I’ll be the first to admit that original sin is an unlikable concept. My rejection of this notion is what started me on the path of Unitarian Universalism. As a youth growing up in the Episcopal faith, I rejected the ritual confirmation of Episcopalianism based on this theological issue.
By age 13, I understood original sin to mean a series of contradicting things. At the start of the Bible, God creates everything, including people and these two particular apple trees. If you eat the fruit from one tree, you will have everlasting life. Eat the fruit from the other, and you will gain knowledge of good and evil. He tells the people he created, Adam and Eve, not to eat from those trees. Eve listens to a snake in the garden who says she should eat from these trees. She takes a bite out of the apple of knowledge of good and evil (the logo from Apple computers!) and shares it with Adam. This disobedience of God is the original sin, and it what casts humanity out of the paradise God created. According to most Christian beliefs, we are forgiven for this sin when we follow Jesus. Jesus, being fully human and fully divine, atoned for this sin when he died on the cross. If we don’t follow Jesus, however, then we are subject to this curse Adam and Eve brought upon us.
Metaphorically, it is a story full of meaning about knowledge and the loss of innocence, why humanity has to work so hard instead of just being given everything by God, and how women will always find the truth no matter the cost. It is a way to describe the peace between people and God that Jesus showed humanity thousands of years ago.
As a young teenager, I only understood the story literally. I could not reconcile the idea that God loves me and the whole world yet that love is limited if people did not accept Jesus Christ as the savior. I could not accept the damnation of those who were not Christian. What if people who are far away, I thought, born in New Zealand who never got a chance to be baptized before some tragic death…did God send those babies to hell for something Adam and Eve did?
A defining characteristic of Unitarianism is the rejection of the literal understandings of original sin. They went back to the Bible and could find little to nothing to support that the idea that Jesus died to stop original sin. Original sin was actually a doctrine of an early church father, Augustine, who formulated it around 400 AD. The Unitarians who were trying to understand the Bible as it is, using faculties of reason different than Augustine’s, rejected original sin.
This freed us from thinking that all humans are born ready to do evil, or that the nature of children was evil until you put the fear of the devil in them, or that most of us are doomed to fail God, and that we are somehow responsible for what looks like a divine set-up.
Instead of original sin, Unitarian Universalism is the tradition of original blessing. The powers that be are like humanity; we are created in the image of God. Human nature, on the whole, is one of goodness, love, and charity. There is no original sin, and that is why no one is going to hell. This is why Unitarians are so close theologically to Universalists. They also believe there is no hell. Universalists came to this conclusion because they believed that God loves all creation and that the atonement of Jesus worked for all time.
Central to the Unitarian rejection of original sin is the idea that humanity is not inherently sinful. Our nature has not been damned by God. We are free to be better than the generation before us. We are theologically disposed to think we do improve with each generation.
Yet, slavery continued for hundreds of years. Colonialism continued unabated, and some say we live in a time of economic colonialism where the Global North exploits the Global South. We have trashed the planet – though humanity has known for a least a generation – that this dooms our descendants.
Much closer to home, four people at the UUA have resigned. They failed to provide effective leadership against a culture of white supremacy in our association. Personally, I am realizing we are not a faith that has few people of color due to random chance. Our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors nicely, and with the best intentions, pushed people of color away. They did things like:
– denied Unitarian ministers of color pulpits or permission to found congregations
– faltered in supporting Unitarianism overseas
– supported eugenics and social Darwinism
– planted churches in “college towns” because only “educated” people would “get it”
– refused to integrate our churches on the basis of honoring congregational polity (In 1963, the GA rejected a resolution that would have required congregations to drop racially discriminatory restrictions from their bylaws. http://www.uuworld.org/articles/empowerment-tragedy )
– walked back on promises to fund Black-led initiatives
There are many more examples, big and small, of how Unitarians and Universalists failed to live up to our religious ideals. These incidents and more point to a system of white supremacy that is interwoven into our faith as deeply as the seven principles.
This tests our faith. We don’t inherit the sins of our forebears – do we? Is Unitarian Universalism inherently bad, or white supremacist?
We seem to be ok with inheriting the good deeds our ancestors did. We celebrate that our faith was home to the most fervent abolitionists. That we do have some UU communities overseas that are indigenously led. That we responded to the call to Selma, that we have Unitarian Universalists that died in the struggle for civil rights.
We must acknowledge and remember the good our faith has done and see how it has built the religious tradition that I love today. We must also own up to all the ways that our religious tradition has fallen short. This too is a part of us that we are trying to make better. Only by engaging in this complexity can we grow and be the Unitarian Universalism we idealize ourselves to be.
I contend that the understanding of original blessing has been misunderstood by Unitarian Universalists today. Original blessing does not mean that history has no effect on us and that we will always be perfect; that our good intentions are the only thing we need to do right by others. It means that everyone is innately worthy. No one is damned. No one should be punished for something that they did not do. This is liberating for people born under oppression. Suffering is not divinely dictated, but something people create and something people can heal.
At the same time we can be complicit with systems of sin. We inherit histories that are both good and bad, and we can receive benefits of oppression based only on the actions our ancestors. We can feel cursed for nothing we did, but because of the oppression of our ancestors. Rejecting original sin does not mean we reject that systems like white supremacy exist. It means we reject that we are ultimately doomed to perpetuate it. If we are wise enough to understand that it benefited some of us while hurting a lot of us. And if we are brave enough to proclaim that we all should be free.