Thursday, January 20, 2011

Part II: Original sin, arguing with God, forgiveness, healing and a few other Big Hairy topics

Yesterday I wrote about my difficulty with the concept of “original sin” as an explanation for the brokenness of our world. If you haven’t read that, you might want to skip below before reading the rest of this.

Recently, I’ve taken a new look at “original sin” and I’ve begun to see it differently. I’d like to take you on my journey of reflection.

This is going to be a round about path, as much of theological reflection always seems to be. To get there, we need to travel deep beneath the biblical text, and go to a biblical story that is a tough read for most of us. We also need to let go of our modern obsession with literal facts.

First, I need to back up to give credit where it is due. For many years, Lori and I have been involved in leading small groups through the Education for Ministry (EfM) program, which has at its heart the sharing theological reflections.

One of our EfM groups recently wrestled with the story of Abraham nearly killing his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God in Genesis 22:1-24. No one likes the story; it portrays God as homicidal and seems to celebrate Abraham for nearly murdering his son.

In the story, Abraham is told by God to kill his son, Isaac. At the last second, just before he commits the deed, a lamb appears, and Abraham slaughters the lamb, and Isaac is spared.

Why on earth would this hideous story be in the Bible at all?

The story is often preached by Christians as a moral tale of obedience to God: do exactly as God commands no matter what and God will pull it out in the end. If God doesn't, then you did something wrong (sin) to deserve it.

The story is also heard as foreshadowing Jesus being sacrificed on the Cross, opening up all sorts of troubling theological implications about a God who needs a blood sacrifice of his own son.

Yet there is another way to hear the Abraham-Isaac story, and it might bring us to another way of viewing Jesus and the Cross, and I would submit, another way of viewing "original sin."

This reading of the story, known as the Akedah, or the “Binding of Isaac,” comes from an interpretation in Judaism. Rather than seeing Abraham as the obedient servant of God, Abraham is seen as the prideful father who should have been questioning God and not acting in blind obedience. An angel saves Abraham from slaughtering his son, and only at the last second.

Forever after, God stops speaking to Abraham. And that may be the message. In this interpretation, Abraham’s sin was his silence.

Abraham's sin was his blindly disconnecting from God without asking the question: “Why should I kill my son?”

The silence of Abraham was out of character; previously, Abraham constantly questioned God, bargained with God, and kept talking no matter what. He did all sorts of dumb things, but always stayed connected to God. This time, Abraham stayed silent, and he nearly murdered his son.

A disappointed God provides an animal for the slaughter, and then God never talks to Abraham again. God’s silence speaks volumes about God’s disappointment with Abraham.
Disconnection from God is the sin. And that gives a big hint about the "original" sin and the nature of sin.

The test was whether Abraham would question God, and this time he didn't. The test was whether he would engage with God and he flunked.

My friend Ilana DeBare pointed me to a poem on her blog by rabbinical student Rachel Barenblat that captures this interpretation:
The angels say
Avraham failed the test.
For Sodom and Gomorrah he argued
but when it came to his son
no protest crossed his lips.
God was mute with horror.
Avraham, smasher of idols
and digger of wells
was meant to talk back.
Sarah would have been wiser
but Avraham avoided her tent,
didn’t lay his head in her lap
to unburden his secret heart.
In stricken silence God watched
as Avraham saddled his ass
and took Yitzchak on their last hike
to the place God would show him.
The angel had to call him twice.
Avraham’s eyes were red, his voice hoarse
he wept like a man pardoned
but God never spoke to him again.
Someone in our EfM group recently pointed out something else in the story I hadn’t noticed before, and it leads me back into this question of "original sin." Although Isaac is saved from calamity, and Abraham is saved from himself, all of the characters end up isolated. We don’t hear much about Sarah again; Abraham wallows in his loneliness, never hearing from God again; Isaac is thereafter portrayed as a hapless man manipulated by his wife and sons. Redemption for this family is fractured.

And that got me thinking about other Bible stories, beginning with Adam and Eve. Biblical stories tend to have cycles of sin, calamity, judgment and redemption.

It is the redemption part of the stories that got my attention this time around. Each of the redemption stories is left incomplete, fractured. Life is renewed, but still broken in some way, and that leads to the next cycle of sin and calamity. The seed of sin -- the disconnection with God -- is dwelling within the redemption.

Nothing in these stories is ever left finished, not since the Garden of Eden. And that got me thinking about human life itself. Nothing is ever finished since the time each of us was in our mother’s womb.

The “original sin” is really the original brokenness from God that begins with our own birth, and the fracture continues as we grow up and learn how to live in this world. We don't get to stay in our mother's womb, the Garden of Eden. We "fall" into the world, and we need to learn quickly how to function -- "good and evil" -- if we are to survive.

The classic definition of sin is to be disconnected from God, and we start life disconnected. That means sin is not about sexual relations. It’s about being born human into an imperfect and incomplete world. To be born human is to be disconnected from God in a profound and unremitting way.

And that leads me to the Cross and the story of Jesus. I will say more about that tomorrow in Part III.


shadowlands said...

Dodgy. You reckon you know better than the Church. Stop saying the creed, acknowledging one baptism for the remission of sins,in your church. You are collecting an income under false pretences. Took God a bit of time to reveal the true truth, eh?
No. You are wrong. Keep focusing on Our Lady of Guadeloepe. Bye, bye.

The Rev. James Richardson said...

Oh Shadowlands, hold on a little longer. We aren't there yet. See what you think tomorrow. Be a little open minded.