First, let me say how much I appreciate his thoughtfulness. It’s really fun to engage in productive conversation about this book that I care SO deeply about. So, heads up, this post will be long, as I’m going to touch on a few things within each of his three posts.
In his first post, he interacts with an article about Augustine, and some Twitter controversy response to that article. One of the questions raised by Augustine is: why do people do things they know are wrong, things they don’t really want to do? As I see it, Augustine’s answer is that we have a sin nature, something about our human bodies that is born broken and flawed and which is in need of redemption. And yet, as I point out in the book, even when we are “saved” (in whatever way you define that), this brokenness doesn’t go away. So, original sin creates a problem and then even after salvation doesn’t fix it. You may be forgiven for your sin nature but you still are stuck with it.
Clearly, I think that is vastly problematic. I cover a lot of them in the book and I won’t reiterate the reasons Boyle illustrated (please read the post- they are good reasons). But I do want to say: I understand how hard this question is. Why do we do things we don’t want to do? Why do we keep doing the wrong thing, despite how much our minds know it’s wrong? My answer to that is definitely not “because we have a sin nature.” But it’s also not “because we aren’t trying hard enough,” which is the answer I think Boyle was at this point worried I was going for. That was Pelagianism’s answer, at least in its most simplistic form. I don’t think we understand Pelagius when we make him that particular caricature, but it’s just not worth it to me to try to redeem him, because I’d rather spend my time working on what I think is a better framework altogether. And that is this: we are a mystery to ourselves. We are so inter-connected within our own story and within the stories we tell ourselves about the world and the stories of others and what they are telling about themselves and the world and the stories of culture and the world and history and on and on it goes… look, it’s understandable that we are not clear-as-a-bell in the way we respond to all of that noise. I think at least half the solution to that question is being willing to sit with the mystery of it, rather than rushing to the kind of unhealthy theological contortions original sin does. (Which, need I remind you, fixes nothing and adds a zillion more complications besides.) The truth is, we are a mystery to ourselves. We have no idea why we do half the things we do.
I do not think this keeps God up at night, to speak proverbially. I do not think God is sweating this out. I think God is far more interested in the way we ask ourselves that question, and how we try to respond to it. Because the reality is that we don’t know why we do some things, but if we start to examine it, we might find something we need to explore. That doesn’t mean we are exploring to get it RIGHT. It means we are exploring to perhaps become just a little bit wiser, a little more in tune with our own reactions, and maybe just maybe even a little less apt to follow the worst of our reactions on our better days.
But we are also going to have to accept that in some ways we will always be a mystery to ourselves, just as much as other people will remain a mystery to us as well. We now see through a glass darkly. We will not always be able to see the forest for the trees. I actually think the parable of the wheat and tares applies here. If Jesus meant anything by the idea that we can’t separate wheat from chaff, it seems he was acknowledging that some of this is always going to be beyond us and therefore left in the hands of God to sort out.
I disagree with a lot of the particulars in this post about how Boyle frames the Genesis 3 story as fall, but you can read my book for yourself and get my take, so I won’t go into them here. Instead I’d like to discuss mimetic theory.
In the second post, Boyle engages more with the work of James Alison. Let me just say- of all the books on original sin I read, I liked Alison’s the most. I still disagree with it, obviously, but I found it the most helpful. And I have met Alison and very much appreciate him and like him. But I cannot get over the fundamental divide in our viewpoints on human nature. It makes a very big difference, and I am simply unwilling to concede on that point in any way. This is also why I hold mimetic theory as a worldview at a distance. I find it incredibly helpful to discuss some ways our social connection, or what I call connectional sin, can go horribly wrong and create structures of injustice. I find it less helpful if it is applied to every single exchange, which I believe creates an overly pessimistic and transactional view of human life. Again, I lean toward mystery here, rather than on a structure or framework that attempts to make sense of what is never going to make sense. I don’t think it is a sufficient answer to add mimetic theory to an already flawed doctrine of original sin and think it is going to fix the problems. It does not fix the problems.
Instead, I would suggest adding an understanding of mimetic theory to a loose framework of original blessing, which allows for the reality that the Social Other can either lead us to live like a better version of ourselves or a far, far worse one. To me, that is the only response that makes sense. Because of course we can point to systems of deep injustice all around us, and throughout history. But when we have seen systems of injustice fall, we have seen them fall because a leader, and then a group of people, decided to consciously act contrary to the negative triangulation and set up a new dynamic instead. (See: Jesus, Mahatma Ghandi, Desmond Tutu.) What we mirror back to each other in our social connections matters.
So, I continue to reject the idea of a “fall.” It’s not a fall. It’s the scary process of growing up, and realizing that harmony and dis-harmony are equally possible outcomes depending on what we choose, and sometimes even our best choices lead to outcomes beyond what we can control. Alison et. al are very good at showing us the dangers of dis-harmony. I just want to balance out the see-saw and remind us of the powers available to us to counter that disharmony with harmony. Both are true.
One quick thing about the knowledge of good and evil: there’s a reason why parents of teenagers are anxious and nervous. Knowing good and evil is morally tenuous and the stakes become very very high. We are nervous because we know that wisdom is not immediate, and that the only way to wisdom is through all the ups and downs of dealing with the fire-breathing dragon that is the knowledge of good and evil until you tame that sucker enough to make it fly. It is a life-long process. And also, things are going to get burned. Again, I don’t think any of this surprises or worries God. Break a few eggs, try again. But if you want to be the kind of person who is brave and centered enough to face the fires, bold enough to counter the kind of disharmony that murders the sacred and dehumanizes all of us, good luck doing it without the groundedness of original blessing. I literally don’t think it’s possible.
Well first let me say, I’m delighted that Boyle has, from what I can read, come around to the inevitable decision one must make about whether the basis of our relationship with God is one of distance or relationship. That is the absolute unshakeable point of the book, and it was the one I most wanted to reiterate throughout. And it is a huge shift. As I say at the beginning, “Before anything else is true about us–before we can talk about what we are good at or what we are bad at…before we can talk about gifts or struggles, virtues or vices, before we can even begin to talk about what it might mean for us to be saved–what is true is that we are in a relationship with God, and God started it. And God is sticking with it” (p.6). Let me say, then, that of course I know this book does not comprehensively address everything else. Trust me, when writing a conversational book that is attempting to convince people to toss out 1500 years of assumed doctrinal orthodoxy, you realize one book is not going to hit on all cylinders. My dogs joined me on countless walks around the neighborhood as I tried to breathe deep and get very clear about the points I did want to make, and then stick with those even when I knew it was going to leave some others a little less explored.
One of my dear friends Travis read the book and said I needed to spend more time on social and structural sin and injustice, and I do think he’s right. There’s so much more to that, and maybe I should have added or elongated that section about connectional sin and included mimetic theory and some other thoughts. The worst part of publishing a book is learning over time what you should have put in it that you didn’t. So, fair critique for sure there.
As Boyle pointed out, what I went for is the big shift from distance to relationship. You can’t do anything until you realize original sin is fundamentally flawed enough that you have to toss it out and rework the rest of it. As for the self-helpy critique, I’m fine with that. I intentionally wanted the book to feel like the combination of two diametrically opposed things: one, the undeserved, totally free, absolutely trustworthy love of God which is not going anywhere and which we have zero control over, whether to make it bigger or smaller; and two, the act of living into blessing which does require us to be on the hook for our own dignity and responsibility for what we do in the world and holding onto the dignity of others even as we hold them to account. I get that the second part can feel a little “you can do it” but in my experience as a pastor, we humans tend to underestimate ourselves far more often than we overestimate ourselves. I don’t mind skewing toward empowering people. It’s an easier thing to swing back to the center than self-doubt. Also, I think wisdom is born in the tension between God’s unconditional love and our endlessly conditioned lives. The goal was for people to feel the pull and tug of that enough that it rings true with actual real life, and enough that it leaves appropriate space for the alchemical mystery that holds them together. And I want to quickly mention how my chapter on Jesus is an attempt to blow the whole idea of meritocracy out of the water.
As for sin being “a mindset problem,” well, I would say that sin is sometimes but not always a mindset problem. Whether it begins in our minds or our bodies, I believe transformation happens when we become aware. So, if that’s what is meant by mindset, I’d go along with that. I do think something happens when we ask ourselves why we continue to do that one thing over and over, because if we seek the answer sometimes we find it, and we confront it, and we change. I know too many former addicts who have told me how when they realized why they were drinking or doing drugs or starving themselves, something shifted and they were able, with God’s help, with mystical powers beyond them surely, to confront it and change. Awareness brings about change. It is not an easy if, then system; otherwise we would change far more rapidly than we do. But when we look back on how we changed, it always began with awareness. I think God is in that awareness. But also it’s about timing. We have to be ready to see it or hear it or be open to it. And who knows what makes that timing work out.
All I know is this: the wisest and most faithful and centered people I know and respect are people who encounter the world as people grounded in blessing and empowered to live into it. So if it helps to imagine how living into blessing looks, consider Henri Nouwen or Wendell Berry or Mother Teresa. They are making the world better but they aren’t Type A about it. They are doing their work from the heart of blessing, which is why they can be so forgiving to themselves and others when it goes south. Think of the parents or coaches or teachers you admire- they are doing an awesome job but they are not gunning for a prize about it, they are just living into who they are in a way that feels easy, which is why you want to be around them. Original blessing doesn’t feel like works righteousness or Pelagian perfectionism because it isn’t those things. It is the integrity that comes from being grounded in the sacred love of God.
Now, how to get there? I can only tell you there don’t seem to be shortcuts, any more than there are shortcuts to wisdom. But I do think we are all designed to get there if that’s where we aim our compasses. I’m not there yet, but some days I can feel it in my bones. I can’t tell you how to get there. But I believe seeing it and wanting to get there is at least the first step, and we probably shouldn’t underestimate the power in that.
Thanks again to Michael for his thoughtful engagement. I’d love to see others explore how we can understand sin better, how we can approach faithful life better, how we can address injustice better, as people of original blessing. There is much more to explore, for sure. But let’s begin by deciding that distance has got to go!