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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Original Sin or Blessing?

I am in a church community that stresses original blessing over original sin. Matthew Fox who wrote a book called Original Blessing and Telhard de Chardin SJ (Phénomène Humaine) were both criticized by orthodox theologians for not having an adequate theology of sin.

For this dialectical thinker of irony, original sin and original blessing are two poles of our existence-as-tension between past and future, self and other, person and community. In other words, it's not either-or, but both-and. (There are many of course who don't want to talk about "blessing" or "sin" at all but can still, I trust, accept the concepts of good and evil. Blessing is the recognition of good and sin is the recognition of evil in a person or society. Okay?)

What we affirmers of blessing object to with the sin-people is the myth developed by Augustine in which Jesus, as Son of God, is sacrificed to appease his wronged Father God. This story parallels the Hebrew story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac in obedience to Yahweh's demand. (BTW Many Hebrew Scripture scholars think that the story of Isaac was actually a way of stopping human sacrifice in Hebrew religion--though chickens, goats, and bulls need still beware.)

We don't blame Augustine for this story since he was speaking to a populace in which religion was often a matter of appeasing the gods through sacrifice. (Hell, I sacrificed some good gin in a libation to Pele once when we visited her bubbling Hawaiian Volcano.) But it does present an awful image of a blood-thirsty God--though I guess in line with the mysterium tremendum experience the fear of influences beyond our control. Christian salvation is achieved through a washing in the blood of the Lamb. "Eat His Body, Drink His Blood," we sing in the Sacrifice of the Mass. Ugh!!

Augustine's story also supports a social order of autocracy and pacification by a separate class of holy men under the authority of, well, the Authority. This may have been desirable as the authority of the Roman Empire was breaking down to perhaps help build some stability first with Constantine under a unified Christendom up to the Holy Roman Empire with Charlemagne and all that. It helps keep people in line.

Another image, which the original blessers took, is the "inner light." This was adopted by the Eastern Church from Gnosticism and the Gospel of John. Quakers and Universalists adopted this metaphor and it is very much a part of the Buddhist narrative. A divine spark is present in every one born but needs to be found and fanned to grow into the consuming conflagration of Love. In this model Jesus (and others, e.g. Buddha) are teachers and organizers who assist people find that spark and grow it. This certainly fits the contemporary evolutionary or development model. However, it can lead to the notion of inevitable progress so as the Detroit Edison Company used to say: "Progress is our most important product and every day in every way we grow better and better." Or it may lead to the individualistic Horatio Alger myth of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.

I think the synthesis comes when we drop the sacrifice narrative of Augustine and replace it with the Johanine and Pauline symbol of "sin of the world." This recognizes that while everyone is born with the "divine light," they are also born into a world that suppresses their light, that is, in established systems that keep people economically poor, politically excluded, and culturally disrespected. And, to  oppose the Horatio Alger myth, power is a collective noun: the ability to act in concert with others. Power is not authority bestowed from on high. It is taken through organized action.

In Jesus' day the evil was the rule of Rome with its vassal Herod and his high priests in a patronage system that oppressed the common-folk farmers and laborers. Dom Crossan and others think that Jesus was killed not to be a sacrifice to God, but because he attacked that dominating system by treating the common folk as the inheritors of the self-determining "Kingdom of God"--as opposed to the patronage reign of Caesar and Herod's. He associated with and cared more about the "least of these" than he did the patrons. To the ruling class he was a heretic, a traitor, an enemy of church and state. So his light was extinguished, but is illuminated again in every revolutionary community and person.

In our day, the sin of the world is an economic system that rewards the wealthy and penalizes the poor, a political system under the influence of the wealthy that excludes many from full participation, and a cultural system with a religion that sanctifies class, clan, race, sex, gay, immigrant exclusion. Even Augustine's sacrificial model of morality has been co-opted in this by urging people to suffer with Christ awaiting delivery in patience. That political economy which we have inherited and in which we all participate is the original sin that must be overcome by a true revolution which does not wipe out the past and its institutions, but uses them to radically transform the world and its institutions--including religion and its dogmas.

To overcome injustice requires organization among the have-nots, collaboration with sympathizers among the haves, and hope in the future. Combining our divine sparks and being attracted by the conflagration of Love in the future is the formula for human and world transformation. Letting my little light shine with others will light up the world or, if you want, open all of us to the Light to come.


A note: Narratives matter. (As do symbols and metaphors.) Augustine, opposed to the Gnostics, set the narrative for Europe and Western Christianity in both its Roman Catholic and Protestant forms. The soul is a natural light but needs to be upgraded by an illumination (grace) from God who is outside nature. This leads to the body/soul, object/subject, and nature/supernature split. Positive developments of this theology is recognition of nature and matter, the "world," as other, a force to be conquered. Science, industrialism, and capitalism is well supported by this western narrative--as MaxWeber illustrated.  But so is the ravaging of the earth.  Eastern theology, incorporating Gnostic insights, is more pantheistic, mystical, and relational in character. Its narrative supports more the evolutionary force from within nature towards greater connectedness and unity--and the inherent divinization of matter, humanity, and the earth.  I think the new narrative for our time and place needs to be attentive to both.

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