhaps he is a prophet, crying out to the people of a once spiritual culture, warning them (as well as us) of the dangers ahead if they do not repent and return to God? But his book sounds like it is written to Christians.
Where are the prophets like Niebuhr? Christian public intellectuals courageously warning the secular (and religious) people of today that sin—pride and selfishness—lead to destruction and that the evidences of impending doom (e.g., climate change and anti-vaccination lunacy) are all around us?
I hate to end on a note of utter despair, but it seems to me that the future of our human race and even of the earth itself is dark—because we humans have turned from God (righteousness) to the devil (willful stupidity). We have chosen temporary pleasures over future well-being (shalom). I sit, as I write this, in an environment where it is has not rained significantly in almost five months—during a season when it should have rained a lot. The earth is dry, dusty, brown and waterless. Nearby my residence is an urban nature reserve called “wetlands” that is now anything but wet. And this is a long-term trend, not a temporary “blip” in the landscape of nature. What once was lush is now becoming a desert. Why? Stupidity says “Don’t worry about it; do nothing.” That’s the voice of sin. Righteousness says “Figure out why this is happening all over the planet and for our grandchildren’s sakes fix it, for God’s sake!” Coleman has much to say about this as well.
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