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The Virtue of Original Sin

October 28, 2007

Clay Nelson

The sermon was preached at the Auckland Unitarian Church.


It is a pleasure to be back with you this morning. There is a certain feeling of coming home when I attend a UU service. In fact, in anticipating coming here today I wondered why is it I’m not a UU? If you go online to you can take a test to find out with what faith group you have the most in common. I took it years ago while administering a UU congregation and again a few weeks ago two years after returning actively to the Anglican ministry. The results were the same. I had a 100% match with those who attend UU congregations.


In this Internet age it is not possible to keep one’s theology private anymore. Mine is digitally carved in cyberspace for all to see. My detractors take great delight in “outing” me on websites as a Unitarian. I don’t know whether they wish to offend or discredit me. It doesn’t do either in my eyes. When this sermon goes online, we’ll see if it gives them more fuel for my burning.


It is becoming increasingly clear to me that many don’t recognise that denominational labels no longer define a person’s theology. The most they say about us is something about our faith story of choice or whether we like our chalice filled with wine, grape juice or fire. Like in so many areas, Unitarian Universalists were ahead of the curve regarding this development in the religious world. While your individual theological perspectives may vary from humanist to pagan and everything in between, you find unity around the UUs’ Seven Principles. I, and most Christians who would label themselves “progressive,” would have little problem subscribing to them as well.


Unitarian icon Theodore Parker put to poetry a view of religion that unites progressives of any denomination or faith:


“Be ours a religion which,

like sunshine, goes everywhere;

its temple, all space;

its shrine, the good heart;

its creed, all truth;

its ritual, works of love;

its profession of faith, living.”


Which brings me back to why I am not a UU? The answer is I would be preaching to the choir. I think a preacher’s job is to challenge his or her listeners. When there is so much agreement between us that task on a regular basis would be quite difficult. I have chosen the easier path. It is a piece of cake being a heretic amongst Anglicans. But once a year I’m willing to see if I can find a topic that UUs might find heretical. I think I’ve come up with something. What I’d like to challenge you with is that Original Sin is alive and well, and well it should be.


The idea of original sin has been around for a long time. It is rooted ultimately in our desire to explain evil. While natural disasters are traumatic and deadly, they are not evil unless it is true, as some believe, they are acts of God. In that case God is evil. In nature, natural selection and survival of the fittest would be barbaric if performed by rational beings, but they are not, so they do not reach the bar of being evil. When a female praying mantis kills her mate by eating his head after copulation, it is not a pleasant thought for those of us with Y-chromosomes but it is not evil. No, evil does not exist in nature. It exists only in human society.


The ancient Jews tried to explain it in the story of Adam and Eve. Evil began in disobedience to God. Paul reflected on this in Romans to explain his doing not “what I want, but…the very thing I hate.” [Rom 7:15] His reason was “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin.” [Rom 5:12-14].


However, it was Augustine of Hippo who took a Hebrew creation myth and Paul’s attempts at self-analysis to formulate a theological doctrine as evil as what it was trying to explain. His doctrine of Original Sin has probably caused more heartache and harm than any religious doctrine in church history. It is still doing so.


Augustine believed that like blue eyes or skin colour the disobedience of Adam was passed on to each new generation. Therefore, each human is born in a state of sin – that is separate from God. The only cure was baptism. Baptism brought us into the body of Christ and through Christ’s sacrifice our separation from God was overcome. Anyone who died before being baptised went to hell. This argument certainly gave the church some serious power. But the harm was greater than that.


First, as sex was the transmitter of this “sin-disease,” it was suspect. Regrettably it was a necessary evil for the propagation of the species. For Augustine that was the only legitimate purpose of sex. It was not a sinful act if for the purpose of procreation. However, if you enjoyed it even when doing it for its sanctioned purpose it was a sin. Birth control was clearly a sin as procreation was no longer the goal. As procreation as the goal, sex outside of marriage and homosexuality never had a chance of being acceptable. Thanks to Augustine, Original Sin became the first sexually transmitted disease. Today we have the spread of AIDS, overpopulation, sexual dysfunction, and homophobia for which to thank him. But the greatest disservice of his doctrine was to keep Christians in a state of child-like dependence on the church and her sacraments.


But personally, my biggest beef with Augustine is that his ideas were taken up with a vengeance by the reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin. In particular, Augustine’s thinking was the foundation of Calvin’s Doctrine of the “Total Depravity of Man,” “For our nature is not only utterly devoid of goodness,” Calvin said, “but so prolific in all kinds of evil, that it can never be idle…” In his eyes, we are so damaged by Original Sin “we are obnoxious to God, for we lust for everything except God.”


Kind of makes you just want to crawl back into mum’s womb and never come out, especially when you learn that for Calvin baptism wasn’t enough. Salvation was limited only to some, God’s elect. There was nothing you could do to be the elect for God had already predestined who were the winners and who were the losers. Since the booby prize was an eternity burning in hell, people were quite focused about looking for signs that they were amongst the heavenly number. To improve their odds they enjoyed scratching their neighbours off the list – justifying making them outcasts. If God doesn’t love them, why should we? One wonders how many lives have been made miserable; how much human potential for good has been stifled by such a negative and damaging view of our humanity?


This is where Unitarians enter the picture in the person of Michael Servetus. It will surprise you to know Servetus is best known as a unifier. No one I know did a better job of bringing the Roman Catholics and Reformers together. He so ticked both off with his antitrinitarian views and rejection of child baptism that these natural enemies colluded to get rid of him. Calvin set him up to be tried by the Inquisition and later, after Calvin had him executed, the Inquisition executed him again in effigy.


What is not usually focused on is that Servetus also rejected the doctrine of Original Sin and the entire theory of salvation based on it. He disagreed with Calvin that we are totally depraved. Instead he thought all of humanity susceptible to or capable of improvement and justification. He did not restrict the benefits of faith just to Calvin’s elect, but to everyone. Nor did Servetus describe, as did Calvin, an infinite chasm between the divine and mortal worlds. He held that God was present in and constituted the character of all creation.


This feature of Servetus' theology was especially annoying to Calvin. At his trial Calvin asked Servetus, "What, wretch! If one stamps the floor would one say that one stamped on your God?" Then Calvin asked if the devil was part of God. Servetus laughed and replied, "Can you doubt it? This is my fundamental principle that all things are a part and portion of God and the nature of things is the substantial spirit of God. [1]


It is one of the great ironies in religious history that all the movements of modern Unitaritanism honour Servetus, but all of them developed historically from the reformed tradition of John Calvin.


Our view of human nature seemed to improve after Servetus, thanks to the Enlightenment, for which Sertvetus served as a bellwether. Jean-Jacques Rousseau deserves the credit for changing western thought about our human nature. Instead of seeing us born of sin, we were born in freedom and in our natural state were neither good nor bad. It was not our nature but society that limited our capacity to reach our potential. In other words, the chasm wasn’t between God and humankind, but humankind and society (which, of course, included the church).


When Rousseau’s thought began to seep into Christianity we see the beginning of the Social Gospel movement, the precursor of those of us who would be progressive.


Henry David Thoreau, who intellectually was clearly one of Rousseau’s sons, fed this vision. He saw in nature the idyllic state and each human as a ripening seed bursting with creative genius and potential within it. [2] It is only when we are separate from nature do we lose our way – certainly, a far cry from total depravity.


Our thinking about the nature of humanity had come 180 degrees from Augustine, when Thomas Starr King, a Unitarian and Universalist minister, observed, “Universalists believe that God is too good to damn people, and the Unitarians believe that people are too good to be damned by God.” Original Sin definitely seemed headed to the rubbish bin of outdated ideas – and good riddance.


It was a heady time for progressive Christians who played a major role in ending slavery, promoting suffrage and education, and fighting poverty and disease. With the growing technology of the Industrial Age and a God of Love Social Gospel Christians began create heaven on earth. But then came two world wars with the Holocaust and Hiroshima, and neo-orthodox theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Original Sin was back on the table.


Niebuhr may be someone you have heard of, but probably know little about. Yet, few have influenced modern thought more about the nature of humankind.


He was initially a product of the Social Gospel movement. His first parish was in Detroit where he took on Henry Ford and the dehumanising impact of the assembly line. He was an anti-war pacifist and a socialist until the beginning of WWII, when he began to reformulate his theology, which he tempered with his political experiences. He articulated it as “Christian Realism.” In forming it he drew heavily from Augustinian and Calvinist thought. In his experience he found the Social Gospel movement naïve. Reclaiming Original Sin was the antidote. In 1940 at Edinburgh University in a series of lectures entitled The Nature and Destiny of Man he articulated his views. They began with the proposition that the nature of humankind is to be selfish and impulsive. He thought Original Sin was as good a way of putting it as any other. In Niebuhr’s non-inclusive language, “Original sin is that thing about man which makes him capable of conceiving of his own perfection and incapable of achieving it.”


As a professor of Practical Theology at Union Theological Seminary from 1928 until 1960 he influenced a wide-ranging group of people: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., presidential candidate Barach Obama, and the neo-cons responsible for Iraq. I should also mention me. Many of my seminary faculty were his students and my ethics exam for ordination required analyzing his famous work, Moral Man and Immoral Society. He certainly nurtured my passion for both theology and politics. They were both worlds he was equally comfortable in.


So let me turn to politics to make my point that Original Sin is alive and well and an idea progressives need to come to acknowledge.


One of the curses of those who profess new ideas or repackaged old ones is you have little control over how they are used or distorted. The hope is you die before you find out as Niebuhr did. For Niebuhr would be horrified to learn that his theology of Christian Realism is the cornerstone of America’s neo-cons’ justification for war with Iraq and the “War on Terror.”


Prior to Niebuhr, America’s foreign policy-makers were most influenced by the Social Gospel. They did not accept the doctrine of original sin; they didn’t think people are inherently doomed to be selfish and unreasonable. They assumed that the vast majority of people, if treated decently and given decent living conditions, will respond by being decent people. For them, order and stability were not as important as human growth, creativity, and transformation. The key to a better world is not strength and dominance, but sharing and cooperation. They assumed – or at least hoped – that the long-term trend of history is leading to that better world, a view that is rooted in the biblical hope for redemption.


However, Niebuhr’s new realism in the face of fascism, communism and terrorism eventually won the day amongst the intellectuals (even the Jewish ones). Today, the neo-cons take comfort in Niebuhr’s world where all people are marked by selfishness and impulsiveness. They liked it so much they extended it beyond people to nations.


This premise leads them to the conclusion that religion is supposed to control those impulses in individuals and nations to preserve the social fabric. However, due to moral relativism and secular humanism, religion is failing in its mission. America, founded “under God” in their view must take up religion’s role. America must find the moral will to control a world full of selfish and impulsive nations, with force if necessary. Their world is a jungle where evildoers, who are all around, must be hunted down and destroyed. Our might and being on the side of God will bring order and security to the world.


Today even Americans can see what most of the rest of the world saw from the beginning, that Iraq and the theology that got us there are a disaster. No one is anymore secure. But in that recognition there is a new opportunity.


In America, failure is bringing together strange bedfellows. The liberal left with its vestiges of the Social Gospel and Conservatives with their commitment to Niebuhr’s realism find themselves at the same crossroad. Liberals never thought war was the way to go. All people everywhere are in the image of God. They were the first to arrive. Conservatives have now met them there. Many conservatives now acknowledge where they went wrong was not understanding that all nations, even the US, like all people, are marked by Original Sin. Different views of humankind and the world, but the same conclusion: America’s imperialist policies based on the myth of the Lone Ranger will not make her or anyone else more secure.


What happens now is up to the progressives and the conservatives. Up to now they have played a blame game. Each side has had easy targets. The left has had Bush, Cheney, Haliburton, and the Religious Right. The right has had anyone that disagreed with them. Dividing the world into good guys versus bad guys is a myth that will never resolve our serious, planet-threatening problems. We are all responsible for the problems and we are all responsible for resolving them. Blaming others for their existence is just our instinctual way of avoiding the responsibility.


I think the first step might be for you and me to open ourselves to the possibility that Niebuhr was right, Original Sin exists. No, we don’t have to forsake our belief that we bear the image of the transcendent by whatever name. No, we don’t have to deny every person’s ripe potential. No, we don’t have to deny creation’s basic goodness. What we have to accept is that we are separated, for ultimately that is what the myth of Original Sin is about. It is not a doctrine, but an existential reality. Our separation is not from the God you may or may not believe in. It is not from society. It is not from nature. Original Sin is our separation from one another.


Recognising that truth is not an occasion for blaming others and ourselves as selfish and impulsive. I suspect that particular human characteristic has had a lot to do with the survival of the species in the past, just as it is a threat to it in the future.


We cannot work toward the kind of world progressive people of faith would like to see unless we accept the existence of Niebuhr’s view of Original Sin. It points us in the direction of our salvation. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his justification for non-violent resistance describes for me what our salvation is.


His first premise was that no matter how bad a person’s behaviour, “the image of God is never totally gone.” So we, and the government that represents us, must serve everyone, everywhere. No one can be written off as a monstrous evildoer, sinful beyond redemption. In King’s world we would no longer act out the myth of good versus evil. We would not demonize a bin Laden or Saddam – or a Bush or Cheney. We would recognize that when people do bad things, their actions grow out of a global network of forces that we ourselves have helped to create. He put it this way: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” Our mutuality was a moral certainty for which King was willing to die, but not kill. [3]


His certainty is embraced in the seventh Unitarian principle, “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”


Now that we know what salvation is, how do we achieve it against the forces of Original Sin. A magical view of baptism won’t do it. I doubt personal enlightenment, as good as it is, will do it. Force only generates fear and bitterness and its successes are at best short term.


I think the answer lies in Original Sin itself.


You are certainly aware of the fires burning in Southern California. I know the area well and have at least one friend who has lost his home. Having lived there I know that wildfires are inevitable at this time of year. If not arson, accidents or lightening will ignite them and the desert wind will whip them into an inferno. While water helps put them out, it is fire, ironically, that helps prevent them or limit their damage. By doing controlled burns when weather conditions are less risky, many homes and lives have been saved. Literally they fight fire with fire.


I would like to suggest that the same strategy would work with Original Sin to form the beloved community King sought and which the Sixth Principle describes, a world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. We must begin to focus on satisfying our self-interests, by understanding that they will never be met unless the self-interests of all are met as well.


While Niebuhr is probably correct that we will never achieve the perfection we can conceive, we can come closer by acknowledging Original Sin’s existence and using it for a more perfect world.



[1] Jerome Friedman, Michael Servetus: A Case Study in Total Heresy: 1978


[2] The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, 14 volumes, ed. B. Torrey and F. Allen, entry dated 1/5/56, New York: Dover, 1962.


[3] I am indebted to the work of Ira Chernus, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder for his insights on Niebuhr and American foreign policy and the work of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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