Friday, March 11, 2011

Being by nature born in sinne (or Why Original Sin is a Goodly Doctrine)

This Sunday, many Episcopalians will recite the Great Litany as part of their worship on the First Sunday of Lent. It is a stark recitation of our failure to live into God's goodness and a pleading for deliverance. It is a reminder that Christianity is a salvation religion: it assumes that there is something dreadfully wrong with us and the world and that we require deliverance from beyond ourselves.

The tendency among some Christians to minimize the radical nature of sin is not very helpful. Nor is it reflective of what Christianity in the Anglican tradition has taught:

What is the inward and spirituall grace [of baptism]?

A death unto sinne, and a new birth unto righteousness: for being by nature born in sinne, and the children of wrath, we are hereby made the children of grace.

That is from the Catechism of the Scottish prayer book of 1637 (the one according to which Samuel Seabury (the first bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States) was ordained and on which ours is based). The same Catechism is found in the 1559 BCP (the Elizabethan Prayer Book used by Her Majesty as well as Lancelot Andrewes, Richard Hooker, John Donne, and others of the formative period of Anglicanism).

And there is A HYMN TO GOD THE FATHER by John Donne

William Temple wrote, ". . . reason itself as it exists in us in vitiated. We wrongly estimate the ends of life, and give preference to those which should be subordinate, because they have a stronger appeal to our actual, empirical selves . . . It is the spirit which is evil; it is reason which is perverted; it is aspiration itself which is corrupt." Nature, Man, and God, p. 368.

Actually, a sort of good news is hidden in the Christian doctrine of sin - even that "awful" doctrine of original sin. To believe in original sin is to believe that the way things are is not the way things are meant to be. It is to believe that sin is not the truest thing about us. It is to believe that violence, selfishness, and will to power are not "natural" but aberrations of God's original intent which precedes our fall into complicity with evil.

While, the philosophical Liberalism of the Enlightenment - from which what we popularly call "liberalism" and "conservatism" are both descended - is notoriously optimistic about human nature, it is actually based in something less than hopeful. As John Milbank points out in Liberality vs Liberalism:

[Liberalism is] based, in a Manichean fashion upon the ontological primacy of evil and violence: at the beginning is the threatened individual, piece of property, or racial terrain. This is not the same as an Augustinian acknowledgment of original sin, perversity and frailty -- a hopeful doctrine, since it affirms that all pervasive evil for which we cannot really account (by saying for example with Rousseau that it is the fault of property or social associations as such) is yet all the same a contingent intrusion upon reality, which can one day be fully overcome through the lure of the truly desirable is transcendent goodness (and that itself, in mode of grace, now aids us). Liberalism instead begins with a disguised naturalisation of original sin as original egotism: our own egotism which we seek to nurture, and still more the egotism of the other against which we need protection.

Original sin is, ironically, a hopeful doctrine because it declares that the way the world is and the way we are is not the way the world or we are meant to be. And we are not stuck with the sinfulness of our egotism, violence, and unlove.

Sin is pervasive, not just around us but in us. As such it is not something for which we only seek forgiveness but something from which we hope to be delivered and healed. The really good news is that God does not only forgive us for our sin, perversity and frailty, but promises to heal and strengthen us. In the prayer of absolution, we ask not only to be forgiven, but strengthened in all goodness. There is no room for cheap grace or moral complacency. We are called to repent and seek to be holy as we live into the promise that God will make us so.

Good Lord, deliver us.


Bryan Owen said...

On the topic of Original Sin, I highly commend Alan Jacobs' Original Sin: A Cultural History.

In case anyone's interested, I posted a couple of pieces about Jacobs' book on my blog:

Original Sin: Reject or Defend?

Revisiting Original Sin

Jacobs writes this about Augustine's doctrine of Original Sin in contrast to the theology of Pelagius:

... Augustine's emphasis on the universal depravity of human nature – seen by so many then and now as an insult to human dignity – is curiously liberating. I once heard a preacher encourage his listeners to begin a prayer with the following words: "Lord, I am the failure that you always knew I would be." It is the true Augustinian note. Pelagianism is a creed for heroes, but Augustine's emphasis on original sin and the consequent absolute dependence of every one of us on the grace of God gives hope to the waverer, the backslider, the slacker, the putz, the schlemiel. We’re all in the same boat as Mister Holier-than-Thou over there, saved only by the grace that comes to us in Holy Baptism. Peter Brown once more: "Paradoxically, therefore, it is Augustine, with his harsh emphasis on baptism as the only way to salvation, who appears as the advocate of moral tolerance: for within the exclusive fold of the Catholic church he could find room for a whole spectrum of human failings."

Matt Gunter said...

Thanks for sharing your posts, Bryan. And for commending the Jacobs book. I'll have to put it on my list.

As Jacobs suggests, attempts in some circles to rehabilitate Pelagius over against Augustine reveal a lack thgeological or moral seriousness. And it actually leads to a kind of stark moralism that is unappealing. On the other hand (and I don't think that either you or Jacobs would disagree with this), it has to be admitted that many who have accepted one or another version of original sin have missed the point that our "being by nature born to sinne" is not the most true thing about us. We have a deeper origin in God's (tov me'od) delight and a hope of forgiveness and healing. Failure to remember that leads to a graceless disdain for humanness.

Bryan Owen said...

Excellent points, Matt. I couldn't agree more!

Anonymous said...

I was in a therapy group a long time ago -- just at the beginning of the discernment process, now that I'm thinking about it.

I shocked everybody by mentioning that I found the doctrine of Original Sin to be comforting and freeing.