It’s a grey and gloomy early August day. The sky is ominous and dark and the rain and wind lash against the window of my study. It doesn’t feel much like summer. As it happens, I, too, am feeling rather grey and gloomy at this halfway point of summer. Five weeks or so ago I was visited by a persistent neck and upper back/shoulder pain that has well and truly overstayed its welcome by now. From the moment I get up in the morning until my head hits the pillow at night, it feels like someone is persistently tapping a tent peg through the back of my skull down into my shoulder. It’s loads of fun. I’ve been to the doctor, I’ve had the x-rays, I’m doing the physiotherapy. Hopefully this will do the trick. In the meantime, I’m sampling a wide variety of mostly ineffective painkillers to get through my days.
As I wallow in self-pity courageously soldier on in the face of my afflictions, I have been thinking about pain and its origins. The most frustrating thing about this pain is that I quite literally have no idea what caused it. I woke up one morning, and there it was. This made very little sense to me, so I dug around in the recent history of my experience. I had played soccer the night before and headed a ball, but I didn’t feel anything unusual. What else could it be? I tried to remember if I had done anything else that would be worthy of the pain I was presently experiencing. Had I heroically thrown a burning vehicle off a toddler to save their life? Had I taken a tumble down a mountain while cycling at an incredible rate of speed through the Rockies? Overextended myself while embarking on my usual morning routine of 40 chin-ups whilst squeezing plates of lead between my knees? No, no, none of those things. What, then, could account for this throbbing pain?
It’s interesting to inspect this felt need that I apparently have to discover/invent a cause to match the severity (real or imagined) of the effect I am experiencing. There’s nothing terribly manly or inspirational about attributing my sojourn through the land of neck and back pain to something as innocuous as sleeping the wrong way or repetitive office movements or pitiful posture or who knows what else. And so, I go hunting around for more impressive causes to lend dignity to my pain. I need something more dramatic that is up to the task of explaining my pain to myself. The cause has to—somehow!—match the effect.
These thoughts led me to the doctrine of original sin. Naturally. I know that there are all kinds of historical and theological explanations for how and when the doctrine arose and the shape(s) that it took. Some used it as a theological rationale for the practice of infant baptism. Some thought it made the most sense out of Pauline texts like Romans 5. But I wonder if something like the same kind of explanatory reverse engineering was and is at work in how or why or if we think about original sin. Chesterton famously said that original sin was the only theological doctrine that could be proved. Maybe “original sin” was just a name people came to give to basic observation about how the world and human beings seem to work. Maybe the pervasiveness of human depravity and selfishness and greed and lust and violence and God knows what else was a symptom so ugly and so widespread that we collectively said something like, “Well what kind of an awful cause could lead to an effect this bad?” We must have sin in our origins! Maybe this is just the way that we name the reality that we humans have never really been able to stop screwing things up—for ourselves, for our neighbours, or for the planet as a whole. Or even to consistently want to.
There are probably few doctrines less fashionable these days than that of original sin. If there’s one thing we postmoderns seem never to tire of it’s of rehearsing the many different variations of special and unique we are, or of how we’re “worth” x or y, or how we’re “enough” just as we are or whatever. Our kids grow up immersed in a media culture that trains them to internalize their inherent specialness and then externalize this to a watching world whose primary task is to validate our wonderful selves. In the event that we do behave in ways that lead to destructive consequences, we often retreat into “victim” language. We were acted upon by all kinds of factors beyond our control. We couldn’t help ourselves. It was the devil… or our genes… our bad socialization… or bad teaching from our church… or politicians… or big corporations… or _____.
There is often some truth in these explanations. Sometimes even a lot of truth. But we are also sinners. It’s an ugly word, I know, but we need ugly words to explain ugly realities. And I think we continue to need some version of original sin, not only to explain ourselves to ourselves, but to do so in a way that pays us the ironic compliment of treating us as genuine moral agents. We’re not just containers of specialness to be breathlessly affirmed. We’re not just passive victims acted upon by all kinds of forces beyond our control. We are born bent inward. And we are given the holy task of spending our lives departing from these origins, allowing the Spirit to bend our wills outward and, ultimately, Godward.