Original sin: Better than perfection?

By Sarah E.Reynolds | Mar 12, 2010

I came across a quotation from the 20th-century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr recently that caught my attention: "Original sin is that thing about man which makes him capable of conceiving of his own perfection and incapable of achieving it." For Niebuhr, "man" means "humanity," of course.

I am struck by the way this definition of sin challenges the American ethos: Human perfectibility is what we Americans are all about. What's more, we can purchase perfection through cosmetic surgery, control-top pantyhose, the wine (or whatever) we drink, the vacations we take, the schools our children attend - in short, all that we consume.

But deeper than that are the cultural notions that medicine and science will lead us to a world where we neither die nor get old, where we can eat what we want and still have the figure we desire, where all children will be born perfect. We'll be able to artificially enhance our intelligence, our physical agility and whatever other characteristics we deem desirable.

Likewise, schools will not only teach our children all that they need to know to succeed in the world, but will also make up for any social inequalities or deficiencies at home.

And of course our politicians will lead us to a society where everyone can have everything they want and nobody will have to pay for it; especially, nobody will have to pay for anything for anyone else.

I will admit that I'm a pretty good consumer myself. Like many other Americans, I live beyond my means, thanks to the ubiquitous credit card. And I'm not immune to the lure of owning something to show I'm cool, nor to the hope that medical means will be found not only to keep me alive for several decades more, but to keep me in good enough condition to do whatever I want to - travel and playing with dogs included.

When I read Niebuhr's definition of sin, I think of two characteristics of American culture: individualism and pride. We have taken the exaltation of individual achievement and self-sufficiency to such an extreme that it has damaged our compassion: Many of us resent the thought that we might be asked to subsidize, through our taxes, someone else's health care, education or even basic livelihood. "Why should I pay for them," we say, "when they smoke and I don't?" "Why should I pay all this money to support the schools, when I don't have any children in school any more?" "Why should I care about some loafer living on welfare?"

It all boils down to "I've got mine. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, buddy, and get your own." Living like that can be pretty lonely, as the burgeoning search for meaning and belonging attests. And that kind of life is based on the false idea that people can somehow be self-sufficient. We believe that through consumption, "working on" ourselves in therapy or at the gym, or even through religion, we can become the ideal people we imagine waiting inside us, just out of reach.

Even noble ideas of human perfection that are far from consumerist narcissism can lead us astray by 1) making the ideal the enemy of the possible and 2) making us think we can perfect ourselves apart from the One who made us. It is better for me to do a small thing for someone else each day (or even once a week) than to waste my energy fantasizing about the great thing I'll do someday.

I'm a sinner, for sure. But I know that I'm not all I need. And I know that the welfare of other people, both close to me and around the world, is linked to my own. I am convicted by Niebuhr's definition; it reminds me of my need for other people and for God. It reminds me that, made in the image of God, I am still "a little lower than the angels." And the One who made me desires me to show my love, not by becoming divine, but by being fully human.

Being fully human is being vulnerable, accepting of our weaknesses, though not resigned to them, and alive to the humanity of those around us. It is the opposite of trying to perfect ourselves. Having developed compassion toward ourselves, we have more of it for others, too. Perhaps this is why God had to live in the world as a person, experiencing all that we do, before s/he was ready to die for "poor ornery people," as one hymn says.

Doing away with the myth of human perfectibility frees us to be who we are, fallible, generous, nasty and heroic by turns, and to keep doing the best we can -- with the help of our friends and our creator -- to do better. It allows us to approach life with a sense of humor as well as a sense of awe, and to know we are loved, even at our worst.

Lent is a good time to reflect on our humanity, in all its arrogance and beauty, and to enter more deeply into the Love that holds us now and always. We might even give thanks that we are not perfect, and we don't have to be.

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