10.14.2007

Christian Paganism: Cinderella and Original Sin...

I had an opportunity to discuss the concept of 'original sin' with a woman who used to be a Christian, but is now an atheist. Her understanding of the doctrine is essentially that the world is evil, there is nothing good in it, especially in humanity. We are totally evil, with no redeeming features whatsoever. (Helen, if you are reading this and I mis-characterized your characterization, feel free to correct me...) This was one of the things she criticized about Christianity, its focus on evil; pointing out the problems in the world, and ignoring the beauty...

I responded that my understanding of Jesus' spirituality was quite contrary to this bleak view of the universe, and that I was compelled by my spirituality to see the world in terms of it's inherent beauty, power, and goodness. The ensuing dialogue rumbled about in my brain, sparking along the dusty synapses, and shining light into the remote regions of my intellect...

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The next morning I was deeply engaged in a wonderfully insightful film with my three year old daughter. I was suddenly struck by the relationship Cinderella had with the creatures living in and around her home. She sang with the birds, cared for the mice, chided the cat, loving them and evoking love in them in return.

The rusty four-cylinder engine between my ears turned over once or twice again...

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Pagans (loosely defined) see gods behind everything. There is a god in the elm and the maple, a god in the water and in the sky; the salmon and the osprey are manifestations of divine spirits; the moon and the stars are filled with spiritual significance and power. We can interact with these powers, calling them forth, making demands upon them and submitting to their demands; calling upon them for aid, and looking to them for guidance. The universe is alive with divinity, beauty and potency spring forth from every rock and flower; mysterious energy is present in all things.

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One of the first major intellectual challenges the disciples of Jesus faced in the early centuries of Christian thought was brought upon the spiritual community by a group who came to be called the "gnostics." They espoused a fundamentally Greek view of the Universe. A dualism between matter and energy, between the physical world and the spiritual world, was the backdrop for their understanding of Jesus. They believed matter and everything associated with it to be inherently evil. Jesus was not a man at all, but pure spirit, sent to rescue us from a material world of pure evil. They at times encouraged highly ascetic practices, giving up sex completely, eating sparse and restricted diets, avoiding pleasure.

This stands in stark contrast with the Universe of the ancient Jewish scriptures...

In the beginning God creates a world of dirt and plant, water and fish, birds, flowers, stars, clouds, and all manner of things; His spirit/breath is present within this Creation. God creates Adam and Eve, breathing His spirit into them, they bear His image and are responsible for the world arround them. Adam is in intimate relationship with the plants and animals, He 'names' them, and rules over them as a king over subjects. He is duty-bound to protect them and provide for their care; and they honor Him as the reflection of the Creator. The world is alive with divinity, beauty and potency spring forth from every rock and flower; mysterious energy is present in all things. God pronounces this caucophany of material and spiritual union, 'very good!'

...and so, when the first Christians were faced with the gnostic framework for seeing the Universe, given the spiritual and intellectual heritage they had as followers of a Jewish prophet-king, they naturally rejected such a view. Jesus came to affirm and bring 'life to the full,' not to reject it.

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The simple reality is that the western world (and western Christians within it) have unreflectively embraced the gnostic paradigm. We have not rejected an intimate Creator outright, but we have embraced a cruel mechanistic world, and so (unintentionally) God has no place in our conceptual framework. We have become deists...

Afraid of the messy comedy, raw sensuality, and blatant hedonism of the natural world, we have slayed it with our dissecting scalpels, our microscopes and telescopes. We have tamed the gods of the trees and the rocks. We have killed the sea god, 'analyzed' and 'studied' the heavens, and demystified the animals. The beasts and trees, the rocks and skies, still sing, but we have lost the ability to hear the melodious voices. The Spirit of God still 'hovers over the waters,' the Breath of God still whispers throughout the earth, but our cold eyes are closed the very medium of His goodness...

...and yet, if we are approached by the God who invented garlic and cumin, roses and peaches, nebulae and waterfalls, children and laughter, alcohol and orgasms, rhythym and melody; then perhaps He can awake in us the sense of divine play, the capacity for joy and energy required to hear the voices of the trees again.

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...and so we should not be surprised at the growing interest in pagan ideas (neopaganism, wicca, etc.) in fact, we should not even be that alarmed. Christians worship the Lord of Life, to any and all who seek to find true power and beauty, they are pursuing Jesus, the giver of new wines and new eyes, the waker of the dead, the party-goer, the True Vine, and the Spring of Living Water. The call to follow Jesus is the call to awaken our hearts to the haunting melodies, the inventive harmonies, and the heart-pounding rhythyms to be found in life; embracing wonder and awe at the awakening of the trees, the glorious skies and the monsters of the deep floor of the sea; embracing the joy and pleasure to be had simply by breathing in and out, exploring the wonderous diversity that humanity and its home has to offer.

What a terrible horror that ever did occur (were it even in but one mind, although it has unfortunately been in many) that Christianity became confused with asceticism, that the warm embrace of a loving Creator became the dark chastisement of a vengeful and distant Progenitor. How could we ever think that God doesn't enjoy that which He has made, and that we are invited to enter into His joy...

"A nightmare, long engendered in the modern mind by the mythology that follows in the wake of science, was falling off him. He had read of 'Space': at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds. He had not known how much it affected him till now - now that the very name 'Space' seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it 'dead'; he felt life pouring into him from it every moment. How indeed should it be otherwise, since out of this ocean the worlds and all their life had come? He had thought it barren: he saw now that it was the womb of words, whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even upon the earth with so many eyes - and here, with how many more! No: Space was the wrong name. Older thinkers has been wiser when they named it simply the heavens - the heavens which declared the glory - the

'happy climes that ly
Where day never shuts his eye
Up in the broad fields of the sky.'

He quoted Milton's words to himself lovingly, at this time and often."


Out of the Silent Planet

11 comments:

Helen said...

Hi Steve!

I do have comments about the opening, since you asked :) It currently reads:

I had an opportunity to discuss the concept of ‘original sin’ with a woman who used to be a Christian, but is now an atheist. Her understanding of the doctrine is essentially that the world is evil, there is nothing good in it, especially in humanity. We are totally evil, with no redeeming features whatsoever. (Helen, if you are reading this and I mis-characterized your characterization, feel free to correct me…)

Actually, that’s not quite what I think the doctrine says - it’s not that humans are totally evil with no redeeming features. It’s humans are a mixture of good and bad but somehow in God’s accounting system, only the evil counts, so everyone is condemned to eternity in hell. It’s not that the doctrine says there’s no good in humans; it’s that it says the good doesn’t count and the bad does. So good and bad are given infinitely unequal weight (imo).

Drew said...

Steve, great post.

Helen, if I may interject, Good and bad are infinitely un-equal, but not in the way that I'm reading here.

Evil does not exist as a substance, or a thing, but only as a distortion or absence of good. So it has a negative existence, as apposed to a real one.

As I understand our faith, we must acknowledge our problems so that they can be done with, so while we affirm that we are created by God and good, we also admit that our goodness is distorted. We also know that this distortion is temporary, for sin and evil have already been defeated eternally.

You mention "God's accounting system," but I think that is an model of God that is unhealthy (not that some Christians haven't encouraged it, but that we shouldn't have). It's not that only evil counts, its that people count, and when people have been damaged (by themselves or others) we damage has to be acknowledged to be dealt with.

Helen said...

It's not that only evil counts, its that people count, and when people have been damaged (by themselves or others) we damage has to be acknowledged to be dealt with.

drew, it's still unequal that any iota of sin or even 'inherited from Adam' sin sends people to hell but no amount of good they do can get them out.

Steve I like your writing and I like what you call Christianity better than the versions of Christianity I'm more familiar with but that doesn't matter does it, if someone else's version is right and yours is wrong? Can you show me why I should believe yours is more correct than theirs?

Steve S. said...

Can you show me why I should believe yours is more correct than theirs?

Probably not over the internet...

...it would likely require you to move to Buffalo, or me to move to (?) and us to become friends. Of course, there are no guarantees, my life so clouds the majesty of God that perhaps you will not see Him through the murky glass that some of us call Steve; but I do believe that the only way we can truly know what a person believes (and the real significance behind the words they speak or write) is by the life they live; the 'long obedience in the same direction.'

I guess I am not so concerned with having the 'correct' version of Christianity, nor with being 'right.' I think that experiencing the Christ-life within is so much more expansive than that...

I hunger... I yearn!! ...for a life with God. I don't really care about being correct...

I know that isn't really a response to your questions, but more an affirmation of an answer to a different set of questions.

One of the very few things that I think my generation brings to the table that other generations lack is the ability to see the world in terms of both/and, to embrace holistic ways of seeing, doing, and being; we tread somewhat more easily and gracefully the path of the radical middle. We are looking from a different vantage point, and so, we will see the same Jesus, but see Him in a very different light; I see that as a good thing... don't you?

Drew said...


drew, it's still unequal that any iota of sin or even 'inherited from Adam' sin sends people to hell but no amount of good they do can get them out.

Sure enough. That would be unequal, but I never said that. It is quite unfair, but in the other way. God loves people while they are still sinners--some of them murderers and worse! Scripture says (and I don't know if you care about what scripture says, but this is just to let you know that this is not only my opinion) that Christ did not come into the world to condemn the world, but to save it.

Let me say to things:

1st, if you approach Christianity by starting with sin and hell then you aren't going to really get anywhere, because you will be focusing on distortions and voids. Hell will never make sense, because it is not supposed to make sense.

Maybe learning about God by starting with hell is like studying a cell be examining mutations. Sure, you might get somewhere, but its an awfully hard place to start.

That being said, Steve is right--if you are looking for an argument that we are the most correct than you are barking up the right tree. I've played that game, and it always ends up in a bad place. I, like Steve, am still learning, and we could both find that we are wrong (actually, Steve and I disagree on some stuff, so likely one of us is sure to be wrong).

Steve S. said...

Steve and I disagree on some stuff,

...now I don't know if we can hang out anymore! ;-)

Helen, what would you consider the proper way to determine "which version of Christianity was the right one?" or even, "which version of reality is the right one?"

Is this the question that drives your life? (What is correct belief?) Or are other questions perhaps more central?

That is a great question (even if I thought of it...) what is the most important question?

Drew, what sorts of models do you use to see God and His relationship to the world through? (As opposed to an accounting metaphor...)

Drew said...

Good question.

First, a caveat: all models fall short, and shouldn't be stretched too far.

My favorite metaphor is the Biblical one of marriage. God is the faithful husband, and we (the church) are his sometimes faithful bride.

Of course, this "marriage" is only with the church, and you asked about his relationship with the world.

I would say it is of one who desires marriage, who pursues his beloved. It's still a model of love (God so loved the world, right?) but without the world's response (yet).


My second favorite metaphor is also from scripture: light.

Sean said...

Go Helen!!! Good stuff.

Anonymous said...

hello Steve,

I have just finished reading the biography of Chairman Mao( including how 30 million chinese starved to death in the 1960's due to his policies) and a book on the Holocaust I am now totally confused about the nature of Good/Evil in humanity.....

Rodney

Steve S. said...

Hey Rodney,

I certainly didn't want to minimize the problem of evil in my post...

The world is twisted, and in some placed horribly twisted. The wholesale eradications of whole groups of people by Communists, Nazis, and others is an example of some very deeply evil things...

I don't think we have to go any further than the recent series in the local news paper on child pornography; men raping infants and toddlers and selling the images and streaming videos to others is a multi-billion dollar industry. How many people must be involved for it to be worth so much? This is a holocaust-scope example of evil.

Give me a chance to think a little and I will post something about evil...

In the mean time, what are your thoughts? What questions do you have about God, human nature, good and evil, after reading those books, or reading what has been discussed here?

www.maxgrace.com said...

Would it be fair to say that God's accounting system is a metaphor that works in some cultures but not in others... rather than to say that it is an "unhealthy" model of God "that we should not have encouraged."

I see it as a lovely thing: God invites us to "come, buy wine and milk without money and without price" (Isa 55:1,2) if you're thirsty and hungry. He foots the bill, courtesy of Jesus.

God offers to credit righteousness to even the most ungodly person who simply believes (Rom 4:5 where the Greek terms mean "to account"). He again pays a price we cannot pay to gain a gift we cannot earn.

The accounting metaphor is one of grace and measureless kindness and love.

The metaphor worked for Paul and Isaiah and others. I can agree that it might not work so well for many today... but I don't know that I'd call it unhealthy.

Great dialog.

Bill