Saturday, August 28, 2010

Original Good part one

The following are some religious thoughts on original sin and original good.

I don't have a huge problem believing in original sin, which is the idea that all people are imperfect and make mistakes. But I have a huge problem with original sin if we don't also include original good.

People do so many wonderful things for each other. We sacrifice immediate, simple gratification for a longer, more rewarding goals. We are community-oriented creatures who work together for good all the time.

So I can understand original sin, which could coexist with original good, but I cannot understand the doctrine of "total depravity", the idea that man is unable to do good by his nature.

The Calvinist idea of total depravity would say that we are unable to do anything unselfish by our natures, and that we must, through Christ, take on the nature of God in order to be selfless at all. I think this is a confusing way to view things, because ultimately everything we do is for ourselves. For instance, if God commands something resembling "selflessness", why would we do it if it were of no benefit to us? Surely there is selfishness of a different variety still at work?

The Buddhist understanding is that people act evilly out of ignorance. People think they are doing themselves a favor, but really they are hurting themselves by not taking, what is commonly called, the more "selfless" road. Compassion is what brings happiness, and compassion is the identification of the self with others. When we identify others with ourselves, we are part of a community and working for the best for ourselves takes on a more enlightened meaning. But we're still working for ourselves, just not in a separate sense.

When faced with a moral dilemma - do I share the cookies or eat them all? - I have different desires that are in competition with each other. If my appetite says "eat them all!", should I consider myself evil? Certainly not. My appetite is just that, a hunger response to food. It's a good thing. It keeps me alive. But then I have a competing desire to take care of others, to share. And this desire is for community, to broaden my sense of self to include others. An enlightened moral choice will get me more bang for my buck. Belonging to the community, embodying compassion and identification with others, is more valuable than indulging my simple appetite which knows little of the circumstances at hand.

But of course, many time, ignorance - or a lack of mindfulness - rules the day. We are certainly not perfect. We make short-sighted choices that lead to suffering, for ourselves and others. But we also make wonderful, enlightened choices which inspire us all and give our lives meaning. And we do it all the time!

So anyway, back to original sin. I have seen two Evangelical evangelists use the following formula fairly recently:

"Have you ever told a lie?


What does that make you?

A liar.

That's right. You're a liar."

Then the conversation proceeds to the idea that sin means we deserve separation from God. We deserve punishment - and not the corrective, rehabilitating kind, but the eternal, death-of-all-hope kind - in order to preserve God's "justice."

But what about the flip-side of the conversation?

"Have you ever told the truth?

Yeah.....the overwhelming majority of the time actually.

Then what does that make you?


That's right. A truth-teller."

So we may have original sin, but we also have original good. All those apocalyptic verses in Revelation, and elsewhere, about liars being punished eternally, don't include the fact that not only did these people tell lies, steal things and commit infidelity, they also helped people. They worked hard to provide for their kids. They gave to charity. They helped friends who were in trouble. They got up in the middle of the night to soothe a frightened child. They told the truth countless times, even when it was difficult.

And if all good things have their origin in God, does this mean that the original good is also in Hell? Part of God is in Hell? Or does it mean that the bad parts of us all are burned away and the good bits of us all, the parts that are really us, that we really value, will be preserved?

One need not be a religious person to see how the deep feelings behind these different positions manifest themselves in us all. And I should definitely say that there are myriad different Christian positions that I find very inspiring and fulfill our highest ideals. I am focusing on a brand of evangelical Christianity here that I have problems with.

And I have another reason for believing in original good.


  1. Nice thoughts.
    Steven, I am curious to know if you "claim" a particular faith structure?
    It seems-like myself & perhaps many others- there are elements of both Christianity & Buddhism to your outlook & possibly your beliefs.
    I've a dear friend that is a devout Buddhist (and traditional, mind you, she is Vietnamese) and I often joke that she is the "most Christian person I know."
    She truly is one of the kindest, giving hearts I know. And, if I've read my Bible right all those years, seems to be the desired outcome of Christianity.

    I suppose my biggest frustration with my personal theologies/philosophies is that I can never quite find the way I want to PRACTICE it in an organized system. My husband has all but given up on this quest to find our place in the religious world (he is also a seminary dropout who is the deepest & most genuine person i know).

    Being that I think a lot of what you have to say is spot-on, would be curious to know if you & the Mrs. go the "organized" route at all.

  2. Hey Lisa!

    I love many of the Christian traditions I grew up in, but I agree with you, the actual practice is very mystical and not very practical. What are you actually supposed to do when you pray? How do you go about the process of self-transformation?

    Buddhism offers actual, real things to do to grow spiritually, and I am very attracted to that. It has changed my life significantly for the better. But I also love the idea of church - a community centered around discussing ultimate issues and celebrating life together.

    Yet I do not go to church. Right now, Sunday mornings are our only morning together as family, so I probably won't try church consistently for a few years. Susan is very, VERY uninterested in church. She is a very content atheist, and that is totally fine.

    You might be interested in the video by John Shelby Spong I just posted. It is quite short, but I like the quote I withdrew from it. Here's a paraphrase:

    "God is not a Christian, Jew, Muslim, etc. All of those are human systems which humans have created to try to help us walk into the mystery of God."

  3. Steve, I really really enjoyed this essay. Thanks!

  4. Belonging to the community, embodying compassion and identification with others, is more valuable than indulging my simple appetite which knows little of the circumstances at hand.
    Steven, I absolutely love this! The idea of original sin (in its Calvinist "utter depravity" sense) has never sat well with me. I've had fundamentalist Christians use this against me, in fact - "you don't like it because you know it's true!" - but that's not it. I don't like it because, while I can quite easily admit we're not "perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect," we're not all that bad either. There is evil in the world, but there is good in the world also, and it tends to make the evil seem almost superficial.
    It's interesting that you point out how there seem to be varying "kinds" (or definitions) of selfishness. I've certainly found this to be true of pride. To hear Christians say that pride is the worst sin is to hear the auditory equivalent of being fleeced. When my sister graduated from college, was I proud? Damn straight I was. When you watch your child take his or her first steps, does that not make pride swell in your heart? Of course it does, and it should. This is the pride that God as "father" feels for us, so how can it be lumped in with sinful pride?
    Hope all is well on the prairie!

  5. Thanks John!

    I agree, Kelly, I think of it is "narrow self-interest" and "enlightened self-interest."

    I think your example of pride is spot on. Without confidence, success is hardly a reasonable expectation. The difference between beneficial confidence, or "self-esteem" and harmful pride is an interesting discussion.

    Some of the most humble people I know are the most confident.

  6. And conversely, I often see people whose "humility" makes them proud.