Friday, January 21, 2011

Part III: Original sin, arguing with God, forgiveness, healing and a few other Big Hairy topics: My theological reflection

I’ve taken you on a roundabout theological journey the last few days, starting with questions about the concept of “original sin” as an explanation for the brokenness of the world and the calamities we endure. If you are still with me, thank you and congratulations for coming this far.

As my reflection has unfolded, I’ve seen “original sin” not as a transmission of wrongful acts by a proto-human (Adam and Eve) but as an allegorical statement of the human condition of being born into disconnection from God.

I might add that the original author of the original sin doctrine, Augustine of Hippo, viewed the Bible primarily in allegorical terms.

As an Augustinian Christian, this brings me ultimately to the story of Jesus, but also raises questions about finding the meaning in Jesus dying on the Cross. Often Christians use the shorthand “Jesus died for our sins” to explain the crucifixion, but that phrase has some disturbing implications for how we view God.

The phrase comes partly from a Christian interpretation of the “Binding of Isaac,” the biblical story of Abraham nearly killing his son, Isaac in Genesis 22:1-24, discussed yesterday. In this strain of Christian interpretation, Jesus becomes the lamb – the substitution – for the sacrifice of Isaac, who represents us, hence we call Jesus “the lamb of God.” He died so that we might be spared of being sacrificed ourselves, or the “atoning sacrifice.”

But there is something deeply troubling about this concept of atonement. It leaves us with a blood-thirsty God demanding a blood ransom of his own son for human wrongdoing. And if Jesus is divine, is God killing himself?

And if this was a ransom to get us off the hook from our own sins, why is the world still a mess and full of evil and sin? The ransom didn’t seem to work.

There is another way of seeing the Abraham-Isaac story (see yesterday’s post) and that might also bring us to another way of looking at the meaning of the Cross. But rather than getting bogged down in theological abstractions, let me tell you a few stories:

In my time as priest (and even before) I've heard many stories of people who have had experiences of the Holy coming to them in an extreme crisis; a friend nearly dying in a car accident, and feeling enfolded by the arms of God; patients in hospitals seeing a gleaming face; a woman who thought she was about to lose her daughter to cancer and then feeling the presence of the Virgin Mary.

Recently a young mother told me how one of her children suffered a terrible accident and nearly died. The doctors told her they weren’t sure they could save her son, that it was touch-and go. As she waited in the hospital, she felt she was standing on the edge of the most terrible abyss imaginable.

And then she felt this amazing unexpected presence, and a voice telling her “I love you. I will hold you. I don’t know how this will come out, and it may not come out the way you want, but I will be with you, and I am never going to let you go. I will love you forever and I will always love your son. I will always be your companion.”

Call him Jesus, or the Holy Spirit, or the Hand of God, the divine came to each of these people and absorbed their pain. Each of these hurting people saw and experienced a divine presence in a way that spoke to them personally, and each felt their burden lifted from them.

To me, all of those experiences come from Christ speaking from the Cross. The woman in a car accident had not “sinned” – nor had the young boy who nearly died, nor his mother. None of them deserved to be standing at the abyss.

This was not about a ransom or a sacrifice. It was about Jesus being with them because he had been there before, on the Cross, on the edge of the abyss and beyond.

The message each heard was not about moral failings, but about unconditional love in the worst moment of their lives. The salvation they received was not delayed for their afterlife, but came then and there. Jesus spoke to them from the same place of suffering where they were suffering. He could do that because he had been there.

The story of Jesus, as it unfolds in the gospels, is a story of how he willingly lived with fractured people in their broken places to the point of going to his death with them. He sought out the hurting and the sick, touched them when others thought they were dirty, healed them of their wounds, and traded places with them when they died.

The point of the Cross is that Jesus was willing to dwell with us in our most painful place imaginable. By sharing our pain and showing us we are loved unconditionally, he also points us to a life without fear, here and now by reconnecting us with our creator. It is not about an insurance policy for the next world, but about a way to live in this world.

The biblical stories of healings by Jesus are not about cures that make bodies invincible – that never happens in the stories – and that, I would suggest, is a huge clue about the underlying “original sin.” The healing that comes from Jesus is about reconciling people with God so that they might live no matter what happens to their bodies. Even Lazarus, raised from the dead, passes from this earth again.

Here is where I believe this “original sin” concept is crucial.

Notice that Jesus nearly always mentions forgiveness of sin when he is healing people. The two are usually spoken of together, for example with the paralyzed man in Luke 5:17-26 who is healed and told “your sins are forgiven.” Jesus underlines three times in the story that healing is connected to forgiveness.

Yet we may ask, what sin did the paralyzed man commit? What did he do wrong to deserve being paralyzed? Luke doesn’t tell us. We should presume none at all. Nor does the paralyzed man “repent” of any "sins," or even ask Jesus to be healed (his friends do that for him). He’s done nothing to “accept” Jesus or anything else to deserve healing. He’s paralyzed and he is completely incapable of doing anything, good or evil. He is healed with no strings attached and told he is forgiven.

What then is this concept of sin and forgiveness that Jesus is getting at?

It may be that the sin Jesus is talking about is living in this fractured broken world that seems perpetually disconnected from God – the “original sin.” The paralyzed man, like Job, has done nothing wrong. But by being born and paralyzed he is living in a sort of silent paralyzed disconnection from God. He can do nothing. The forgiveness he receives is not about moral forgiveness, but about reconnection and ending the silent paralysis.

That same disconnection from God begins for each of us when we are born from our mother’s womb. The Garden of Eden is an allegory for the womb, and the “fall” of Adam and Eve an allegory of human birth.

We must be born to be human; we must learn many things including good and evil to survive. To be born is to learn how to live in a fractured broken world. To be healed and forgiven – to have salvation – is to be reconnected with God despite the brokenness of the world that we enter.

As I see it, the forgiveness Jesus pronounces is about reconciliation with God and not about moralistic dogmas. Jesus says to the paralyzed man, in effect, “You are healed, your body mended, and you are reconnected with God. The fracture with God is healed, the brokenness is now unbroken. Go now and live acting in this knowledge.”

That does not mean there are no morals or ethics, quite the contrary. Our morals and ethics spring from our compassion and connection to God and each other. We live morally and ethically because it is the right way to live, not because of an expectation of reward and punishment. Our sin – our silence with God – is forgiven, and that healing brings us back into conversation with God about how to heal this fractured out-of-kilter world we inherit by our birth.

Jesus throughout the gospels links forgiveness and healing to action, or “discipleship.” You are healed, you are reconnected to God, so get up, go forth and do something. To be a follower of Jesus – to be a disciple – is to do likewise: "Forgive others, be an agent of healing and be there with others who are on the edge of the abyss. When you do, I will be there with you because I've been there before."

This call for discipleship weaves throughout the story of Jesus, beginning even before his birth. In Luke 1:68-79, Zechariah tells his baby son, John (the Baptist), how he is to be a follower of Jesus, and it is a mandate for action to all of us:
“To give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
To walk with the way of the Cross is to agree to live in the fractured places with others because that is where Christ truly dwells. That requires being vulnerable to our own brokenness, to touching our own pain (Psalm 23): “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me…”

By being there in those painful places with others, we are also reconnected with God as they are reconnected with God. The silence ends, the paralysis is over. At the very end of the Bible, comes this declaration that the story of original sin is ended, once and for all, because God dwells with us forever: (Revelation 21:3-4):
“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
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Thanks for coming along with me the last three days on this journey of reflection. To any who have been offended, my apologies. Where I have strayed, forgive me; this reflection is mine alone. Whether you agree or disagree, I hope it has given you at least food for thought and prayer. I am also much influenced in this view of forgiveness and the Cross by the writing of Jesuit Jon Sobrino in his book Christ the Liberator: A View from the Victims, and former-Domincan James Alison in his book Raising Abel: The Recovery of Eschatological Imagination. And now I am off to the Diocesan Council. Keep me and those who take council in your prayers.

Crucifixion art above: Folk art from Cameroon; Medieval stained glass; painting by He Qi, China; "The Ascension of Christ," Salvador Dali.


Robert Hagedorn said...

Yes, it's most definitely all about allegory. Please do a search: The First Scandal Adam and Eve.

Anonymous said...

Amen. The original sin is the fact that the creature (us) is not, and is speparate from, the creator. Salvation lies in the establishment of rapport between the two. The atonement is the wonderful realization that the creator has entered into the creation to make this rapport possible. The best we can do is to respond with love and thanksgiving to this gift, and then to do what we can to assure that others have the same opportunity to experience and respond to God.

Paul Brockman