Rethinking original sin

Memo to self: “You are not indispensable. The world can go on without you.” I know, it sounds silly when I write it down. There is something about the combination of the coronavirus pandemic and my coming retirement from the job I currently hold that has gotten my thinking all messed up. Regular readers of this journal know that for years I have journaled about paddling in the spring. After winter, I’m usually eager to get on the water and paddle, even if it is just a quick trip around a very familiar lake. None of my boats have been wet this spring at all. I’ve had my attention and my head focused on what needs to be done at the office. There is nothing that is preventing me from being more attentive to self care except my own emotional state.

When I was a student, I was somewhat quick to dismiss the concept of original sin. Without going into too much detail, there has long been a Christian theological idea of original sin. Ever since the rebellion of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, all people have been born with the need of forgiveness, because the sins of previous generations are handed down to the next generation. Augustine may be one of the earliest theologians to think of the idea as doctrine. He posited that all humans are born with a built-in urge to do bad things and to disobey God.

The doctrine gained credence simply because there are a lot of things that humans do that are terrible. A great deal of the world’s pain and suffering relates to actions taken by human beings. The doctrine gives an easy explanation for phenomena such as slavery and war. There is evil in the world because humans make poor choices.

As a student, I would argue against the idea that humans are born with sin, but rather that sin is the result of choices humans make later in their lives. It seemed to me that it is a kind of false way of accepting responsibility for one’s behavior. “I sinned because everyone sins.” It is almost like claiming that there is no choice in the matter.

Now that I am much older, I have been rethinking my earlier positions on the matter. The reality is that I have to struggle constantly with myself nearly constantly to achieve balance. Intellectually I understand the concept of Sabbath. I know why the commandment to “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy” exists. The biblical commandment contains a reminder that there is a powerful hubris in assuming that one is greater than God, or even greater than other human beings. “Sure others need to take a day off, but I don’t.” As I write the sentence it seems arrogant. And yet, it is easy for me to fall into exactly that kind of thinking. There is something inside of me that is vain.

As I think of the transition of leadership for the congregation I serve, I keep coming up with tasks and chores that I do and thinking of them as things that only I can do. It is false and delusional thinking. Although I am a unique human being with unique gifts, I’m not the only one who can asses the needs of this congregation and respond with creativity and hard work. I’m not the only one who can preach a sermon, or administer a program, or solve a computer problem, or manage a budget. The truth is that I haven’t been doing any of those chores by myself all along. The church is a group of talented, creative and hard working people who have pitched in and served on boards and committees and donated their time and work and resources for generations before I came on the scene. For a brief period of time, I was given stewardship of a portion of the life of this congregation. The church is far bigger than any single generation. It is far more than my time as pastor.

I know how to write all of the correct words. I know in my mind how to think about the balance of work and recreation. I know that there are chores that I have to release and trust others to accomplish. I know all of this stuff. Emotionally, however, I still slip into a different way of behaving. The fact of physical distancing and remote working may be contributing to my behaviors. I don’t spend as much time working with others in the office and therefore I don’t have them to ask me about my pace of working. I don’t have the usual everyday conversations with colleagues where they would ask me if I’ve been paddling or what I did on my day off. Certainly another factor is my awareness that my time as pastor of this congregation is short. I will not accomplish everything that I set out to do. Some jobs will be left undone despite my best intentions.

Whatever the reasons, the time has come for repentance. I need to change directions. I need to figure out how to take a day off from work. That commandment about the Sabbath applies to me. And as I do, it is worth re-thinking the concept of original sin. Perhaps there are some things in my nature that make me more vulnerable to particular ways of fleeing the freedom that God intends for all humans.

It is often the case that I dismiss the arguments of those who have gone before in part because I don’t understand them. Because I don’t think like Augustine, I read his words and dismiss some of them because he belongs to an ancient time. A lot has happened in the past 1600 years. Still, the church has been shaped by the thinking and writing of Augustine and others. Their ideas have contributed to how we think and believe. They have endured the test of time and are worthy of my attention and consideration.

I’m beginning to understand original sin in a whole new way.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!