Thursday, August 4, 2011

On Losing the Plot: Musings About a Historical Fall, Original Sin, and the Gospel Story

Outside of certain self-consciously entrenched and/or conservative theological quarters, the notion of a historical "fall" into sin on the part of humanity is, to put it mildly, out of fashion. Even for those who want to identify a theologically sophisticated way of locating some "first" set or pair or community of identifiable human beings in the evolutionary tree, and so open a way to understand some kind of "fall" in their communal life together, do not -- so far as I know -- imagine a prior created order full of unmitigated bliss matched by an absence of sickness, biological death, and the like.

Thus, what seems to be most broadly assumed, for those seeking to remain within traditional ecumenical theological claims -- particularly having to do with sin's universality and its systemic deep-rootedness -- is that, in Kierkegaard's words, "sin posits itself." As David Kelsey expands on the phrase and on the concept, "original sin" is an acceptable term so long as it serves explanatory, not (what he calls) "genetic," purposes. (As it happens, I often misremember this latter term as "genital" -- which, in a real sense, identifies the traditional theme quite well in its own way.) That is, original sin names the condition of human being; whatever caused sin in the first place or causes sin at all is nothing for the doctrine to answer: as surd, as shadow of that which is good, there is nothing either to explain or to discover the origin of. It is simply there; it posits itself. In its very lack of origin and meaning it carries its essence as sheer negative, as death-dealing shatterer of meanings.

All this is well and good, but my sense is that the consensus mistakes a part for the whole. To be sure, one emphasis within the traditional "genetic" accounts of (original) sin was to find some explanation, some origin, some founding event that would help to make sense of how sin could be present -- seemingly omnipresent -- in a world Christians have always claimed God created good and without sin. On one side, it is an apologetic move, attempting to answer challenges from the outside; but it is also a catechetical move, seeking to find a way to raise up disciples who know that God is not the author of sin. So even if "finding a reason for sin" was inevitably a fool's errand, the attempt nevertheless does make sense on a number of accounts.

But the "search for a meaningful explanation" of sin is not the entirety of the "genetic" account. There is also what we might call the narratival aspect, and this is what contemporary theologians seem to elide or even to forget. In short, "the fall of man" was not merely a piece in a larger conceptual puzzle about God and human creation; it was also, perhaps even more so, a stage in the story of God and the world. Hence the great moments in the traditional theological narrative: creation, fall, redemption, glory. Yet in taking away anything like an identifiable (read: story-tell-able) event of humanity's falling into sin in the gospel story of God and God's creation, theologians, thinking they were being faithful to the historical record as well as amending a well-meant but wrongheaded philosophical predilection, have in fact swept the feet out from underneath the church's ability to proclaim a coherent salvific narrative.

Unfortunately (and unsurprisingly), I have no quick remedy for this situation. I am as baffled as any other Christian desiring to be faithful both to history (evolutionary biology; no pre-fall idyllic creation sans disease and death) and to the gospel story (a good creation; God not authoring sin; nevertheless: sin; God in Christ forgiving sin and reconciling sinners) as to how to fit the pieces together. However, I am convinced that we shouldn't leave the two apart, much less splice them up for separate discourses; and, moreover, that we can't just leave it at "sin posits itself," lest we abandon storytelling in missional, apologetic, and catechetical proclamation. I for one think this particular plot point to be too important to give up without further critical reflection; nor does it seem at all unripe for creative reformulation today.

The challenge, therefore: How might Christian theologians go about reformulating the doctrine of (original) sin, all the while remaining faithful to the essential plot points of the gospel story, including humanity's being created good yet proving sinful, without indicting God as the author of sin (and so proposing a creation created good-and-sinful), and simultaneously keeping true to the historical record?


  1. I have always thought of original sin as relational. After all, relationships are at the core of all the ups and downs of the Gospel story. The "genetic" approach never made sense to me as there is no hope in changing your genes.

  2. I would highly recommend Marjorie Suchocki's "The Fall to Violence," where she engages the idea of original sin from a process/relational theological perspective. She seems to avoid needing the foundational narrative of "the Fall" and the questions it raises (which seem to be more numerous than the answers it provides). Her reinterpretation of the notion of original sin seems to me to make sense in light of the world we encounter.


  3. Part of what needs to be interrogated here, it seems to me, is the whole category of "narrative" as the framework in which the Christian vision of things hangs together. I think we create problems for ourselves when we try to account for everything within a "coherent narrative." What if narrative is just not the best way to think about these things?

    For instance, what sense does it make to speak of creation as one moment or stage in a narrative? Both Augustine and Aquinas would caution us against this, particularly if we understand narrative in terms of a time-line on which discreet events or moments can be plotted. Creation is not located anywhere on a time-line. Creation is not one moment we move beyond to get to other moments. Creation is what we mean when we acknowledge (among other things) that at EVERY moment all things exists only by the breath of God.

    So creation is not so much about origins, about some discreet moment in a narrative, as it is about the quality of all that exists. Likewise, original sin / fall is not some "plot point" that follows the "plot point" called creation. Original sin, again like creation, is about the quality of human existence at every moment. This is not at all to collapse creation into fall, for creation names the sustaining, life-giving action of God, while fall / original sin names the human rebellion against this action of God.

    Kierkegaard, I think, is actually helpful on these issues in The Concept of Anxiety--particularly the point he makes, echoing what I am saying, that trying to locate the origin of sin in some exceptional moment outside of history as we know it just creates a muddle of things. That is, trying to put some kind of NARRATIVE distance between creation and fall just can't be done. We have to find some other kind of distance. And so Kierkegaard to turns to an examination of the dynamics of finitude itself to explore what sense can be made of "original sin."

  4. Peter,

    If I made it sound as if my concern is to fit "x doctrine" (original sin) into "y conceptual scheme" (narrative), that was not my intent at all. Rather, I am thinking about the concrete practice of proclamation and catechesis in the church's mission. I take it for granted that one of the chief ways this happens is by storytelling.

    I'm open to the possibility that narrative may not be set apart as "the" form of communicating the gospel. I would be interested to know a practical proposal for what it would look like to tell a nonbeliever with little prior knowledge of Christian faith about the gospel without narrative.

    As for your points from Augustine/Aquinas re: creation and the idea of a discrete "moment," agreed. All I'm trying to get after is, in the context of a local church setting, how do we talk about creation being created "good," yet sin somehow seeming always to have been around? Moreover, something I only gestured to in the post was the important theological connection between sin and death (esp. in Romans, but also in accounts of Christ's work). What do we do with the connection between sin and death functionally broken in evolutionary historical accounts of human development AND with no time or place we can point to that was not infected by sin?

  5. Brad,

    The short answer is that conversion to the Gospel is not conversion to a coherent narrative. Trying to win people to the Christian faith by wooing them with a compelling story might actually impede hearing the call to discipleship. Conversion to Jesus is conversion to the way of a young man whose story was cut off, ending in brutal violence, not wrapped up in a neat package to be peddled like the latest best-seller. Yes, we tell the story of God's ways with God's people, but the telling of this story will not satisfy us and lull us to peaceful sleep like a bed-time tale. The story of Israel / Jesus is the story of the refusal of easy stories about the world, in favor of the sharp edges of reality: pain, suffering, exile, tears, dashed hopes, incomplete narratives, crucifixion. As Johann Baptist Metz puts it, answering the question about how Israel bears witness to its election by God:

    "It was a particular sort of defenselessness, of poverty, in a certain sense Israel's incapacity successfully to distance itself from the contradictions, the terrors and chasms in its life--by, for example, mythicizing or idealizing the context in which it lived. Israel knew no mythical or ideational riches or spirit with which it could rise above its fears, the alienation of exile, and the history of suffering that was always breaking out in its midst. In its innermost essence, it remained mythically and ideally mute" (Passion for God, 65-6).

    To have a coherent story is to have a coherent identity, a stable center from which to live. This is precisely what the church lacks, having for its Lord a mutilated blasphemer. As Craig Keen puts it:

    "Agape–and here I must ask one to listen hard to what must remain counterintuitive–agape opens wounds, it doesn’t heal them. It opens the walls of communities, it doesn’t guard them. It tells a story that even the most far-reaching and flexible narrative cannot get its arms around. It lives not for us, but for them. It is not a perfection that is hard to come by. It is a gift, even if a rare gift. It is not taught by hard times, but in spite of hard times; just as it is taught in spite of good times. It is an openness that prevails even when one can no longer cope with the chaos of another day, cannot say how the events of one’s life are steps on a journey. Agape is perfection, holiness, because it is a kind of ek-stasis that unravels every communitarian fabric, every story, every virtue, every habit.

    Does this mean that “community” is to be jettisoned in some lonely return to individualistic pietism? Is there no story of the holy life? Does virtue, does habit, have no complicity with perfection? No. Not this. There are indeed a community and a story and a habituation that are hallowed. However, this community is ecclesial, gathered–and gathered by what can never be lodged in that community–gathered by what will only disruptively dwell there. And so, the story of the community, however wordy it gets, however effectively it appropriates the events that befall it, must always come to silence–before an ex-propriating mystery that cannot be said. So, too, one’s habits, as helpful as they are as a kind of collection of our worldly goods, are to be offered–in the freedom of the gift, the gift that is the Holy Spirit." (“The Human Person as Intercessory Prayer,” 6-7. In Embodied Holiness).

  6. How does all this bear on the question of sin and the goodness of creation? As always, the central task in speaking of sin is not to think its origins but to confess our present complicity in it, not to speak about it ideally, but to confess it concretely. Trying too hard to plot within a story the emergence of sin is actually a way of evading its reality. Sin is not to be understood--it is to be resisted, which means resisting any neat account of its origins as a way accommodating it in our understanding.

    What do we do with the fact that we cannot look back to a period of blissful paradise void of pain and suffering, that human existence from its beginning is one of selfishness and violence? First, we have to acknowledge that a reasonable response to our world the way we find it may actually be despair. There simply is no easy answer, no story we can tell to ease the sheer terror of the world, no idea we can hold that would rescue us from these bodies of death. And so the church might actually want to resist any easy affirmation of the goodness of creation as a way of welcoming the sick and despairing, those poor in spirit, those who find creation anything but good. The goodness of creation, accordingly, is not something to be held as an idea, it is something to be lived, as we learn to bear the darkness and pain the surrounds us with trust and hope. The goodness of creation, finally, can only be an affirmation of the goodness of the Creator. And the goodness of the Creator is taught to us only as we learn the obedience of that man from Nazareth, who himself learned obedience "through what he suffered...with loud cries and tears" (Heb. 5).

    "The still point and centre of the world's creation is what went on one Friday afternoon when, from the sixth hour to the ninth, 'there was darkness over all the land.'" - Nicholas Lash