I am a Christian, and so, in common with most other people who identify with this faith, I have a ‘belief’ in original sin. This statement is an excellent example of what I mean when I say belief is not the same thing as trust. When I say I believe in a God, πιστεύω εις ένα θεόν, what I really mean is, I trust, in Greek (the language I theologize in) πιστεύω, pistévo. I trust in a God, actually, in one God. When I say, most Christians believe in original sin, of course I do not mean that we trust in it, in sin—except in the sense of, ‘people are sinful; trust me.’
Original sin, whatever you believe, or think, this means—and there are many interpretations—most will definitely agree that it’s the thing about us that gets us into trouble. One of my favorite ways of looking at it is, that human beings, though born good, have a built-in law of failure. It’s me that says human beings are born good, an idea many non-Christian cultures accept. I say it because I can’t see how any creature of God can be considered born bad. Something happens to all of us in that split second when we’re exiting the womb and entering the world.
It’s like we make a choice before we know we can choose. It’s a tiny choice, but it grows as we grow. At some point, we actually become conscious of it, we know we are choosing to do something bad, because it conflicts with our innate goodness, which we agree with. Religious faiths usually don’t hold us responsible for our choices, good or bad, until we reach a certain age, when we are subjected to a rite of passage. The formality of this rite clouds the actual moment when each of us plucks the fruit we were told not to, and eats of it, and we start learning to hide.
It seems silly to me when moderns mock the scriptures and the stories that tell of the world’s and man’s beginnings and our fall. They miss the whole point of the stories. When mined for the gems imbedded in them, yes, you do have to make some effort, you do have to dig deeper, and when you turn them up, you have to stay very wide awake, otherwise they might remain hidden from you in plain sight. This is how it is with understanding what original sin is, how to recognize it, how to evade it, and who to turn to, to be delivered from it. Hence, specifically, the Gospels.
As I see our predicament—returning again for a moment to this idea that people are born good, but are messed with—I want to make another observation. I have noticed that most, if not all, people want what they think is good. Even those historical menaces like Adolf Hitler wanted what he thought was good. Apparently, a lot of people agreed with him on this point, otherwise he would have remained an obscure German wallpaper hanger. As we have seen, though, what Hitler thought was good was maybe good for him and his, but for others it was catastrophe.
Here’s the rub. We are born good, and we want good, but we usually stop at what only feels good, and what only feels good to us. If it also feels good to other people, that’s great, but it really doesn’t matter. If this is another angle of our all-too-human built-in law of failure, I am not surprised. And, of course, wanting the good but settling for what feels good instead of what does good, reveals that we are usually putting ourselves first, not the other guy. The author of Ecclesiastes was right when he wrote, there is nothing new under the sun, and all of us are living proof.
In the first of the Chronicles of Narnia, The Magician’s Nephew, by C. S. Lewis, this struggle between what does good and what only feels good, and which to choose, is distilled in this enigmatic quatrain:
Come in by the gold gates or not at all,
Take of my fruit for others or forbear,
For those who steal or those who climb my wall
Shall find their heart’s desire and find despair.
Come in by the gold gates.There’s a right way and wrong way to go about everything.
Take of my fruit for others.It’s better to seek what does others good and pursue it.
For those who steal.Because what pleases only oneself.
Those who climb my wall.Those who go about things in the wrong way.
Shall find their heart’s desire and find despair.Once the wrong way is established, it poisons the soul.
There isn’t a dividing line between those good humans who always choose what does good, and those bad humans who always choose what feels good, but we tend to identify ourselves fully with the former and have no trouble identifying who are the bad guys. Here in America in this presidential election year, this phenomenon is rampant, turning many people into living ikons of Judgment Day—except that it isn’t safe or wise to pre-empt God and take His job away from Him. Yet we act as though we are innocent, and all the blame we heap on ‘the other guy.’
There is a dividing line, but it doesn’t separate the good humans from the bad. It never did and was never meant to. That dividing line cuts everyone of us in half, if not into slivers. But it’s not a fault line like in the continental shelf, which we know is there, and fear, but can do nothing at all about. No, that dividing line is—if we are brave enough to think hard thoughts—only an imaginary line. It’s a line that can be crossed, as we have found out since we do it every day. The trick is to erase the line as much and as often as we can, to eliminate the wrong side, and desire the right.
Born good, born free, yes, even born again. These are just words, some with meaning, but they remain outside our reach as long as we want what only feels good, looks good, maybe is good but only for ourselves. Born good, born free, yes, but why did I include ‘born again’? It is because the hardest self-deception to escape is the one that we use to cover our nakedness, again, in the wrong way. Even being a ‘born again’ Christian has a right way and a wrong way to it. If we’ve examined ourselves carefully, we know what I mean. Let’s come in by the gold gates, or not at all.
Open to me the gates of repentance, O Giver of Life, for my spirit rises early…