Why Are Christians So Obsessed With Sin?

baptismI have been asked to baptize the newborn baby of a couple I married about a year ago. As a retired priest, I do not have the opportunity for many baptisms but I am sort of the “family priest” in this case. Through the years, I have officiated at this baby’s grandparent’s wedding, baptized his father, married his mother and father, and now will baptize him – the latest addition to the family. This relationship made it possible for my participation in this happy occasion.

I will use the baptismal liturgy of the Episcopal Church from the Book of Common Prayer of 1979, which unfortunately still contains some rather harsh and, I believe, inappropriate language to apply to a beautiful newborn baby. The 1979 baptismal liturgy still focuses on the baby’s “sin.” We pray for the child to be “delivered” from sin and that the child might be “cleansed” from sin. I could not help but wonder as I read those words just what sin it is of which this baby is guilty. This baby will only be a few months old. I believe that I can say without fear of contradiction that he has never robbed a bank, or told a lie, or committed adultery, or killed a person, or displayed a prejudice, just to name some of the more notable sins.

So, why is Christian liturgy so obsessed with sin? In fairness, I must say that this baby – like all babies – is somewhat selfish, is sometimes inconvenient, is quite demanding, is overly impatient, and is even outright insensitive to his parents’ needs, especially in matters of sleep. Theologian Ronald Knox humorously once described babies as “a loud noise at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other.” True, but none of these things makes a baby culpable, or is an expression of evil. Surely something else must be going on in human life that finds expression in the words of this baptismal liturgy.

What is the source of this idea that human life – including new-born human life – is in and of itself evil? I do not find this note in the gospels. So where did it originate?

My research has led me to the conclusion that the idea is nothing more than a hangover from the 4th century – to the time when the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds were formed. In the 4th century, we find in the early Church Fathers, such as Ambrose, Gregory the Great, and Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, an obsession with evil. These “fathers” of the church, especially Augustine of Hippo, treated the Hebrew Scriptures as if they were the literal words of God. In this regard, they were the original fundamentalists. The first chapter of Genesis describes a divine creation, in which all that God made was pronounced to be good. According to Genesis 1, human beings bore the image of God (Imago Dei). The second chapter of Genesis then describes how this perfect creation has been broken and how the Imago Dei in us has been destroyed. According to Genesis 2, it is through human disobedience that humankind has become “fallen” creatures incapable of saving ourselves. With that as an understanding of human life, Christians proceeded to tell the Christ story as God’s rescue operation, designed to save human life afflicted with something that was called “Original Sin.” That’s capital “O” and capital “S.” “Original Sin” was seen as a universal, inescapable, and all-pervading aspect of all humanity. That is why our favorite titles for Jesus historically have been “savior,” “rescuer” and “redeemer.” Jesus saves us from our sins, rescues us from the fall, and redeems us by restoring our lost value.

The concept of “Original Sin” assumes that there was an original perfection from which we have fallen. It assumes a passive human helplessness from which divine rescue is essential. It assumes that salvation is achievable only through the invasion of our world by a theistic deity. This is the portrait of the God who decided to punish Jesus for our sins. It is this dated theology that permeates the Christian Church even today. Out of this theology we Christians continue to say strange things like: “Jesus died for my sins,” which I must say never made much sense to me. If we say Jesus “died for my sins” are we not saying that your sins and mine were the reason that Jesus had to be crucified? Does that not make us “Christ Killers,” turning Jesus into one who loves to suffer? This theology turns God into a monster who requires a human sacrifice and a blood offering. It turns Jesus into a victim and it turns human beings into guilt-filled creatures, groveling before God and begging for mercy! Besides all of these liabilities we also now know that this theology not only is repulsive, but also is simply wrong. Are people ever helped by being told how bad they are?

And this kind of thinking does not stop with our baptismal liturgy. We notice that what we Christians say about babies in our baptismal liturgy, we also say about adults in our traditional Sunday worship. I remember a scene from the 1955 movie entitled, Good Morning, Miss Dove that speaks to this point. The title character is a strict disciplinarian, but a well-respected teacher in a small town. She is taken ill and is admitted to the hospital. While a patient in the hospital, her parish priest comes to visit her. She asks her priest: “Will you read the general confession?” He replies: “Yes.” To which Miss Dove retorts: “Then I warn you, when I say that prayer, I do so with reservations. Her cleric is somewhat surprised and asks: “Reservations?” To which Miss Dove says: “I have made many mistakes. Perhaps even sinned. I admit my human limitations. But I do not, in all honesty, find the burden of my sins intolerable. Nor have I strayed like a sheep.”

This idea of human sinfulness permeates traditional Christianity. Look at the words used in our churches on a typical Sunday. In the prayers of the Episcopal Church, for instance, we call ourselves “miserable offenders.” We say that “there is no health in us.” We declare that our sinfulness is so great that “we are not worthy to gather up the crumbs under thy table.” We fall on our knees as beggars and over and over again ask for mercy. “Lord, have mercy,” we cry. “Christ have mercy”, we plead. “Lord, have mercy,” we repeat. We shift to Greek and say three-fold Kyries and sometimes nine fold Kyries. In our prayers we say: “Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.” What kind of God is it who requires that we approach the Holy One on our knees, begging for mercy? Perhaps a trembling child standing before an abusive parent might well ask for mercy. Possibly a convicted felon standing before a “hanging judge” might well pray for mercy, but is “Lord have mercy,” ever an appropriate prayer for a child of God to utter to the Source of life, of love and of being as Reformed theologian Paul Tillich might have put it? I do not believe so and neither is the posture of kneeling, which is the position of a slave before a master, a serf before the lord of the manor, and a beggar before the source of his or her next meal.

Yet these ideas and practices remain prevalent in the way we engage the Christ story in worship. They make so little sense to modern, educated people. If this is what Christianity has become then, is there any wonder that those we call “the millennials” no longer have time in their lives for the Christian message? The time has come, I believe, to declare that these traditional ideas and practices are based on a false premise. They are not true. They need to be abandoned and Christianity must evolve into something other than this or it is doomed.

For instance, we now know that the stories in Genesis 1 and 2 were not originally related to each other. Even though they follow one another in our bibles, most scholars date Genesis 1 some 500 years after Genesis 2. The perfect creation was not followed by the act of disobedience. “Original Sin” is not true, even metaphorically. We live on the other side of Charles Darwin and Darwin’s version of the origins of the world and of human life is vastly different from the biblical view. Whether traditional Christians like it or not, Darwin has won this battle. Every competent scientist assumes the truth of Darwin and every accredited medical school in the world operates on Darwinian principles. In Darwin’s view of our origins there was no original perfection. The universe was born in an explosion of matter, euphemistically called “the big bang,” about fourteen billion years ago. (As an aside, even the television comedy The Big Bang Theory, acknowledges this fact in the opening music of the show. Listen to the song and you will hear reference to a fourteen billion year old universe.) Life entered this universe, so far as we now know, about four billion years ago, but only as a single cell. Over the next four billions of years, this single cell of life evolved and is still evolving into a self-conscious being of great complexity that we know today as a human being. One cannot fall into sin from a perfection that one never possessed. So, the idea of original sin is bankrupt. One cannot be rescued from a fall that never happened, so the way we traditionally tell the Christ story has become meaningless. One cannot be restored to a status that one has never possessed, so the way we talk about salvation has become irrelevant. Once these things are raised to consciousness, can any church continue to pretend that no one notices? Does the church not then look like a vestige of a long dead past? Those are the issues with which Christians must deal and the service of baptism raises them overtly.

So instead of seeing ourselves as fallen sinners who need to be saved, a place to begin is to think of ourselves as incomplete human beings who need to be made whole. I used to have a sign on my office wall that read: “Be patient with me. God is not finished with me yet.” When we begin to think like this, then Jesus can become not the savior of the fallen or the rescuer of the lost, but the presence of the One who empowers us to become all that we can be. I admit that would be a dramatically new approach to Christianity, but it would be in line with all that we now know about our origins. It would also be in line with the Johannine Christ who came, he said, that we “might have life” more abundantly.

Let me return to that with which I began: Baptism. We must look anew at baptism. It does not wash away the stain of “original sin” for a young and beautiful life like the baby I am going to baptize. Rather, it is the entrance rite that places that infant overtly and self-consciously into a community of people (the Church) who are committed to love him, and in which his life can be nurtured into a new fullness. In the Episcopal Church, the 1979 baptismal liturgy has clearly begun to move in that direction, but it is still bogged down in the “sin” definitions of yesterday. But there are hints of movement. For every newly-baptized person, we now pray: “Open his heart to your grace and truth. Fill him with your holy and life-giving spirit. Teach him to love others. Bring him to the fullness of your glory. Give him an enquiring and discerning heart, the courage to preserve and the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works.” The Episcopal Church is beginning to move from “original sin” as well as abandoning what is called “Atonement Theology.” As far as I am concerned, such developments are clearly moving in the right direction. And so is the Church of England, who just recently dropped all references to the devil in a new baptism service. The new wording, approved on July 13, only asks whether parents and godparents will “turn away from sin” and “reject evil.” Speaking after the new wording was overwhelmingly approved Robert Paterson, Bishop of Sodor and Man said: “We all know that for many people, the devil has been turned into a cartoon-like character of no particular malevolence.”

That certainly is a step in the right direction. Only those fearful of the future will try to hold this institution back. Baptism introduces us to a Christian life that frees us to live fully, empowers us to love wastefully, and gives us the courage to be all that we are meant to be, as John Shelby Spong, retired Episcopal Bishop of Newark is inclined to say. If this perspective ever becomes the Christian message, then the church may spring back into life, drawing a hurting world to itself. Then we can promise to give to each other what we pledge to give to all persons at their baptism – a full life, abundant love, and the gift of joy and wonder in all of God’s works.  Now, to my mind, those are things worthy of obsession.

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