If revamping Social Security is the deadly “third rail” of politics, asking for the focus of Christianity to move from the idea of “fall and redemption” to a more positive way of thinking about God and our faith, is apparently the theological “third rail.” The notice for the topic of this issue wasn’t posted long before I received an objection:
“I stumbled upon this site on accident, so I am not a regular follower and not familiar with your beliefs. […] the doctrine you are teaching about original sin is false, and dangerously so. Please have an open mind – as you so ask of others … If we are ‘good’ purely because we are of God’s image then the need for forgiveness of sins becomes unnecessary. We can rely upon ourselves because we are ‘good’ and do NOT need to rely on God for our goodness. This rejects Christ and everything he came and died for.”
And herein lies the confusion over the idea of “original blessing” versus “original sin.” As soon as one seeks to blunt the importance of “sin” in our original human nature, people tend to lose all common sense. The idea of being originally blessed by God has nothing to do with “being good” and having no need to rely on God’s grace. It has nothing to do with not needing forgiveness, and it, in no way, absolves us from any idea of “sin” and our participation of such. In fact, the idea of “original blessing” demands far more from us, inviting us to take seriously our belief in human freedom and responsibility.
For the uninitiated, the idea of “Original Blessing” comes from author and theologian Matthew Fox, who, in his book by the same name says “original blessing is about original goodness. The forces of fear and pessimism so prevalent in society and religion need to be countered by an increased awareness of awe and goodness. This goodness is inherent in the beauty, wisdom, and wonder of creation. […] When creation becomes the starting point of spirituality once again, then hope will return also. We will see everything differently, including Divinity itself.” (p. 7, Original Blessing)
This creation centered spirituality then is not about dispensing with humanity’s propensity to sin. It is merely a different starting point – one that invites us to focus on the “beauty, wisdom, and wonder of creation” instead of on the fallen nature of humanity. The creation centered view also enjoys the advantage of being an older tradition than the fall/redemption theology which traces its roots to the Augustine in the 4th and 5th century.
“The creation-centered tradition traces its roots to the ninth century B.C., with the very first author of the Bible, the Yahwist or J source, to the psalms, to wisdom books of the Bible, to much of the prophets, to Jesus and much of the New Testament, and to the very first Christian theologian in the West, St. Irenaeus (c. 130-200 A.D.).” (p. 11, Original Blessing)
Simply because the “fall/redemption” story that we’ve been telling all these centuries is newer than the creation-centered idea of “original blessing” doesn’t mean Augustine got it wrong. Sin did enter into our existence at some point and has plagued humankind for its entire existence. A continuing conversation on sin is certainly needed – and is not discounted completely by Fox. But, the “fall/redemption” story we’ve told ourselves doesn’t liberate the human spirit in any way, according to Fox, discounts God’s very creation – and puts religion at odds with science:
“Because the fall/redemption tradition considers all nature ‘fallen’ and does not seek God in nature but inside the individual soul, it is not only silent toward science but hostile to it.” (p. 11, Original Blessing)
It is the arrogance toward the earth and the hostility it has developed toward science that makes the tradition of fall\redemption not just an inferior way of viewing God and our world, but a dangerous one. The single-minded focus on fall/redemption has, instead of leading us out of sin, has contributed to a host of them including, as Fox notes, “sexism, militarism, racism, genocide against native peoples, biocide, consumerist capitalism,” and I would add homophobia and oppression of any minority group. Focusing on the sad state of affairs of human nature and our need for “redemption” by God can lead us to become arrogant, thinking that we have power over creation or other people who are worse “sinners” than we are. It can also lead to despair, where we give up on this world, trusting that God will free us from our “sinful nature” in the next.
Changing our focus to an “original blessing” or an “original goodness” or “original wisdom” frees us to celebrate our not just the creation around us, but the creation of our selves, the creation of our bodies, and, for our community especially, the creation of our sexuality.
This is an important step for the LGBT community, whose bodies – whose very being – has been vilified – called “sinful” or “disordered” as the Catholic Church prefers. The LGBT community is routinely reduced to “flesh” by anti-LGBT groups – objectified and reduced to some seamy “lifestyle” that indulges only in “lust” and other “sins of the flesh.” Original blessing calls us away from viewing “flesh” as “sinful” – and instead viewing flesh as an incarnation of the Divine. After all, it was Jesus – the Divine – who was “made flesh” to dwell among us. It is in that incarnation that Fox finds redemption for all flesh.
“All of us are incarnations – home and dwelling-places for the Divine – all people, the poor no less than the comfortable. All races, all religions, all sexes, all sexual orientations, and all beings – four-legged, the winged, the rock people and tree people and cloud peoples – all are dwelling places of the Divine. That is the depth to which a ‘blessing of the flesh’ theology takes us.” (Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh, p. 14-15 )
When we accept our bodies as a place where the Divine doesn’t just dwell but can incarnate into this fleshly world – we come to a place where instead of hating our body and its desires, we come to a place of awe, a place of respect – a place of true freedom. Where we sin, then, is when we live only for ourselves – for the gratification of our own flesh – and forget that we are Divine. As Divine beings we are called to live not inside ourselves, but in the world.
Fox writes: “‘Flesh’ is humans living in the world, but sinful flesh is living for the world. A person of the world allows his whole self to be governed by the world, to be taken over by the powers of ‘the belly’ or ‘lust’ or ‘indulgence’ or ‘covetousness,’ in a kind of idolatry (Co. 3:5) – a making of God out of ordinary things.” (p. 28, Sins of the Spirit)
Sin is indeed real, and something we need God’s grace and help to avoid. However, it is not simply because we are flesh that we are infused with sin. Instead, we are infused with the Divine – but as we continue to believe in the fall/redemption story that separates our spirit from our flesh, we forget that we are Divine – as a whole – in both spirit and in flesh. It is this reconciliation of our whole selves – both body and spirit – both sexuality and spirituality – that original blessing calls us to.
This split of body and spirit is not original to Christian theology. It was given to us by Augustine, and Fox notes that “the Roman Catholic Church in particular still follows Augustine’s prejudice against the body in its teaching on birth control, for example, since Augustine taught that ever sexual act must be legitimized by being capable of producing a baby” (p. 30-31, Sins of the Scripture). The gay and lesbian community knows this argument well, since it is also widely used by both secular and religious foes of marriage equality for our community.
Fox asks an important question that our community must constantly echo: “Why don’t Christians follow Jesus’ teachings more, and let go of Paul’s and Augustine’s negativity toward the flesh?” (Sins of the Spirit, p. 38) Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God is within us – within our own flesh. There is no separation of flesh and spirit in Jesus’ teachings. The spirit can only be at home in the flesh – the seed of God can only grow into God. As Meister Eckhart observed, “Now the seed of God is in us. Now a hazel seed grows into a hazel tree, a pear seed into a pear tree, and a seed of God into God.”
To redeem the flesh and the put the fall/redemption story in proper perspective requires us to take a new view of our flesh. Instead of hating our flesh, or mortifying our flesh, or denying our flesh, we must renew our awe of the flesh, and recognize that it is sacred. Fox urges us to tell a new creation story – not one about a garden where men and women fall away from God and spend eternity seeking redemption. Instead, he calls us to tell a new creation story that “teaches us that all flesh has a 15-billion-year history. Only if we know that history can flesh become a redemptive force. When we know it, we become grateful and reverent toward our bodies, food, flowers, forests, soil, other animals and birds and fishes, and other human beings. Gratitude and reverence heal. They redeem. They cure us of diseases of soul and mind and heart and body” (p. 40, Sins of the Spirit).
As LGBT people we are not “diseased” or “disordered” because of who we love – we are “diseased” and “disordered” when we deny our flesh – when we deny that we are incarnations of the Divine – just as we are. When we deny our sexuality and seek to separate it from our spirituality – or to deny either of them – we create sin, we begin to live for the world, a world that tells us one part of us is bad and needs “healing.” In reality, what needs healing is the world’s view of us – a view that splits us in two and calls one half of us profane and sinful. It is a false dichotomy – one brought to us by centuries of fall/redemption theology.
Original blessing calls us away from disgust over our flesh that the world seeks to instill in us. Instead, it calls us to wonder and delight – not just in our bodies, but in our spirit. That awe and wonder also call us to a deeper responsibility for our bodies, and for the bodies around us – both human, plant, and animal. If our flesh is sacred, then all flesh is sacred, and we can no longer participate in the sins of lust, ecological decimation, animal cruelty or any action that demeans or degrades any flesh on this earth – including the flesh of the earth Herself.
With a fall/redemption story we are more prone to see the world for what it can provide us – what we can take from it, no matter what the cost to others or ourselves. Viewing the world through the lens of original blessing changes how we see ourselves and those around us – suddenly, all is holy, all is sacred, and we honor not just what the world can give us, but what we can give back to the world.
I believe LGBT people naturally see the world through the lens of original blessing, which is why the fall/redemption story that we are told by church and society so confuses and wounds us. We try to conform – to go against our instincts that tell us to honor our bodies and our spirituality. We most often fail because the odds are stacked against us as the majority of the world views us through the lens of fall/redemption – “sinners in need of repentance.”
The good news is that we no longer need to conform to the traditional frame of the fall/redemption story. Original blessing – this older tradition – calls us to reconcile our sexuality and spirituality – our body and our Divinity. Original blessing challenges us to honor even those caught in the worldview of fall/redemption, and invites us to live into our Divinity especially in the face of strong societal and institutional opposition. This is not a theology of trying to “be good” – instead, original blessing calls us ever more deeply to rely on God’s grace, and trust in God’s abiding love for us, as we continue to face those who preach that God could never love “sinners” like us.
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.