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Original Sin Revisited

by Marjorie Suchocki

Marjorie Suchocki received her Ph.D. at the Claremont Graduate School, in 1974, and is Dean Emeritus at Claremont School of Theology, Claremont California. The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 233, Vol. 20, Number 4, Winter, 1991. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Sin has fallen on hard times. We exist in the paradox of a time with a profound realization that our problems are systemic, far exceeding individual is-tic consent or solutions, but the fundamental approach to sin in our society remains a litany of personal failures. Yet ecological disasters, fearsome instruments of war, vast systems of classism, racism, and sexism all have impact upon our lives, and we experience ourselves as caught up in such systems with or without our consent. At a time when it could be argued that we most need it, we have lost the ancient Christian doctrine of original sin as a corporate human condition preceding and affecting each individual.

The issue, then, is this: most contemporary analyses of sin begin with the personal, and transfer it to the social, but individual analysis seems hard-pressed to account for the gravity of social ills confronting us. The tradition did a somewhat better job, even though it began with a personal analysis of sin: Adam’s fall. However, it then interpreted Adam’s fall as the corporate corruption of human nature per se, so that every human being is born already dealing with the effects of sin not directly its own. Original sin conveyed a corporate problem that then yielded individual sins, Something like this would now seem necessary, but we no longer have access to the old myth of Adam and its corporate corruption. Instead, we deal with individual sins that either remain in the private realm, or if projected into the wider social realm fail to deal with the collective power of sin and its relation to individuals. While we cannot use the myth of Adam and corporate corruption, we need to go beyond the mythology to recapture its meaning in forms that address the human and indeed, the planetary situation today.

My supposition is that the individualization of sin is the trivialization of sin, and given the systematic connection between our understanding of sin and our understanding of God as the one who addresses us in our human plight, the trivialization of sin has an inexorable affect upon two areas: the doctrine of God, and the sense of individual and corporate responsibility for social ills. hi this article, however, I will explore only the second of these suppositions and that insofar as it is entailed in a reappropriation of a doctrine of original sin. I will briefly address the wavering fortunes of original sin in these past few centuries, and then begin to explore some of the resources of process, feminist, and black theology for a contemporary development of the doctrine.

A Brief Contemporary History of Original Sin

Since Pierre Bayle launched his satirical attacks on Adam in his immensely popular Dictionnaire in the seventeenth century, the doctrine of original sin has never been the same. Perhaps it was the rise of rationalism, with its corollary emphasis upon the individual, or the discovery of history, or the questioning of biblical authority -- but the age-old notions of the corruption of the race through Adam’s fall itself fell from theological favor, never to be thoroughly recovered. In the seventeenth century, phenomena such as the environment and the humors became substitutes for original sin in explaining the peculiar tendency to perversity within humankind, but with the loss of corporate corruption and corporate culpability, the focus on sin began its slow shift to sins, individually committed and individually suffered.

Schleiermacher was the first theologian after Bayle to resuscitate the doctrine of original sin without reliance on the myth of Adam. While Immanuel Kant also made an enormous contribution with his theory of radical evil, his emphasis led more to individual rather than corporate responsibility, and thus continued the Enlightenment trend toward individualism. Schleiermacher, however, built a theory of the solidarity of humankind in sin upon an evolutionary view of human nature. His basic thesis was that the physical aspects of human existence preceded and provided the basis for spirituality. Our physicality involved a necessary self-preservation instinct that led to protection of one’s own self or kind over against that which was defined as other -- a view not too dissimilar from what Cornel West develops in the late twentieth century as the "normative gaze that tends toward universalization of one ‘s own kind to the detriment of otherness. For Schleiermacher, spirituality -- or the God consciousness -- involved a reversal of self-interest toward an inclusive care for all existence. An important supposition in this thinking is that all existence is in fact bonded together, interwoven in a solidarity whereby each actually is involved in the other’s well-being. That is, there is a fundamental falseness to the egotism that develops from one’s physical instincts for survival, since the ontological reality is that one’s own survival is bound up with the survival of all else. As process thought would later say, all reality is interconnected. Spiritual existence, recognition of our bondedness and therefore mutual care, is congruent with our ontological reality.

For Schleiermacher, the solidarity of the race and its mutual struggle toward spiritual existence from a starting place of sensuous existence accounts for the universal tendency of humans to act against one another’s good, and so against their own good as well. Sin is not an individual phenomenon, but a social phenomenon in the sense that each individual sin is only properly understood in relation to the backdrop of sin evidenced by the race as a whole. Further, the sin of one contributes to the deeper plight of the whole, for each one affects the condition of all. Solidarity, not individuality, is the fundamental basis for understanding sin. Thus Schleiermacher reestablished a notion of original sin apart from reliance on the myth of Adam.

Schleiermacher’s major influence in the nineteenth century was in areas other than this unique development of the doctrine of original sin and its transmission. Ritschl was one of the few theologians to expand on his insights,’ considering the solidarity of the race as the fundamental condition of religion, plunging us corporately into sin and making way for a new corporate reality of righteousness in Christian salvation. But on the whole, nineteenth century philosophical theology was not particularly interested in the question of original or corporate sin; it was far more involved in various responses to Hegel, the new prominence of biblical study and its corollary "quest for the historical Jesus," and the implications of economic and psychological developments for Christian faith. The theology of original sin lay languishing in the lurch. The alternative voices came primarily from Russia in Dostoevsky, and in America through Josiah Royce. Dostoevsky also saw all humanity existing in an interconnected web of mutual responsibility, mystical in its dimensions, where each was responsible for all. In American theology, Josiah Royce probed the communal nature of sin through what he called "social contentiousness" in the tension between the individual and the community.

It remained for Walter Rauschenbusch in A Theology for the Social Gospel to deal simply and forcefully with the social nature of sin and its transmission from generation to generation in a way somewhat reminiscent of Schleiermacher, but far more oriented toward the pragmatics of contemporary life than toward the metaphysics underlying the phenomenon of sin. Rauschenbusch presumed the solidarity of humankind, and focused upon the effects of that solidarity in the transmission of sin such that each generation is predisposed to evil. He cited both biological and social transmission of sin: biological in that we inherit a physical nature with conflicting instincts, and with a great capacity for ignorance, both of which foster inertia and/or inappropriate behavior which, depending upon the degree of intelligence and will involved, lead to sin. But by far the greater factor in the transmission of sin is our embeddedness within a ready-made social system. We draw our ideas, our moral standards, and our spiritual ideals from the social body into which we are born; these are mediated to us by the public and personal institutions that make up the society. Our norms for moral action are not drawn from a disinterested study of objective reality, but are absorbed from the social environs of our childhood. Even though these norms can easily tend to the destruction of the common good, the norms are buttressed by the authority of the dominant social group, its idealization of the structures that work evil, and by the profitableness that most often is entailed in the norms of destruction. One might paraphrase Rauschenbusch by saying that "the problem of sin is that it is profitable."

From a contemporary perspective, it is clear that Rauschenbusch’s absorbing passion was to expose the capitalistic sins of American society; he did so under a normative vision of the Kingdom of God that entailed shared rather than shirked labor, and full opportunities for self-realization for all. War, militarism, landlordism, predatory industries, and finance are the demons he named that shape social institutions toward fostering their own respectability and perpetuation at the expense of justice. The individual sins that Rauschenbusch named are drink, overeating, sexualism, vanity, and idleness -- actions that were often associated with the excesses of a victimized working class. Rauschenbusch focused almost entirely on an economic understanding of sin, and did not see the psychic structures of racism and sexism that accompany and undergird the classism of economic systems. Nonetheless, his achievement is that he built on the earlier work of Schleiermacher and Royce, showing the pragmatic working out of the solidarity of the race that Schleiermacher developed. Rauschenbusch gave the strongest statement in the first half of the twentieth century relating sin to social conditions that form us against the common good, such that each generation corrupts the next.

Two world wars and the increasing importance of existentialism interrupted the theological agenda begun by Rauschenbusch. Not until the liberation theologians began to write in the sixties would social forces of evil receive again such forceful attention in American theology. Indeed, Reinhold Niebuhr, perhaps the most influential American theologian relative to political and ethical action in this century, wrote his theories of sin under the grip of Soren Kierkegaard’s more individualistic notions of the origin of sin. There is little evidence in his analysis of sin in The Nature and Destiny of Man of any indebtedness to Rauschenbusch, and as for the solidarity theories developed by Schleiermacher. Niebuhr dismissed them by saying that "the ‘cultural lag’ theory of human evil is completely irrelevant to the analysis of . . . sin (NDM 250)." Niebuhr’s antipathy toward any form of inherited sin reflected his fear that it would mitigate responsibility; hence he writes: "the theory of an inherited second nature is as clearly destructive of the idea of responsibility for sin as rationalistic and dualistic theories which attribute human evil to the inertia of nature" (NDM 262). Solidarity and its inevitable implication in corporate sin gave way to every individual’s encounter with the tension and anxiety of finitude and freedom.

Reminiscent of Kierkegaard’s development of the individual before God, Niebuhr sets the self as caught between finitude and freedom, seeking to escape vulnerability and anxiety. But this tension can only be lived creatively insofar as the individual trusts in God. Apart from this trust, the individual is pulled by the tension into either pride (the act of treating the finite as if it were infinite), or sensuousness (the sloth that causes one to retreat into the finite as if it alone were of consequence). With regard to political or corporate ills, Niebuhr tended toward a projection of the individual dilemma upon the body politic.2 He saw corporate evil as the gathered force of individual evils within the looser structure of a corporate body. Since the looser structure of the corporation, be it nation or institution, lacks anything analogous to mind or conscience, the corporate structure has little power of self-transcendence, and hence is governed by the unrestrained egoism that Niebuhr attributes to human nature in its finite aspects. Since sin is located fundamentally in freedom, and freedom is connected with human self-transcendence, corporate evil is something less than sin. Original sin relates solely to the individual’s flight from anxiety.

Early in the movement of liberation theologies, attention was indeed given to the problem of corporate evil. However, initial forays into the problem tended to see the issue in totally externalized terms. For example, James Cone wrote devastatingly about the sins of white society, and Mary Daly was exceeding clear in delineating the evils of patriarchy, but for both, the problem of corporate evil was "out there." Blacks and women deal indeed with the effects of the sins of others, but it was as if the corporate sins of the others totally absorbed all the sin there is. To speak of sin as also involving Blacks or women was to fall into the sin of "blaming the victim"; there was a myth of presumed innocence for all but those involved in perpetrating or benefiting from the structures of oppression.

The exception to this is the early work by Valerie Saiving suggesting that the sin of pride as defined throughout the tradition, but particularly in the works of Niebuhr, actually defined male existence, and that the sin most apt to describe female existence is the sin of a lack of centered existence. In the late seventies Judith Plaskow picked up this insight in Sex, Sin, and Grace. She critiqued Niebuhr for excessive attention to the sin of pride, and corrected him by expanding his understanding of sensuousness to describe the conditioning women receive that mitigates against their responsible development of selfhood. Susan Nelson Dunfee expanded this yet further, speaking of women’s "sin of hiding." However, in none of these writers is there any attention beyond the individual’s sin toward an analysis of social or corporate sin. They, no more than Niebuhr, had any use for the insights hidden within the old doctrine of original sin.

Meanwhile, one process theologian in particular began to address the problem. John B. Cobb, Jr., in his small publication called Is it Too Late? A Theology of Ecology, began addressing the corporate structures of evil insofar as they wreak their damage on the environment. Earlier, in The Structure of Christian Existence, he had also developed a system that can yet prove helpful in reconsidering the doctrine of original sin. In that work, he analyzed the peculiarities of the cultural transmission of structures of consciousness. He was concerned to explore and then compare the pluralism of these structures as evidenced in the various religions of the world, and to develop the unique particularities of Christian consciousness. There is no application of his work to original sin, but the insights are there: the dynamics of becoming are ontologically given for selves as for every other actuality, but the parameters of what a self may become are not an ontological given, but are in fact mediated by one’s particular cultural/religious situation. One could develop the insight as a metaphysical basis of Rauschenbush’s claim for the social transmission of sin.

There are several further developments in both Black and feminist theology that took place in the eighties that must be mentioned before moving on to the development of process/feminist resources for a reappropriation of the doctrine of original sin. Cornel West, in Prophesy Deliverance, speaks of the "normative gaze." Like Cone, he is addressing the racist structures of society, expanding upon Cone’s work by delving into the human tendency to universalize one’s own experience. One might associate the normative gaze with Schleiermacher’s analysis of the physiological development of self-protection and own-kind preservation that evolved through humanity’s long struggle for existence, although West does not make this association. Instead, he traces its manifestation in the past few centuries, and its invidious effects when it is accompanied by power. In dominant groups, the normative gaze becomes the creation of norms that idealize one’s own kind, subordinating otherness to serve the dominant group’s ends and purposes. In subordinate groups, the normative gaze translates into social inferiority, and internalized images of inferiority. In the latter case, the social and personal combine to produce variations of self-hatred, with a corollary projection of these feelings onto one’s own kind as a whole. A failure to own or develop one’s full potential as a human being is the result.

The feminist parallel to this development is Rosemary Radford Ruether’s analysis of sin and evil in Sexism and God-Talk. Unlike West, she relates her insights to the old doctrine of original sin, stating that "feminism can rediscover the meaning of the fall in a radically new way" (SGT 37). Sin is both individual and systemic: individually, the human condition is radical alienation from one’s true relationship to self, nature, and God; systemically, this translates into structures of domination and subordination that are enforced by the group in power. However, even though she goes so far as to say that alienating social structures are central to the transmission of the alienated and fallen condition of patriarchal sin, she no more than Niebuhr goes beyond the analysis of individual sin as the primal cause of social structures. Like Niebuhr, she speaks of both active and passive sin, or pride and sloth. Pride is acting on the capacity to set oneself up over against others, and sloth is the passive acquiescence, manifested by men as well as women, to the dominant group ego. Apart from the assertion that socioeconomic and political structures transmit the effects of pride and sloth to successive generations, there is no investigation of the differences and connections between individual and social sin.

What is needed at the present time, then, is a theology of sin that builds upon the work of the persons cited here, but that can develop a stronger connection between social structures and individuals, and with the ancient insights concerning original sin.

A New Basis for Original Sin

To restate the problem, original sin defined the human situation as one of universal implication in sin, apart from any conscious consent. Sins arise from the condition of sin. Whether classical theologians dealt with the nature of sin as pride, sloth, unbelief, disobedience, or any other variation, the exercise of such vices depended upon this original condition. The mechanism used to account for universal perversity was that the supposed first humans deviated from their given good, and with this deviation, corrupted the nature that was then passed on to their progeny. The plight today is that we experience an enormity to social evils, but we have no mechanism such as "original sin" to account for them theologically. Issues such as racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, handicapism, anthropocentrism, and whatever other ‘isms" we have devised toward the ill-being of peoples require more than an analysis of individual sin to account for the pervasiveness and depth of the problem. We must re-appropriate the doctrine of original sin in such a way that it speaks to our condition, and lends heuristic power to our personal and corporate forms of addressing evil.

Interdependence, intersubjectivity, and the peculiarities of consciousness are tools provided through process thought for developing a notion of original sin in which original sin can be interpreted as inherited structures of consciousness, acting as socially sanctioned norms, that assume the ill-being of earth or any of its inhabitants. These norms predispose us toward their perpetuation, and inevitably involve us in sin. My operative definition of sin is those intents and actions that work the ill-being of any facet of existence.

I recognize the vast inclusiveness of such a definition, and hold that there is a great variance of degrees of culpability for sin, from negligible to great, but that the working of ill-being is nonetheless appropriately named sin.

Like Schleiermacher, process theology depends heavily upon the notion of an evolutionary world of interdependent actualities. Both draw from the sciences of their day: Schleiermacher on the developing notions of evolution, and process from early twentieth-century physics. There are in fact parallels between Cobb’s exploration of the structure of Christian existence, and Schleiermacher’s development of God-conscious existence, both of which draw upon evolutionary suppositions. Process thought, more than Schleiermacher, develops the dynamism involved in evolution and in the interconnected nature of existence that is essential to both systems.

A process model is a relational model, drawing on the data of physics and biology, maintaining that we do indeed live in an interconnected universe where everything relates to everything else. From the world of the physicist Freeman Dyson, we learn of the butterfly effect: a butterfly, taking off from a flower in Beijing, has an effect on the weather patterns of mid-America. We already know of the interconnected life patterns whereby oxygen generated by rainforests nourishes all the earth, or where water falling in northern mountains means green gardens in southern California. We are no strangers to the daily witnesses of interdependence. A process-relational philosophy suggests that the interconnectedness that we experience at a macro-cosmic level is also operative at a microcosmic level, and in fact accounts for the dynamism of existence itself. Everything exists in and through its creative response to relationships beyond itself. This means that everything matters: each reality receives from all that have preceded it, and gives to all who succeed it.

If there is no reality that does not participate in this dynamic process of existence, surely it sets up a structure whereby the interactive influence between the individual and society is highlighted at the personal as well as microscopic level. If each moment of existence inherits from all of the past, then the individual and corporate actions of the past have an effect on what the present individual might become. Further, one’s social location is a critical factor in this inheritance, since one’s incorporation of the past is perspectival, rooted in particularity. One receives the past already weighted in value relative to one’s own place in the sun. There is an inevitable intentionality within that which one inherits, and this inherited intentionality strongly influences the direction of one’s own intentions.

Within this process-relational model, the totality of ourselves must be considered as a matter of relationships; these relationships are internal to who we are, and not external. We inherit from a personal past, a familial past, a social and cultural and political past -- but these are truisms. Process simply points out that this inheritance is woven into ourselves, together with our own creative response to those relationships. We become ourselves in a relative freedom through the many relationships that influence us at the depths of our being. The case is easily illustrated in every instance where one whom we love encounters hardship. Our own well-being is affected by the well-being of the one we love, so that the other’s pain causes us distress. We are internally affected by the other, and therefore dependent upon the other. Process provides a model to discuss this internality of relation: we receive from the past in our innermost nature, and through our creative response to that past, we become ourselves. In our own becoming we in our turn influence others, who must take our influence into their own becoming, and so the dance of relationship fills our days with variations of pain and pleasure. Relations are internal to who we are.

Process suggests that most of the relations that we experience are much deeper than the conscious levels of our being. We, too, inherit from the butterfly in Beijing! Most of the effects of the vast network of relations impinging upon us are screened out at preconscious levels; others are projected back onto environmental phenomena; very few make their way into conscious existence.

The implication, of course, is that the relationality that makes up the personal world of each one of us encompasses all other persons, as well as all elements in the universe preceding us. On the physical level, our very bodies are made up through internal relations to atoms streaming toward us from throughout the universe; physicists become poets when they tell us we are stardust. For the purposes of this investigation of original sin, the singularly important facet of this reality is that the old views of the solidarity of the race have a basis in ontic fact. Whether we like it or not, we are bound up with one another’s good, woven into one another’s welfare. Such a reality is easy to acknowledge at the level we call collegiality, community, and family, but the deeper reality is that our consciousness is but the rim of what we receive. Freeman Dyson reminds us of the little old lady who confronted the scientific view of the origins of the universe with the retort that everyone knew the universe was really held in existence by being placed on the back of a giant turtle. "Aha," said the scientist, "and what holds up the turtle?" "You think you’ve caught me, young man," she replied, "but it’s turtles, all the way down!" In a process world, it’s relation, all the way down. We are bound up with one another throughout the earth, inexorably inheriting from each, inexorably influencing all. Our prized individuality exists through connectedness. Individual inheritance is at the same time social inheritance.

If this is the structure of personal existence, clearly there is a renewed basis for discussing the universal effects of sin. It takes us in several directions, the obvious and the implied. Obviously, we are not isolated from the ill-being of others in the world. Events in distant Kuwait affected many families; drought in one part of the world affects the food supply in another. But if such macrocosmic and obvious interrelatedness is common, the model again says these are but "tip of the iceberg" occurrences, and that there is a lessening of our own humanity with every human evil, a heightening of our good with every human joy. There is no such thing as private ill, having no effect upon others, for private ills both derive from social effects and have social effects, yielding again further private ills.

Schleiermacher spoke of a solidarity of the race through an evolutionary journey as we evolved from purely physical existence, bound up with survival, toward modes of spiritual existence, where our survival depends upon our extending our own sense of well-being to include the well-being of others. Process affirms this insight, and expands it by going deeper into the nature of interconnectedness, and by arguing that the metaphysical basis of spirituality is the increasingly complex organization of relationships until they create first consciousness, and then self-consciousness. With self-consciousness comes in-creased responsibility for the quality of relationships, and hence the basis for the spirituality of which Schleiermacher speaks.

However, while this basic interrelationality is the foundation for a process view of original sin, it requires expansion into the peculiarity not simply of subjectivity, but of intersubjectivity at the level of social institutions that organize the shaping influence of the past upon the present. For I am convinced that the dynamics of the individual alone are not enough to account for the pervasiveness of sin, and that we need an understanding of institutions and their relationship to individuals as well.

The increased complexity of relational organization does not stop with self-conscious existence, but, upon this basis, develops yet further modes of complexity in institutions. In order to push toward a comprehensive understanding of sin that undergirds and expands insights from Schleiermacher, Rauschenbusch, Ruether, and West, process thought must focus on the intersubjectivity that is uniquely characteristic of institutions. Just as there is a grouping of many actualities in the creation of the complexity of embodied personality, even so there is obviously a grouping of many persons in the creation of an institution. Personal existence becomes uniquely personal in the achievement of self-consciousness; institutional existence gains its character through its unique form of intersubjectivity, or the cooperation of many self-conscious subjects in the joint creation of a supra-personal form of existence.

The intersubjectivity works both personally and institutionally. Notice the peculiar dynamics of a new association with an institution, whereby a person encounters a whole new configuration of her or his personal past. One’s history is contextualized in a different way, being intertwined with the histories of all others in the institution, and by the history of the institution as a whole. Part of the jarring sense of transition is the ontological demand at subliminal levels of one’s being to respond to newly relevant relationships, weaving them into one’s own continuing becoming self. New associations place new demands and invitations upon one’s becoming. Personal participation in the intersubjectivity of an institution is the recontextualization of identity. But by the same token, one’s own energies become newly interwoven with the institution and those associated with it, adding a new dimension to its character which will be manifest at greater or lesser intensities, depending upon the size of the institution. The complexity in the resulting intersubjectivity is increased still further by the overarching reality of the institution, which is woven not simply through the intersubjectivity of its members, but through the tendrils of its relationship to all of its constituencies in its own unique trajectory of time.

Institutions and social organizations work through the intersubjectivity created by concentric rings of participants, governed by the dynamic force of a rather fluid mission, or purpose for its being. The peculiar power of an institution is the sense in which its central purpose is reflected a myriad of times as if in some great hall of mirrors through the intersubjectivity created by all of its participants. This reflection process need not be at explicitly conscious levels for its effectiveness; it is enough that one has absorbed the institutional purpose to whatever degree into the internal structures of one’s identity, and then, in the naturalness of a relational world, woven that purpose into the projections of one’s own influence upon others. Within the institution, this reflection-projection process creates the peculiar intersubjectivity of the institution, nuancing and intensifying the institutional purpose, and therefore creating the power of the institution’s psychic impact on society as a whole. This psychic impact is woven into the physical or material effects of the institution as it carries out its reason for being.

Agency in institutional existence is diffuse, shared, and mutually delegated. It can take the form of hierarchy similar to that which exists in an individual person, where there is a unique governing center coordinating the relationality of all its parts, or it can build upon its ontic base of intersubjectivity and act through consensual modes. The size and complexity of the institution influences the mode of agency, in that the larger the institution, the greater the likelihood that its agency will be coordinated hierarchically. Responsibility is created and shared through the intersubjectivity of the institution, but in varying degrees, depending upon the particular institutional structure. All who participate in an institution bear a real responsibility, to one degree or another, for what the institution is.

It should be noted that the intersubjectivity of an institution allows a peculiar manipulation of that intersubjectivity for individual or specialized group advantage. Its diffuse complexity of agency can mask personal responsibility; intersubjectivity can be used to hide one’s subjectivity. That is, while institutions are more powerful than individuals, exerting greater social force, their looser and intersubjective structures lend themselves to manipulation of that social force by individuals.

In any form, institutional agency is created through intersubjectivity; it is a cumbersome agency, because diffuse. At the same time, its compounded complexity of intersubjectivity gives it power that is greater than that of a single individual, even though it may be subverted by an individual. Intersubjectivity differs from a person’s subjectivity in and through this different order of complexity. It entails a multiple nuanced and mirrored and repeated intentionality of purpose that exercises its corporate influence on the rest of society, particularly those within its immediate environs.

Institutions themselves, however, are hardly the final word, for they contribute to larger groups that are more loosely organized to create a culturally defined society as a whole, bound together as a unit through mutually albeit somewhat loosely reinforced language and customs. Again, responsibility is diffuse, permeating the intersubjectivity that actually and dynamically creates the whole, of whatever proportions that whole might be. We live in a Chinese-nesting-box world of interconnected societies, all of which impinge upon the forming consciousness of every individual. Subjectivity, or the unique mode of existence that belongs to individuals, is replaced by intersubjectivity at the level of institutions and society.

The importance of this brief discussion of persons, institutions, and society relative to the notion of original sin is that all three are involved in the mediation of both good and ill, that which makes up the richness of communal existence, and that which mitigates against it. All three are routes of inheritance, receiving the past, weaving the past, and becoming the past for the future that will succeed them. Their gift to their progeny is to provide the parameters within which consciousness becomes self-consciousness, ordered into a world. This is both bane and blessing, and insofar as it is bane, it is the perpetual origin of original sin.

The psychic power of the forms of intersubjectivity that create institutions and societies lies in their being channels for a multiply reinforced group structure of consciousness, a common grid for interpreting experience in the world. Intersubjectivity itself creates the normative structures whereby we individual subjects order our lives. Further, these structures are not externally imposed, they are internally inherited through the relationality of existence, contributing to the formation of every subjectivity that receives them.

Given this structure to social existence, then, there are two basic elements that contribute to the situation of being disposed toward sin prior to one’s consent. The first element is the interconnected structure of existence, as outlined above, and as developed through process thought; the second draws from the profound insights of black and feminist theology relative to the shaping power of the "normative gaze," or the tendency to value one’s own kind as over against the other. The normative gaze, sanctioned and channeled through the intersubjectivity of institutions and society, is sufficient to shape the consciousness of persons from birth and throughout life. The background of the normative gaze is intersubjective and therefore diffuse, but its foreground is its shaping of the norms and expectations of each individual consciousness. Since it is the individual self-consciousness that is so formed, it becomes constitutive of the self, and difficult to transcend. One’s actions from this center of consciousness will then actualize the norms, perpetuating them relative to one’s own position and perspective within the grid of the intersubjective society at large. By definition, the inherited norms cannot be questioned prior to their enactment: one is caught in sin without virtue of consent. Original sin simply creates sinners.

Against this definitional understanding of original sin, Rauschenbusch’s insights may be given full rein. He spoke to the economic dimensions of original sin when social structures are used to the so-called enhancement of the few at the expense of the many. John B. Cobb Jr.’s insights concerning the devastating effects of anthropocentrism upon earth as a whole through the restriction of well-being to the human community also follow. These views drawn from process, feminist, and Black thought are also extensions of Schleiermacher’s analysis of physical and spiritual existence, albeit translated into the language of "normative gaze" and "own-kindness.

The question remains that if we can refer to inherited structures of consciousness that normalize the good of some at the expense of others, and if these structures of consciousness form persons apart from their consent, how is it that original sin entails guilt? For we suppose that some degree of freedom and responsibility is necessary for the attribution of guilt. The requirement in a process metaphysics that freedom inhere, to one degree or another, in every subject whatsoever is the route to establishing responsibility for one’s actualization of sin. The "Catch 22" -- and the reason for appropriating the name "original sin" instead of simply describing these conditions as the way of things -- is that personal action depends upon structures of consciousness which themselves involve seeds of their own transcendence. The possibility for self-transcendence through questioning one’s structured norms creates the responsibility and therefore the guilt that is entailed in the transition from original sin to sins. However -- and we are again in a "Catch 22" -- in the nature of the case, we inherit structures of consciousness from our birth onward, and hence by the time questioning is possible, the destructive norms are already internalized. The combined power of intersubjectivity creates the grooves of subjectivity.

My introduction to this topic indicated that we need to reappropriate a doctrine of original sin to illumine the ills of our day, and our own participation in those ills. The purpose of such theologizing, however, is not to wallow in the problem, but to name the problem. Naming is itself a form of self-transcendence that has the power to draw us into transformed structures of consciousness, and a wider embrace of the well-being of all earth’s creatures. Such transformations, however, must necessarily involve a transformed mode of communal existence, a renewed intersubjectivity intentionally open to multiple forms of well-being. Such a topic also requires much further development. For the present, my aim has been to explore new foundations for the old doctrine of original sin, allowing us once again to name its power. Such naming is itself a mode of transcendence that can begin the process of transformation toward the good.

 

References

BS -- Susan Nelson Dunfee. Beyond Servanthood. University Press of America, 1989.

CF -- Freidrich Schleiermacher. The Christian Faith. Harper & Row, 1963.

Eth -- Dan Rhoades. "The Prophetic Insight and Theoretical-Analytical Inadequacy of ‘Christian Realism.’" Ethics 75/1 (October 1964).

IAD -- Freeman Dyson. Infinite in All Directions. Harper & Row, 1989.

NDM -- Reinhold Niebuhr. The Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. I. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941.

PD -- Cornel West. Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity. The Westminster Press, 1982.

SCE -- John Cobb, Jr. The Structure of Christian Existence. The Westminster Press, 1967.

SGT -- Rosemary Ruether. Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology. Beacon Press, 1983.

SSG -- Judith Plaskow. Sex, Sin and Grace. University Press of America, 1980.

TE -- John B. Cobb, Jr. Is it Too Late? A Theology of Ecology. Bruce Books, 1971.

TSG -- Walter Rauschenbusch. A Theology for the Social Gospel. Abingdon, 1945.

 

Notes

1Julius Mueller also developed a work on original sin that harks back to Originistic theories of pre-existent souls; however, this thesis entails many of the problems of a mythic Adam, which truncated its twentieth-century influence.

2See Dan Rhoades, "The Prophetic Insight and Theoretical-Analytical Inadequacy of Christian Realism’," Ethics, LXXV/1, October, 1964.


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