What a Wonderful World: Original Sin vs. Original BlessingHow often do you think about the foundation of what you believe about God, about Christianity, about human nature? Probably not very often, and yet what we believe informs our theology, our lives, and our actions in a very deep way. What about this question, Original Sin or Original Blessing – what would you say? What would the core of who you are want to believe?
Most Christian theology starts with a literal reading of the creation from Genesis 2, followed by ch 3 and what came to be known as “the Fall”, later understood as the Doctrine of Original Sin. This doctrine states that we are born sinful/ born “fallen”; that our nature begins broken & bad. All because of that business with that apple and Adam & Eve’s disobedience. All humans thereafter are born in a state of sin. Listen to this prayer: We poor sinners confess unto Thee, that we are by nature sinful and unclean. The vast majority of Christians believe something like this.
With Augustine, sin became a condition, not a choice. He solidified the theology that sin is in our DNA – passed down to us from Adam & Eve’s disobedience. Perhaps the primary reason why the church started practicing infant baptism – to erase the stain of original sin. The church’s first liturgical words at baptism were to condemn, to call him a sinner. An unbaptized child would go to hell.
In many Christian traditions the path to God and salvation begins with the belief that our nature is primarily wicked. Calvinist theology calls it the “Total Depravity of Man”. With this foundation of Original Sin, as well as taking Psalm 51 literally when the Psalmist declares that he was sinful before he was even born, then it begins to make sense that End Time language of Left Behind, Armageddon, & Apocalypse rises up, as fear & shame become bitter companions on the journey with a vision of God as punitive & exclusionary.
Did you know that there is no doctrine of Original Sin in Judaism? The concept of original sin is alien to Jewish traditions, as it is to Buddhism, Islam, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Celtic Christianity.
According to Buddhism, sin is defined as harmful action. When we do something harmful, it ultimately adds to our own suffering. The Jewish view of sin differs from the Christian concept of original sin as well. Judaism believes that each person is born innocent. Jews believe that individuals are responsible for their own actions and that “sinning” occurs when someone does something wrong – missing the mark.
The term “Original Blessing” is not a new understanding of theology, but it became more mainstream when a Catholic-turned-Episcopal priest & creation spiritualist, Matthew Fox, began some theological research, then ultimately wrote a book with a title Original Blessing. Matthew Fox remembers a day teaching. His students got into a discussion of original sin, when a Jewish woman come up and asked him “What is this original sin you are discussing?”
“Surely you know original sin was in Genesis,” Fox replied. To which, she replied that she had been a practicing Jew for 41 years and never had heard a rabbi or anyone else use that term.
In writing this book, taking on the Doctrine of Original Sin, Fox became controversial and some called him a renegade priest. He tells this story: A woman had been enrolled in a master’s course in religion at a Jesuit college, and cited Matthew Fox’s work in a footnote in a paper for class. The paper was returned with a red pen crossing out the entire page with a reference to his work. “We do not cite this author in our religion department.” The woman subsequently left the school.
So where does this understanding of Original Blessing come from? If you go back to the beginning, we see that Gen 1 offers a liturgy of abundance and blessing. There is a recurring them & refrain throughout Creation: “God blessed each day what God had created and God saw that it was good”. After the 6th day, God blesses and then “found it very good”. In this creation story, humans were made in the image of God, entrusted with the stewardship of creation, blessed by God, AND pronounced good at their core. The characteristics of relationship with God are trust, blessing, & love. They were pronounced good, from the beginning, not defective or flawed as the doctrine of Original Sin states. With potential to reach our fullest humanity, AND to manifest and reveal God’s image.
We all need to know, or at least to hope, that this one precious life we’ve been given is going somewhere and somewhere good. We can trust that it is going someplace good because it came from goodness—a beginning of “original blessing” instead of “original sin.”
Women Mystics along the way understood this: Hildegarde of Bingen – “All things which proceed from God are good.” Julian of Norwich: “I know that heaven and earth and all creation are great, generous and beautiful and good… God’s goodness fills all God’s creatures, endlessly overflows in them. God is everything which is good, and the goodness which everything has is God.”
We find another liturgy of blessing in Matthew 5, what we are known as the Beatitudes. If the liturgy of Gen 1 says, “It is good, it is good, it is very good,” the liturgy of Matthew 5 says, “Blessed are you, blessed are you, you indeed are very blessed.” Affirmation and blessing come first. Jesus hears a voice from heaven affirming him before he begins his ministry, before he had had a chance to prove himself: “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus did not have to earn God’s love; he was the Beloved, from the very start.
Jesus pronounces affirmative blessings as well:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who grieve, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the peacemakers—which means there must be conflict and strife.
And blessed even are those who are persecuted, for theirs too is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessing lives alongside suffering & trouble. Blessing affirms that God does not abandon us.
Matthew Fox writes that our lives are nurtured with curiosity, courage, kindness, & love – that they are falling toward grace, not a fall from it. Richard Rohr, a Catholic Priest echoes this understanding of falling toward grace. This affirms the inherent worth & dignity of every person. Our task, then, is to discover and re-discover who we are at our naked, vulnerable core.
One has to wonder why our theology did not start with Gen 1 & the goodness of creation, or from Mt 5, as Jesus called the people blessed in the midst of hardship. Our theology and what we believe about God shapes who we are and who we become. Which is more prevalent? We are born sinners deserving God’s wrath, or we are born blessed with the capability of great good, filled with promise & divine presence? Do we see people flawed in the midst of depravity or will we see them as fundamentally good and full of potential to do good? What kind of community of faith are we to be?
The understanding of Original Blessing does not negate sin, or the repercussions of it. It’s not that sin isn’t real. We can‘t erase or ignore the fact that as we navigate this world, we are confronted by evil in the form of war & crime, abuse & greed, poverty & injustice, hate, violence, oppression, and people who want to take advantage. But to place all the emphasis on sin and what’s wrong with the world becomes oppressive and possibly a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s not that we should be blind to people’s failings, but how we see them at their deepest level. That is ultimately how we will treat them. It affirms that Sin is a choice – not an inherent condition.
Matthew Fox says, “If creation is a blessing, then our proper response would be to enjoy it. Pleasure is one of the deepest spiritual experiences of our lives.” Receive God’s blessing. Accept your own blessedness. We are born blessed and born to be a blessing in God’s Wonderful World.