Funny how Original Sin, a dismal doctrine that suddenly appeared from the quill of Augustine in the fourth century as he tried to explain away his own compulsive sexual behavior, really is a lot more about original blame. Even today, humans seem obsessed with guilt and blame. From mass shootings to weather events to viruses, we never fail to ask who was responsible. Sometimes we seem to think that if we find someone to blame whatever we are blaming them for with go away. In the case of Augustine, he was operating under a false assumption of original perfection and immortality. He was trying to explain why things aren’t perfect now. His assumption was that things should be perfect, an assumption that continues today when we hear people asking why bad things happen. Quite simply, that question is based on an invalid assumption.
I have long believed that, outside of the time when a new baby is born, most of those inside the Christian Church don’t pay much attention to Original Sin. I’m not sure very many pay much more attention to it when a baby is born. In my experience, parents baptize children primarily because the grandparents are concerned about original sin. The grandparents remember that they were to baptize their babies to “wash them of the stain of original sin” so they wouldn’t go to hell, or limbo, depending on what period of history they were living in. Never mind that the Church also taught that personal sin would also endanger their salvation. Never mind that certain corners of the Church also taught that Jesus died to pay the debt for our sins, we were still to be consumed with guilt and scrambling just to get back to even. In short, the game was rigged. Perhaps a story will help illustrate my point.
From the moment I entered seventh grade until some time near the end of high school, I was an unwilling participant in a nightly, alcohol fueled attack on my spirit. I spent countless after dinner hours hearing, among other things, that I was nothing but a “goddamn adolescent” and that I “didn’t communicate.” This was announced at the top of my mother’s lungs while my father, equally intoxicated, sat in his chair cowering. At some point it occurred to me that as a teenager I was, in fact, an adolescent. Goddamned didn’t seem too far from the truth either, given the conditions under which I was existing. As for not communicating, not only was the environment less than encouraging but my family’s definition of communication was inherently flawed – but that’s better left for another time. What I was supposed to do about being an adolescent was never made clear to me.
In my story, adolescence as defect is quite parallel to original sin and scapegoating. Instead of Augustine admitting that the drives he was experiencing were normal and the responsibility for his actions was his alone, he sought to blame the drives and his responsibility for acting on them elsewhere by attributing them to “original sin.” Instead of my mother being able to understand her discomfort with me as a function of her many psychiatric illnesses and personal history, she attributed her discomfort to my adolescence. The problem in both cases is the steadfast refusal to accept personal responsibility for one’s feelings, thoughts, and/or behavior.
If there is an original sin, it cannot be understood through what a mythical couple did in a mythical garden when tempted by a walking, talking, mythical snake that stood erect and was schooled in debate. The “Fall” is a mythological attempt to explain why life isn’t perfect. I submit that life was never supposed to be perfect. Our condition is precisely what it is supposed to be. There is no flaw, fall, blame, debt, responsibility or anything else that arises from one person’s behavior that should somehow become the responsibility of another.
If there is an original sin, it may well be original sin itself. If there is a foundational “problem” at work in the human experience, I submit it is precisely the human tendency to scapegoat others by blaming them for our feelings, thoughts, and behavior. We need to face that the devil didn’t make us do it, that we always have choices, and that we will make mistakes. None of us is perfect, so we can drop the shame that we voluntarily put in our backpacks when we make mistakes. We are indeed responsible for our feelings, thoughts, and behavior, but only for our feelings, thoughts, and behavior. Can you feel the freedom in that? Can you feel the potential in this truth? We can maximize our wholeness and grow toward holiness precisely because we don’t have to start with a millstone of other’s making around our necks.