A Progressive, Reformed Take On Original Sin

Today, we’re going to talk about…


Sirens blare, cars begin crashing into one another.  In the distance, a child screams.

But seriously, original sin isn’t something that we like to talk about much as progressive Christians. There’s some good reason for that; feminist, liberal, and other critics have noted how the doctrine has been used to hurt others, especially women, the poor, and people of color.

But before we critique something, we should seek to understand it. So what is Original Sin anyways?  What questions does it solve?

I believe that Original Sin describes the inherent problem of power within the human condition. It concerns our tendencies to dominate rather than cooperate, and to hurt rather than make whole. Original Sin is our tendency to see other humans as less than fully human, and to fail to acknowledge God as sovereign over creation rather than ourselves.

For me, Original Sin arises out of one of the deep questions confronting the Christian:

 If God made creation, and thus humanity, good (Genesis 1, especially verse 31), then why is there so much suffering, evil, and separation from God in the world? 

This question reminds us that something is clearly wrong in our world.  We cause pain, misery, and suffering, intentionally, and unintentionally, to ourselves, our fellow humans, our natural world, and to God.

Why do we do this? Is it part of human nature?  Our Culture? Is it capitalism’s fault? White Supremacy? Are there some folks who are immune to it?

Original Sin says that we all do it, and we can’t help but do it.

My own understanding of Original Sin has been heavily influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr, whose Nature and Destiny of Man was one of my favorite seminary reads, and Daniel Migliore, whose Faith Seeking Understanding was my systematic theology textbook.

I believe that Original Sin is an emergent property of humans as social beings.  In human relationships, there is a tendency to seek power over one another.  As we do so, we start to realize that power feels good, and begin to believe that being powerful means that we’re better than someone else, and that therefore, they, and others like them, are less than human, while me, and others like myself, are more than human, more like God.

Original Sin distorts our relationships to other people, and to our creator.  These distortions of our relationships to our fellow humans allows for evil to develop, while the distortion of our relationships to God is sin. Sin and evil are intertwined deeply with one another, as God despises the evil we do to one another. I believe they are separate categories for one reason: the way to heal the damage done in those relationships is different.  Resolving our contributions to evil takes hard work, while reconciling with God requires our faith and trust.

We see this in King David, who in his power, majesty, and hubris, rapes a woman, and then has her husband killed. Paul describes these same dynamics in the church of Corinth, which is struggling with issues of socioeconomic status in their worshiping life. James tells us about the intersecting nature of Faith and Works, on how we need them both to achieve wholeness in our relationships.

Today, White Supremacy, Misogyny, Homophobia, Racism, Nationalism, Runaway Capitalism and all other forms of systemic evil, are symptoms of this Original Sin. I don’t mean to oversimplify; each of these “isms” are immensely complex, and each has its own context. That said, each one puts some of us (those of us like me, or whom I would like to be like) above others of us. They turn White men into Gods, and foreigners into monsters. Poverty and addiction become signs of moral deficiency, punishable by the force of law, rather than symptoms of larger societal diseases that desire reform and compassion.

So I think there’s a place for Original Sin still, even in our progressive Christian churches. It’s not because Adam and Eve ate apples and suddenly realized they were naked, but because we’re human.

Merely, and blessedly, human.