Sunday, August 30, 2009

the fall

I'm a little behind on my summer reading project, but oh well. That just means I had a fun summer, spending a good amount of time at the beach and in the garden and not too much time inside with my nose in a book, right?

I actually did almost all of the reading for this post about a month ago, but it's just been difficult to formulate how to address all the issues regarding "the Fall" in one post that's a length anyone will read. (That never stopped me before, right? I just write a post longer than anyone will read!) At any rate, there are just so many issues on this one that it's hard to boil it down to just the essentials. Part of this is how we view scripture--do we have to understand the creation accounts literally in order to find truth in them? (My answer is "No," but I don't know that others will agree.) Part of it is how our beliefs about "the Fall" relate to how we view human beings, especially male and female relationships and bodies and persons. Another piece is how we view God as we think about God creating people who were "meant" to be a certain way but who would almost certainly fail--repeatedly. Then there's the question of the meaning of "sin," how and why we are "separated from God" by sin, if there's a way to not be separated from God in this life and what Jesus has to do with that, and whether we view human beings as essentially good or flawed in our "nature" as we are right now. Some of these questions will just have to wait until we deal with other doctrines, such as atonement, which I think is next week (as I optimistically assume I will read the texts and write a post about it within the next week...). Others will just have to wait for my full-length systematic theology to be published (ha!). I think in this post I'll focus on the idea of "original sin" and where it comes from, although I'm going to largely ignore debates about the creation account regarding how we read it in light of modern science, and how we read it regarding relationships between genders. Maybe I'll write about those things later.

At any rate, this is one doctrine where I don't find Barclay particularly helpful, because so much has happened in the last 350 years regarding "acceptable" Christian belief on this doctrine that what he has to say seems fairly dated. He is helpful in that he sets the historical parameters of the debate. Basically there have been two extremes of thought regarding the origins of sin and the way it's passed on. Pelagius, condemned as a heretic in the fifth century, believed so much in human freedom that he said no one was born with a sin nature, but had to choose to sin themselves first. Therefore, one could conceivably live a sinless life; although once one chose to sin, one must receive God's grace through Jesus just like everyone else.

On the other end of the spectrum is Augustine, also writing in the fifth century, who believed we all inherit our sin nature through the flesh, as children of Adam and Eve, who apparently made the ultimate choice for all the rest of us. Therefore, even if an infant died without being baptized, and hadn't really had the chance to choose to sin yet, it would still go to Hell because of the nature into which it was born. For Augustine, and many other theologians to this day, our "free will" consists of our ability to choose to sin. Only God can be good, and therefore any good we do is because of God in us.

Barclay says neither of these options is correct, and I agree with him. He looks for a middle road, but I think his middle road leans more toward Augustine, while my middle road would lean more toward Pelagius. Barclay says we only receive condemnation after we actually sin ourselves (so infants who die are not culpable), but we can't really choose good on our own. He says, “How can he inherit any good from Adam when Adam had no good to pass on to him?” (Freiday, ed., 68).

For me, it is difficult to make sense of our lives being of any joy or pleasure to God if we're unable to choose good ourselves. Sure, it's God working in us, in a way, when we choose good, but it's God working in us (in a way) when we breathe, if we believe God created everything. Without God at work in us we couldn't do anything. So that argument doesn't make sense to me. But if God gave us any free will at all, I think it has to go both ways: we have to be able to, in some way, make choices that foster both good and evil.

Some disagree with this because it protects God if we can't actually choose what is good. I think they explain this by saying that this way, God has ultimate control and power. To me, though, this creates a God who is not someone I want to follow--it is a capricious God who, at God's own whim and fancy and for no particular reason chooses to help some do good and not others. At the same time, I think part of this argument rests in the grace/works debate, because if we can choose to do good, we should do good works all the time, and we can create undue guilt in ourselves (and those we teach) when we say it is up to us to make sure we're acting "good" all the time. So it's a delicate balance, and I don't claim to have the full answer.

Now, most theologians today are of the opinion that creation didn't happen literally the way that it's described in Genesis. (For one thing, we'd have to pick one of the accounts, either Gen. 1 or Gen 2-3, before we said which one was literal. Did God "create them male and female" at the same time, or create Adam and then create Eve out of his rib when he got lonely?) I'm not going to go into all of this now, but suffice it to say that although I don't think Genesis gives a scientifically literal account of creation, it is a "true" story in the sense that it tells us truths about who we are, how we find ourselves, and our relationships to God, other people and the world.

So if we read Genesis 1-3 from this perspective, we can take several things from it: first, God created us and found us good (whether this took a day or several million years). We are creatures meant to be in relationship with God, like Adam and Eve in the garden, walking and talking with God. This is our essential self, who we're meant to be, who we yearn to be. Second, we're created to be in relationship with other people. Adam got lonely and God created a partner. (Interestingly, the word used for the person God created just means "human being," admah and only when Eve is created does the text start using the words "man" and "woman," ish and ishah.) Third, there's something about us as human beings that for some reason doesn't live up to the potential that we wish we could. Paul put it well in Romans 7:14-25 as he talked about his struggle with his sin nature: doing the things he didn't want to do, and not being able to do the things he really wanted to do.

I think that passage and others about the law (of love) being written on our hearts helps illustrate my point, although other people might come to the opposite conclusion. But to me, these passages state that the fact that we have an understanding of what "goodness" would look like means we are capable of making choices for good. We don't always do it, but most of us long to live justly and lovingly toward all people, long for a world in which all creatures could live peaceably and bountifully.

Migliore's explanation of this doctrine is helpful in Faith Seeking Understanding. He basically says that we are created as embodied beings that have the ability to be in relationship with God--to be addressed by God and to respond. With the concept of humanity as “fallen creatures,” Christianity describes the human condition (where we find ourselves now) rather than the human potential or the way we got here. We may be created for relationship with God and others, but more often than not we attempt to live as if we are God. "Sin" is this attempt to be God, to live as if we are more different from other people than similar. “We deny our dependence on the Other who is God and reject our need for our fellow creatures, most particularly those who seem so totally strange and 'other' to us--the victim, the poor, the 'leftover person'” (Migliore 150). He describes sin as "primarily the disruption of our relationship with God,” in other words, trying to be God and therefore rejecting the need for God's grace, because we think we can be independent enough to do without it (151). This shows itself in both self-aggrandizement and self-rejection, and in power struggles where one must win while another loses.

As Christians we have the opportunity to accept God's grace, which is God's desire to be in relationship with us and to help us live in right relationship with the people and world around us. "Christian love is an act of freedom,” (161) because we are able to become the people we are created to be, the people we want to be: living in ever-deepening relationship with God and others, as we so desire to do. This happens because of God's love reaching out to us, and because we accept the hope for the future that God's love brings. Because we live in this radical freedom, we are able to (more often) live out our true selves, the essential selves we want to be, because we are intentionally seeking right relationship with God and learning how to do so.

Migliore points out that, “People whose freedom is rooted in God's grace...will always be disturbing presences in a world that knows all too well both the coercive power of 'masters' and the unresisting servility of 'slaves'...” (161). In other words, when we live in this radical freedom we won't look like everyone else, and this will scare people and threaten their worldview, their hierarchies, and their spaces of comfort within the systems of domination in which most of us live our lives. To be New Beings in Christ means that through our daily, moment-to-moment connection with the Living Spirit, we are able to learn how to live as the people we want to be, to unlearn the systems of domination and oppression which have become so natural, and to live out true love toward God, neighbor and world.

The Fall is the condition in which we find ourselves, but it is not the last word. We have hope through our ability to yearn for and seek right relationships, and through these small acts God will change the world.