Reflections on Original Blessing, Part 3

I've taken a while to get out this post, the final one in a series talking about Rev. Shroyer's book Original Blessing (first two posts here and here), because I've changed my mind about the book in the interim.  Well, that's not quite right.  It's less that I no longer have the concerns about some parts of the book that I had when I first read it and more that I increasingly think that those concerns are not all that important to the overall narrative of the book and the questions it is trying to answer.  The more I think about and reflect on the book and what it is trying to do, the more I think the places where I agree with it are far, far more significant than the ways that I would frame some things differently.

In that light, let me (finally) cut the chase and talk about the part of the book that gave me pause.  In the book, Rev. Shroyer calls us to make a decisive move away from the Augustine formulation sketched out in the first post and to replace it with, as the title suggests, the idea of Original Blessing.  This move away from Original Sin entails a rejection of two intertwined notions that constitute the doctrine of Original Sin.  First, there is the idea that all human beings have, to use the evangelical Protestant term Shroyer repeatedly deploys, a "sin nature"--something in them that inclines them toward sin and away from God.  The second component is the claim that, as a result of the first part, God turns away from human beings in a permanent way, subject only to the saving work of Jesus (however that is understood in the various strands of Christianity).

In rejecting Augustinian Original Sin in toto, Shroyer rejects the idea that there is something in us that inclines us toward sin and away from God.  In Shroyer's telling, sin is at the end of the day a lack of awareness of our Original Blessing.  Once we become aware that we are loved by God unconditionally, and that is everyone else is loved equally and similarly, we will understand that we need to treat people in a manner consistent with that blessing.  When we lack this awareness, says Shroyer, we treat others as objects or threats or otherwise in a way inconsistent with their status as being blessed by God.  In addition, we pull away from God, or at least try to pull away from God, since God never leaves us as a result of Original Blessing.

Sin, under this formulation, is basically a mindset problem.  If you have the right mindset, i.e. an awareness of Original Blessing, then you should be in a position where you can just, well, not sin.  If you do sin, presumably because you lose contact with the awareness of Original Blessing, you can rest secure in the notion that those failures do not jeopardize the Original Blessing.  But at the end of the day, Shroyer's prescription for sin is to just stop doing it.  Drawing primarily on the Jewish theology of yetzer hatov (inclination for good) and yetzer hara (inclination for evil, though Shroyer recasts or interprets this to be something more like "instincts" or "self-preservation"), Shroyer presents an entirely voluntaristic model of moral life.  You can chose to do good and you can choose to do bad, and if you keep in mind Original Blessing you will be led to choose good, so go out and do it.

I have two basic concerns about this understanding of sin.  First, I think Shroyer's model of sinfulness is too individualistic in its focus, treating each of us as isolated, autonomous actors making singular moral decisions in a vacuum.  As I mentioned in the previous post, I believe we are all both the products of and the contributors to a inter-dependent tapestry of relationships.  It's a mistake, I think, to believe that we can just unilaterally change our relationship to those factors easily and without enormous effort.  But, whether it was her intention or not, that's the sense I got from Shroyer's book--the "Just Say No" school of sin-avoidance.  I just don't think that pays enough attention to the ways that we are enmeshed in a structural reality from which we don't have an easy exit through our own efforts.  The best, and really the only worthwhile, dimension to Augustine's account is the notion that we need divine grace in order to extricate ourselves from the mess in which we find ourselves.

In addition, I am not sure how helpful Shroyer's prescription is in a practical sense.  "Be aware of your (and others') Original Blessing" feels "self-helpy," in the sense that it sounds like the kind of thing that if it were that easy, everyone would be doing it already.  "But people don't think they are living under Original Blessing because of the bad theology they have absorbed," I can hear Rev. Shroyer saying, and I think she's right.  But I still think we need a more robust account of human sinfulness than simply a bad mindset combined with bad theology.  I think we need a more comprehensive account that gives people more tools to work through the complex and multifaceted problem.

But, here's the thing.

The really pressing question that Shroyer is addressing in the book is the second part of the Augustinian equation.  Original Blessing, at its heart, is the notion that God loves us into creation and never stops loving us and being close to us and with us, no matter what we do or how much we might reject that love.  The chasm of separation from God originating from God's "side" of the ledger that the unreconstructed Augustinians claim is a lie, and instead we should be aware of, and celebrate, God's unwavering presence.  The idea that God turns away from us as a result of sins, let alone some inherited and involuntary "sin nature," is inconsistent with a God who is the embodiment of love.  Moreover, it lays the groundwork for a transactional understanding of our relationship to God and the "Salvation Industrial Complex" which has had so consumed, and consumes, so much of Western Christianity.

Consider Elizabeth Bruenig's response to the Greenblatt essay that I discussed in the first post.  Bruenig defends Augustine in the usual way, which is to contrast his thought with his great intellectual opponent, Pelagius and the body of thought that has come to be known as Pelagianism.  The problem with Pelagianism as it is traditionally presented--and Bruenig does a good job of presenting these problems--is that you are "on your own" in the face of a God who demands perfection in order to achieve salvation.  The Pelagian God is the ultimate "Tiger Mom," insisting on greater and greater efforts to earn God's love.  Whereas the Augustinian version of God, as Bruenig argues, is far more merciful, since it creates a vehicle for imperfect people to cross the infinite space between us and God without having to somehow "earn" that privilege.

But both of those views presuppose that there is a vast chasm between us and God as a result of our sins.  If you take the position, as Shroyer does, that nothing we can do one way or the other to distance ourselves from God, then the fear lurking behind both the Pelagian and Augustinian positions is dissipated.  Said another way, Pelagianism says that we have to earn the brass ring that grants us admission to God's presence through our herculean (if, in the Pelagian account, theoretically possible) efforts; Augustinianism says that we are simply given the brass ring through grace, even though we have not done, and cannot do, anything to deserve it.  But Shroyer would argue that we are already and always in God's presence, making the brass ring (at least as defined by those two systems) largely irrelevant and unnecessary.  This effectively removes the neuroticism that goes hand-in-hand with Pelagianism, and is altogether more merciful than anything Augustine could possibly provide.

The core message of Augustine's thought--that God hates us because of our biology that in some convoluted way is our fault--is toxic, as seen nowhere more clearly than in the crazed knots that Christians have tied themselves regarding sexuality.  So toxic is this basic message that the more I think about it, the more sense it makes to take the Shroyer route and throw the whole thing over the side.  We can worry about how we talk about sinfulness and the human condition after we get rid of a core problem at the heart of the current presentation of the Christian story.  Focusing on the "self-helpy-ness" of Shroyer's presentation, as I initially did in reaction to the book, is a little like arguing over the renovation plans while you are still trying to put out the house fire.

Or, put it another way.  If you want to take the most critical posture toward Shroyer's book, you would lump it in with that amorphous bugaboo of conservative Christians--"moral therapeutic deism."  I don't think that's fair to Shroyer's book, but what I am coming around to see is that I would rather be a moral therapeutic deist than be stuck in the muck of believing in a God that hates us and in which we are constantly engaged in a futile war with our own created nature.  There is little to no Good News in that message.

But, as I previewed in the second post, don't think we have to choose between those two poles.  I think we can have a robust account of sinfulness as something that is "in us" but not "of us," without having to internalize the idea that we are totally depraved.  In doing so, we can even save Augustine's own story as an exemplar of the human problem.

Think about it.  His father Patricius imparts on the young Augustine the pagan version of the Fertility Cult-model of sexuality--the male penis as a symbol of, and vehicle for, building and maintaining family honor through the bearing of a large and prestigious family.  Augustine then goes off to school and forms a long-term relationship with a woman who does not fit into the socially-ambitious model of sexuality offered up by Patricius, but which is not necessarily  inconsistent with that model either.  As Augustine's heart and mind turns toward Christianity, the pagan version of the Fertility Cult is replaced with the Christian version of the Fertility Cult promoted by his mother Monica--find a socially respectable and devotionally solid Christian woman and marry her in the approved manner.  Such a vision has no place for the mother of Augustine's child, and so she is cast aside (with apparently little hesitation on Augustine's part) prior to Augustine's decision to abandon even that model for the celibate life.

Augustine experiences this arc as a struggle against a brokenness in himself that was beyond his control.  But the problem to me is not that conclusion; the problem is Augustine's description of the nature of the brokenness.  Augustine had a series of relationships in which he exploited the other person for his own pleasure without entering into any reciprocal obligations for their welfare, seen nowhere more clearly than in the example of the unnamed woman that loved him and bore his child, whom Augustine never bothers even to give a name to in The Confessions.  And he did so in no small measure because both the pagan and Christian culture of which he was immersed in told him that he was free to do that, especially as a man.

That, and not some fantastical musing on his lack of erection control, is to me the experience of "Original Sin" in Augustine's life.  I cannot possibly know if he felt guilt and shame as a result of his treatment of his unnamed love, but I suspect he might have.  And, if he didn't, that's all the more evidence of the pervasive and powerful nature of the brokenness at the heart of human relationships.  Augustine was enmeshed in a complicated web of brokenness around relationships and, yes, sexuality, that is so complicated that even today many would deny that it is brokenness at all.  How many versions of Augustine's unnamed love walk among us today in the Christian world--tossed aside by the people that they love in the name of maintaining the socially-acceptable veneer of "Church culture"?

We can acknowledge that brokenness, and a need for grace to work through that brokenness, without seeing our created selves as wicked, or viewing predicament in terms of finding some way to bridge an impossible gap to reach an angry God.  But the first step to doing so, and here is where Original Blessing is 100% on the money, is to come to see ourselves as being loved by, and held close by, the God that created us.  Whether or not that awareness is quite enough to do the work that it needs to do, it is certainly necessary to that work, and is the logical place to begin.  Especially if you were raised with Augustine, and you need to learn that idea anew.

All of this is the most convoluted possible way to endorse Rev. Shroyer's book.  Don't do what I did initially and lose sight of the forest through the trees--we need to be reminded of our Original Blessing, and Shroyer does a good job of doing so.

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