Moltmann Monday: On Original Sin

My friend PostBarthian just shared some unpublished (for a wide audience) thoughts from Moltmann about original sin. Go read his post here. I’ll be responding to the whole of the post, but for reference here is the primary quote:

Our definition of original sin therefore must be: 1) hybris and presumption to be as God, 2) resignation and laziness not to be like God’s image on earth. Presumption and resignation are the roots of all our actual sins. To put it another way: the sin against the first commandment is the source of all the other sins against the other commandments of God. It is presumption not to acknowledge the Lordship of God. It is resignation not to enter into the “exodus out of Egypt” and to refuse the freedom God has given us.

I agree with this definition. But, as you may have guessed, I do have a caveat for the first one. The primary description people have when asked to describe the “sin” in the Garden (just a reminder that the word sin isn’t in that story, and doesn’t appear until Genesis 4 when Cain kills Abel- that’s actually the first named sin in the Bible) is pride, or wanting to be like God. After all, isn’t that in the story? Well, no, actually. The story says Eve took the fruit because it was “good for eating,” “a delight to the eyes,” and “desirable as a source of wisdom.” If you saw that in any other context, you wouldn’t assume those were sinful motivations, and you sure wouldn’t say they were the root of the ruin of some kind of sinless human nature (that also never is described in the text). More plainly we could say it was flat disobedience. She knew she wasn’t supposed to do it, but she did it anyway. I think “rebellion against God” in some vast, all-reaching, deeply existential way is a pretty dramatic way of describing that. Kids disobey all the time and we do not collapse as parents in fear that they are eternally ruined. But I digress…

What’s interesting about the interaction between the serpent and Eve is that the serpent says “you will be like God” but for Eve what is compelling is wisdom. I think, more specifically, what is compelling is a longing to define herself in distinction from God, to have the knowledge of good and evil and then to decide on her own what is wise. (It is unclear if Adam chooses to eat the fruit for the same reasons; he seems in the story to simply follow her lead, which is its own choice. I’ll get to that in a second.) This decision, to want wisdom, does actually require the knowledge of good and evil. You cannot decide between two things when you are only aware of one choice.

Western Christianity’s problem is that it collectively has lost its mind over this fact of life. It has made this the height of human tragedy, a F-A-L-L, an eternal tarnishing of what God intended to be pure and good. I do not think this is a correct reading of the story, nor a reading that makes sense in light of the broader biblical story, nor one that makes sense in light of what we actually know as humans. The bittersweet reality is that we were built for relationship and connection but at some point in our natural process of growing up, we have to come to terms with not only what connects us but what makes us distinct. We lose our innocence. We “rebel.” We seek to define ourselves not only in ways we are like our parents, but in the ways we are not.

What Western Christianity got wrong was overreacting to this as a necessary stage in the pursuit of wisdom and faithfulness. Because that’s what it is: a stage. Not a state of being. Not an eternal change of formerly innocent DNA. It is a stage we must walk through in order to become wise. It is the act of coming of age, of growing up, of making our way in a world that does and will always hold the knowledge of both good and evil.

Original sin wants to punish all of humanity for wanting to be like God. But the entire point of faithful discipleship is to try to be like God. What Western Christianity doesn’t want to admit is that to do so, we have to go through a stage of differentiation in order to move toward a mature relational life with God. You do this with your parents. You do this with you best friends, in toddlerhood and elementary school and high school and beyond. You do this with your career identity, and with your marriage identity. Wisdom is always a process of navigating through the identities of connection and distinction in order to arrive at harmony. There is not a healthy relationship on the planet that hasn’t done so. Even Jesus distinguished himself from his family, remember? But we also remember that tender moment in the Gospel of John where he connected his mother and John, because he cared deeply for them both.

I’ll briefly return to Adam. I think he is such a typical description of teen rebellion, because he is totally unaware. He does not seem to have any thought or intention about his choice; he just goes along with whatever is happening in front of him. This is its own form of identity distinction, no doubt, but I do think it points more strongly to my reading of the text. Eve is the one at the keg; Adam’s the one that just drinks the beer he’s handed. Both are typical growing-up mistakes, ones that are not pleasant but are necessary moments of learning wisdom.

Wyatt (PostBarthian) talks more in depth about how this one-sided definition of sin as rebellion has been a convenient little way of keeping people in power in power. After all, when someone rises up against a system, it’s handy to label that person as sinning against God. We have to remember that our theology is always political, and this definition of original sin has a bloody history of colonialism, imperialism and repression.

I want to say one more thing about the first half of the definition, because I do still hold to the words, even if I have another meaning. I believe there is no bigger presumption to be God- not just to be like God, but to BE GOD- than the doctrine of original sin. Who do humans think they are, that they believe they have the power through any human action to undo what God has ordained? That is hubris and presumption of the highest order. Nowhere in scripture does it say that God took away the image of God present in humanity. Nowhere does it say our relationship with God was severed or broken or even bruised. We do not get to say otherwise. Original blessing reminds us that we are in a relationship with God, and God started it, and God is sticking with it. And we don’t really have a choice in the matter either way. If you want to claim God’s sovereignty, that’s the only faithful option scripture gives you.

So, I’d disagree that humans have the power to transform themselves into beasts, but I’ll admit human actions can absolutely be deemed beastly. When we do not find harmony in our right relationship with God, when we rebel against the Creator, we tarnish the way we show our image to the world. But we don’t have the power to destroy the image itself.

On to the second part of the definition: original sin as laziness and resignation not to be like God’s image on earth. My response is literally yes. I mean: read that sentence literally. Original sin is a resignation and laziness not to be like God’s image on earth. YES. That is exactly what the doctrine of original sin does. It tells humans we are not capable of doing what God has asked us to do. We are not capable of following Jesus as Jesus commanded us to do. We are not capable of being empowered by the Spirit the way Pentecost shows us (and Jesus promised us). The doctrine of original sin is an excuse. It is a cop-out, in which we require God to do all the work and say that it isn’t our responsibility. Unfortunately that’s just not how it works. We certainly couldn’t do anything without the work of God, but that is not the way God set this up. It is our job to respond to God, to live faithfully for God, to be in service to God and to others and to all of creation. Any time we do not do that, it is sin. It is rebellion against God, and against who God has created us to be.

So I agree with Moltmann that the most powerful sins are often the sins of omission, the things we leave undone. And a lot of that is because we have believed the lie of original sin that has told us we can’t do them. Sloth is considered one of the seven deadly sins because when we cannot have the courage to face our faults we will never change them. Original sin leaves us trapped in that fear. Trusting in the love that is always waiting for us in original blessing frees us to view our choices clearly, know we are loved even when we falter, and learn enough to move past our mistakes and hopefully not repeat them. Spiritual maturity requires us to be honest about our shortcomings while also being clear about our responsibility.

I’ve been talking with people about original blessing for months now, and what I see again and again more than anything is fear. What holds them back from really rejecting original sin and adopting original blessing is fear. It’s a lack of control, losing a system that makes “sense” to them and a system that doesn’t ask much from them. There is real comfort in that. I don’t say that lightly, or unsympathetically. I really do understand. Jesus told his own disciples, “Do you now want to leave me too?” And Peter was probably like, “Yeah, that sounds like way too much to deal with to be honest Jesus” but somehow he dug deep and found courage and instead he said, “Where else can we go? You have the words of life.” Original blessing is hard work. It is work people understandably want to flee. But it carries within it the words of life. God is with you. Following Jesus is not easy, never has been. But you are loved abundantly and steadfastly, and this work is purpose and wisdom and life.

So forget original sin. Here’s the question: what is sin? It is to live in a way that rejects your connection to God, to others, and to all of creation. If you want to live in that connection, start by resting in original blessing.

3 Comments

  1. Impressive response! Not only in quality, but how quickly you wrote it! It’s very helpful to hear how you critically appreciate Moltmann, yet are willing to disagree.

    In the OP, Moltmann mentions that there are two promises made to man, one in the voice of God and on in the voice of the serpent. Will you make a brief comment on how Original Blessing applies to these two promises? The use of the serpent for the purpose of blessing is a puzzling thing to me!

    I appreciated your reluctance to endorse moltmann’s potential for man to not be the image of God. I’ve always had reservation to it as well. And I likewise agree that Original Sin as rebellion has been used to suppress freedom and justice. So thank you for mentioning that!

    Your friend, Wyatt!

  2. Not sure how this holds up against Romans 5 12:21. Specifically vs 12 “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned…”

  3. Thanks Wyatt! Yeah, that pesky serpent. I devote a good part of chapter 4 to the serpent in my book, but basically I see the serpent as the inciting agent of the story. Without that, nothing happens. And it’s interesting that the serpent doesn’t lie- that’s exactly what did happen. I just don’t think it was a bad thing. It was a necessary thing. Everyone has to grow up and lose their innocence sometime.
    So I would say it’s the same promise- that we will be like God- but it is up to us to decide whether to use that capacity for good or evil.

    JT- I briefly talk about that in the book, but Romans 5 is a lovely chapter that does not speak against original blessing at all, or endorse original sin. Paul is using broad metaphor to describe the universal connection between Adam and Christ. You don’t have to believe in original sin to see that. Paul certainly didn’t- he was Jewish, so the Western concept we have of original sin would be totally foreign to him.

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