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Original Sin, Puritanical And Otherwise


Nick the Nevermet
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I'm starting this thread because I didn't want to derail Dorothy's thread. Dorothy asked for help regarding how to better articulate what she believes. I was going to post this in that thread, but decided against it because it would amount to a threadjack.

 

Several people voiced concern over original sin as a theological concept. This is understandable, as it has been used to bludgeon people into silence and obedience.

 

I have two concerns, and I'll deal with each in a separate post (it's easier for me to read shorter posts than 1 long one, so I assume that's true for others).

 

My first concern deals with history, and is what started this thread.

As I understand it, the myth of Adam and Eve was literalized to make people more dependent on the church—‘original sin’ was the sickness for which it alone had the cure. St. Augustine started the notion that we are fallen at birth and can only be saved from sin by Jesus.

 

It's a little messier than that, actually. Original sin was developed in a theological debate that intersected with a power struggle (as so many do), but I wouldn't describe the debate as freedom vs. church control. Rather it was different forms of church control.

 

The common thread of Pelagius, as well as the Donatists and Novatians (two "heretical" sects in northern Africa) is that they aren't claiming that free will leads to freedom. Pelagius promoted asceticism, and there's no evidence he supported universalism. In other words, Pelagius believed you had the freedom to make two choices: join the church, make the right choices, and live the life of a semi-monk... or you could burn. The other groups that Augustine was actively fighting against were the Donatists and the Novatians, two sects of Christianity that broke away from the church over the issue of what to do with lapsed Christians, those who didn't stand strong in the face of Roman persecution. Donatus wanted to ban them from the priesthood as a universal rule, and Novatian wanted to kick them out completely.

 

As a concept, original sin has a very checkered past, and Augustine was puritanical and pessimistic in ways that are hard to swallow. His claims about unbaptized babies go to Hell, and that torturing people until they convert to Christianity are wrong in horrible ways. However, his opponents were not grand humanists, and their ideas about free will and the potential for human purity did not lead to egalitarian freedom. Rather, they lead to a different type of puritanical moralism, which had just as much potential for oppression.

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Nick,

 

That is very interesting background information.

 

I would suggest the importance of the idea of original sin is that it survived and still lives among us today.

 

BTW, I sure hope the Donatists and Novatians were wrong.

 

George

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My second concern could be called a matter of “theological determinism,” in other words, how much does a certain theological concept (free will, original sin, etc.) guarantee a certain set of practices in relation to power and politics. Free will as a theological concept doesn't necessarily lead to freedom in a social or political sense.

 

So, now the question becomes how can original sin lead to anything other than some form of conservative fundamentalism? In other words, how can original sin relate to progressive Christianity? I'm going to rely heavily on Barth as I tend to do.

 

Original Sin simply means we live in a fallen world. Calvinism tends to see the entire world as fallen, not just humanity. As others have said in the other thread, fallen means we do not, as a natural state live in harmony with God's will. Struggle in some form or another seems inherently linked to human experience. That's it, and everything else comes from how you connect it to other theological concepts.

 

For example. if you are a biblical literalist in a Young Earth Creationist sort of way (which IIRC Augustine wasn't), you can end up with comments about how we started in union with God, and then Adam and Eve screwed up so badly, that all their descendants must continue to pay for it. However, if you are not a literalist, then you end up with a story (myth?) that tries to offer a quick explanation for why life isn't a perfect, well-olied machine of happiness & harmony. Different theologians take different deeper meanings from the story of Adam & Eve.

 

If you link it to limited atonement, or some other version of “Only Real Christians go to Heaven,” then you get a very compelling (for some people) statement about how all of humanity “deserves” damnation. But it's just as easily linked to everything up to and including universal salvation: We can reconcile with God through God's ability to see more than our fallen state, just as we are to see more than the disharmony we experience with others.

 

A quick interlude into my day job: One of the big themes in his work, and postmodernism in general, is an extreme suspicion of anything that claims to be THE TRUTH. The ideal of a single, monolithic truth can be a dangerous things. From this perspective, the will to truth is often the will to power (Foucault). Postmodernism sometimes threw the baby out with the bathwater, but they had a very important point: certainty is dangerous.

 

Some accuse postmodernism of being overly pessimistic. Their critics complain that their vision involves humanity trapped within history, forever having civilizations rise and collapse, with now way to escape, no way out, how way to build a more perfect world (the dream of so many Enlightenment thinkers). The postmodernists reply is that it is better to acknowledge that then create a monster fueled by false certainty, and life isn't that horrible: you just need to be a bit more humble in your claims regarding THE TRUTH. Postmodernism thus became a major intellectual force for critical engagement with the world from a certain type of leftist politics. Postmodernism has influenced the study of gender, sexuality, race, science, and many other areas of social science in important ways.

 

Within Original Sin, I see that postmodern critique: we do not have the tools to perfect ourselves. To claim we can could be a folly equal to the Tower of Babel. We can strive to make a better world, but it's only by degrees. Barth says we should always doubt (not just question) any religion because it's a religion, especially our own. It ought to be a humbling concept, and when Christianity remembers it isn't actually the spiritual Roman Empire, it can be that properly.

 

If I've offended anyone, I apologize.

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Nick,

 

That is very interesting background information.

 

I would suggest the importance of the idea of original sin is that it survived and still lives among us today.

 

BTW, I sure hope the Donatists and Novatians were wrong.

 

George

 

Me too. To suggest there is no forgiveness for those who act under threat of death is... not quite the Christianity I want to follow.

 

Oh, also, my primary source for my first post is Christianity: the first three thousand years by Diarmaid MacCulloch.

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Nick,

 

Just to clarify-- my comments were responding to Dorothy’s post #9 where she said “I don't believe in original sin and want some ideas how to explain that there is no original sin.” I meant to offer support for her view in a cooperative way – not to “derail the thread.” If I was being too simplistic -- what little I know comes from reading PC authors –I’m definitely not qualified to talk about church history :-)

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My second concern could be called a matter of “theological determinism,” in other words, how much does a certain theological concept (free will, original sin, etc.) guarantee a certain set of practices in relation to power and politics. Free will as a theological concept doesn't necessarily lead to freedom in a social or political sense.

 

So, now the question becomes how can original sin lead to anything other than some form of conservative fundamentalism? In other words, how can original sin relate to progressive Christianity? I'm going to rely heavily on Barth as I tend to do.

 

Original Sin simply means we live in a fallen world. Calvinism tends to see the entire world as fallen, not just humanity. As others have said in the other thread, fallen means we do not, as a natural state live in harmony with God's will. Struggle in some form or another seems inherently linked to human experience. That's it, and everything else comes from how you connect it to other theological concepts.

 

For example. if you are a biblical literalist in a Young Earth Creationist sort of way (which IIRC Augustine wasn't), you can end up with comments about how we started in union with God, and then Adam and Eve screwed up so badly, that all their descendants must continue to pay for it. However, if you are not a literalist, then you end up with a story (myth?) that tries to offer a quick explanation for why life isn't a perfect, well-olied machine of happiness & harmony. Different theologians take different deeper meanings from the story of Adam & Eve.

 

If you link it to limited atonement, or some other version of “Only Real Christians go to Heaven,” then you get a very compelling (for some people) statement about how all of humanity “deserves” damnation. But it's just as easily linked to everything up to and including universal salvation: We can reconcile with God through God's ability to see more than our fallen state, just as we are to see more than the disharmony we experience with others.

 

A quick interlude into my day job: One of the big themes in his work, and postmodernism in general, is an extreme suspicion of anything that claims to be THE TRUTH. The ideal of a single, monolithic truth can be a dangerous things. From this perspective, the will to truth is often the will to power (Foucault). Postmodernism sometimes threw the baby out with the bathwater, but they had a very important point: certainty is dangerous.

 

Some accuse postmodernism of being overly pessimistic. Their critics complain that their vision involves humanity trapped within history, forever having civilizations rise and collapse, with now way to escape, no way out, how way to build a more perfect world (the dream of so many Enlightenment thinkers). The postmodernists reply is that it is better to acknowledge that then create a monster fueled by false certainty, and life isn't that horrible: you just need to be a bit more humble in your claims regarding THE TRUTH. Postmodernism thus became a major intellectual force for critical engagement with the world from a certain type of leftist politics. Postmodernism has influenced the study of gender, sexuality, race, science, and many other areas of social science in important ways.

 

Within Original Sin, I see that postmodern critique: we do not have the tools to perfect ourselves. To claim we can could be a folly equal to the Tower of Babel. We can strive to make a better world, but it's only by degrees. Barth says we should always doubt (not just question) any religion because it's a religion, especially our own. It ought to be a humbling concept, and when Christianity remembers it isn't actually the spiritual Roman Empire, it can be that properly.

 

If I've offended anyone, I apologize.

 

No need to apologize - well constructed post.

 

I think the question of certainty is something that Christianity does not address particularly well. By way of illustration i raise the issue of the absence of God.

 

I am wonder f you think process theology may provide some valuable insights in this area.

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No need to apologize - well constructed post.

 

I think the question of certainty is something that Christianity does not address particularly well. By way of illustration i raise the issue of the absence of God.

 

I am wonder f you think process theology may provide some valuable insights in this area.

 

 

Good question. I must confess that my memory of process theology is a bit dim. The things I know about process theology are its rejection of the standard definition of omnipotence, that God changes, that God works through persuasion but does not have coercive control over the universe, and the universe exists within God. IIRC, sin in process theology is the ignoring of God's persuasive suggestion. I suspect that most process theologians worth their salt would agree that it would be impossible for a human being to follow God's call all day, every day, for their entire life. So, on that level, I would suspect process theology would have a notion of original sin of some kind. Barth would put an extreme doubt on our ability to hear God correctly, more than I suspect process theology would, but I'm guessing.

 

Beyond that, I'm not sure how the relationship would work. The two theologies define God in almost opposite ways: God as total sovereign vs. God as non-coercive relational reality in toto (that's not either side's full definition, but it's the relevant part).

 

If you have a thought here, I'd love to hear it. I have a nasty habit of appreciating theologies that seem fundamentally incompatible, and Barth & Whitehead would be an example :huh:

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Good question. I must confess that my memory of process theology is a bit dim. The things I know about process theology are its rejection of the standard definition of omnipotence, that God changes, that God works through persuasion but does not have coercive control over the universe, and the universe exists within God. IIRC, sin in process theology is the ignoring of God's persuasive suggestion. I suspect that most process theologians worth their salt would agree that it would be impossible for a human being to follow God's call all day, every day, for their entire life. So, on that level, I would suspect process theology would have a notion of original sin of some kind. Barth would put an extreme doubt on our ability to hear God correctly, more than I suspect process theology would, but I'm guessing.

 

Beyond that, I'm not sure how the relationship would work. The two theologies define God in almost opposite ways: God as total sovereign vs. God as non-coercive relational reality in toto (that's not either side's full definition, but it's the relevant part).

 

If you have a thought here, I'd love to hear it. I have a nasty habit of appreciating theologies that seem fundamentally incompatible, and Barth & Whitehead would be an example :huh:

 

I think you did a pretty neat summary from my own understanding of process theology.

 

Certainly Barth would be at odds with Cobb et al.

 

The thing I like about PC is that it accepts the apparent 'absence' of God. If one is to pursue the theist God line then even Barth has a problem explaining evil in my view - not that I am anything of an expert of Barth. Until we develop a workable doctrine of evil then God will remain clouded by our distorted view of reality.

 

Just think out aloud here.

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I think you did a pretty neat summary from my own understanding of process theology.

 

Certainly Barth would be at odds with Cobb et al.

 

The thing I like about PC is that it accepts the apparent 'absence' of God. If one is to pursue the theist God line then even Barth has a problem explaining evil in my view - not that I am anything of an expert of Barth. Until we develop a workable doctrine of evil then God will remain clouded by our distorted view of reality.

 

Just think out aloud here.

 

One of the points of a board like this is thinking out loud. ;)

 

Whitehead, Cobb & process theology makes a choice regarding the problem of evil that is simple, and direct: God isn't omnipotent.

 

Honestly, I've read more on Calvin's theodicy than Barth's. For his part, Calvin wants to say evil isn't real. Suffering is either punishment from God, a tool for education, or something else... but in the end he falls back on we only know what God chooses to reveal.

 

Barth, on the other hand, engages the problem of evil by rejecting the common definition of God's omnibenevolence. In Romans, he states bluntly that "the righteousness of God is not the righteousness of Man," (from memory, but almost exact I think), and he refers to God as beyond good and evil at least once (I'm unsure if he kept that view throughout his later Church Dogmatics). To make matters worse, Barth then doubles down on Calvin's reliance on the self-revelation of God, rejecting all forms of natural theology. Human righteousness is fragile and temporary, we cannot know God's grace or love or righteousness unless God chooses to let us, and God chooses from our POV to arbitrarily give and remove his grace. I'd be lying if this argument filled me with hope and joy, but I was sort of beaten into submission by the other arguments in Romans and Evangelical Theology :blink: When I get back to reading up on Barth, his theodicy is one of the first things I'm interested in.

 

Google tells me there are a few works comparing Barth and process theology, but I'm not going to have time to read them until the summer at the earliest. :( Nevertheless, I suspect that as I go into this farther, Barth and process theology will be a fun dialectic to work through.

 

EDIT: Part of Barth's recovery of God's goodness is his claim that God will reconcile the world to God, and this is where the whole "is he a universalist?" dance starts. He claims he isn't, but I don't understand how he can make that claim yet. But anyway, Barth takes reconciliation very seriously, and it was the next volume of Church Dogmatics he was working on when he died. Whether this helps vindicate (Barth would hate that word) God or not is just a mess that is beyond me and this current discussion.

 

EDIT EDIT: Also, though it's quite reasonable, I'm amused that at this thread's drift from Original Sin to the problem of evil/theodicy. B)

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Nick,

 

Just to clarify-- my comments were responding to Dorothy’s post #9 where she said “I don't believe in original sin and want some ideas how to explain that there is no original sin.” I meant to offer support for her view in a cooperative way – not to “derail the thread.” If I was being too simplistic -- what little I know comes from reading PC authors –I’m definitely not qualified to talk about church history :-)

 

Rivanna,

 

I missed your post. Sorry about that.

 

I didn't think your post was de-railing the thread at all. The entire point of Dorothy's thread was to give her analytical and rhetorical tools to help her explain and support what she believes (a rejection of sin & original sin as usually defined in Christianity), which is IMHO a legitimate thing to do here. It would have been less than appropriate if I started defending the opposing side in that thread. So, I started this one.

 

And I'm not qualified to talk about Christian theology or history either. I've read, like, a shelf or so of books, and I want people correct me when I say something incorrect, and I really, sincerely did not intend to come across as picking on you. I just wanted to correct some details about history. Hence the last sentence of my original post in this thread.

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Nick, George, all,

 

I think one must not allow another's vocabulary terms, e.g."original sin", force where we look and what we understand about our lives. I was going to avoid this thread but I wanted to comment on process theology. My reading is hit and miss. So take what I say with a grain of salt. I wonder if process theology is being forced into an "Original Sin" Mold which may not apply.

 

I suspect that most process theologians worth their salt would agree that it would be impossible for a human being to follow God's call all day, every day, for their entire life. So, on that level, I would suspect process theology would have a notion of original sin of some kind.

My understanding evolved out of my introduction to Jakob Boehme.

God wanted to know God's self. To know one's self requires relationship with (an)Other. For Boehme what we call evil, pain, bad is the "friction", the difficulty, of moving from potentiality to actuality. God opened God's self up, split (Boehme and I part ways soon also) into God becoming and creation becoming. Becoming is an evolving process: there is no original anything except God's desire to know God's self. God is becoming something new; creation is becoming something new, together. What the two together value is evolving. Many today say that the highest value is "love' and so it is that as God becoming and creation becoming roll everything up into the next moment we move toward love.

 

Well I haven't done any reading recently in process theology so I can't speak for any body else.

 

 

Take Care

 

Dutch

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