I woke up this morning thinking about original sin. Nice huh? It’s a theological concept that has fallen out of favor particularly within the mainline or more liberal churches. Some of this is for good reason.
For those not familiar with theological jargon, original sin is the idea that everyone is born ‘sinful’. This is in contrast to the idea that people are born basically good but then become bad under the influence of the world and their experience and the development of their separate selves.
The concept of original sin has been used in many negative ways. Perhaps it is an idea that is beyond redemption. It’s been used to shame people, control people, and disempower people. It’s been used to scare people into believing that they are going to Hell and that God is out to get them. All of these religious abuses are terrible. Maybe these abuses are manifestations of original sin!
In the realm of science, it is understood that models and concepts are useful to the extent that they are predictive. That is, a model is said to be an accurate description of reality if it can predict behavior or help us understand how things work. Scientists understand that the model of reality isn’t reality itself but they also know it’s a good approximation until another one comes along that is better at prediction and description. As one example, genetic theory – the model of genes control traits – developed long before anyone knew anything about DNA because it was good at predicting how traits were passed along through generations.
So I look at our beautiful world. A world that is full of enough. Enough food, enough water, enough space, enough love, enough safety. And what do we see. We see countries that spend more on weapons than on education, health, and food combined. We see an economic system that says, ‘it’s not personal it’s just business’ when it destroys a community or a life. We see the trans-Atlantic slave trade. We see genocide. We see people who seriously believe that more killing will get peace. We see people who support more guns as a way to stop gun violence. We see men who cannot stop abusing women. We see parents who cannot love their children because they are queer. We see epidemics of addiction and poverty and pain.
And I look at all of this and I also see the beauty in every human being and I think, what model best explains this situation? Occam’s razor is an interesting mathematical concept which simply states that when faced with a complex problem the simplest explanation is usually the best and true.
Thus the simplest explanation for the state of our world is original sin. Not the abusive version of this idea. But rather the basic, non-judgmental, idea that we as humans are born into this world such that we will end up with a lot of problems. We are born with our mental and emotional machinery set to ‘confusion’ mode.
A non-abusive version of original sin tells us that this isn’t something to feel toxic shame or dread about, because we all have it and we didn’t ask for it or make it happen. For whatever reason deep in the past it was something given to us.
I think that the real reason we reject original sin, and I see this particularly within American circles, is that we don’t want to think there is anything wrong with us. That’s original sin talking!
But of course original sin isn’t the final answer. Because underneath this problem is also the image of God, the goodness, the love, the beauty waiting to be uncovered and brought to light.
One of my favorite little spiritual life phrases is “revulsion is the foot of meditation.” What this means is that we don’t make any progress along the spiritual path until we are revolted with our lives and our selves as we are. When we really get it that we need to do something different, then we start to wake up.
If you don’t like the phrase original sin, that’s fine, come up with a new one. A friend of mine recently said, “All of humanity has PTSD.” Perhaps that conceptual framework resonates better. Whichever works for you, that’s ok. But let’s understand what we are up against and let’s eagerly seek and practice for deeper transformation.