Chapter 4 of Exploring Mormon Thought (Vol. 2) surveys and critiques traditional approaches to the doctrine of original sin. Chapter 5 will give us Ostler’s own approach to the problem. I haven’t read chapter 5 yet (Joe will address this chapter soon), but chapter 4 has got me thinking about original sin.
First, it’s important to recognize that there is something important going on with the doctrine of original sin, however problematic its deployment has been. We can’t just dismiss it. As Ostler, Immanuel Kant, and Paul Ricoeur note, “we find that, whenever we reflect on the choices we have made, we have always already made evil choices” (2553 of 7837, Kindle edition).
Evil – even our own – precedes us. Even “the situation in which we choose and the very ‘self’ from which we choose have been shaped by evil choices that we have already made” (2570 of 7837).
The doctrine of original sin tries to articulate how Sin (i.e., something like “sinful-ness”) is not just a matter of individual “sins” (plural) but of a disposition and it tries to account, then, for how Sin as a “natural” disposition seems to always precede and shape both our selves and the shared situations that call for us to act. Recognizing the problem of Sin (rather than just the problem of our sins) forces us to recognize that, in order to be saved, “we need a make-over at the most fundamental level of being – a change of heart” (2570 of 7837).
But the trouble is that, as traditionally formulated, “the doctrine of original sin is part of the very problem it seeks to address” (2570 of 7837).
In short, it seems to me that the doctrine of original sin is fundamentally misleading because it frames the problem of sin from the distorted perspective of the unredeemed sinner rather than from the perspective of the redeemed lover. It is a sinful assessment of Sin.
As Ostler puts it, with respect to Sin, “the problem is one of self-deception or refusing to know what we know. The problem is a self-absorbed way of being that fails to take cognizance of the truth that is made plain to us, changing it into a lie so that we can avoid what we know to be true” (2746 of 7837). Or, again: “The problem of sin is the alienation that arises from our own self-deception” (2766 of 7837).
There is something about Sin itself that leads to a distorted understanding of its own character and, on my account, the tell-tale mark of this self-deception is guilt.
In Sin – as a self-absorbed natural man suffering from an ingrown will – I make the compound mistake of thinking that even my evil choices are about me. Guilt is a red alarm that I’ve done something wrong, but it’s a red alarm that directs my attention back to the “I” that is suffering it’s own wrongdoing rather than to those that I’ve injured.
The irony is that this proto-penitent involution of my guilt is itself a predictable feature of Sin.
Guilt is a sinful response to my own sinfulness. Guilt is a dependable aspect of my own self-deception.
Jesus isn’t interested in guilt, he’s interested in responsibility. He’s interested in my learning how to forget myself and respond lovingly (i.e., be response-ible) to the others that lay claim on me.
Repentance is not fundamentally a juridical business. There is no ledger here. Satan is the Accuser. Jesus is the Mediator.
Repentance is the business of being reborn and reoriented. Christ frees us from sin by freeing us from our guilt in order to free us to be responsible for what we’ve done.
Or, better: by making me responsible to and for others, Christ automatically frees me from the guilt that accompanies my crippling (and sinful) self-obsession.
Guilt is a self-deceived way of trying to be responsible that, in its self-deception, prevents me from actually taking responsibility for what I’ve done.
Guilt is surpassed only by the grace of forgetting myself in the hard work of taking responsibility for the demands placed on me by others.
Guilt is surpassed only by love.
God’s own love, extended through his Son, inducts us into this grace.