Postmodern Considerations of Original Sin, PART THREE

I meant to get back to this a lot sooner, but life intervened. This is Part Three of some thoughts on the doctrines of Original Sin and the Fall as they’ve come down to us in the West, predominantly with Augustine’s influence in mind, and how those doctrines are intertwined with Creationism, vs. evolution, etc. A Facebook conversation got this all rolling; here are some more of a sort of stream-of-consciousness response I wrote:

One more thing. I don’t want to suggest that evolution is the opposite of Creation. I don’t even think Darwin thought that. I assume any evolution that (perhaps) did occur, was set in motion by God. Also, I don’t want to assume that the world is how God made it nor wants it, of course not! I don’t see God using evolution in Creation is the same as saying the world full of violence, idolatry and rebellion is how God made it nor intends it to be. Many people have suggested that death’s entry into the subject refers to spiritual death, though this is nuanced, but meaning that natural death was an original part of the world. When snow geese eat grass, they kill it, because they don’t graze, they pull it up by the roots. Literalizing no death in the natural world in Genesis 1-3 would mean originally snow geese didn’t kill grass when they ate it. That seems a stretch regarding everything we know about the natural world. Rather than perfect, in the sense of flawless and deathless, this view goes, God made a world still in development, with the ultimate goal being perfected when even the physical death in the current world will be swallowed up. This take (not described very well by me in a small space) may not be one everyone wants to utilize, but if it helps people find Jesus, get over the hurdle of a view of the natural world they feel is as absurd as the medieval ascending spheres of perfection, I’m for letting people hold various views toward Creation etc so these things don’t unnecessarily bar them from coming to Christ. I’ve seen people stand three feet from me in intellectual anguish because they wanted to follow Christ but thought they had to be Young Earth 6 Day Creationists, and as scientists, they couldn’t be that intellectually dishonest with themselves. When I said, regarding the stories in Genesis 1-3, (true story) “It looks like a poem, I don’t feel the point is we need to take it literally, we need to learn what it says about us” their relief was visible. They’ve been happily and visibly serving Jesus ever since.”

At this point a close friend said: “I never espoused the idea that a belief in Creation is necessary for salvation. All I said was that disavowing a more literal interpretation of creation by God leads to some doctrinal hurdles that are difficult to overcome. If we’re talking about throwing doctrine out to save souls, I’m a bit Leary of that for a few reasons: 
1-if we toss out doctrine that makes people feel uncomfortable so that they are more easily reached, at what point do we stop throwing doctrine out? What about when they say, “I feel like I can’t accept the singularity of Jesus for salvation because that would be intellectually dishonest because I’m a comparative religions major”? Are we to accept pluralism and universalism? Are we to become Unitarians?”

This is a response I run into fairly often, the idea that if we work on any particular doctrine, everything will come crashing down. Or that working on a doctrine is the same thing as throwing it out altogether. I respond with this:

All of our theologies are in their 10th iterations, as they’ve been worked over again and again for centuries. And I think orthodoxy has been quite wide, so I’m not suggesting throwing out any doctrine necessary for someone to believe in Jesus, eventually there would be nothing left to believe of course! But I certainly don’t ascribe to the slippery slope analogy, as if nothing can change because everything might change! Fact is, “faith seeking understanding” has morphed Christian theology in radical ways over the centuries. If Augustine didn’t think Gen 1-3 needed to be taken literally, I think we can safely say someone considered orthodox can still believe in Jesus successfully without holding to a literalistic take on Adam and Eve and yet still not be accused of being logically and doctrinally inconsistent. As Steve Estep has written, the Apostles’ Creed states the Who of Creation, not the How of Creation.

I wouldn’t for a moment suggest doctrine doesn’t matter. Though Jesus does indeed seem to indicate he offered “an easy yoke and a light burden”. What I think about doctrine is that we have habits of getting attached to specific iterations of them and sticking with that long after their meaningfulness in communicating the Gospel has passed for the culture. The continual re-work of the Atonement theories is the perfect example, Once one theory stopped being a viable explanation for a culture, they worked on another one that would make sense in their context. We are living in a stream of moving water, and doctrine has not been some once-for-all-passed-down-through-the-ages kind of thing. It gets re-worked, re-thought, amended and re-worded. In short, we learn. The idea that doctrine has remained untainted and unchanged for 2000 years and lately some liberals have attacked it… is untrue –  it’s been evolving all along! Since we still know Jesus is King, and Savior, and telos, I don’t see the problem. And when you let people of other cultures do theology without forcing them to pass through the Greco-Roman matrix, you’ll get theology that looks A LOT different than ours! More on that next time.

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Postmodern Considerations of Original Sin, PART TWO

A facebook post by my son concerning whether Adam and Eve were literal historical figures, or mythic literary devices for teaching us something theological, evolved into a discussion of Original Sin. A beloved friend of ours asked the following questions:

1-if Adam and Eve were merely literary devices, and we all evolved, what is your doctrine of humanity, with specific regard to the biblical statement that we are created in the image of God, and thus the apex of creation (God clearly gives humans a place above all other creatures, but slightly lower than Angels). 
2-where does sin (specifically, original sin) enter the picture if there are no first parents to lead us in death?
3-if you can’t explain why we have sin, then you can’t explain why we need a Savior.
4-if you can’t explain why we need a savior, then why do we need Jesus?

These are questions that come to many peoples’ minds when we come to this subject. Here is part of my response:  I don’t have to have a cogent doctrine of Original Sin to know humanity has a sin problem. In fact, I don’t have to have Augustine’s doctrine at all, as neither the OT (according to the rabbis and the Calvinists) nor the Eastern church have. Eastern Orthodoxy has no problem explaining the need for a Savior to save us from sin, death, hell and ourselves without ascribing to Augustine’s idea, which I liken to punishing a kid for being born with Down’s Syndrome, morally repugnant. Humanity can certainly be made in the imago dei and God can yet do it via evolution if He wants. Augustine himself did not take Genesis 1-3 literally.

I don’t need “first parents” to lead me to sin, I figured it out pretty much on my own, which makes me ACTUALLY guilty, rather than something I inherited unsuspecting. Every OT scholar I can think of holds that the two creation stories in Genesis 1-3 appear to be hymns or poems, and surely  mythic origins stories designed to explain our dilemma. If Reformed guys complain that the OT is too Pelagian in dealing with sin, it’s all the more reason I think we need a serious re-write to our assumptions about ‘original’ sin. Neither Judaism nor Islam have a problem explaining human waywardness and guilt without a doctrine of Original Sin, and both recognize the need for God’s forgiveness. Atonement doctrines can survive without Augustine’s interpretation of Paul on inherited depravity.

So, OS and The Fall and all that work as motifs to explain what’s up. They’ve been tied virtually materialistically to various atonement theories. But of course we all know it’s not literally “seed” or we’d just laser that gene out of the genome, no big. All the various ways we could interpret Fall and OS and atonement aside, the part I am not clueing in on is the whole “gotta have this brick or the whole wall falls” piece. Everyone can look around and see we’re bad. Israel has a story that explains it. Paul uses those images to explain what Jesus did on the cross. It’s all good. Turning all those images into literal cosmic science seems unnecessary to me, as long as we “get” it. “It” being – we have a problem, we are estranged from God, we keep doing bad stuff, and Jesus sets us free and restores us, His Spirit enabling us to live new lives. From Isaiah on, there are all kinds of profound images for what that is… but taking any of those images, or picking a handful, and creating a 5 step doctrinal assembly line that starts with Fall or OS and ends with our accepting the atonement seems to, I don’t know, mistake the wineskin for the wine. We need set free by Jesus, we’ve done bad things (some worse than others), and need to stop and if the West’s particular arrangement of some of these doctrines gets in the way of people seeing Jesus (being confounded by some of the crazier aspects of Augustine on OS, etc) then I’m like why not do what Christians have been doing for 20 centuries… work out some new theology?

We’ll still end up with something that uses biblical images to explain what’s up, but it’ll end up with something that makes a bit more sense to people in this milieu. Instead of effectively saying “now to believe this, you’ve got to reformat your mind the way people were thinking in Geneva in 1550 or Hippo in 450.” Anyway, from where I’m currently sitting, since a being capable of morality and love has to have freedom, I think free will explains the presence of sin better than OS and the Fall. Adam chose to sin before the fall happened, and without being afflicted with original sin. We are all able to do that, just like Adam did. Perhaps Pelagius got a bad rap, railroaded politically. The Patriarch of Jerusalem heard him out and said “I got no problem with this.” Lest we suspect that the Church can’t overlook something for centuries, let’s not forget that neither the Apostles’ nor Nicene Creed mentions, for all their brilliance, that we believe in love!!!!! Iconography of Adam and Eve getting forgiven first  among humanity  is profound and beautiful, but that doesn’t make me take it literally.

More next time, in Part Three.

Postmodern Considerations of Original Sin

I was going to post a three part series on International Development and Guns: Economics, Violence, and Governance – but I seem to have lost it in my computer somewhere. So let’s talk about Original Sin.

We all prioritize some texts over others in Scripture. Everyone does this, all traditions. I’ve never known any Christian who gave as much weight to the chapters of mildew laws in Leviticus as they do to John chapter 3 or Romans chapters 5-8. When we sideline or ignore substantial passages in order to protect a particular rendition of a doctrine, (what in economics is called an ‘externality’), we end up charge-able with cherry picking our way through the Bible.

Something Christians have always done for 20 centuries is re-work doctrines when it becomes evident that the cherry-picking simply can’t be sustained. Whatever stimulates it in the discoveries or politics of the day, things get to the point where the old iteration of that doctrine can’t stand the weight of the externalities it can’t explain, and Christians go to work again on that doctrine. It seems pretty evident to me that our Augustinian version of “Original Sin” is in need of some serious re-think if a doctrine describing human depravity is going to make much sense to postmodern people. Saying that  everyone should be sent to hell for being born with a condition they had no control over, won’t stand up to moral scrutinizing today. And my problem with Augustine’s version is not that it’s old. I’m all for Paleo-Orthodoxy. Considering how many other doctrines have come under serious re-work, I’m surprised this version of OS (“Original Sin”) survived the Reformation seemingly unscathed.

So my 22 year old son started a facebook discussion due to something he posted from a theology class he’s in at college. I slid into it and it evolved into a detailed discussion concerning what is on the chopping block when it comes to OS. Here’s the quote that started it all off:

“Recent research in molecular biology, primatology, sociobiology, and phylogenetics indicates that the species Homo sapiens cannot be traced back to a single pair of individuals, and that the earliest human beings did not come on the scene in anything like paradisal physical or moral conditions. It is therefore difficult to read Genesis 1–3 as a factual account of human origins. In current Christian thinking about Adam and Eve, several scenarios are on offer. The most compelling one regards Adam and Eve as strictly literary figures—characters in a divinely inspired story about the imagined past that intends to teach theological, not historical, truths about God, creation, and humanity.”- Daniel Harlow “After Adam: Reading Genesis in an age of Evolutionary science.”

I’ll pick up from there next time.

Book Excerpt: N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Scripture. Do We Need a Historical Adam?

Today I downloaded, via Kindle, N.T. Wright’s new book, Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues. In it he gives his take on a wide variety of issues today swirling in religion, science, politics, and the coming of Jesus. Below is the beginning of the chapter in which he wrings out whether or not a Biblically faithful Christian needs to believe Adam was a historical person.

“THE ROOT PROBLEM we face as Christians is that in articulating a Christian vision of the cosmos the way we want to do, we find ourselves hamstrung because it is assumed that to be Christian is to be anti-intellectual, antiscience, obscurantist, and so forth. This constitutes a wake-up call to us in this form: though the Western tradition and particularly the Protestant and evangelical traditions have claimed to be based on the Bible and rooted in scripture, they have by and large developed long-lasting and subtle strategies for not listening to what the Bible is in fact saying. We must stop giving nineteenth-century answers to sixteenth-century questions and try to give twenty-first-century answers to first-century questions. Our concern is for the truth and beyond that for our love of the God of truth and our strong, biblically rooted sense that this God calls us to celebrate the wonder of his creation and to work for his glory within it. There are two theological drivers for people to believe in a young-earth creationism and a historical Adam. The first supposes that if people let go of this position, they are letting go of the authority of scripture . I suspect , myself, that sociocultural factors are among the main influences. In dispensationalism in particular, a flat, literal reading of Genesis is part of a package that includes the rapture, Armageddon, saving souls for a timeless eternity, and so on, together with the usual package of ultraconservative (as it seems to a Brit) policies in society, government, and foreign policy. So I suspect we need to think through the question of how the authority of scripture actually works and what it might mean in this case. But there is a second theological driver of the problem. This has to do with the deep-rooted Western soteriology that has characterized Catholic as well as Protestant, liberal as well as conservative: a sense that we know, ahead of time, that the Bible, particularly its central New Testament texts like the Gospels and Romans , must really be about the question of how we get saved. For some, particularly in the Reformed tradition, the question of Adam as the federal head of his descendants is one part of the soteriology that sees Jesus the Messiah as the federal head of all those who are “in him.” So let me say something brief about scriptural authority, and then something slightly fuller about Adam and related issues.”

Wright, N. T. (2014-06-03). Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues (Kindle Locations 437-445). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

‘Noah’ and Evolution

Every time I hear Christians get upset about the theory of evolution, I am reminded of 1616 when the Church said you could not be Christian if you believed the Earth revolved around the sun. And then I think of the Christians during the American Civil War who accurately argued that the Bible explicitly portrays slavery as a normative part of human life and tells slaves to obey their masters. And then I think about C.S. Lewis’ comment that if we told someone in the Middle Ages that we did not believe the universe was made up of The Spheres nor did we believe in the Divine Right of Kings to rule, they would have said we couldn’t possibly be Christian.

I’m not sure why, outside a literalist reading of the poem/hymn/origin stories of Genesis 1 and 2, so many Christians are so upset by the idea that God could use evolution as one of his tools. Several Nazarenes have been working on this, and here’s a paragraph from the Church of the Nazarene’s page  on Wikipedia:

Consistent with the position of classical Nazarene theologian H. Orton Wiley, several contemporary Nazarene theologians, including Thomas Jay Oord, Michael Lodahl, and Samuel M. Powell, have endeavored to reconcile the general theory of evolution with theology. There are an increasing number of Nazarene scientists who support theistic evolution, among them Karl Giberson, Darrel R. Falk, and Richard G. Colling, whose 2004 book, Random Designer, has been controversial within the denomination since 2007. At the most recent General Assembly, held in Orlando, Florida in July 2009, there was extended debate on a resolution to adopt a more fundamentalist view of the doctrine of Creation based on a more literal view of the Bible, however this resolution was defeated.

One of my absolute favorite moments in the movie Noah is when Noah says to his family hunkered in the ark during the storm, “I am going to tell you the first story my father told me.” And then he extinguishes the candle he is holding, plunging the room into darkness, and begins reciting a close approximation to Genesis 1. Suddenly on screen, as you listen to Genesis 1 recited, you see the universe come to be, plant and animal life evolving in fast motion, in step with Noah’s recital of the creation of fish, birds, small creatures, etc – it’s an impressive display of the glory of God. For me, portraying animal life developing through evolution didn’t reduce the majesty of God’s Creation one bit. Intriguingly, the film does not portray humans evolving.

Hebrew good vs. Greek perfect

More thoughts about Platonic assumptions and the World to Come. (I started these musings with https://toddrisser.com/2013/12/30/can-lack-exist-in-the-world-to-come-un-doing-platonic-assumptions/

I wonder if, when we think of things the way they ought to be, we tend to think in terms of Greek, Platonic ideas of ‘perfect’, rather than Hebrew concepts of ‘good’. After my last post my friend Butch texted me and said that when God created the world He said it was “good” not “perfect.” He said he always thought of the Genesis garden narratives taking place in a good area, not a perfect one.

When we confuse good with perfect, I wonder if we are importing ideas into our concepts of how God intends the world to be. Do we start labeling things as wrong with Creation when they aren’t? A Lutheran friend of mine this summer said about the goodness of Creation “Ah, but that was before the Fall…” How much of nature’s Created characteristics, which we look at everyday, do we assume are tainted by sin and less-than-they-should-be, because we are thinking with Platonic ideas about perfection rather than Hebraic ideas of Good?  If we do this with Nature, what other areas are we confusing?

When God rolls out his resume in Job and the Psalms – what does he talk about? His creating and sustaining work in Creation. And he talks about providing food to nature’s animals, including the carnivores. Isaiah talks about lions and lambs, but should we really make that literal biology? No hunting in the Age to Come?  What a disappointment to Native Americans hoping for the Happy Hunting Grounds!  Is this an area where we have strayed too far into Greek philosophical ideas, and off the narrative of Scripture…?

Evolution and Our Kids

I was driving down the road the other day with a couple teenage boys. So I asked them “What do you think? Did God make humans in a day or use evolution?” They talked about Genesis 1 being a poem, not a modern scientific essay on biological origins; they talked about its meaning (God is the Creator of everything) rather than taking it literally; they talked about various fossil records and the presence of new species; they talked about DNA, but they didn’t pick a side. “So what do you think – we’re from apes (I know, I know, ramapithecines) or not?” “It doesn’t matter,” they said, “Either way, God did it.” “Really?” I pushed, “Don’t you lean either way? Our skeletons sure look like chimps. And we can tell bears and dogs both came from amphicylines…”

“And raccoons. But, nope,” they said. “I don’t lean either way – it doesn’t matter. Either way, God did it.”

How about that? Those boys are two of my sons. They are passionate, committed Christians who care about the things Jesus cares about. The older one is a ministry leader. The younger one is coming on strong. Neither of them feels a sense of angst facing scientific discovery or theory. “Either way, God did it.”

I’ve often thought that the “crisis of faith” so many American evangelical kids experience in college, when they run up against the theory of evolution, is a crisis created at home and church, and not by the university. By planting our feet and getting set for a fight, forcing an either/or decision regarding evolution or a literal reading of Genesis 1 & 2, I think we forced our kids to have to choose between which position seemed to have the most evidence to support it. To the sorrow of many families, their kids not only landed on the side of evolution, they landed somewhere outside of church. Permanently.

But I wonder if we had positioned them more like my sons, would they have fared better, and perhaps been able to hang on to their Christian faith? If we had taught them that however God did it, He did it and we don’t have to be afraid of scientific discovery – whatever we learn is part of God’s amazing creativity (the Nazarene Manual says that). If we had ever mentioned that forms of literature 3,000 years ago were not written as  scientific textbooks… (Nazarene theologian H. Orton Wiley called Genesis 1 a hymn), maybe we could have cast a vision for a Christian faith big enough for science.

In 1616 the Roman Catholic Church announced that you were not allowed to be a Christian if you thought the earth revolved around the sun. They felt that that idea struck at the root of Christian faith and undermined the whole thing. They had Scripture to back them up: “the sun rises and sets”. We now look back and think that’s silly: obviously we can be Christian and realize the earth revolves around the sun.

But today there are Christian voices telling us that if you believe in evolution you are not allowed to be a Christian. They say you can’t love Jesus, can’t ask him to forgive your sins, can’t live His ways, can’t go to heaven when you die, etc etc. I’m not sure where they ever go the idea that they had the authority to tell me if I am allowed to love Jesus or not.

I haven’t kept up enough with physical anthropology since grad school to make hard and fast conclusions as to what I think about the viability of the evolutionary hypothesis in regards to human origins. But I do believe we need to stop fighting useless battles with science. It just undermines Christian faith and makes us look like you have to check your brain at the door to be a Christian. And it forces our kids to decide between science and Christianity when they go to university – and that’s sadly destructive. Christian faith has always been, and still is, robust enough to include what we learn from science.

Incidentally, I pastor quite a few people who are exemplary Christians, love God deeply, are working in the world in the name of Jesus, loving people and inviting them into relationship with Christ – and they figure the theory of evolution is true.  When they were first being drawn into faith in Christ, the issue of evolution was a huge hurdle for them. They had only met Christians who said you couldn’t be Christian and believe in that scientific theory – and it made them feel like they had to pretend to live in the Middle Ages if they were going to be Christian – and they weren’t ready to be that intellectually dishonest  with themselves. When I told them it was fine – go ahead and love Jesus and put their hope and faith in him – it was within the scope of Christian faith to think God perhaps used evolution in the created order, the relief on their faces was visible.

This isn’t going away. Humans are going to continue to try and understand God’s creation. Thank God, because polio and other dread things are gone because of this curiosity. As we continue to try to understand the world God placed us in, and utilize it in ways that bless and promote human thriving, scientific  theories are going to come and go. Perhaps a less antagonistic stance toward some scientific theories will help us promote a Christian faith that doesn’t needlessly repel people. Or, what I’m trying to say is that perhaps some of the fights we’ve picked with science have hurt the cause of the Kingdom rather than helped it. Some of those fights may have been very unnecessary and counter-productive. It’s something to consider.

Tom Oord has written a nice little article about why Christians should care about science. Here’s the link: http://www.relevantmagazine.com/life/whole-life/features/27064-10-reasons-christians-should-care-about-science