Mom, what do you think about original sin?
Yeah- don’t we all start a drive across town pondering things like this? The best I could muster right away was a question in return…What do you think about when you hear that phrase, child of mine?
FPK was thinking about the concept that all humans are inherently evil, essentially because of the sin of Adam and Eve. Which he doesn’t buy at all. After all, if that were the case, how could there possibly be good people in the world? Or people who do good on a regular basis? This was a tough one, honestly, and the conversation was fairly long and windy. And went something like this…
1. Do you believe that all people evil by nature?
I believe that all people are capable of evil and of good and of every gradation in between. I’m not sure I buy that every good deed people do is a triumph over their “true nature”. I’m more inclined to believe that we – thanks to our ancestral misfortune of eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – have the capacity to understand our choices are good or evil and have the responsibility of living with the shame, guilt or joy that are the emotional and spiritual consequences of our choices.
2. So how does that relate to original sin?
If Adam and Eve were given the run of the garden and told there was only one rule, they also had the opportunity to act on every desire. They ate, drank, swam, had sex and whatever else one might do (naked) with one’s partner in a garden. Were any of those things sin? If we define sin as being an act with causes us to be outside of the will of God, or something that might separate us from God’s presence, then no.
At least not until they ate of that one particular tree. That was against the one rule – God’s will for them. So there were consequences, including an awareness of the pain that breaking that rule brought about- the knowledge of good and evil. They even hid from God, as if they could withdraw from God’s presence. That’s sin.
3. So then do you believe in this as a literal historical account of the first sin?
No. Do I believe that it paints a picture of our own shame and guilt over the choices we make that do not honor God or exhibit God’s love to our neighbor? Yes. And that their ultimate banishment from the garden shows us that while God loves us, we are not free from consequences, which can include the withdrawal of God’s presence.
4. So how does this apply to people who aren’t part of the Christian faith tradition?
While they might not use the same sin terminology, people generally will point to actions as somewhere along that spectrum from good to evil. They would say that there are some people who are more prone to living at one end of that spectrum than the other. Laws, the golden rule, the bent toward compassion, the primary tenets of living with others in the world in most religious traditions… they are based on the idea that people are not great at consistently being good neighbors or good citizens. Thus we identify those things that are of high value and the consequences of not living within those boundaries. In the case of religions, those consequences generally go beyond the temporal and social into the divine and eternal.
Interestingly, this conversation came just a day or two after my Company of New Pastors gathering had kicked around a related question: How do we talk about the need for a Savior among people who don’t see themselves in need of saving, especially from sin? Why would people who see no need for confession seek out the saving grace of Jesus?
But that’s a post for another day.