Where we begin matters. The beginning of our lives shapes who we are; it gives us the lens through which we will see and the value we will assign everything. We’ve heard the beginning as “Once upon a time…” or “In the beginning there was…” or “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” and we instantly know a story and its happenings will begin to be told.
I believe the beginning matters not only for us emotionally or physically, but also spiritually. A while ago, I asked my friends on Instagram how they believed the story of God and creation started — Original Sin or Original Goodness. Most answers were Original Goodness, some were direct messages back asking if it could be both, and the rest were Original Sin. It was interesting to see who answered what and who I began having conversations with. (I should note – I love healthy theological conversations! They challenge me and hold me accountable to think deeply.) Overall, I began to wonder what it meant for us who have gone through the process of starting at Original Sin (as most Protestants and American Catholics do), and finding ourselves on the other side.
What prompted the shift?
How has this shifted their faith journey or outlook?
“When we start with a theology of sin management […] [w]e end up with a Jesus who was merciful while on Earth, but punishes in the next world. Who forgives here but not later. God in this picture seems whimsical and untrustworthy even to the casual observer.” – Richard Rohr, “The Universal Christ”
In thinking back to my beginning, I attended a church that had an altar call at the end of each service. Because my nights were still filled with partying and drinking, I didn’t want to risk it and ignored it every Sunday … but also hoped not to die in the meantime, lest I be doomed to hell. So, really, church attendance was forced and scary. I knew that altar call to be “saved” (not only from myself, but from the pits of fiery hell) was always there. When the day finally came where I figured it was time, I was terrified. I was terrified of messing up (or “sinning”) and God became this voice in my head that was more Looming Boss rather than Loving Being.
This went on for years. I became extremely hard on myself — especially when I felt I’d “sinned” — and judgmental of everyone around me. I knew I was trying my best, so why wasn’t everyone else? Basically: why did everyone get to have fun but I couldn’t? Forget seeing goodness in anyone, let alone myself. I remember at a party in Chicago with friends, I was explaining why I don’t curse. I said it was because “there are smarter words to use!” I thought I was being wise, but really it was lonely, and I was weird.
For me, the unraveling was over time a combination of the wise counsel of mentors/friends, the natural happenings of maturation, and having a child. There was, however, a moment in my life that really called me to wrestle with what I believe. I was out to eat with a dear friend and we were talking about motherhood and her toddler. She mentioned how she could see the “total depravity” in him with regards to his behavior. I remember sitting there stunned. I didn’t know what to say. We have always differed in theology, but this felt different. Having become a mother, it felt so strange to look at my child and claim his being as depraved … rather than innocent, unknowing, and developmentally appropriate. I knew then something was terribly wrong with the theology of Original Sin v. Original Goodness.
I came to see that, like a crutch, the Original Sin theory offered me a chance to see the “frailty and woundedness” I carry — something we all carry. However, that crutch was no longer healthy.
I could no longer look out into the world and see a Scarlet Letter attached to her. I could no longer look at a human and excuse their behavior because of some “Original Sin” that was somehow attached to their actions now. “You Can Be A Better Human” became a new favorite motto for me in times where I felt frustrated at whomever I was talking to, because I began to genuinely believe it was possible. I began to see there has to be Original Goodness in everyone or else we are all doomed to some degree. Sure, psychology tells us personality disorders exist, so people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder or Sociopathic/Psychopathic tendencies are nearly unable to grapple with what it means to be empathetic or interact with society and in relationships with others in a healthy way. But because majority of us do not fall into these categories, I have to believe there is goodness in you and in me.
“To begin climbing out of the hole of original sin, we must start with a positive and generous cosmic vision. Generosity tends to feed on itself. I have never met a truly compassionate or loving human being who did not have a foundational and even deep trust in the inherent goodness of human nature.”
– Richard Rohr, “The Universal Christ”
I’m sure there is some curiosity surrounding the notion of sin. Do I believe we are sinless creatures if I believe in Original Goodness? No. Instead, I have begun changing out the word “sin” with “ego” to help better understand it. When I let my ego get ahead of me, when I am not aware or conscious to its force — whether in my anger that turns mean or impatience to the present — I find myself hurting a really wonderful world and others around me. Whenever I cause harm, I have to acknowledge I have done wrong. I need to ask for forgiveness from the person I wronged and from a God who is lovingly asking me, “Hey look, I love you, and I know you can do better, right?”
“Jesus lives in the eternal now, this work was not just for those around him, but he took in all the violence, all the fear, all the sin of all the past, all the present, and all the future. This was his highest and most holy work, the work that makes confession and the forgiveness of sins possible.”
– Richard J. Foster, “The Celebration of Discipline”
Now, when I look back to the story of The Beginning with Adam and Eve, I don’t first see the snake … I see the garden. I see nakedness and innocence, laughter and silliness. I picture long walks with God, walks by streams, and the repetition from a God who said, “It is good, it is good, it is good.”
Do you know what I say to that? Hell yeah, give me that kind of Christianity.