Further to “Original Sin”

I promised, in my previous post, to say something about our “Take and Read” evening around the book Original Sin: A Cultural History by Alan Jacobs. I can report that the weather was cold, the roads icy, attendance about 17, and the desserts delicious. (No apples, but a hint of fruitiness in the lemon chiffon cake. The chocolate torte and Toblerone cheesecake, however, were temptation enough on their own.) 

More to the point, though. In summarizing Jacobs’ work, Paul Doerksen stated his discomfort with Augustine as he hardened his views about “sin, sex, and unbaptized babies.” With these disclaimers, Doerksen also urged us to consider “a more robust view” of original sin. As Jacobs points out, the doctrine does have its positives: it’s liberating (versus anxiety — if I can get it right, am I getting it right?), it’s democritizing (proceeding from an egalitarian spirit), and it has explanatory power (the only way we can understand ourselves). 

If we did take on a more robust view, what would that mean? One of the discussion questions posed to us was, How would an embrace of the doctrine of original sin shape the vocation in which we find ourselves? Doerksen reflected on his job as a teacher, for example. Was he more Wesley or Rousseau in his approach to his students? Thinking more of the image of God in them or of their shared sinfulness? The former has its difficulties and the latter offers some surprising potential, implications like Yes, they need guidance, but I do too, so mine shouldn’t be punitive but gracious, etc. 

The discussion ranged across many facets of the book, as such discussions do, but many participants felt that Jacobs had not done as well as he might have in placing original sin within its larger theological context of grace. Sin has to be seen by the light of the cross.

I took home with me a number of matters to reflect on further.

The matter of Mennonites, for example. They have not embraced Augustine much, being accused rather of semi-Pelagianism, said Doerksen, and thus prone to legalism, to a kind of uptightness, wanting the church to be pure, trying to getting it right. How many divisions there have been because of that!

There’s much about the origins of my own group, the Mennonite Brethren, that I love — that stirring up, under the preaching of Eduard Wuest, a Lutheran, of the sinner to see “the bottomless pit that opens itself at his feet” but then grasping “Christ’s own blood and righteousness / My beauty are, my glorious dress,” and the willingness to open mouths long closed by traditional practices of silent prayer, to pray aloud, to speak of these things, to find new and passionate language for what was experienced within, and that receptivity to the ideas and spiritual practices of others, like a new lens in a telescope revealing more stars.

But I also hear the hard words of the Document of Secession erecting new boundaries  — “Therefore, we herewith completely dissociate ourselves from these decadent churches, though we pray for our brethren, that they shall be saved…” If they’d been more Augustinian, could they have stayed and continued renewal within? Some of that separatist, uptight spirit lingers with us still.

Then there’s the matter of my vocation — as writer and editor. What would a greater awareness of my sinfulness look like there?


2 thoughts on “Further to “Original Sin”

  1. Thanks for these posts (Original Sin / Bad to the Bone) Dora. Your dessert book evening sounds delightful.

    Your comments about Jacob’s book were very helpful. Coincidentally, I recently read his book having come across it at Regent College’s 50% sale last December and bought it because I was in the midst of a debate on the subject on another Forum. Jacobs gave me historical context. I hadn’t thought deeply about the subject but in on-line debate came up against the idea that some (Protestant) Christian folk don’t necessarily believe that deceased babes go to heaven. As an evangelical MB I had been immersed in the ‘age of accountability’ so Jacobs helped me understand that it was not only my online opponent who held such a view. (Unfortunately, the debate was long over before I read the book.)

    I was quite fascinated by one story from the book; how some Jesuit missionaries had taught their Huron converts to treat their children harshly due to the child’s ‘original sin’ contra to the Huron culture. And of course I noted that the picture of Alan Jacobs on the back book cover looks strikingly like the actor Paul Giamatti whom I know from the 2004 move “SIDEWAYS.” That movie has a striking scene where Paul’s friend goes into panic fearing that his fiancé will discover his vacation sex escapades and moans on and on saying, “I’m a bad person.”

    I fully embrace the belief in original sin; however, this doesn’t push me to believe in ‘total depravity.’ I like what Ryan wrote about the tension between our sinfulness and divine grace.

  2. Thanks, Larry. Interesting comments. There was no author photo on my paperback copy, and I confess I wasn’t familiar with the actor, but having googled for images of both, I see what you mean. And the movie line certainly fits! — That story about the Jesuit encounter with the Huron people also struck me. I found myself scribbling in the margin, “Oh my! if we had learned from them!”(the Huron people, that is). For those who haven’t read the book: The priests and nuns “were quick to reward and praise those Huron converts…who whipped or even struck and kicked their recalcitrant children, for such behavior revealed a proper and godly intolerance of the sinful nature in the young ones…Does not the Bible say, ‘Whom God loves he chastises’? — After this, Jacobs includes a footnote, warning about constructing “facile and moralistic dichotomies based on such episodes,” and says the Jesuits and Ursulines were also shocked by the practice of dealing with community orphans by killing them.

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