Original sin

18 June 2021

An Eskimo asks a priest, "If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?" The priest replied, "No, not if you did not know." To which the Eskimo replies, "Then why did you tell me?" (Annie Dillard: "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek")

I often used to wonder why, every time I went to church, I'd have to confess my sins, even when I knew darn well I hadn't done anything wrong that day. But I grew up with this need ingrained into my soul, and not until I stopped taking Anglican services did I feel able to go to church with, as it were, a clear conscience. Not that I was hiding my sins - rather, not assuming I was worse than I actually am.

Original sin, according to traditional Church teaching, is the guilt of disobedience passed on down all generations from the "sin" of Adam and Eve. Interestingly, though, during that incident in Genesis 3, nowhere does God say to them that they have sinned. That little word does not appear in the story. But God recognises that they have shifted the goalposts by learning to know good and evil, and so Adam and Eve move to a different stage in their lives. God even made garments for them to wear - not exactly the actions of an angry God.

This imaginative story has become the narrative that explains all human sin, even though sin is not mentioned. But in fact there are two creation stories in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, each enshrining its own perspective. In Genesis 1, the man shares with God an understanding of all that has been created, and is given dominion (not domination!) over it all. The man appreciates beauty and becomes a gardener. In Genesis 2, the man desires equality with God and rebels against God's restrictions. The man is pronounced guilty (despite blaming his wife - typical!) and is taken from the garden, never to return.

It was Augustine who is credited with defining original sin, although the notion is far older than him. And even though theologians have disputed Augustine's ideas ever since those times, the belief has stuck fast in popular imagination. Even Martin Luther believed that all humans "are full of evil lust and inclinations from their mothers' wombs" and would suffer the wrath of God.

The Church has been obsessed with sin from its earliest days, and cynics might think that it does the Church no harm to brand everyone a sinner and then demand their faithful obedience in return for absolution. The Church's obsession alienates the faithful and the might-be-faithful by its failure to recognise and celebrate innocence. Its insistence on what might be called a ritual cleansing detracts from welcoming worshippers without making anticipatory judgments about them.

Confession is good for the soul, they say, but let's be sure about what we're confessing.

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