Original Sin

The way I that first understood original sin as a nine year old was pretty literal. Adam and Eve had eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil, which they had been forbidden by God to eat. They'd broken a rule. That was the very first time that a rule had been broken. That was the original sin. Of course, this raised all sorts of questions like: why did God put the fruit there in the first place and then tell them not to eat it? Why didn't God want them to know the difference between Good and Evil? And most importantly, why did this mean that we now, all of Adam and Eve's long lost descendants, are still paying for this first transgression? None of this seemed fair; and God seemed more than a bit capricious.

By high school I realized that the story might have some deeper meaning. Original sin wasn't the eating of the apple or even the breaking of a rule; it was an act of rebellion. Adam and Eve had been told that upon eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they would know what God knew and be like gods themselves. They chose to rule themselves rather than be ruled by God, and this pissed God off. As a teenager who was just learning to exercise her civil liberties in San Francisco, I embraced this inherited sin as a mark of honor, and I defiantly looked forward to burning freely in hell rather than serving a tyrannical God in heaven.

Many years later, I was surprised to learn that original sin is a uniquely Christian concept. Even though Christianity points to the Hebrew story in Genesis as the origin of original sin, Judaism does not teach the idea of an inherited fallen state. Neither does Islam. And other religions don't mention sin at all. So what are we to do with sin? Should we, as many religious liberals are want to do, throw it out as an antiquated notion that does nothing but instill guilt?

Personally, I can't. Long after ceasing to identify myself as Christian, I still find myself returning to this concept of original sin and reconsidering what it is. Sin, so we are told, is the reason for our "fallen" state. And one of the few things that the major world religions agree on is that there is something inadequate with our present condition - we are not as we should be, or could be. Instead of looking at sin as an inherited punishment, or even as a moral judgment of wrong-doing, we might look at it as the reason for why we are in a less than ideal state. Instead of saying 'we are evil because of sin,' it might be more useful to ask ' Why aren't we as good as we could be?' And to that question, many religions have attempted an answer. In Islam it's because of forgetfulness of God and our place in the universe. In Hinduism it's because of attachment to this material world, thinking it more real than Brahman. In Buddhism it's because of ignorance, not comprehending the true nature of reality.

Original sin isn't temporal; it's causal. It's is not the first wrong committed by our human progenitors back in the recesses of time and then inherited by us. Original sin is the first mistake that each of us makes, that then results in all our other wrong choices. In that sense, original sin truly is the thing that each of us needs to overcome in order to be the best humans that we can be.

Having made my peace with God and after exploring other religious traditions, I look again at the story of Adam and Eve. And instead of a noble act of civil disobedience, I see human beings who are arrogant enough so as to believe that they can be self-sufficient. They aren't evil, simply misguided, and they are us. We humans, no matter how intelligent and magnificent we are, and we are those things, we are still but a small part of existence, dependent on, not ruler of the universe, and dependent upon each other. When we place too much importance on our individual selves, and not enough on the Other, we commit that original sin - that first mistake that results in all the others like lying and cheating and worse. We choose to separate ourselves from the Other, and then we feel the consequences of that separation - the isolation, the alienation - and at some point, some of us must have thought that was the result of God's punishment. But both the source of our "fall" and the source of our redemption lie within each of us.

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Acknowledgments is made possible in part by generous support from the Fahs Collaborative