Archives For Original Sin

Original Sin

Jason Micheli —  September 23, 2016 — 2 Comments

160921160806-03-adam-rhew-charlotte-protests-large-169According to a congressman in North Carolina black protestors there in the South- in the South (in case you missed the emphasis: in the South) hate white people because white people are successful. That’s the real reason they’re angry. He’s since offered the boilerplate politico mea culpa that in the moment he said something he didn’t really mean, but we all know that it’s exactly in those moments, guard down and heart out, when we’re most likely to say what’s really on our mind.

According to police Keith Scott was carrying a gun and thus his shooting was justified because (dot, dot, dot) we all know a black man with a gun warrants suspicion.

According to social media, Terence Crutcher had his hands up and had his back to police to put his hands on his car when he was manslaughtered murdered so, Facebook friends testify, the officer involved must be a racist.

And then the many memes:

The Donald is a fraud. Hillary is a liar. Obama is a Manchurian President. Michelle hates America. Immigrants are rapists and Republicans are racist.

A third of us want to keep all Muslims out.

Another third want to flee to Canada if that third get their way, thinking about that third how the other third think about 3/3 of Muslims.

We’re everywhere projecting motives onto other people. Drawing lines. Culling into tribes. Rallying the righteous to our side. Pretending to know, by virtue of soundbites and campaign slogans and ticker tape summations and hot am air, who is good and who is evil.

The Christian reading of Genesis 1 is that original sin is occasioned by the tempter’s inducement for Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

“But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,* knowing good and evil.”

Christian interpretation typically fixes original sin onto the first clause in that last sentence: “You will be like God.” We fell then because of our desire to ascend. To be like God. To take God’s place. In essence, to not have God over us to whom we’re accountable.

But, lately, I wonder.

As any good writer knows, if you can work it, the main point should always fall last in your sentences (“knowing good evil”). And as any preacher knows, the emphasis should always be on the verbs (“knowing”).

So I wonder.

I wonder if original sin, the sin into which we’re all born, the sin which binds us in captivity and from which Jesus means to save once and for all, is our desire to appraise one another, to know good and evil, to be like God in Christ, separating who we take to be the goats from the sheep. That is, is our base sin our desire to know, like God, who is good and who is evil? Are the “All Lives Matter” memes, the “Blue Lives Matter” tweets, and “colorblind” FB rants just an updated form of picking the fruit from the tree?

I wonder because this morning my good friend Teer Hardy and I interviewed Ian McFarland, author of From Nothing, for our podcast. In it, Ian explained how the Christian belief in creation from nothing is shorthand for the confession that everything in existence owes its existence at every moment of its existence to God.

Everything. Always. Everywhere. At every moment.

Is from God.

Though he didn’t put it into original sin terms as I just did, Ian argued that creatio ex nihilo requires Christians to refrain from regarding anything in creation as nothing or no good or evil. It’s all from God. It’s all sacrament and none of it- no one– is slop or scrap.

If I’m right, then America still has a race problem and a problematic politics, but they’re no longer problems so much as they’re manifestations of original sin. And that’s good news because we (i.e. the Church) have an antidote to that disease: Jesus Christ.

He is the One by whom Adam and Eve and each of us and all that is- all that is- were created.

And through cross and resurrection all of us, good or and evil, are in him. To separate sheep from goats on social media like is to perpetuate a problem for which God has already provided a solution.

 

 

 

 

 

Untitled101111I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

Cancer has gotten me off writing these for a few months now but, back by semi-popular demand, I hope to get back in the swing of things.

You can find the previous posts here.

III. The Son

13. Do You Have to Believe in Original Sin to be a Christian?

Of course.

We can’t intelligibly consider ourselves Christian and not believe in original sin.

Of course, by calling it ‘original sin’ we do not refer to the origin of humanity- as though we believed Adam was a real, historical person or as though we failed to realize that mythology was the methodology of the first authors of scripture.

Instead by calling it original sin we name the sin in which we are all implicated, by which we are impaired from our very beginnings as creatures and from which we could not hope to be immune even were we raised by angels.

In other words, the term original sin characterizes the sinfulness we have by virtue of being persons in the world.

From the start.

Making sin not so much something we do but, firstly, something we are all in.

Original sin, then, points not to something chronological or biological but existenstial; that is, the human condition within which we come into being but also the precondition for our individual sinful acts and choices and they damage they incur.

As it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”

– Romans 3.10

14. Do We Believe in a Literal, Historical Date for Original Sin?

Absolutely.

Christians call it Good Friday.

For if ‘sin’ refers to our deprivation of the divine life through our rejection of God’s love and goodness then- obviously- the occasion sin on which original was committed was the crucifixion of Jesus.

Good Friday marks the occasion of original sin not in the sense that sin did not exist prior to the incarnation but in the sense that sin had no meaning before it.

The crucifixion of Jesus finally gave meaning to what we mean by the word ‘sin.’ The crucifixion of Christ is not just another of humanity revealing its inhumanity; the cruficixion is humanity making the most ultimate sort of rejection and, in doing so, rejecting itself.

“They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.”

– Ephesians 4.18

5-marc-chagall-painting-of-jesusMy theological muse, Herbert McCabe, cautions against any understandings of Good Friday that are insufficiently historical, that is, those ‘atonement theories’  that are exclusively religious or theological.

The very fact that Jesus was crucified suggests the familiar cliche that ‘God willed Jesus to die for our sin’ is not nearly complex enough nor this worldly:

“Some creeds go out of their way to emphasize the sheer vulgar historicality of the cross by dating it: ‘He was put to death under Pontius Pilate.’

One word used, ‘crucified,’ does suggest an interpretation of the affair.

Yet [that word] ‘crucified’ is precisely not a religious interpretation but a political one.

If only Jesus had been stoned to death that would have at least put the thing in a religious context- this was the kind of thing you did to prophets.

Nobody was ever crucified for anything to do with religion.

Moreover the reference to Pontius Pilate doesn’t only date the business but also makes it clear that it was the Roman occupying forces that killed Jesus- and they obviously were not interested in religious matters as such. All they cared about was preserving law and order and protecting the exploiters of the Jewish people.

It all goes to show that if we have some theological theory [about the cross] we should be very careful.

This historical article of the creed isn’t just an oddity. This oddity is the very center of our faith.

It is the insertion of this bald empirical historical fact that makes the creed a Christian creed, that gives it the proper Christian flavor. It is because of this vulgar fact stuck in the center of our faith that however ecumenical we may feel towards the Buddhists, say, and however fascinating the latest guru may be, Christianity is something quite different.

timothy-radcliffe

Christianity isn’t rooted in religious experiences or transcendental meditation or the existential commitment of the self. It is rooted in a political murder committed by security forces in occupied Jerusalem around the year 30 AD…

Before the crucifixion Jesus is presented with an impossible choice: the situation between himself and the authorities has become so polarized that he can get no further without conflict, without crushing the established powers.

If he is to found the Kingdom, the society of love, he must take coercive action. But this would be incompatible with his role as as meaning of the Kingdom. He sees his mission to be making the future present, communicating the kind of love that will be found among us only when the Kingdom is finally achieved.

And the Kingdom is incompatible with coercion.

I do not think that Jesus refrained from violent conflict because violence was wrong, but because it was incompatible with his mission, which was to be the future in the present.

Having chosen to be the meaning of the Kingdom rather than its founder Jesus’ death- his political execution- was inevitable.

He had chosen to be a total failure. His death meant the absolute end his work. It was not as though his work was a theory, a doctrine that might be carried on in books or by word of mouth. His work was his presence, his communication of love.

In choosing failure out of faithfulness to his mission, Jesus expressed his trust that his mission was not just his own, that he was somehow sent.

In giving himself to the cross he handed everything over to the Father.

In raising Jesus from the dead, the Father responded…

This is why Christians sat that what they mean by ‘God’ is he who raised Jesus from the dead, he who made sense of the senseless waste of the crucifixion.

And what Christians mean by ‘Christian’ are those people who proclaim that they belong to the future, that they take their meaning not from this corrupt and exploitative society but from the new world that is to come and that in a mysterious way already is.”

barth_tagungIn §1.15 of the Church Dogmatics, Barth riffs on his distinctive emphasis on the unique, particular revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

All Christian speech about God must begin and end with Christ, Barth insists. Not, it should be added, with us. Not with the human experience. Not with natural law. Not with universal reason.

The latter alternative options only lead to us making Jesus into a savior after our own image.

§1.15 also shows Barth arguing for the absolute necessity of the Son’s participation in our sinful humanity.

Jesus’ flesh was sarx, says Barth, participating in all the world in its sinful rebellion against God.

To confess as the creed does that Jesus was “very man” is to profess his participation in the world’s rebellion–even while we also confess that Jesus is “very God” which is but to profess that Christ is without sin.

Indeed many of the church fathers would continue by insisting that Christ was without the possibility of sin.

But I wonder.

If by ‘very God’ we mean that the Son is fully, completely, without deficit God, that everything God is so is Jesus, then should not ‘very Man’ imply that everything we are, fully and completely, Jesus is?

Can Jesus be said to be ‘very Man’ if what is an everyday, all the time experience for us, namely sin, is an impossibility for him?

Perhaps it’s because I’ve been reading Barth alongside the Gospel of Mark, a Gospel that almost willfully resists accommodation to our theological categories, but I wonder if the creedal notion of a sinless/unable-to-sin Jesus jumps the Gospel shark.

Mark consistently makes it clear that Jesus sins, at least how ‘sin’ was conceived in Jesus’ first century context. He violates the word of God by touching a leper. He violates the word by usurping Temple authority for himself. He uses words I wouldn’t let my boys use about the Syro-Phoenician woman.

As the eldest son of a widowed mother, Jesus breaks the ‘honor thy’ commandment by leaving home and trading his family for his ministry.

All of which leads me to go back for a second thought:

to what extent does Jesus need to be sinless/incapable of sin to be our savior?

It’s true that a ‘lamb without blemish’ is a necessary component for a particular interpretation of the atonement, but that’s only one interpretation of many and it’s an interpretation not without problems of its own.

What about rival atonement theories?

Is it possible, I wonder, that Jesus did sin in his life, was capable of sin, nevertheless his obedience unto the cross defeated the power of Sin and Death?

Is it possible that Jesus did sin in his life, was capable of sin, yet the sum total of his life unwound the story of Sin and recapitulated God’s new creation.

Is it possible that the virgin birth has less to do with the transmittal of original sin and more to do with Jesus being the start of a new creation?

Is it possible that, like a vaccine requires your body to take in germs for you to be immunized, the healing of our human nature required the incarnate one’s body to know sin as well as holiness?

 

video-paula-deen-2-articleLargeAnswer: Probably.

As you likely know, Paula Deen’s saturated empire is crumbling like a stack of empty calories after reports of her having used racial epithets in the past and practiced business with equally troubling ante-bellum nostalgia.

It’s gone underreported but just as insidious is the fact that Paula Deen’s first crime was the culinary kind. How Paula Deen amassed the aforementioned empire peddling deep-fried, cafeteria slop is just as unlikely as her sudden fall.

Apparently, Paula Deen’s similarities to Cracker Barrel extend beyond her style of food.

Of course, the shock over Deen’s racism and her hasty dismissal by Food Network conveniently brush aside the truth that Paula is hardly the only person in the South (or America) quietly harboring racist assumptions.

In fact I can’t help but wonder if some of the dismay expressed towards her owes to a larger cultural loss of what Christians mean by ‘original sin;’ namely, that the world’s sin is something we’re all born into and participate in whether we know it or not.

Don’t believe me? Don’t think you’re anything like Paula Deen?

Think again.

Try this quick test from Project Implicit at Harvard and see  to what extent you can put the cracker in the barrel.

 

Justified_2010_Intertitle_8064     This week we’re continuing our Justified sermon series through the Book of Romans.

Romans is ground zero for the historic Christian doctrines of the fall, original sin and atonement.

Owing in large measure to St Augustine and John Milton (Paradise Lost), it’s become so commonplace to read Genesis as describing a Fall it often surprises Christians to learn that others, namely the Jews, read it any other way.

Not to mention, the traditional categories of Creation and Fall, which focus on Genesis 1-3 to the exclusion of the other 47 chapters in Genesis, ignores the central plot of Genesis: the promise of God to renew the world through the people of Abraham.

Reducing Genesis to Creation and Fall, to chapters 1, 2 and 3, misses that the calling of Abraham is intended by God to be creation redux.

New Creation, which climaxes in Revelation 21-22, begins in Genesis 12 with the calling of Abram.

     Distilling the narrative down to Genesis 1,2, and 3 to a story of Creation and Fall lops off entirely the story of Abraham and what God was trying to do in and through Abraham.

     It creates a problem (original sin) to which Jesus is the solution completely independent of Abraham or Israel.

     It pushes the Jews out of their own story.

Just ask yourself: how many Christmas songs can you name that reference in any way the promise to Abraham? I can’t name any. They’re all about Jesus coming to heal the ‘curse’ of original sin.

So how did we end up with a reading of Genesis according to the Creation/Fall theme?

     It’s all a matter of hindsight.

While Jews read Genesis 1 as an allegory of our disobedience and an attempt to describe the less than perfect state of the world, St Augustine, reading Paul, saw in Genesis an allegory for the total and complete alienation of creation from God. The Fall in Eden describes how Sin corrupts the goodness of creation, every creature best intentions and renders us incapable of venturing to God on our own. Look again at Paul’s words in Romans. Because of what happens in the Garden, all of creation is effected, ‘groaning’ for redemption.

     The Fall necessitates grace.

But if Christians did not inherit this way of reading Genesis from the Jews, then how did it arise?

Why does Paul see creation this way, as enslaved and suffering under the power of Sin? Why was Augustine’s notion of the Fall able to take root and survive in the Christian memory?

It’s a matter of hindsight.

      Jews and Christians read Genesis differently because of Jesus.

It’s not that Paul or Augustine read Genesis in isolation and discovered an insight never before uncovered. It’s that after Easter and Ascension, having turned out to be the sort of Messiah no one expected, Jesus provoked the first community into asking all sorts of questions that then begged still more questions.

Questions like:

Why did Jesus need to come if not to liberate Israel from Rome?

Why did Jesus meet with such a violent end?

What does Easter accomplish?

How we are different/similar to Christ?

It was by reflecting on and discovering who Jesus was and is that the first Christians discovered anew who it is we are. The Fall and its attendant understanding of our own sinful nature are beliefs only possible in light of Christ’s incarnation and resurrection.

Let me break it down.

Take this passage from Paul’s letter to the Colossians, one of the earliest documents in the New Testament:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

     This text is actually a Christian hymn, earlier than Paul’s letter. The hymn gives a window into how the very earliest community of believers understood and worshipped Jesus.

And what does the hymn sing about?

It praises Jesus as the image of God.

Back to the imago dei.

What is it?

According to the early Church, it’s Jesus. Christ is the image of God.

For the earliest believers, it wasn’t just that Jesus is God. It’s that Christ is the created image of God. In other words, he isn’t just true God as the creed says he’s also true man- the true human.

Look at it another way. If God is Trinity then the life of the Son belongs eternally to God; therefore, when God declares in Genesis 1 ‘let us make humankind after our likeness’ God’s talking first and foremost about the life of Jesus.

     In his desire not for his own furthering but for the Kingdom

In his relationships that paid no regard to prejudice, convention or fear

In his obedience to the way of God no matter the cost to himself

In valuing the Reign of God over the finite kingdoms and power of the world

In his truthfulness

And in his absolute trust in God, that God would vindicate him

The early Church found in Christ a content-filled definition, an embodiment, of what it means to reflect the image of God.

     Rather than a priori doctrines, Fall and sin and Sin are discovered by hindsight.

We read Genesis realizing something we couldn’t have realized before Christmas:

we are not who Jesus is or was in his earthly life.

Our world isn’t the sort of place that welcomes or tolerates a person like Jesus.

The world may be replete with goodness and it may show forth abundant beauty but it still crucified Christ.

Think of the crowds on Palm Sunday who hail and welcome Jesus only to cry for his death later in the week- we may be good people but we still crucify Jesus.

As Paul says, even our best intentions net results that fall far short of Jesus’ life.