On Original Sin and Being “Dirty”

I’m going out on a limb here to discuss a doctrine that I struggle with, and particularly with the way it is used by some Christians. This blog is a place where I work out my theology, and I welcome everyone to discuss it with me (and help me figure it out!). That said, if you feel tempted to call me a heretic, please back it up thoughtfully, or don’t say it at all. I’m not here to pick a fight, and want to apologize in advance if that’s how I come off, but I feel like this needs to be discussed and I may not be able to avoid controversial statements.

The doctrine of Original Sin doesn’t make much sense to me, and further, I hate what neo-Calvinists have done with it. I wanted to talk about the former, but that’ll be next post – for now I’ll talk about the use of the doctrine to make Christians hate themselves.

I saw this comic floating around on Facebook the other day, and it made me very sad. I don’t think that there’s anything untrue in it (though I think it makes some theological assumptions), but I’m more concerned about its emphasis. There’s a mix of panels and text, so it’s hard to say exactly how long it is, but if you call major text sections a panel, then there are eight panels. Seven out of eight panels are bad news, and even the “good news” in the last panel is a backhanded gospel. Let’s take a look at it. (I’m not going to rewrite the whole thing here, but click the link and follow along as I look at a few key points)

The word “dirty” shows up several times here, which is interesting to me. I’m amazed at how wretched that word can make a person feel. Another word that people have used to make people feel wretched is “nigger”, which is used to mean that a person is inherently unsophisticated or defective (and as a child I was taught that it also means “dirty”). It’s super effective. I apologize for using that word, I know that it’s a trigger for some people and some people might feel that I don’t have a right to use the term, but it so clearly sums up the Christian use of the word “dirty” or “filthy” that I feel it’s appropriate. The message of this comic is that you’re a filthy nigger, that you were born this way and cannot change it, and that you need to accept this. Now, this comic is somewhat cutesy in its portrayal (it’s a comic, after all), so it wouldn’t use such harsh terms. It uses “dirty” and “smells bad” to refer to our nature. But the point is the same.

What’s interesting is that it refers us to Genesis 6 to make this point: “Mankind had become so utterly dirty and corrupt that God regretted creating us.” Now, God does say there that he regretted creating humans, and that this was because of corruption (actually says wickedness, evil), but it never mentions “dirty”. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I can’t think of any place in the Bible where it talks about us as “dirty”. I just did a search, and the English Revised Version is the only version of the Bible that uses the word more than a few times, and even then it’s rarely as a moral description of humans. The Bible usually talks about unrighteousness, which means not being good, or wickedness, which means being bad – these are moral terms meant to show that we’re wrong, even evil. “Dirty”, on the other hand, is a word that is used to shame people.

I think this is what bothers me about this comic: it’s not just about pointing out that we’re unrighteous, wicked, sinful, even evil. It wants us to feel that way. Oddly enough, at the end of the comic it says “instead of a cesspool of guilt, there is otherworldly freedom in knowing that we are bad and that there’s nothing we can do to fix it.” This is why I say that the “good news” of this comic is a backhanded gospel: it spends seven frames trying to instil a sense of shame in us, and then says “but you don’t need to feel bad anymore.” It spends seven panels calling us niggers, and then says that as long as we know in our hearts that we’ll always be niggers, we won’t be slaves anymore. Try telling that to an African American, whose ancestors were slaves; to them, the word “nigger” from someone outside of their community is a symbol of slavery, of dehumanization, of prejudice. It’s a statement that even though they’re free, they’re no better than slaves. This is obviously not true: human beings have dignity, were created in dignity, and none of us have any right to take that away by calling someone “dirty”.

The argument is, though, that this is a good thing because “this is the fallen state of mankind: the sickness that needs to be diagnosed before the cure will make any sense.” Apparently we’re incapable of understanding good news until we’re fully and completely convinced that we’re the absolute worst.

What they mean to say is that the grace of God is conditional upon repentance, and that sinful human nature (Original Sin) prevents us from doing anything that is good (such as repenting) without serious prompting from God, and that we won’t actually listen to God’s prompting unless we’re deeply aware of just how desperate we ought to be because of our wretched filthiness (and the eternal conscious torment that we can expect unless we repent, though this comic doesn’t mention that part). This is what I mean when I say that this comic has a lot of theological assumptions. (For the record, I don’t know for sure that this guy is a neo-Calvinist, but the comic doesn’t make as much sense under most other theological frameworks. Also, neo-Calvinists love this stuff; I did a search of “original sin verses” and the first site that came up was John Piper’s.)

I was taught this in church, growing up. I’m sure I even supported this evangelism strategy, even in Bible college. What I discovered is that it’s a sermon for the already converted. It makes perfect sense to someone who grew up in the church with this teaching, but from the outside it looks crazy. People in North America who aren’t Christians are not unaware of Christianity and its basic claims, including the claim that they are sinful. This “You and I are bad” comic isn’t news to them, much less convicting. It’s not that they haven’t heard this before, they just don’t believe you when they tell you that you’re evil, and they ignore you when you call them “dirty”, and walk away thinking “wow, that was rude. Who does that person think they are?” There is absolutely nothing attractive about this message.

The argument here, then, is “but it’s TRUE!” I have a professor who always follows an argument, no matter how logical and consistent the argument is, with the retort “but…is it true?” Well, that’s a topic for another post, because this will be way too long. But I often want to respond to that professor with “but…is it useful?” What good is truth if there’s nobody to hear it? Being true doesn’t make it attractive, just like being right doesn’t give anyone the right to be a jerk. I’ve heard this approach justified many times by people who claim that “the gospel is offensive”; they wear it as a badge of honour, then, when people get offended at what they have to say. (For the record, the “offense of the gospel” is used to mean a lot of different things, but this use is taking it out of context – ask me about it, and I’ll write a post on it). Whether or not the argument is true, there are plenty of other ways to talk about the good news of Christ’s redemption of the world – perhaps by even mentioning redemption! This is sort of a central feature of the gospel. Redeemed, justified, sanctified, reconciled: these words are not mentioned here. After all, in this theology we’re permanently “dirty” and defective, and God’s grace towards us doesn’t change that fact – he only overlooks it.

Here’s some gospel that’s actually good news: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. That is, without our asking for it or even knowing it, we’ve been redeemed and justified. Being a Christian is about learning to live as if that’s true (and it is!). And the Holy Spirit within us unites us to Christ, and we become sanctified as he is sanctified. While we may still sin, we’re no longer sinners; while we may still get morally dirty, we’re not inherently dirty; while we still work for the devil from time to time, we’re not slaves to sin, and nobody can call us niggers.

8 thoughts on “On Original Sin and Being “Dirty”

  1. 1. Martin Luther was a depressive self-hater (he hated himself almost as much as he hated the Jews). When he stereotyped the Jews as those evil scheming people who, like dirty Roman Catholics, try to work their way into heaven, he supposed that there’s a dirty Jew in all of us; but Christ has freed us from this! Martin Luther, building on the attitudes (and theology of Original Sin) of St Augustine, instilled a sense of self-loathing in all of is. Largely I blame Martin Luther for the insert I once saw in a teen Bible, where a teenage girl wrote an entire page on why she hated herself and saw herself as terrible and dirty, which the editors of this particular Bible saw as noble and theologically true, so placed in a prime position to be adored by other good self-loathing teens. Martin Luther is still the most theologically powerful Christian in history, in that all translations in all languages are still influenced by the meanings he read into his first major translation. Firstly, Martin Luther must be undone.

    2. One good Lutheran was Rudolf Bultmann. He saw Original Sin as man’s condition pre-faith. But to him this did not mean ‘dirty’. Rather, Original Sin is the condition for faith, containing its gem and allowing for it (he uses Heidegger to show that the being of man is uniform, always involving subject, object, and interpretation together, and Faith interrupts this, but as the old man is not completely annihilated [and could not be, as he is always being-in-the-world] an old part of him must remain, and must have contained the conditions for faith; there are also elements of Hegel here). Faith interrupts the man, and grants him authenticity (another Heideggerian concept), which means that man can now live life in perspective of his true being, and without fear of death, and without being dictated to by death. The reason I mention Bultmann here is because there are positive ways of having concepts of Original Sin. I think that for St Paul, there wasn’t the slightest tinge of ‘dirtiness’ (or indeed of ‘Jewishness’) to Original Sin. Rather, we were all of Adam and can now all be of Christ, recreated en pistei Christou.

    3. Another good use of Original Sin can be found in Peter Rollins’ book ‘The Idolatry of God’. He get his concept of Original Sin from Lacanian psychoanalysis, and sees it as the sense of loss that we all have as a result of having a consciousness which arose out of nothing. Regardless of how our consciousness arose (I’m not entirely convinced by Lacan on one of his main ideas here, the ‘Mirror Stage’), I think Lacan is right that we all exist with a certain void in our consciousness – we are never complete, there is always something to fill, and as long as we are thinking, we are thinking about things that we do not know. Christianity often calls this void in our consciousness ‘the God-shaped hole’. In a Lacanian understanding of Judaism, the Law attempted to deal with this hole by having God forbid things – if things were forbidden, then we simply had to accept that they could not fill the hole, because the object of the hole Himself had ‘hidden’ certain acts from us. But, as Paul noted, prohibition bred desire, and in essence made the hole bigger. So, to Rollins (and he takes the idea from Zizek, who is a theological expositor of Lacan) Jesus fills the hole by being the realisation that the hole can not be filled, as realised by the filler of the hole itself. God himself on the cross cries out ‘God, where are you?’. This is what brings us back to Lacan: there is no filling of the hole, but there is the possibility for the deep realisation that the hole cannot be filled, only if that realisation is made *by the one we wished would fill the hole*. When we are transformed by Christ we are transformed into those who, like Christ on the cross, know that true life is possible even though that hole will never be filled. Thus those who live in the resurrection of Christ are those who are not slaves to desire, to ideology, or to idols: we do not idolise God, money, the law, the Torah, sex, or popularity, because we know that the hole can only be filled by the one who signifies the eternity of the hole itself. But this eternity, always incomplete both in an open-theistic sense and an ontological sense (here I would get into Badiou but that would take far too much time) is what creates the capacity for individual life *and* political action.

    4. Progressing then further into Lacan, we have seen that there are good theological ways of interpreting the post-biblical idea ‘Original Sin’ in ways that inspire the individual and create the conditions for political action. But Lacanian thought can also understand what exactly Martin Luther did to us. One of his concepts is that of juissance, painful-pleasure. As humans, we get enjoyment out of feeling things, particularly out of feeling bad things. We enjoy being told that we are dirty, because we enjoy feeling connected to our primal selves, and we also enjoy feeling that we have found ways not to be dirty. The theological game that Luther started to play is a perverse one: I think most people who grow up Evangelical enjoy being dirty. As Evangelical law prohibits us from so many fun things, we enjoy the prohibition, enjoy breaking the law, and enjoy the little bit of satisfaction that we get from being called dirty, which means that we have the potential to break the laws we wish we could actually break. If we can’t actually have promiscuous pre-marital sex, we can at least get the pleasure of feeling that we are the sorts of creatures who *would* have promiscuous pre-marital sex! If we can’t have promiscuous pre-marital sex, we can at least get to feel almost as dirty for just masturbating! The law has created enjoyment out of minor action and inaction. But what Christ is supposed to do is free us from these laws – taking away all prohibition, but driving us towards goodness through the realisations that arise from the Cross (realisations which I believe exist). In this sense, Evangelicalism and neo-calvinist dogma are the ultimate satanic evils. They take a cross which was meant to free from Sin, and turn it into an inspiration for constant painful-pleasure, completely aside from transformation. As I have been saying for years, Christianity has once again become exactly the stereotype of Judaism that it once sought to destroy (which wasn’t the right course of action in the first place). Evangelicalism now has EXACTLY the legalist ethical system which was the actual one Paul opposed: God saved you by grace, so you should follow His Law! That was the message of the Judaism Paul opposed and is now the message of Evangelicalism. But the Christianity of Paul was opposed to this: Paul agreed with the Hebrew Scriptures that God saves by grace, but to Paul this suspends the imperative to follow Law, as now we are to be transformed by the story and Spirit of Christ into those who love instead of Law. Evangelicalism now tags the love of God onto its law story to be yet another factor guilting people into following the Law. No. There is now no law in Christ except the law of Christ: Love. Sacrifice, humility, faithfulness, hope, love. These are all fruit of the Spirit of Christ, who transforms us into Sons of God, mini Christs.

    Original Sin is the existential state of humanity, which can be interpreted in many different ways. The Bible contains kernels of a few interpretations of how we are ‘naturally fallen’. Christ frees from these. There does not need to be any reminder to Christians of what Original Sin is; no constant droning and guiltifying, because Christ has set us free from sin and death! The difference between the neo-calvinist and I is that I believe in Jesus, and he (yes, usually he) believes in Sin.

  2. I agree Jeff that there is a tendency in neo-calvinism to over emphasize our sinful condition. Perhaps they do this since we live in an age where everyone thinks they’re ‘good’ or at the very least, ‘better then so and so’?

    For me, I like the balance Tim Keller brings “The power of the gospel comes in two movements. It first says, ‘I am more sinful and flawed than I ever dared believe,’ but then quickly follows with, ‘I am more accepted and loved than I ever dared hope.”

    • Amen! There’s good news in that gospel 🙂

      I’m not sure that anyone believes that they’re good though (well, surely there are some, but I doubt it’s many). I think that there’s more recognition than ever that there’s all sorts of evil in the world, and especially that we’re all somehow complicit in it. I think that there’s a general lack of public figures feeling bad about it or wallowing in it, but I don’t think that we can say that it’s not felt. I can’t help but think, when I see all of the incredibly dark shows that are so popular these days (e.g., Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, etc.), that perhaps people like this stuff because it makes them feel better about being a lesser evil.

  3. “I have a professor who always follows an argument, no matter how logical and consistent the argument is, with the retort ‘but…is it true?’ Well, that’s a topic for another post, because this will be way too long. But I often want to respond to that professor with ‘but…is it useful?’ What good is truth if there’s nobody to hear it? Being true doesn’t make it attractive, just like being right doesn’t give anyone the right to be a jerk.”

    Jeff, I strongly suspect that you are making reference (above) to me, because a couple years ago, at a gathering at my home which you attended, Providence’s Philosophy Foosball Club kindly gave me a T-shirt which reads, “VDB 316: But, is it true?” (Note: This is one of my most treasured gifts.) So I find myself asking: Am I really, as you claim, “a professor who always follows an argument, no matter how logical and consistent the argument is, with the retort ‘but…is it true?'” That is to ask: Is your claim true? I must say, for the sake of truth, that your claim is false. To be sure, as a philosophy professor I ask the truth question often (sometimes very often, depending on the topic of my lectures), but not always after all arguments. Come on, Jeff, seriously, for you to make the above claim—especially since you have never been in any of my classes—is, well, silly. I can appreciate good arguments, and I am not a radical skeptic. I am pretty sure that the VDB 316 quip made it onto my T-shirt not because students thought that I always asked it after every argument (though asking the question is not inappropriate because good logic and consistency are merely necessary conditions of good argument, not sufficient conditions), but because students appreciated my asking this question when I challenged widely-held assumptions and dubious assertions (dubious assertions such as, ahem, the assertion you make above). It seems to me that the question—But, is it true?—is an important question that too often gets neglected on too many important matters, especially religious matters. At the very least, the question—But, is it true?—is important so that folks don’t spread falsehoods, i.e., non-truths, about me! For the record: I hereby pledge to the Philosophy Foosball Club (past, present, and future) that I will continue to wear my T-shirt. 🙂

    About usefulness. If by “it” (in “But, is it useful?”) you are referring to an argument under discussion, then, yes, definitely, the usefulness of an argument is an important consideration. But our judgment in this consideration depends on context of use. When I’m arguing, I should ask: For what end is my argument to be used? What’s the purpose of my argument? Contexts vary. Depending on context, it may be that my argument’s purpose is to discern or defend a truth. It may be that my argument’s purpose is to show the logical absurdity or falsehood of a claim. It may be that the purpose of my argument is to show that another argument is attempting to manipulate or persuade fallaciously (via an illegitimate appeal to vanity, prejudice, pity, power, etc.). Or perhaps, more specifically, the purpose of my argument might be to discern or assess an answer to why, say, an all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful God might permit evil and suffering. Enter: the art of being human. Setting out a carefully structured, rigorous argument about the philosophical problem of evil is most appropriate in a philosophy class (or a philosophy lunch) wherein intellectual concerns about truth and logic are paramount. In this context it is a moral virtue not only to be open to the possibility of being mistaken but also, at the same time, to hold firmly to known truth and good logic in the face of intellectual opposition, while also displaying gentleness and respect to those with whom one disagrees. But surely—as I advise my students—I very probably should NOT argue about the philosophical/ intellectual problem of evil at all when, for example, my friends just lost their young son and young daughter in a car accident (true story). In such a context it is not a moral virtue to argue or philosophize. Rather, in such a context I should shut up and just be, and weep.

    If by “it” (in “But, is it useful?”) you are referring to the truth of an argument’s premises, then the usefulness of the truth in this case resides in our being able to assess the merits of the argument (i.e., its soundness or cogency) and then, if the argument is not fallacious, putting that argument to good use in an appropriate context (see my previous paragraph).

    Significantly, none of the above requires never asking the truth question, nor does asking the truth question—in the appropriate context—ever require anyone to be a jerk. (I know that I can come across as a jerk sometimes; I try to repent of the times in which I am truly a jerk.) Still, the abuse of argument does not preclude an argument’s appropriate use. The unwise handling of truth does not preclude the wise handling of truth. True? I suspect we are in agreement here.

    About the cartoon. It troubles me that the core gospel truth claim about Jesus’ resurrection (which in the context of its occurrence serves as vindication of Jesus actually being God in the flesh and thus also vindication of Jesus’ claims about forgiveness and redemption) isn’t even mentioned. In my conversion experience, I didn’t need to be convinced about my moral brokenness. Somehow, in my brokenness, I groped for God and moved towards repentance. Yet I also I needed to be convinced that, in the midst of all the competing contradictory religious truth claims, Jesus is actually the way. Jesus’ death is important, to be sure, but the evidence for his resurrection encouraged me (and continues to encourage me) to take Jesus, instead of other religious leaders or philosophies, most seriously.

    I hope my comments are helpful/ useful.

    Best regards,

    • Thanks Dr. V. I was also very troubled by the obvious lack of…well, the gospel, in any of its essential details!

      Yes, you were the object of my reference. I didn’t mean to imply that it’s a bad thing when you say it – I agree that it’s quite important, and even useful, to ask it. When I wrote that, I was thinking of some of our discussions at the Philosophy Foosball Club, as well as our discussions in your blog comments. In the places where you don’t say it, it’s still implied by what you DO say; your commitment to the truth, no matter how difficult or inconvenient it may be, is always evident, and I appreciate that about you. Sometimes the truth hurts, so your commitment to proclaiming it is perceived as jerkishness; other times your claims are not accepted by others, and your persistence is perceived as jerkishness. I don’t think that anyone who really knows you thinks that you’re a jerk, but you do have the power to hurt people with your claims, not least because of your position in our school and community; your comment here shows how well aware you are of this, and I think you nailed it when you discussed the fact that there’s a time and place to just be quiet. I’ve seen some pretty abysmal funeral sermons, and wished that the pastor would take that advice!

      Even if something has complete inner consistency, it might not actually be consistent with reality – hence your question is still valid even when the argument presented is completely logical. My use of your question in this post was a bit of a digression though, and I only included it because I was reminded of it when I thought of all of the times I’ve seen people justify a tactless comment or back-handed “evangelism” like this comic by simply referring me to its truthiness. Their reference to truth is not the same as yours; theirs assumes it, while yours questions it. As you pointed out above, sometimes there are times when simply holding the truth is far better than laying it out. (I would add, particularly when that “truth” is dubious and/or unbalanced, though of course those who speak in this way about “Truth” tend not to question or examine its balance)

      Thanks for reading! I hope you’re getting some much-needed R&R.

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