The Simplest Explanation

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.

We are all West Virginia, Like It Or Not

As I write I’m sitting in a hotel room in Atlanta where I’m participating in a Forum on Christian Leadership sponsored by the Forum for Theological Exploration.  It’s a powerful Spirit-filled event.  It’s also 90 degrees outside and there’s a bad air pollution warning.  Inside though the cool air wafts through monstrous air ducts so that we can all think straight and not be drenched in our own perspiration.  This will become important in a few paragraphs.

Two weeks ago I set out from Drew Seminary in New Jersey, a co-teacher on a pilgrimage with several bright, wonderful seminarians.  We were doing a Cross Cultural Immersion class on Appalachia and our specific focus during our time in West Virginia was water as seen through the lenses of Art, Education, and Energy.

The next 14 days was spent wandering that beautiful jewel of a state.  Our other co-leaders, the Rev. Dr. Heather Murray Elkins and Rev. Jeffrey Allen had arranged a magical tour.  Up and down hills we went, surrounded by green.  Forests, fields, ‘hollars, these unfolded before our eyes like so many hidden gems.  And as we wandered we met people.  Lots and lots of wonderful people.  People who loved the land, loved storytelling, loved their place.

Here are some of the things we heard and saw.

West Virginia is treated as a third world  country in the sense that it is mostly used for extraction of resources.  Timber, coal, and now natural gas are extracted from the state, with little objective gain to the population, and sent elsewhere to be used by urban and suburban populations.  Mountain top removal (MTR), the latest and greatest mining technology, has resulted in the desolation of enough land that if you laid out all the areas of wasteland end to end you would have a tract eight tenths of a mile wide that stretches from Washington DC to San Francisco.  Fracked gas is eviscerating entire communities with its 25 acre drilling platforms, mining roads, thousands of miles of pipeline, and tens of millions of gallons of radioactive, toxic frack water.

And what has this left the population with?  You now can no longer safely eat the fish out of any of West Virginia’s thousands of streams and rivers.  The average life expectancy of a person living near an MTR site is 15 years less than the national average due to the toxic water and air created by the mining.  West Virginia ranks at or near the bottom in numerous categories of health and wellness for its citizens.  And two years ago 300,000 people were suddenly left without safe water when a chemical tank ruptured and spilled two toxic chemicals into the river upstream from the Charleston water plant.

Yet this story of environmental devastation is largely invisible to the rest of the country in part because the stereotypes of Appalachia are so devastatingly negative.  Our students encountered this full force as they went to the student health center to get their trip forms filled out.  There the staff told them that they needed special immunizations to visit the state.  They were told not to bathe during the trip because the water was so toxic.  They were told to fear the people and not walk alone.  The staff said they would never go there.  All of these ‘facts’ and ‘concerns,’ as we learned from our experience were wrong.  Yet they serve as a powerful force to keep West Virginia isolated and separated, an invisible space for exploitation.

But are we separate?  The gas and coal from the leveled mountains, where does it go?  Well much of it goes east to power the East Coast electric grid.  I’m cool in Atlanta because a mountain got blown up in West Virginia.

And then where does the coal and gas go?  Into the air.  And as it does, we are warming the planet and creating an ecological devastation that we cannot even comprehend.

Both the Cross Cultural Class and the Forum are related to the training of spiritual leaders.  Historically the dominant Christian narrative in relation to the environment has been that creation is ours to use and throw away.  God created humans as special, separate beings and gave them the earth to have “dominion” over.  Ironically Dominion is the name of the company that builds the biggest fracked gas pipelines.

Thankfully there has been another stream of theology, one that is growing, which refutes this narrative.  It recognizes that God has created an interdependent ecology of billions of beings who all depend upon each other for life.  Human aren’t separate from nature, we are nature.  And everything we do with and to any part of the natural world effects every other part.  Spiritual leaders who will lead differently will recognize this reality and work to overcome the barriers and stereotypes and lies that keep us from knowing and caring about the whole of creation.

Because like it or not, every time we turn on our lights or our gas, we are all West Virginia.