I’m pretty gloomy when it comes to questions of human nature. I very much believe in original sin. I don’t buy the optimistic notion that humans aren’t really all that bad, and just need a bit of education to be persuaded to do the right thing. No, I resonate much more with Alma on this one: we’re carnal, sensual, and devilish. It’s not just that without grace, we can’t quite make it to the finish line on our own; we’re wandering off in the wrong direction altogether. It’s why I like Augustine, who would have no patience with the positive self-talk of 20th and 21st century pop psychology. We’re pretty messed up, we human beings. We hurt each other, both inadvertently and intentionally. We hurt ourselves. We set out to do good, but our motives are mixed, and our efforts prone to self-sabotage. We plan to repent–but not yet.
The standard theological approach in Christianity is to take this sense of wrongness and go backwards, measure it against some primordial paradise. Our world is awry because we’ve fallen. We’ve lost something. Our very humanity has been corrupted. We recognize sin as sin because of its contrast to a state of original innocence. There is a poignancy in this narrative, in its lament for a more peaceful and sane world. And versions of this story are not limited to the narratives in Genesis. They show up in a variety of places, in dreams of a simpler time when God was more visible and the world was less complicated.
But there is another way of thinking about sin, one advocated by more eschatologically-oriented theologians. In this model, sin is not viewed against the backdrop of a lost paradise, but rather from the perspective of the future. Our sense that something is wrong with us is not a reminder of how far we have fallen, but rather an awareness of what we could be. The standard is not an Eden of the distant past, but the coming Kingdom of God.
I like this way of thinking, because even as it takes sin very seriously, it is profoundly hopeful. It calls us forward to something better. Too often I find that my strong belief in sin translates into cynicism, pessimism, despair. I wallow in my own guilt, perhaps even finding a certain satisfaction in it–I may be a sinner, I think, but at least I’m virtuous enough to recognize that fact. Or I get stuck in the past, replaying events again and again, unable to let go of the illusion that if I engage in enough self-recrimination I can perhaps find a way to undo the mistakes. I spend my time looking backwards, examining all the wrong directions, the stumbles, what could have been but wasn’t.
But in my experience, God is surprisingly uninterested in all of that. I think I first realized this on a Sunday when I was maybe 15 years old. I had been acting horrible to various people, and I knew it. I was sitting in church, contemplating the obnoxiousness of my behavior. And I had a strong sense that God wanted me to do better. But what surprised me about this experience was the complete lack of chastisement about what I’d done. God wasn’t saying, “wow, that was dumb–how could you have messed up so badly?” Instead he was gently saying, “this is how you could be different next time”–and in a way that made me want to be better, want to live up to that vision. It was not a message of guilt, but one of hope.
This is a hard thing for me to have faith in; it is too easy for me to think that overwhelming guilt is actually a message of divine recrimination, or that repentance involves endless obsessing over the flaws of the fabric of my life thus far. But when I remember such moments, those ideas are turned on their head. I think of theologian Karl Barth’s comment that you can have as strong a doctrine of sin as you want, just so long as your doctrine of grace is stronger. Such grace, I believe, can be seen in a future open to new possibility, in the hope that despite everything that may have happened thus far, things really can be different. I have a fondness for New Year’s Eve, and that moment at midnight when the new year in its entirety is still ahead of you; it reminds me of Anne of Green Gables saying, “tomorrow is always fresh, with no mistakes in it.” It reminds me that God is a God of the future.
- 1 January 2009