March 10, 2014

Rethinking Original Sin... A Sermon

Original Sin and its Unreckoning -- how our unavoidable sinfulness is clothed in something better than fig leaves.

Lent 1a 2014 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made.+
We come once more to the first Sunday in Lent, the season of the church year in which we are called to examine our lives, to take stock of where we stand with God, to repent of wrongs done in the past and move forward with resolve into the future.

Speaking of wrongs done in the past, our Old Testament reading this morning takes us back to the most distant past, to the story of the first wrong done, the first violation of what at the time was the only “thou shalt not”: “God commanded the man..., ‘Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.’” You may notice this morning’s excerpt from Genesis skips right to the woman, and her conversation with the serpent — the most disastrous conversation in human history. The folks who designed our Scripture readings — no doubt because they wanted to focus

on the question of temptation to go along with the Gospel for the day — have skipped over the part of the story about how the woman came to be there in the first place. However, because I would rather focus more on the responses to temptation than the temptation itself, I want to note what is missing from our reading. But first want to emphasize what is there. Notice that the “thou shalt not” commandment is given to the man alone — Eve has not yet made her appearance from Adam’s side. We can assume that Adam told Eve about the tree and about not eating from it, for she tells the serpent about it — she can’t plead ignorance of the law. But notice that she adds something that was not in the version that God gave to Adam; she adds “nor shall you touch it” to “you shall not eat” Now, we don’t know if this was her idea, or if Adam added this himself when he told her about this tree. You can just imagine that he did, though. Can’t you just hear him, women of Saint James? Can you hear a man’s voice in this? “Eve, we’re not allowed to eat the fruit of that tree; so don’t even touch it or we will die!”

In any case, both Eve and Adam ignore the commandment, and not only touch (about which God said nothing) but they also eat(about which God was perfectly clear, to Adam at least!) And their eyes are opened to their own naked shame — having come to the knowledge of good and evil they realize they have done evil, and they cower in their shame.

The next part of the story is also left out of our reading, but I’d like to remind you of it. I’m sure you all know the story — where it goes from there. When God charges Adam with having done what he ought not to have done, what does Adam say? “The woman you gave me, she gave me the fruit and I ate it.” When God turns to the woman, what does she say? “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” The serpent itself cannot find his forked tongue and is speechless at last! He has no one to blame.

Both Adam and Eve imply, “It’s not my fault!” What might the serpent have said? “The Devil made me do it”? Later traditions hold that the serpent is the devil, in physical form. He is the tempter, the root of the problem, the thing that leads people astray, even to his own hurt — as hurt he is by the end of the tale.

There is another old tale, by the way, so old that no one quite knows who first told it. There are versions from ancient Greece, from West Africa, from Asia and the Middle East. Sometimes the characters are a scorpion and a frog, but since were talking about serpents I’ll tell you the one about the fox and the snake.

Once upon a time — that’s how all good stories start, right — a fox came upon a snake sunning himself by the side of the river. Fox wisely kept his distance and inquired politely, “What are you up to Mister Snake?” Snake looked at Fox with his cold eye and said, “I would like to crosssss thissss river but I can’t ssssswim. Would you mind at all giving me a ride over?” Fox raised his eyebrows and said, “Well I would but I’m afraid you might bite me and then we would both drown.” Snake then said, “Sssut, sssut!” — Snakes are not very good at saying, ‘Tut, tut’— “now why would I do that? Please jussst give me a lift and I promisssse I won’t bite you. I’d crossss my heart if I could!” So Fox approached Snake and allowed him to slither up onto his back, and then stepped into the river and began to swim. Sure enough, about halfway across, in the deepest part of the river, Snake bit Fox right in the back of the neck. And as they were sinking beneath the waters, Fox looked back over his shoulder, gave Snake a plaintive look and said, “Why?” Snake shrugged — at least as well as a snake can shrug without any shoulders — and sighed, as both of them perished, “It’sssss my nature!”

+ + +

Well, we could say the same thing, couldn’t we. In addition to shifting the blame for our sin to someone else, sometimes we are willing to take the blame ourselves but simultaneously try to excuse ourselves by saying, “I can’t help it. It’s my nature.” There is truth in that, which this story — not the one about the fox and the snake but the one from Genesis — is designed to tell us.

Human beings do have a tendency to sin — the theologians call it “original sin” meaning it is there from the beginning. It is a part of us, deep down, this desire to choose selfishly and out of self-preservation or pride or envy, rather than choosing the path of self-giving goodness and generosity. The story in Genesis, after all, isn’t really about snakes and fruit trees, but about human beings. Snakes don’t really talk, and in this tale from Genesis the serpent is a parable for human craving, for own desire to choose for ourselves at the expense of others and in defiance of God. It is our nature. Once one has the capacity to choose, one can choose wrongly. The point of the story is that Adam and Eve choose wrongly while they are in Paradise, just as the devil himself chose wrongly and turned away from God while he was an angel in heaven. Sin — or the possibility of — is there from the beginning. It is original.

Now, that doesn’t mean, ‘Oh well then. let’s just forget about it and get on with your life and sin as much as you like; after all, if it’s your nature then you can’t help it and it’s not really your fault.’ Nor is it enough to make the kind of response I spoke of a few weeks ago; the response that Joshua ben Sira gave his advice about: just always be good; choose the good — as I noted, that doesn’t work. We are not capable in ourselves to save ourselves. It is in our nature to run off the road. We need help. Sin, it seems, is inescapable; as St Paul wrote to the Romans, “sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, so that death spread to all because all have sinned.”

And that would be the end of the story were it not for the hope that is held out to us in Christ Jesus. That hope is not about finding some way never to commit a sin, but to address the root reality that, like it or not, it is our nature to sin. However much we might try to shift the blame, in the end it is our fault. The Snake of original sin lies coiled in our minds and in our hearts, and he will, from time to time, bite us on the neck — or the heel. It simply doesn’t work to adopt the stoic attitude of “Just say no” when in truth we are — all of us — addicted to sin, and the only truly effective answer to it is an appeal to a higher power to rescue us from our own fallibility and inability to save ourselves. Sin, as Paul told the Romans, has been there from the beginning; but it was not reckoned as sin until the law was given: that first law, “Do not eat of that tree.” And then, because the law had been given, the warning made, when the sin crept out, it was reckoned as sin. But since Christ has come, the law itself is dead. This is what St Paul is getting at in his Letter to the Romans: sin is still there, but the law is dead, and so sin is no longer reckoned.

We as Christians believe that a higher power has come to us in the person of Christ. Through him come the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness, purchased by means of his own obedience and righteousness, through which the law itself was put to death, nailed to the cross with him. We are not and we cannot be righteous on our own — but the reckoning of sin can be washed away, and we can be deemed as if we were righteous by and through the one who is righteousness himself, the obedient Son of God, who faced down the devil in the wilderness, who gave himself for our sake, on our account, and by his death stripped away the shroud of death that had covered all nations, to clothe us in the glory of his righteousness: clothed with Christ, we are covered by him. And so God looks upon us and loves us, when we do right. But when we do wrong he forgives us, all on account of the love he has for his Son, our Lord and savior, in whom we are all clothed from above.

Just as the Avenging Angel passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, houses whose doorposts were marked with the blood of the Paschal lamb, so too when God looks at us, washed as we are in the blood of the Lamb, and clothed with the royal robe of his righteousness rather than in our own patched together fig-leaf efforts at righteousness, to conceal our sin, when God looks at us, he no longer sees our sin. He sees his own beloved Son. In this is life, the life of the Son of God, in which we share, because we have been clothed with him. To him be the glory, henceforth and for ever more.


John Julian said...

On the other hand, since neither Adam nor Eve nor the snake ever existed, it is very much an ex post facto fictional explanation of human cussedness. IOW, we're not sinful because of Adam and Eve's "fall"——but Adam and Eve's story is there because we're sinful and needed to explain that somehow.

But the nub of the original sin idea for me is the the hopeless explanation of how that distant "original" sin got passed on to me. Augustine knew it lurked in the male's semen and so all intercourse was a passing-on-of-sin to the next generation.

Doesn't that sound as hooey to you as it does to me?

I'd much rather say that our sin (basically, our selfishness or self-absorption) developed in evolution as a way to protect one's own genes and pass them on—so "I" must come first for the sake of my genes!

But then, the last I heard, the rabbis weren't much interested in genes.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Fr J-J, that's very much my line of thinking. The point I was trying to make in the sermon is just that: that it isn't about some primal sin getting passed along, but rather that there is a built-in capacity to sin inevitable in all human nature. The rabbis talk about the yetzer ra and the yetzer tov both being present in Adam from the beginning.

I reflected on the evolutionary nature of this a while back.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Clicked too soon...

Also agree it isn't about Augustine's odd theories, tied up as they are in the myth while sort of missing its main point, getting caught up with how the sin is transmitted rather than accepting that it is built in.

John Julian said...

Tobias,Here's what I wrote to a friend the other day about deconstruction and Original Sin. You might be interested in the thought of the anthropological and cultural origins of universal sin:

"It's a bit like the approach to the "traditional" idea of Original Sin. We have the Genesis story, and we have the phenomenon of human "inclination to evil"—and we have a St. Augustine who puts the two together (mainly against the background of explaining his own lust) and decides that Adam sinned and passed sin down to the rest of us—and how? through the male's semen in the midst of the very sinful act of coitus—sheer metaphysical insanity—Augustine is a honestly a guilt-ridden nutcase—as well as an impressive theologian.

"But that comes from the attempt to build a structure to explain a phenomenon or to make the phenomenon fit into a pre-existing structure....and then letting the structure become the important thing in itself.

"I see human evil and I define it mainly as a manifestation of self-centered and selfish egotism—which, to my mind, comes through a Darwinian process of evolution in which the maintenance of one's own genes is of primary evolutionary importance—so "I" must come first, because by putting myself first, I can preserve my genes and am able to pass them on. And finally we came up with a human civilization (like ours) which actually teaches its children to be sinful.

"[Let me explain that: in an experiment in the Baby Lab at Yale, they put an infant at a table with experimenter A. There were five pieces of candy. Experimenter A gave two pieces to the infant and took two pieces herself. Then she asked: "What shall we do with the fifth piece? Shall we (a) give it to you, or (b) give it to me, or (c) throw it away?" The infant paused only a moment and then chose (c) An incredibly subtle inborn recognition of justice and equality—better throw it away than be unequal or unjust! Then experimenter A left the room and experimenter B came in with another piece of candy and gave it to the infant and said, "Here it is: don't tell anyone that I gave it to you." and left. When experimenter A returned and they re-did the experiment above, this time the infant chose to take the extra piece of candy himself. That infant had been TAUGHT to be selfish, self-centered, and uncaring of others! Experimenter B had actually underlined and introduced a competitive environment of me-against-them to infantile innocence—and the process began by which the entire culture—parents, siblings, peers, teachers, and clergy all ACTUALLY TEACH SINFULNESS to the infant. So, all humans become sinners—not because of an imaginary Adam and Eve, but because of a world culture that is sinful at its core and trains ALL its children to sin. Sin then has become universal and "necessary", but not in the nature of the child her/himself by birth but by the conditioning of the entire sinful culture (which does not even know it is doing it!).] [Note how war has become literally unavoidable in the world on a practical level—even a :good man" cannot avoid it.]

"Then the ideal of Christian self-sacrifice is, of course the antidote to this anthropological phenomenon.

"So by way of deconstruction, I want to say to Augustine:"Look, there never was an Adam or an Eve or a snake or a Garden of Eden. Those were just mythological ways to describe the human inclination to self-serving. So chop down all this "original sin" structure and look at what is at the core of it—your inability to explain human evil.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Our lines of thought converge at many points here. As to Augustine, I think of the tendency to over-apply the allegory, to match details not intended in the original fable. I can imagine Augustine asking the poet who likened his love to a red, red rose, "Tell me more about her thorny stem..."