Resurrection

As a Mormon raised on the 2nd Article of Faith, I believed that the principle of individual responsibility made the concept of an inherited “original sin” incoherent. We each, I thought, came into the world as blank slates, given eight years to develop the capacity for accountability—at which point baptism gave us a clean start, just in case. From then on, we bore the responsibility of acting well, with repentance and weekly sacrament participation to take care of our inevitable mistakes. With Christ’s help, we would be capable of living in the world as good people.

It’s not that I disbelieve any of this now, exactly. Still, I’ve recently found myself telling people that I believe in original sin. I always hasten to clarify that it’s not the Augustinian seminally-transmitted version of original sin that has won my assent. I don’t believe that my veins flow with depravity born from Adam’s fall, and I don’t believe that newborn babies carry its taint. I do believe, though, that our common humanity has a dark side that none of us escapes.

My changed beliefs came as a result of reading about sexual violence. I’ve learned, for instance, of a man who would stake out his victims’ apartments for months, so that he could plan the perfect moment to strike. He took care to commit his crimes in different jurisdictions, exploiting the weaknesses of inter-departmental police communication so that he could rape with impunity. And the police questioned one of his victims in such a way that she herself came to believe that she had hallucinated her assault.

Surely, though, that is an extraordinary case, the sort of thing for which we have the word “inhuman.” What troubles me, however, is its kinship with the subtler forms of sexism, such as the version of consent that’s about women giving men permission to do what they want. The difference here is one of degree: the sociopathic rapist obviously does not care about whether or not his victim wants a stranger to disrupt her sleep with an act of violence, but neither does the guy who, without subterfuge, gets a girl to “put out” particularly care about her own sexual desires. This latter is a lesser form of dehumanization, but it is a dehumanization nonetheless.

To be human is to be ten thousand ways vulnerable. Most obviously, we’re all mortal and subject to a death whose timing we cannot know, but more profoundly, we’re vulnerable in that life proves so complex that we can only fantasize about responding to it adequately. We have a nasty and (for all I can tell) inescapable habit of finding ways to treat people we don’t like as though they’re less than human. For that matter, we even do this to people we like, far too much of the time.

The kind of original sin I’m talking about consists in our inability to love our neighbors as ourselves—and, going deeper, maybe also to love ourselves as ourselves, the way that God loves us. Whether we’re born with that inability or not, it gets us all quite firmly in its grip before terribly long. Maybe we get baptized at age eight because by then we’ve properly learned how to hate, or at least to be jerks in a million petty ways. Sweet as my kids are, they have it in them. They learned it in part from watching me.

I believe that Jesus’ death on the cross answers this kind of original sin, but not in the way that the usual atonement theories suggest. He was not a ransom paid for us; his death did not satisfy divine justice; and it certainly wasn’t an example that he wanted us to follow (although maybe, with caveats, it could be). Rather, the cross is about abjection, where God became the subhuman that we make other people all the time.

Flagellating ourselves about the injury we’ve done to Jesus in this way misses the point, which is, rather, this quite simple call from him to us: stop crucifying people, including yourselves.

This doesn’t mean that we should stop feeling bad when we mistreat other people. Instead, it means that there’s a real difference between beating ourselves up about it (“Someone needs to pay for my mistakes, and it should probably be me”) and letting the natural discomfort of our mistakes work in us to make us better people. Or, put another way, it’s the difference between straining toward the inner peace we desire and trusting that the divine image in us will find its way through the clouds. The straining is oriented toward death—”If I just think positive thoughts, I can kill this bad feeling dead dead DEAD”—while the trust is oriented toward life.

This life—the abundant life that Jesus came to bring—is a kind of resurrection. We begin to be resurrected when we give Jesus’ message through life instead of death: “Stop crucifying people. Live! Live so that we can all live together! Won’t you come and share life with me? I want to share it with you.”

The thing about the abundant life is that nobody can live it alone. Paul, with his metaphor of the body of Christ, understood this, and so did Joseph Smith, with all his talk of Zion and sealing theology. I gain my life only by nurturing yours. It’s all of us or none of us: we may have to wait a long time for some people, but they are worth it. And who knows: it could be that they’re the ones waiting on us.

Maybe the other kind of resurrection—the one where we rise from the grave and live again—is real, too. I don’t know about that. The amount I still have to learn about love makes me think I’ll need the extension. But I absolutely believe in the resurrection that happens every time we treat somebody a little bit better than our first instincts would have led us to do.

The cross attests that trying to love people is going to expose you to a whole lot of sorrow, but the Christian message is that Golgotha was a way station to the Empty Tomb. Love means looking sorrow in the face and responding with tenderness, which is pretty hard to do if you’re too busy wallowing in the sorrow. Life is not rebellion against death: it’s what’s left over after death has done its worst.

Jesus showed us the way, yes, but I also believe that, through prayer and the attendant work of the Spirit, he can change our hearts. If love is about being present to people in their hard times, he knows something about that, and he can teach us how to do it better. All we have to do is open our hearts and trust.

He says to us: “Come, share this life with me. All of you. There’s enough and to spare.”

Do we dare say Yes?

Comments

  1. Your musing is soul enlarging, thank you.
    To myself and to others I have an oft repeated mantra: “You don’t know their demons.” I came to this foundational wisdom by having personal mental and mood issues that are so core to my personality that over time I changed my focus from using science and medicine to remove them, to using medicine to curb or squelch the harshest antisocial aspects… and the rest is my demon, a trial or two that is covered by “the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them” (1NE3:7 and other scriptures) and “God don’t make no Junk” (a memory of my mother, who surely said something more poised than my memory “You can not be a mistake, because God doesn’t make mistakes, or he would cease to be God”)
    This wisdom has served my so well to keep my humanity, and others, in perspective… We are children of a God, who as a wise and divine parent, is doing parenting things…like helping us grow in spite of our humanity.
    Abd now i will add to my “You don’t know their demons”… so ‘Stop crucifying them” and “The thing about the abundant life is that nobody can live it alone.” … wise sentiments indeed.

  2. Glenn Thigpen says:

    Your concept of original sin sounds much like the natural man concept in the scriptures. I, like you, believe in Christ, and His Atonement. I also believe in His physical resurrection. Christ’s atonement cannot change the natural man nor does it try to. The only person that can change a person’s heart from the natural to the spiritual, in my opinion, is the person him or herself, with a helping hand from the Holy Ghost. The atonement takes care of the consequences of the natural man actions, etc. after the individual casts off that natural man, which is a life long process.

    Glenn

  3. Powerful thoughts, Jason. I am fully in agreement with you, though I would suggest that the “real difference between beating ourselves up about it…and letting the natural discomfort of our mistakes work in us to make us better people” in an exceptionally fine and gray line. Self-flagellation, in my view, is at least somewhat in the eye of the beholder; I don’t think the medieval self-punishers (and the modern ones too!–we just do it differently) were absolutely wrong in every respect. The consciousness of sin has to be where we start, I think. How can we put our trust in a resurrection to a different, better life, if we do not recognize the life were are in at present?

    Generally, the concept of original sin–that is, that our most original state as human beings is a sinful one–has always made sense to me. I have never really been able to fully understand how someone can read and say they agree with Mosiah 3:19 and not feel the same way. Glenn and I are on the same page here, in that sense, except that he suggests that “the person him or herself, with a helping hand from the Holy Ghost” is capable of throwing off the natural (sinful) man, whereas I don’t think we can even get to point of wanting to repent without God’s grace guiding us.

  4. Jason K. says:

    Now don’t start that Augustine vs. Pelagius business again, Russell :)

    For my part, I think that the zero-sum-terms of that debate frame the question in the wrong way, but that’s another post.

  5. If we’re going to include objectifying others in the catalog of sin–and I agree that we should–then the occasions of sin just grew enormously compared to what we usually talk about. Reminds me of an older woman I met on my mission, who told us that she couldn’t go to church because walking from her home to the church building she would see people doing dumb things, think distinctly un-Christian things about them, and thereby fall into sin. Her cost/benefit calculation resulted in her staying home.

  6. Jason K. says:

    Yes, the occasions of sin do grow enormously, but so do the opportunities for love.

  7. ” But I absolutely believe in the resurrection that happens every time we treat somebody a little bit better than our first instincts would have led us to do.” I think your OP gets to our dual nature–spirit children of God in a body and brain that evolved instincts necessary for survival and reproduction that also at times are in a struggle against the light of Christ. Seems that birth into this kind of existence itself is a fall. I think this is the source of the “natural man” and why “our common humanity has a dark side that none of us escapes.” And I agree that only with Christ’s atonement and example, as the only one who has navigated this dual nature without sin, can it be overcome.

  8. Just to clarify, when (little-o) orthodox Christians talk about sin (particular and original), we’re talking about at least four separate problems that we have as human beings:

    1. The particular sins I commit every day
    2. My sinful nature, the propensity to commit sins that I have as a fallen being
    3. My lack of the holiness that God originally created mankind with (sometimes called “original righteousness”)
    4. My complicity in Adam and Eve’s original sin in the Garden*

    My personal, individual sins are actually the smallest problem of the four. They’re still a monumental problem, because they represent an affront to my unimaginably holy creator because they are a willful rebellion against him. But in one sense, my personal sins are really symptoms of the deeper problems, one of which, my sinful nature, the OP is chewing on.

    *I understand that Eastern Orthodox typically reject #4.

  9. (Also, Augustine notions about transmission of original sin by sex are not necessary for a robust, orthodox doctrine of original sin, and are simply not a part of Protestant theology on the matter).

  10. Thanks for those clarifying comments, Kullervo.

  11. I really like this post, Jason. As a depressive-leaning person, of course I connect best with the more despairing part. This paragraph in particular is brilliant:

    “To be human is to be ten thousand ways vulnerable. Most obviously, we’re all mortal and subject to a death whose timing we cannot know, but more profoundly, we’re vulnerable in that life proves so complex that we can only fantasize about responding to it adequately. We have a nasty and (for all I can tell) inescapable habit of finding ways to treat people we don’t like as though they’re less than human. For that matter, we even do this to people we like, far too much of the time.”

  12. Thanks, Jason. I’m prepping now to teach a class on Original Sin this fall, and it’s helpful to read you explain how and why you went from not believing in original sin to finding it compelling. I agree completely that the seminal transmission is the least important and interesting thing about Augustine’s doctrine (and so also with Kullervo’s clarification on that point). And yes to the brilliance of the paragraph Ziff quotes. “More profoundly, we’re vulnerable in that life proves so complex that we can only fantasize about responding to it adequately.” I’d say the very fact that this fantasy is a possibility, that we do fantasize about being better than we are, is a sign both of the sin and the possibility of of the divine within. What Augustine’s theory describes so well is the way we can be divided against ourselves, unable to do the good that we want to do, and–as you say–thereby inclined to dehumanize ourselves as well as others. And this is why sin is both a tragedy and evidence that redemption is also possible. Thanks for sharing your thoughtfulness and wisdom.

  13. I like your thoughts about this, Jason, probably because they align comfortably with mine. But I don’t have anything intelligent to say about Augustine.

  14. Not much to add, except to extend my appreciation and admiration for taking things we believe in abstraction (like resurrection) and bringing them to my present experience. To be reborn a billion times with every reach toward love, to have the dark corners of my life be renewed bit by bit. That is a gift.

  15. Constance: That sounds like an amazing class! I wish I could take it!

    RJ: Neither, apparently, do I :)

    Cathy: Your penultimate sentence is simply beautiful.

  16. Jason, somehow I missed this when you posted it the other day. It’s wonderful. I’ve undergone a similar transition myself, in part because notwithstanding the second article of faith, restoration scriptures, if we really pay attention to them, so heavily emphasize the evil of human nature because of the fall. Mosiah 3:19, as Russell mentioned, is one good example. But the one that really gets me is what the Brother of Jared says when he prays to God: “[We know that thou art holy and dwellest in the heavens, and that we are unworthy before thee; because of the fall our natures have become evil continually.” (Ether 3:2).