Before original sin, there is Original Love.
God is universal, unconditional Love, and we are made to be reflections of Love on earth.
I believe in original sin, but not as it is most popularly understood. It is meant to be a teaching of universal forgiveness, not condemnation.
I think it is urgent to reclaim a doctrine of original sin. Doctrine has the same root as doctor. It should be a healing teaching, an understanding of God, humanity, and the world that contributes to our wellbeing. Doctrines are not necessary for salvation — we are reconciled to God and each other by God’s unconditional love regardless of what we believe — but they impact the world through the fruit that they bear.
Right now, we have a pathogen of original sin, an interpretation that has borne rotten fruits of Christian supremacy and dehumanization. Yet I maintain that there is a way to interpret original sin as a doctrine that heals, not a poison that harms.
Wrapped up in my understanding of original sin are these three questions: If we come from Love, how could sin be part of our original condition? How does a misunderstanding of original sin exacerbate sin itself? And what healing can come when sin is diagnosed and carefully, conscientiously treated? As I answer these questions, I hope it becomes clear that though the idea of original sin has done tremendous harm, there is a way of understanding original sin that is actually good news.
Right now, we have a pathogen of original sin, an interpretation that has borne rotten fruits …
What’s So “Original” About Sin?
The most pervasive interpretation of original sin there is is that evil is inherited through conception, inescapable, and driving us all on a path of condemnation except where grace intervenes for believers.
This is bullshit.
Many people rightly reject this interpretation of original sin and affirm original blessing instead.
I also affirm original blessing: humankind is blessed to be made in the image of Love. We come from Love, and to Love we shall all return.
Yet I also believe that sin has been part of our human nature for as long as we have existed on earth. To believe in original sin is to affirm that humanity has yet to live into the fullness of our potential. Just as we evolved physically from more primitive organisms, we are growing spiritually into the Love we do not yet fully reflect.
Original sin is a condition that lies not in our physical DNA, but our social DNA: our relationships.
Original sin is a distorted expression of original relationship, which is Love.
Sin is estrangement, straining the bonds between ourselves and God, one another, and all creation, catalyzing cycles of violence and entangling us all in networks of pain.
Ignorance of our interconnection has cracked the foundations upon which civilizations have been built.
What is the source of this ignorance? How do we fail to realize that the wellbeing of one affects the wellbeing of all?
Being human means we are made in and for relationship, dependent on each other for social and spiritual development as essential to life as food and shelter.
But relationship can express itself as connection or conflict. We can either cooperate and commune with each other or compete and clash with one another.
When we cannot or will not share resources or goals, we compete and clash. When we perceive others as threats to achieving our goals, our relationships with those others become relationships of distrust and violence.
And when we distrust each other, we perceive our violence toward the other as natural, even “righteous.” We may think the divine is on our side when we relate negatively to someone we perceive to be “against” us.
And it’s not just our individual relationships that are marred by distrust and righteous enmity. People bond over mutual fear and hatred towards others. Factions, tribes, political parties, nations, international alliances, all violently policing their borders, determined to keep the “wrong” people, the people who threaten them and their resources or livelihoods, out. The violence that it takes to drive out and eliminate threats is seen as a protective force, so God or ultimate power is conflated with violence.
Enmity is a distorted form of relationship that bestows a misguided sense of identity. Hate bonds against those we keep out feel like solidarity bonds with those who are “in.”
Negative ways of relating to each other are almost as fundamental to human existence as relationship itself.
Because humanity has lived in a state of estrangement and enmity as well as love from the beginning of civilization, sin is “original” to our life on earth. Though we come from Love, are fundamentally good, and are made to magnify love to the world, we are also living in sin insofar as we do not yet fully understand and live into Love’s infinite reaches. Sin is the distorted notion that love has limits. It’s our inability to live fully in love with God, each other, and creation.
And if sin is imposing limits on Love, then it is through the unlimited power of universal, unconditional Love that we are being led out of sin.
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Poisonous Understandings of Original Sin
When I speak of original sin, I’m not talking about all the ways we mistakenly or even deliberately harm others. I’m talking about where sin comes from.
I’m talking about the ignorance to our interconnection that keeps us from seeing that we are our siblings’ keepers. I’m talking about how easy and natural it feels to form identity in opposition to others, and the pseudo-righteousness of over-againstness that makes us forget the humanity of those we oppose. I’m talking about how we, in our ignorance, justify and even glorify our opposition to others.
The doctrine of original sin is meant to dispel this ignorance, to affirm that the enmity toward others in which we live is not natural or righteous. But it has been interpreted counterproductively.
The “doctrine” of original sin becomes the pathogen of original sin when it inclines us to further distrust and demonize one another.
The idea that God condemns those who are not “saved” has only exacerbated “Christian” condemnation of others. It has fueled the evils of colonization, genocide, and slavery. It fuels war and draconian punishment systems like the prison industrial complex. It does all of this by declaring that people are inclined to evil and need punishment and discipline… unless by God’s grace they have been “saved.”
This terrible interpretation of original sin has made it just another tool of “over-againstness” rather than a diagnosis leading toward better connection and love.
From intimate to international relationships, a poor understanding of original sin has exacerbated the damage that a better understanding of original sin could help alleviate.
A Healing Doctrine of Original Sin
A healing understanding of original sin centers the universal, unconditional love of God that orients everyone toward eventual redemption and reconciliation. A healing doctrine of original sin exposes our sin — that is, tells us our enmity toward each other is unrighteous and detrimental — in the light of merciful love.
Love saves us from sin by showing us not only that we have been caught up in sin, but that we are better than the sin that has entrapped us. It shows us that we need not relate to each other in hate, fear, and enmity… all paths that lead to destruction and death.
Love shows us that we are made for better, made to be better, through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In a world where love is perceived to be limited to the righteous, Jesus shows solidarity with the unloved and unrighteous… and is cast out on the cross.
Those who thought God’s love was limited killed God in the name of God. In a way, we all do that whenever we perceive our condemnation of an enemy as “righteous.” The cross reveals that whatever we do to our enemy, we do to God.
And God responds with death-defying Love. There is no condemnation within God, and therefore no excuse for our condemnation of each other. In the light of Love triumphant, our eyes begin to see and our hearts begin to heal.
In the light of Love, our deep fears — about God, ourselves, and each other — fall away. Enmity, dehumanization, and distrust that had seemed natural and righteous… all yield to hope for something better.
We see our sinfulness like an old skin we are in the process of shedding. When we were immersed in it, we were blind to it, but by the light and liberation of Love, we recognize what we have been caught up in as it detaches from us and we leave it behind.
We are empowered to start repairing the damage we didn’t even know we were involved in creating. We are empowered to rebuild our relationships on a new foundation of trust, respect and love.
The doctrine of original sin teaches us that we are made for better than we have been. Love is drawing us fully into Love’s self as we let go of false paths to identity through over-againstness. Our original condition may be marred by sin, but our ultimate condition is the fullness of Love. We’re on our way out of sin, and that’s good news indeed.