Sunday, 23 February 2014

Problems with the explanation of Original Sin


Original Sin is two things - what actually happened and the various explanations of what it means.


IF Original Sin is taken to imply that Men are rotten at the core - then I fear it will be a lethal idea for many people in many situations in this world where the institutional churches certainly are rotten at the core.

Because if Christians cannot trust themselves, but instead regard themselves as fundamentally and intrinsically mastered by pride and helplessly subject to demonic deceptions - and furthermore a world where there is a high probability that any outside help mediated by humans is going to be corrupt - then there is no hope of us making right choices: no hope at all...


The situation is strictly hopeiless because we cannot even choose the correct denomination, and within every denomination there are factions - and we cannot choose the right faction either.

there is no hope if Original Sin means we cannot make right choices from within ourselves, because then we cannot even decide who to trust.

And no hope means despair, and despair is a sin.


So, if Original Sin is being understood to mean that we are rotten to the core and cannot trust ourselves, then we are simply doomed.


(But, alternatively, if we can make good decisions about which person, denomination, religion to trust - then there must be some goodness at our very heart; and a strict/ extreme interpretation of Original Sin cannot be true.)


Luckily, that 'strict/ extreme understanding of Original Sin as implying that all humans are necessarily rotten at their very core is not entailed by scripture, but is a secondary matter of explanation and extrapolation.

So Christians don't have-to believe in original Sin.


However, it might - plausibly - be argued that without the concept of OS, then Christianity will be too weak and wishful and wavering - but we know from 180 years of the CJCLDS church that this is not necessarily so: Mormonism has conclusively demonstrated that a church and a people can be steady and firm in a Christ-focused faith while not believing in Original Sin.


Some fear that it is only Original Sin which implies the absolute need for a Saviour, that if we were not all utterly rotten, we did not really need salvation; and if we dispense with OS we will, sooner or later, dispense with Christ...

But this tow-sided analysis is just too simple.

It is too simple to regard salvation as either/ or - either our doing, or Christ's doing - this either/ or dichotomy is too simple a dichotomy even for ordinary everyday life, such as understanding family disputes!

If we cannot understand a fight between two children if we insist in advance that the reason must be necessarily and inevitably and only either the full responsibility of one child or the other child - but not-ever both; then why should we expect to understand salvation that way?


It is ridiculous to apply either/ or to salvation! - although it is a very typical philosophical error to fall into the trap of either/ or - often either zero or infinity - both of which are incomprehensible nonsense.

That kind of thing was built into philosophy from its very origins - and carried over into Christian theology. 


In sum, Original Sin is not necessarily wrong, and/ because many or most great Christians have believed OS in some fashion - but they were able to be Christian and believe it only because, in practice, OS was not understood to apply absolutely, and because they lived inside a religious society and implicitly accepted the wisdom and goodness of some source of external spiritual guidance.

Modern secular people - adrift in a spiritual and ideological marketplace and with no implicit authority source - cannot really believe in, live by, Original Sin - but in attempting to do so they can destroy Christian faith in themselves and in others: they can induce paralysing despair in themselves and in others.


Modern Christians will just have to be more sensible - and less philosophical - about these matters; because the theology of our relationship with God ought to be at least as complex as our ordinary everyday understanding of ordinary everyday human relationships - surely?



J. B. said...

I don't know what theology you're criticizing here. I'm no expert but I've never known Catholic theology to say that OS means men are rotten to the core, nor to say that salvation is ENTIRELY Christ's responsibility with no contribution from our own will. You could quibble about the latter, I suppose, based on the idea of prevenient grace.

It sounds like you are criticizing the doctrine of total depravity, which so far as I know has never been the doctrine of the Catholic or Eastern Church. Maybe some of the Reformed denominations.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Jables - did you notice the first word of the post?

George said...

It's a really interesting question. Monks seem to ride that fine line between viewing the world and human nature as bad, viewing themselves as bad and feeling completely unworthy, but not giving into despair - still hoping, loving, and embracing a life of pursuing God.

Thursday said...

I've found a Reformed pastor from California, Derek Rishmawy, helpful on these issues.

He's also good on divine impassibility, which also seems to be a stumbling block for you.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Th - I don't think OS could be described as a 'stumbling block' when I regard it as unnecessary (although, as I said, not fatal)!

Adam G. said...

It is not doctrine that demonstrates your need for a savior. It is trying to live a godly life.

So the real danger to avoid is not that of not teaching a strict enough doctrine of original sin. The real danger is downplaying morality and the virtues.

Excellent post.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Adam "It is not doctrine that demonstrates your need for a savior. It is trying to live a godly life."

I see what you mean - but I don't think that is quite right. Perhaps because there are so many things that can be blamed for our failures, without needing a saviour.

Also, there is a further paradox that Mormons expect to make moral progress (by their own efforts assisted by the Holy Ghost) - and get annoyed/ irritated if this does not happen, or when they lapse; whereas many mainstream Christians (perhaps especially Catholics) expect that their efforts at moral improvement will fail utterly.

This might suggest that Mormons would be expected to feel less need of a Saviour, since they expected to be able to improve their lives significantly and move towards perfection - yet in practice this has not happened.

Adam G. said...

*Perhaps because there are so many things that can be blamed for our failures, without needing a saviour. *

I disagree, for two reasons.

First, blaming your failure on outside forces usually means thinking to little of yourself. Someone truly in the image of God and living life in the heroic mode would not live a sinful, inadequate life because *my wife isn't supportive enough* *my parents didn't raise me well* *I have allergies* *things are tough at work.* Excuses are a product of thinking too little of oneself.

Second, it implicitly buys into a Christian moral framework. But if you're rejecting the need for a Savior, you ought to reject the Christian moral framework along with it, because the framework only makes sense in his presence. The Christian moral framework says that it doesn't matter where you are at in life, it only matters if you are to blame, because if you aren't to blame, Christ will make up the difference. Without Christ making up the difference, it matters very much if you are miserable or inadequate or unvirtuous and it doesn't matter much why. That's why I think that trying to live a moral, godly life is the best inculcator of the need for a savior. Because once you set your sights on an actual end state instead of on just 'not being to blame,' you quickly come to realize that you aren't reaching that state and you need considerable help to get there.

By the by, focusing on blameableness and culpability instead of one's actual condition is one of progressivism's most dangerous sub-Christian malformations. We are in a state where its considered more important that a violent lunatic got that way because of environmental influences rather than the glaring fact that a violent lunatic is a violent lunatic. If that's all you're saying, that progressivism distorts the quest to live a godly life even among people who have rejected progressivism enough to try to live a godly life, then I agree with you.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Adam - Just to clarify - my quibble was purely empirical - in the sense that I am not sure whether trying and failing to live a virtuous life really does typically/ always have the psychological effect of seeing the need for a saviour.

I agree that it probably ought-to - but I think it perhaps often doesn't (for various reasons, often bad, including the things about progressivism offering excuses).

BTW - "We are in a state where its considered more important that a violent lunatic got that way because of environmental influences rather than the glaring fact that a violent lunatic is a violent lunatic" is what I would regard as an excellent example of what I was meaning in today's post about the species of delusional thinking which insists on focusing on secondary issues while refusing to talk about the primary issue.

George said...

The act of purgation, from within the Catholic church, could be a catalyst for heroic overcoming of sin. To accept OS and realize one has natural inclinations towards sin like sloth, jealously, promiscuity (etc., depending on the individual nature) but then *recognizing* through OS that these things are not really part of one's true higher self, as re-born in Christ. This mental separation could be key to overcoming instead of falling into the delusion that these sinful tendencies are an integral part of oneself (i.e. modern celebration of "individual" that really means "give into your urges as we manipulate them with the following paid advertisement...")

The flip side of separation from one's lower or sinful tendencies is to recognize that those good and beautiful tendencies are connected to the divine! Thus theosis...?