The Problem Without Original Sin

Yes, you read the title correctly. I’ve followed a fairly typical trajectory of being brought up with “I’m a lowly worm” theology towards an understanding of humans as essentially good, if marred by by sin. I was always under the impression that this was the “right” trajectory, but I’m having second thoughts, partly due to Scot McKnight’s series on original sin, and partly because of the following passage from Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age.

Taylor looks at our seeming fundamental recognition–no matter our beliefs–that something is wrong with us and in the world. Christians explain this wrongness in terms of evil as embodied in original sin, while the materialist-humanist notions of wrongness tend towards the category of sickness. Taylor goes on to make come interesting comparisons (some of which I anticipated in an older post, Demons and Germs):

So the difference is this: evil has the dignity of an option for an apparent good; sickness has not. This dignity is conceded, even in the discourse of conversion that purports to show evil up as false good, and hence really empty, really only a kind of alienation. It is conceded not in the text, but in the context, in the manner of address, which recognizes the power of the oponent.

Now the pathos involved in the triumph of the therapeutic is this: One reason to throw over the spritiual perspective [of] evil/holiness was to reject the idea that our normal, middle-range existence is imperfect. We’re perfectly all right as we are, as “natural” beings. So the dignity of ordinary, “natural” existence is even further enhanced. This ought to have liberated  us from what were recognized frequently as the fruits of sin: impotence, division, anguish, spleen, melancholy, emptiness, incapacity, paralyzing gloom, acedia, etc. But in fact hese abound.

Only now, as afflictions of beings destined for middle-range normalcy, they must be seen as the result of sickness. They must be treated therapeutically. But the person being treated is now being approached as one who is just incapacitated. He has less dignity than the sinner. So what was supposed to enhance our dignity has reduced it. We are just to be dealt with, manipulated into health.

From another angle: casting off religion was meant to free us, give us our full dignity of agnets; throwing off the tutelage of religion, hence of the church, hence of the clergy. But now we are forced to go to new experts, therapists, doctors, who exercise the kind of control that is appropriate over blind and compulsive mechanisms; who may even be administering drugs to us. Our sick selves are even more being talked down to, just treated as things, than were the faithful of yore in churches.

A Secular Age, 619-20.

4 responses to “The Problem Without Original Sin”

  1. I’ve feel closely related to “total depravation” theory… even though I came to it more because of my reading of history rahter than mi kinship with calvinism (in fact, I really dislike calvinism).

  2. Wow yea man, I think that any study in an “ization” point of view towards our current socio- trends completely agree with this. In fact… we use the “CHAID” clustering method…which many of us use now almost subconciously even without knowing of its exsistance… its (chi-squared automatic interaction detection) a statistical classification method proposed by G.V. Kass in 1980- a frustrating part of cultural realization is noticing in normal everyday interactions how often people have begun to assume that the benneficial assesment of profitability and determination of “ization” trends… the methods we use to determine their potential success and methods of improvement, have begun to infultrate our own personal sence of self betterment, to the point of what you are describing. Heck even churches map out their own growth now in similar ways. We truely are a stuff and things socialization of what could have been a purer movement toward realistic integration with our own humanity…. instead…. exactly what you have described…

    Kind of wierd how we attempt to simplify things through more rational means which negate the pararational and drop the meaning.

    So thats that… no offspring for me, until the world gets a wee bit more comfortable with its self.


  3. Great post matt.

    Bonhoeffer has recently converted me, in the cycle of things, back also to an understanding of the ‘sinnerness’ of us.

    I love the comparison between psychological brokenness and spiritual condition; the pyschological is considered unbiased, the ‘last word’ on what somebody is. The interesting which you and Don allude to is the commodification of our sickness. Not that our sin hasn’t been commodified by the Church before (i.e. indulgences) but at least this abberation was grounded in a community whose priestly sin was only an exageration of the truth of penance and communal confession.
    selling our healing to us by means of a de-communitied specilization leads to the opposite of healing: the necessity of ongoing sickness (for that is where the money is).

    I’m very interested to investigate how closely tied a correct understanding of the seriousness of sin is to our salvation, to our “christ-likeness.”

  4. mountainguy: It’s true, history does strongly support something along the lines of total deprivation, even if I will never use the term due to its Calvinist-TULIP connotations.

    Don: solid ramble. :) I think that we’re seeing some slow moves away from these purely rationalistic frameworks, but I’m afraid we’re just jumping out of the rationality pan and into the spirituality fire.

    Joel: Commodification indeed. I think that there’s so many fruitful avenues to explore in terms of our alienation from our own bodies in modernity, and how the sin-salvation paradigm has much stronger explanatory power for the world we find ourselves in than the sickness-medicine paradigm.

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