Every day, I woke up filled with guilt. After all, I was born into sin. Going through my chores, my schoolwork, even my dreams were all laced with sin. Some irritation or anger, a lustful dream, an overindulgence at the dinner-table, were all merely manifestations of my underlying state. To quote a Biblical phrase, the carnal mind was at enmity with God. The underlying state of humanity was essentially evil and sinful.
I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian framework. This was a framework that believed in, not strictly original sin (the natural state of humanity as evil or sinful) at the moment of conception, but the onset of being in a sinful state shortly after birth with your first selfish act. This was usually selfishly putting your needs before others. The example usually given was the baby screaming for a feeding because of selfishness and impatience. It was putting its needs to be fed right that instant over the needs of others. (Looking back at this, the idea of this being separate in doctrine from original sin seems inconsequential.)
This teaching shows in a blatant way what I experienced growing up. My body was evil. I could escape this evil body by being saved by a god that was going to give me a new one after death if I was perfect in this life. In order to be perfect in this life, I needed to ignore what my body was telling me, to tune it out. Listening to the natural urges or inclinations of the body was inherently sinful and imperfect. Falling short of perfection, known as sin, was not only my underlying state, but the longer I stayed in sin, the greater was the sense of hopelessness and degradation to my physical body, as well as the mind. Sin was cumulative.
Looking to the afterlife, the outlook was also bleak. The more sins you collected, the more were recorded by God to be used against you in the final judgment of humanity by God. The more sins you collected, the more violently he would be destroyed at the end of time. After all, with so much sin, you would not even want to be in heaven. Heaven would not be fun for you. Clearly annihilation was better. Once your sinful self was annihilated, all would be right with the universe again.
With this perspective on the “original sin” and the results of “cumulative sin” on the physical body, ignoring the senses, ignoring your body’s signals — essentially putting on the mute button — was the only way to have a chance at salvation, the only way out of deep guilt in this life and profound fear of the next life. From this, I learned to shut out my body’s subtle signals. This has ended up causing unhealthy outcomes in my life. One brief example is the outcome of obesity. If you never listen to what your body is telling you, shutting it out, you cannot tune in to how your body feels when it is full or empty. If you spend all your energy focusing on not eating foods that will “inflame the passions” and whether the external eating rules are being followed, you lose a sense of your natural internal body cues.
So where did this idea come from? It seems that this started early on in the Christian church as it was consolidating and expanding across the old western Roman empire. It was not unopposed. One early Christian from the British isles known as Pelagius was a proponent of another view, namely that humans are essentially good. He believed this as they were created in God’s image with the capacity of choosing good. The pangs of conscience when hurting another human were seen by Pelagius as proof that humans were not essentially bad or evil. He was also a proponent of women learning to read the Bible, as he did not view women with the temptress/lust complex as some of the early celibate church fathers. He believed that sexuality was not an inferior expression of humanity that those not strong enough for celibacy needed to navigate with great trepidation. These views got him branded as a heretic and exiled.
Why? For one, St Augustine was not happy with this viewpoint, which was the opposite of his own. Perhaps the answer though lies in Pelagius’ haircut. Most of the Roman Catholics were shaving the top with a party on the sides. Pelagius, coming from the British isles, had the haircut attributed to the newly eradicated/assimilated druids of the pre-Christian era, short of the sides with a party on the top. Much like his hair cut, Pelagius’ view that humans are essentially good as nature is essentially good, is also seen in Indo-European pre-Christian traditions. My pet theory is that “original sin” (the nature is bad concept) was a reactionary teaching of the early church in order to distance themselves from “pagans.” After all, it is difficult to subjugate a group of people with whom you share a similar worldview.
Whatever the reasons, Christianity has retained this teaching of original sin and cumulative sin in various forms through the years, with these ideas creeping in to Protestant teaching and continuing in Catholic circles to this day. We continue to attempt to subdue what we see as sinful. We continue to hurt ourselves and others in the process. Why? Like trying to dam up the wind, denying our true nature and attempting to control it is a futile task. Perhaps a better approach would be to listen to nature, to our physical bodies, as allies and not as adversaries. Maybe this would help us follow the direction of our physical bodies to healthy and joyful expressions of our earthy, grounded and good nature.
One thought on “Fundamentally damaged: thoughts on Christianity’s “original sin””
Pelagius also taught that we were also responsible for our own redemption…. That Christ taught the way, but forgiveness of the self was more important. Very dangerous thinking when you’re trying establish a doctrine based on guilt and fear.