Sitting in a quiet room of a retreat center tucked into the woods, men and women gather to hear three simple words, “You are loved.” As the words pour forth, tears gently stream down the faces of each person gathered. A retreatant asks aloud, “Am I really lovable?” Another cries, “Am I worthy of this love?”
Humbled to have worked with people from aged 16 to 61, I have witnessed the same reaction occur time and time again. People continually fail to believe and trust in the fact that each one of us are loved. Humanity has lost sight of our intrinsic goodness. We dwell on our sins and failures, neglecting the fact that we are intrinsically blessed.
This tragic problem is unnecessary. Men and women should not have to question and doubt their worth. This problem is rooted in the flawed and damaging Doctrine of Original Sin, and I argue that our faith and our Church, need to reject Original Sin and transition to a Doctrine of Original Love.
The true “original sin” of Christianity is that the Church took a flawed understanding of humanity posited by a man with an over-indulgent sex life, and made it a doctrine. “The church flourished for four centuries,” argues Danielle Shroyer, “without any concept of original sin” and I argue that our faith and personal hope for humanity died the moment we established this doctrine.1 “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth” each creation was seen as “good” and after the creation of humanity, God said it was “very good” (Gen. 1:1, 31).2 With the origin of the doctrine of original sin, Christianity, and ultimately humanity, lost sight of that fundamental “goodness” of the human person.
Like a disease without a cure, the doctrine of original sin spreads like a virus “transmitted by propagation to all mankind” (CCC, 404). Even with the Baptism ‘vaccine,’ the concupiscence ‘enzyme’ persists in the nature of humanity who remains “weakened and inclined to evil” (CCC, 405). Since the dawn of Augustine’s influence, this stain of original sin has permeated Christian anthropology and the Church has used this fear to control the laity.
By creating a doctrine of original sin the Institutional Church could fearfully prevent people from entering heaven without the salvation of the Church. The doctrine of original sin is more necessary for the Church than it is for humanity or ones relationship with God. The constraints of the doctrine of original sin, requires the faithful to fearfully bow before the Church in hope that the chains of a contrived human doctrine can be broken. With this doctrine of original sin, the Church requires full, continual, and absolute involvement on the part of the faithful if they are to obtain salvation. This tactic is wonderful to maintain numbers in the pews, but it limits, distracts, and establishes a harmful “relationship with God as a battle, because it immediately describes our natures as set against God.”3
Original sin implicates each human person for crimes they did not commit. The doctrine presupposes that the human condition is flawed and inclined towards evil because “human nature [is] deprived of original holiness and justice” (CCC, 404). This interpretation of the human person is in direct contradiction to Genesis 1, where God explicitly ordained the goodness of creation. Moreover, this prejudgment of the human condition does not match the reality of the human experience.
According to a crimes report released by the Federal Bureau of Investigations on September 30, 2019, violent crimes have consistently decreased for the past 16 years.4 This report states that there were 1,206,836 violent crimes in 2018. If we analyze the numbers in relation to the United States population—329,739,021 people for the date the report was published—in comparison to the number of violent crimes committed, that means that 328,532,185 people in the United Stated are without fault, that is nearly 99.63% of the population.5 While I am not arguing that crimes and sins are synonymous, I am arguing that there is something more at play in the human condition than original sin. Something that perhaps inclines humanity toward the good. I will be the first to admit that I am not perfect and that I have sinned, but the doctrine of original sin, “unfairly implicates [humanity] in others’ past actions that we could not have controlled.”6 As Sr. Helen Prejean is often quoted in various interviews and lectures, “Human beings can never be solely identified with their actions. Everybody’s worth more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.”7
With the theory of evolution publicly accepted by the Church, the mythical origin story of humanity is now superseded by a scientific understanding of evolution that envelops the notion that “humans were created in God’s image and likeness.”8 As such, the scaffolding that supported the doctrine of original sin crumbles beneath a logical grasp of science and biblical scholarship. Remaining apart from the rubble of original sin is God’s blessing upon humanity. During the time of Moses, well after humanity had sinned and tested its relationship, God still imparts a blessing: “The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you, the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace” (Numbers 6:24-26).
As the sunlight fades above the retreat center, the words, “I love you” continue to be echoed throughout the room. Words from parents, friends, and family members are read aloud from letters and notes mailed in for this experience. This ritualistic reminder reaches into the core of our humanity and celebrates the blessed love of our human condition. As the love-drenched tears wash down their faces, each person is reminded of the “indelible spiritual mark” that was graced upon us in the baptismal waters (CCC, 1272). The seal of baptism is reflective not of humanity, but of God’s overflowing love for creation. For the seal of baptism, “not only purifies from all sins, but also makes the neophyte ‘a new creature,’ an adopted son [and daughter] of God, who has become a ‘partaker of the divine nature,’ member of Christ and co-heir with him, and a temple of the Holy Spirit” (CCC, 1265). Born as a “new creature,” we are bound by the incarnation in which God, “reaches beyond the person of Jesus… to encompass the whole biological world of living creatures and the cosmic dust of which they were composed.”9 In becoming one with creation, “God opens up space for us to dwell in God’s own goodness.”10
As the baptismal waters bathe us into God’s overflowing love, perhaps it is necessary to shift our understanding that we are originally flawed and in need of salvation, to a more robust perspective that we are originally and intrinsically blessed. Rather than the Sacrament of Baptism healing our original sin, perhaps Baptism can become our sacramental reminder that we are originally blessed. For Jesus Christ himself, a man born free from sin, entered into the waters of Baptism to hear the words of God proclaim, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22). This blessing, shared in each of the Synoptic Gospels, echos that of the ritualistic words shared on retreats, “You are loved.”
We are a blessed and broken people, our lives and our hope is built upon the goodness of our nature. When we categorize people with a sinned nature it “minimizes the image of God in each of us” and limits our capacity to share in God’s loving creation.11 Scripture teaches us, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16). In this first epistle of John, we receive the knowledge that “We love because [God] first loved us” (1 John 4:19). From the moment of our creation we are birthed into the love of God and there is nothing that “will be able to separate us from the love of God” (Romans 8:39).
If we begin from a notion of humanity that is originally blessed rather than rooted in sin, we might imagine a world with less barriers. A Doctrine of Original Love, is not to say that humanity is perfect and free from sin, rather it is to suggest that the core of our creation is rooted in blessing. As Thomas Merton writes:
The deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words. It is beyond speech. It is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity, but we discover an old unity. My dear brothers and sisters, we are already one. But we imagine we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be, is what we are.12
This “old unity” that Merton highlights is rooted in our original blessing. For too long we have imagined that we are separate, apart from one another, and apart from God. The truth is that we are one with God. Our kinship with God, and ultimately with one another, gives each one of us the grace to look upon the world with a loving lens.
A Doctrine of Original Love allows us to look upon the “brokenness of the world (and within yourself) with grace and loving-kindness, rather than with shame, hostility, or despair.”13 No longer do we notice the cracks and divisions that separate us from one another, but rather we are afforded the grace to enter into the cracks and divisions to be loving examples of our unity with Christ. We are all blessed and broken people. It is in our blessing, not in our brokenness, that calls us to be in union with ourselves, others, and God.
The Doctrine of Original Sin no longer has legs to stand upon. It does not withstand an evolutionary understanding of the creation of the world. Original sin does not speak towards humanities propensity for the good. It is not rooted in the Biblical tradition of God’s explicit blessing of humanity. Just as humanity has evolved since the fourth century, it is time for our faith to do the same.
Original Love invites us to celebrate and rejoice in the reunification of ourselves with God. In our blessing, we are called to partake in the feast at the return of the Prodigal Son, and greet each person the way God greets us: Filled with compassion and running with arms wide open (Luke 15:20).
As tears dry on the faces of the faithful, and the words of love sink into our souls, we are reminded of what we once knew: We are blessed, we are loved, and there is nothing that could ever separate us from our union with God.
- Shroyer, Danielle. “Original Sin Is Unnecessary and Unhelpful.” In Original Blessing: Putting Sin in Its Rightful Place, 25-46. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, Publishers, 2016. doi:10.2307/j.ctt1c84fsq.6.
- All quotations from the Bible are taken from the following source: Coogan, Michael David, ed. The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version: with the Apocrypha: An Ecumenical Study Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
- Shroyer, Original Sin, 34.
- FBI Releases 2018 Crime Statistics. (2019, September 30). Retrieved from https://www.fbi.gov/news/pressrel/press-releases/fbi-releases-2018-crime-statistics.
- U.S. and World Population Clock. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://go.usa.gov/2Y45.
- Wimmer, Joseph F. Original Sin in the Bible as Read Today. In Evolution and Original Sin: Accounting for Evil in the World, 31. Washington Theological Consortium.
- Prejean, Helen [@helenprejean]. (2019, August 16). Human beings [Twitter moment]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/helenprejean/status/1162154743327682560.
- Wimmer, 32.
- Johnson, Elizebeth A. “Jesus and the Cosmos: Soundings in Deep Christology.” In Incarnation: On the Scope and Depth of Christology, edited by Niels Henrik Gregersen, (p. 138). Minneapolis: Fortress Press, n.d.
- Shroyer, Danielle. “Blessing Is God’s Prerogative.” In Original Blessing: Putting Sin in Its Rightful Place, 11-24. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, Publishers, 2016. doi:10.2307/j.ctt1c84fsq.5.
- Shroyer, Original Sin is Unnecessary and Unhelpful, 40.
- Merton, Thomas. Edited by Naomi Burton, Patrick Hart, James Laughlin, and Amiya Chakravarty, 308. New York: New Directions, 1973.
- Shroyer, Blessing is God’s Prerogrative, 24.