Original Sin

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I have just listened to BBC Radio 4’s Beyond Belief  (www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07btlm7) which discussed this evening the doctrine of Original Sin. It consisted of a group of scholars (and a Jesuit priest) discussing the doctrine and their conclusions were effectively: St. Augustine is wrong, original sin is all about babies going to hell and it is responsible for all the problems of Western society. In response to this caricature, I wanted to provide my own discussion of original sin consisting mainly of a short exposition of the first chapters of Genesis. Sadly, this portion of the Scriptures is usually treated as an embarrassment to Christians – reserved for the Easter Vigil – and dismissed as silly whenever an atheist challenges ‘creationism’. However, I think the first few chapters of Genesis provide all the fundamental of the Christian life. In these chapters right at the beginning of the Scriptures we find in symbolic detail so much of the life of faith and the reality of things.

Perhaps the most significant verse for us now is Genesis 2.7:

‘Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a living being’.

God made us from the clay of the earth – affirming from the beginning that we are embodied realities. As I’ve said in a previous post, we as scientific people know even better than the Biblical writers that we are truly embodied – everything in us comes from stardust. We are made from the clay of the earth, the building blocks of the universe. This is very important because the problem we have (and we’ll get there) is not with our bodies! Heresies up and down the centuries, from Gnosticism to Puritanism have attempted to say that it our bodies that are the problem. They couldn’t be more wrong. Our bodies, our passions, our sexualities are not the problem – God made us from the clay of the earth and he ‘saw that it was good’.

But that’s not all. Into that good clay he breathes ‘the breath of life’ – the ruach in Hebrew or the spiritus in Latin. God breathes into this earthly stuff his own life, his own being. What this means is that there is in us an aspiration to God: our minds don’t just seek some truth, we seek the Truth; our minds don’t just look for goodness but the Good itself and our souls won’t rest until they’ve come to the Beautiful itself. In each one of us, created from clay, there is an aspiration, a longing for God. If gnosticism denies the body of claim then modern day secularism denies the breath of life! Secularism (and scientism) reduces everything to matter, scientifically testable matter – which means that the longing for truth and goodness is reduced to psychological fantasy or wish-fulfilling delusion. Secularism denies the breath of God which animates each one of us.

Before we get to the great problem of original sin, there is another observation from Genesis which is fruitful to remember, this time from Genesis 2.15: ‘the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden’. Human beings are placed in Eden, the garden full of delights to taste and experience and enjoy. The Lord gives us practically free reign – ‘eat of every tree of the garden’ except one (but we’ll get to that). But, before we look at the problem, look at the extraordinary permission given to us! God wants the people he has created to flourish in the garden. In ancient mythology, God and humans are always rivals but the true God cannot be threatened by creation – he needs nothing from it, he demands nothing for his own well being – he simply delights to see us fully alive. We are placed in a beautiful garden, not in the desert.

Augustine and the Church Fathers take this further – all the trees represent everything that makes life wonderful. ‘Every tree’ includes philosophy, art, science, friendship, sex, politics and music  – everything that makes life wonderful is represented here and God says, ‘eat of them all!’ God never seeks to limit the human project, to arbitrarily restrict our flourishing but says to us – your being fully alive is my glory. Eat, enjoy, play!

But, what about the prohibition? One tree is forbidden – ‘the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.’ The Lord God is unconditioned Good, he is good in his own being and so, in his own being, is the measure of good and evil. Therefore, this prerogative belongs to God alone. Original Sin is nothing more and nothing less than making the prerogative of determine good and evil our own. The calamity of creation is that we seek to make our will the measure of good and evil rather than God’s. This is a subtle point – not a particular offence, like murder or theft, it’s much more fundamental – Original Sin is making ourselves into God, claiming we are the deciders of good and evil. Since this appropriation, human misery has followed – just read the first eleven chapters of Genesis to see this laid out; murder, pride and violence have followed this fundamental sin.

This is not abstract theological musing designed to frighten people, as Beyond Belief tried to say, it’s written into our culture. It’s seen as a basic liberty to determine the meaning of good and evil, to make my own meaning. Ask most people today and they’ll say, ‘right or wrong, that’s my personal decision’. And this attitude, before any particular sin is the disfunction introduced into the human condition.

How do Adam and Eve respond in this symbolic narrative – Adam says, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hide myself’ (Gen. 3.10). This isn’t being ashamed of the body, it is evidence of a deep and uncomfortable turning inwards. If goodness is found in God and the world he created, we turn into ourselves if we try to ignore this reality. Sin is turning oneself into God and the result is a turning in on yourself – no happiness can be true if you appropriate the divine life, you must receive it as a gift! The divine life is a gift, it exists in gift-form in the Trinity: the Father gives himself to the Son, the Son gives himself to the Father and the Spirit is the mutual giving of Father and Son! If you want the divine life, if you want to return the beatitude of the garden you can’t grasp the divine life, you receive it ‘on the fly’! As you receive it, you give it away! As it comes in, as you receive grace, it goes out. Then, and only then, does it really take root in you.

The best example of this is the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17.8-16). Elijah says to the women, ‘bring me bread’ and she tells him that she only has enough for one meal for her and her son and then they’re going to curl up and die. Elijah responds, ‘make me some bread.’ (Charming) She makes him the cake and the bread and oil never run out! The Scriptures tell this story over and over again – if you want the divine life, give it away, and as you give it away you get more and finally it becomes a fountain bubbling up in you to eternal life!

Original Sin is not a barbaric doctrine about the eternal damnation of children – it is central to who we are; children of God, filled with the breath of the divine life, but twisted inwards and in need of grace! It would take a lifetime to tell you how wonderful the grace of God that slowly turns us outwards – which polishes the diamond and returns us to the happiness for which we were made. But, to sum up this post – if you want to be happy, give yourself away! if you want the divine life, give it away! 

O LORD, who hast taught us that all our doings without charity are nothing worth: Send thy Holy Ghost, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee. Grant this for thine only Son Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.
– Collect for Quinquagesima Sunday (Book of Common Prayer)

‘Let all corners of the earth be glad…’

Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her,
ablaze with light from her eternal King,
let all corners of the earth be glad,
knowing an end to gloom and darkness. – The Exsultet (Easter Proclamation)

The highlight of the liturgy of the Easter Vigil is the Exslutet, the great proclamation of Easter, sung in the light of the new Paschal Candle. The Exsultet proclaims the resurrection of Christ, calling on the Angels to sound the trumpet of salvation; the Church to resound with praise and the whole of creation to be glad – ‘ablaze with light from her eternal king.’ Creation, then, forms the ancient heart of this greatest hymn of praise. In our own day concerns about ecology are rising; climate change, pollution, and the unnatural extinction of plants and animals is causing us to question the way we treat the natural world. I firmly believe that the Christian response ought to be a return to the doctrine of creation, the centrality of which can hardly be overemphasised. The doctrine of creation is simple: all things were created by God, who saw it was ‘very good’ (Gen. 1.31) and affirms its value in his own eyes. We human beings are created in the divine image, as part of this community of life, in order to till and care for it, not to destroy it (Gen. 2.15).

The Exsultet proclaims that creation, gladdened by the joy of the resurrection, is intimately bound up with the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the Word incarnate through whom and for whom all things were made (Romans 11.36). At the core of our faith is the truth that in Jesus Christ God became a human being in order to redeem us, in the words of the Christmas Gospel – ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1.14). The Word is the second person of the Trinity, God’s own self-communication, uttered from all eternity and flesh refers to what is material, vulnerable, invite and what is not divine. This is the radical claim of our faith: God became what is not God, he became material in order to save us.

While, of course, the writers of the Exslutet would have been aware of the related doctrines of creation and incarnation, they could not have predicted how modern scientific discovery would enhance and colour this doctrine in the last two centuries. We now know that our human flesh is part of the great chain of evolution on earth, which in turn is part of one solar system within trillions, which in turn came into being as part of a long cosmic history.

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The prevailing scientific theory is that everything that exists comes from a single blazing instant around 13.7 billion years ago; a single speck explodes in what is (inelegantly) known as the Big Bang – an immeasurable outpouring of matter and energy which continues to this day. As this material expanded, its lumpy unevenness allowed swirling galaxies to form as the force of gravity pulled particles together and their dense friction ignited the stars. Roughly five billion years ago some of these ageing stars died. They exploded into great supernovas, which fused basic hydrogen into more complex elements. Out of these clouds of dust and gas, some material reformed and re-ignited to become our Sun, a second-generation star. Some coalesced into chunks too small to catch fire these formed the planets of our solar system—including Earth.

Three and a half billion years ago on this planet (and, almost certainly on others) there began another momentous change – molecules coalesced to form living cells. Over aeons these developed into creatures that could ‘be fruitful and multiply’ and life is born. So, out of the Big Bang comes stars; from stardust comes the Earth; out of the raw matter of the Earth comes life. This life burst forth from the life and death of single-celled creatures into an advancing tide: trilobites, fish, amphibians, insects, flowers, birds, reptiles, and mammals, among whom came human beings—mammals with brains so complex that we experience self-conscious intelligence and freedom.

This scientific story, teaches us that everything is connected to everything else. In the famous words of Arthur Peacocke (scientist and theologian), ‘every atom of iron in our blood would not be there had it not been produced in some galactic explosion billions of years ago and eventually condensed to form the iron in the crust of the Earth from which we have emerged.’ Quite literally human beings are made of stardust. And, more than that, we share with all other living creatures a common genetic ancestry in the great community of life.

While the human capacity for thought and love are unique, they are not something injected into the universe from outside. Rather, they are the flowering in us of deeply cosmic energies. In the human species nature becomes conscious of itself and open to fulfilment in grace and glory. In the words of the Jewish philosopher Abraham Heschel, this makes human beings the “cantors of the universe,” able to sing praise and thanks in the name of all the rest.

When we understand the human species in these terms, as an intrinsic part of cosmic matter, this hugely enriches the way we understand the incarnation. From this perspective, the human flesh that the Word became is part of the vast body of the cosmos. This is called by theologians “deep incarnation,” as it expresses this radical divine reach into the very tissue of all biological existence and the wider system of the cosmos. Like all human beings, Jesus carried within himself the traces of supernovas and the whole history of life on earth. The genetic structure of his cells made him part of the whole community of life that descended from common ancestors in the ancient seas. The flesh that the Word became thus reaches beyond Jesus and other human beings to encompass the whole biological world of living creatures and the cosmic dust of which we are composed.

This “deep” way of reflecting on the incarnation provides an important insight. By becoming flesh the Word of God confers blessing on the whole of earthly reality in its material dimension, and beyond that, on the cosmos in which the Earth exists. Rather than being a barrier that distances us from the divine, this material world becomes a sacrament that can reveal divine presence. Christians must turn away from anything that is world-denying – instead, far from spiritual contempt for the world, we are to ally ourselves with the living God by loving the whole natural world, which is all part of the flesh that the Word became. Again, in the words of the Exsultet:

O truly blessed night,
when things of heaven are wed to those of earth,
and divine to the human.

This perspective is radical, it calls each one of us to the upmost respect for creation because ‘the whole creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God’ (Romans 8.9). This world, created by the same God who entered into this incredible story two thousand years ago in Nazareth, is precious and beloved – it yearns in every atom for salvation. This perspective encompasses not only life on earth, but the life of every planet in the universe, for it is from stardust that all is made. From the Cross, Jesus spoke a word translated into Greek as τετέλεσται, ‘it is finished.’ In meditating on this we
remember that, on the Cross, Christ enters into the depth of our fragile creation – he experiences the reality common to all creatures; death. He accomplishes his great work of Recreation and forever charges the universe with his power and presence. In this perspective, it is no surprise that the Resurrection happened in a garden, for every budding flower and ancient tree cries out in triumph as our stardust is redeemed and all creation is charged with resurrection glory. Alleluia.

Now the green blade rises from the buried grain,
Wheat that in the dark earth many years has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.mp5345web-900x900.png