Last time in the evolution series, we talked a little about ‘original sin’ and why it’s still important for us to maintain the concept of ‘sin,’ despite the outmoded doctrinal baggage attached to the language.
Before we set out to talk about individual sin, I’d like to say one thing. Although I’m focusing on the two major ways I understand sin to operate in this post and the next, I am by no means saying these are the only ways we can or should understand original sin. This is the best way I’ve learned to describe it for myself, at the moment. I may understand it differently later in life, and others may not agree with my conclusion. The fact is, I find these two understandings of sin most viable right now because they cohere with my own experiences. And despite those who would say it’s improper to allow my experiences to govern my understanding of God and reality, I’m going to argue that we have no choice but to do so. Say all you want that we need to ‘go back to the Bible.’ Regardless of whether we do that or not, our experiences always govern our understanding of reality, and there is no way around that.
In The Idolatry of God, Pete uses the work of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan to talk about the feeling of ‘separation’ and ‘lack’ that is inherent to the human experience. For Rollins, if we “consider Original Sin in its most literal definition, we can begin to appreciate how it refers to a primal separation… [It is] the feeling of gap that marks us all from the very beginning” (IoG, 19-20). In other words, every single one of us, at some point, feels a sense of lack, meaninglessness, and dissatisfaction. This is a normal part of the human experience.
Rollins explains that this is a commonly observed phenomenon that originates during what Lacan calls the ‘mirror phase’ in early childhood development – particularly between 6 and 18 months after birth. The ‘mirror phase’ is the stage of infancy where the child’s self-consciousness is birthed. Before this stage in development, there is no real sense of ‘I’ or ‘me’ in the child’s consciousness. S/he is totally unaware of a separation between him/herself and the surrounding environment. However, as soon as the child develops a sense of ‘I,’ there is also an immediate understanding of the existence of ‘not I.’ Rollins states, “The sense of selfhood is marked indelibly with the sense of separation” (13).
This sense of separation from something also leads us to the experience of the sense of a ‘loss’ of something. From the very birth of our self-consciousness, we constantly experience dissatisfaction because we feel as if we are ‘missing’ something – something that actually can bring us satisfaction and rid us of our feeling of meaninglessness.
It is this feeling of dissatisfaction, this feeling of loss, that leads all of us, throughout our lives, to look for ways to get rid of that feeling. We use things like money, power, sex, family, and so on to try and fill the gap we feel, yet we find that none of those things ever make us feel fully satisfied. Further, the Church often makes ‘God’ into another one of these products that can fill the gap, placing the divine on the same level as every other object that promises us some kind of certainty or satisfaction.
In short, Rollins says it this way: “We mistakenly feel that we have lost something central to our humanity (Original Sin) and then postulate some object we believe will restore what we have lost, something we believe will bring wholeness and fulfillment to our lives” (27-28). When we ascribe this value to anything (including ‘God’), we have created an Idol out of the object.
Thus, ‘original sin’ is not something that we need to be punished for because of some inherent level of disobedience to God’s will that we have the second we are born. Rather, on an individual level, it is the feeling of separation, anxiety, and lack that is universal to the human experience.
Next, I’ll focus on how this individual sin progresses to systemic/communal sin and – in the following posts – how the atonement addresses these problems.