Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 38

Posted: May 8th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 38

77.  A man endures suffering either for the love of God, or for hope of reward, or for fear of punishment, or for fear of men, or because of his nature, or for pleasure, or for gain, or out of self-esteem, or from necessity.

The mere fact that we suffer means little. It’s important to know why we endure suffering and it’s rarely from our love of God. St. Maximos the Confessor suffered a great deal for his faithfulness and love of God. He was banished and imprisoned. He had his tongue removed so he could not speak against the ruling heresy. He had his right hand cut off so he could not write against it. And he died without ever seeing the fruit of his faithfulness through suffering.

I’ve endured the suffering of poverty and hard, manual labor for little pay — but that was from necessity. I’ve endured the suffering of a childhood that was not always the easiest, again from necessity. I endured the suffering of Army basic training, but that was for gain, out of self-esteem, and perhaps from some fear of men (drill instructors cultivate a fearsome image). For my own self-esteem, I’ve endured at different points in my life the suffering of strenuous exercise and training. When I am injured, it tends to be my nature to endure that suffering stoically and fight through it. (That last frustrates my wife no end.)

But have I endured suffering for the love of God? Not that I can recall. Would I even be willing to endure suffering for the love of God? I find I don’t know the answer to that question.


Spanking Kids

Posted: December 4th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Elizabeth Esther faced off with Michael Pearl on Anderson Cooper. I applaud her for her courage. On her post, I made two comments I want to preserve on my blog. The first is simply my reaction to her post and her courage for speaking out.

Way to go EE!

And the truth is that kids are resilient. (The older we get, the less resilient we seem to get, but we often still have surprising capacity in that area.) Some break. Sometimes even those who experienced much worse don’t break and find healing. Some experience things that boggle the minds of others and become relatively unscathed adults.

Unfortunately, the reverse is true as well. A child can be loved, given structure and boundaries, and given many other advantages, yet still walk dark paths as an adults.

Parenting matters, and can matter a great deal. But neither good nor bad parenting can assure any particular outcome. And in many ways that’s a good thing. After all, aren’t most of us a mixed bag as parents? It’s good that our mistakes don’t really “scar our kids for life” even if that also means the things we do right don’t guarantee a positive outcome.

I think that’s an important, but overlooked point. Our kids are free human beings just as we are. The fact that we can’t do anything that will guarantee a positive outcome is the corollary to our freedom from every mistake we make having a permanent effect on our children. You can’t have one without the other.

The second comment is one I made to someone who described themselves as a former pediatric trauma nurse and asserted that ‘spanking’ was an overall good in order to ‘keep kids from running into the street.’ I’m tired of that meme being abused, especially by someone asserting professional authority, so posted (if EE approves it) the following.

I wasn’t going to say more than I had mentioned above, but in describing yourself as a pediatric trauma nurse you have made an appeal to authority (in this case professional authority) while making an assertion of fact that is contrary to psychological findings. I don’t defend the language of the person to whom you were responding and their blurring of categories. But you’re appealing to medical authority and your statements are contrary to fact. I don’t want to leave that unchallenged.

This is one of the peer-reviewed articles I can find available online for free. (That’s actually an ongoing problem when discussing science.) I’ve read many more in other media and its results and conclusions are consistent with other peer-reviewed studies I’ve read.

http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/bul-1284539.pdf

Now, that might be a bit much for people not accustomed to reading scientific papers. I come from a family of scientists, though I am not myself a scientist. My mother is many things, but those things include two masters degrees in psychology and art therapy.

Personally, I have experienced abuse and my older son was seriously abused by his biological mother at a young age. (Lots of medical and legal bills and bankruptcy followed that experience, but I regret none of that part of the cost. I do regret that I wasn’t able to learn to be a better parent any faster than I did.) I had the ability to read and understand the research and the motivation to do so.

Here is the key point. The only “positive” thing that has been shown to correlate with corporal punishment is short term (less than five seconds) behavior modification. It’s good at doing that. It’s pretty poor at moral internalization and every other positive long-term measure. And it correlates with some pretty negative long-term outcomes.

What does that mean when it comes to “running into the street”? Well, it shows a number of things (which other peer-reviewed studies have also shown). First, if you are close enough to strike a child, then you have no need for short term behavior modification. You can physically restrain the child from running into the street. (Or they have already run into the street, you’ve caught them, and you are striking them because they frightened you.)

So if short-term behavior modification is not the goal, then moral internalization must be the goal. (You want the child to internalize that they should not run into the street and restrain themselves in the future.) But corporal punishment is one of the worst approaches to moral internalization. That’s not to say that it never works, but it usually doesn’t. And there are many other things you could do that would be more likely to result in moral internalization. Studies have shown precisely that as well.

Once I read the studies and thought about it, I realized there really aren’t any situations where I’m primarily concerned about immediate compliance (short term behavior modification) when my children are within arm’s length. Yes, my children can sometimes embarrass me. I got over that a long time ago. But as a parent, my goal is always moral internalization. I want them to internalize what I’m trying to teach so it becomes something they can do for themselves without me forcing compliance.

So I decided I would do the best I could to use approaches to discipline correlated with greater success at moral internalization. Which is not to say I don’t ever yell (a lesser form of the same sort of thing as spanking), but I don’t hit my children. And I’ve gotten pretty good at apologizing when I do yell and explaining why I did. Doesn’t make it all right, but kids mostly want to give their parents the benefit of the doubt. They forgive easily.

Have I screwed up and will I screw up tomorrow? Sure. But I don’t hit those I love the most. And maybe that’s a start toward learning not to hate those I love the least.

So my cards are on the table. What say you? But be warned, I will remove comments I believe cross the line. I’m not interested in the sort of comment war I’ve seen on other blogs. If you assert something, you better have more than your opinion or an anecdote behind it. This is something about which I feel strongly, and experience tells me if you push me, I’ll tear what you say apart. So be prepared. Or just walk away if you have your own strong opinions and believe it would be mutually counter-productive to engage.

UPDATE: I wrote the comment below later on EE’s blog and wanted to preserve it here as well.

“Right” and “wrong” are moral judgements (unless they are used to mean factually correct and factually incorrect, when usually isn’t the case in these discussion). That wasn’t the point of my comment at all.

Rather, if your goal is moral internalization (teach the child not to run into the street in the future so they restrain themselves) then corporal punishment is one of the least effective means you can choose to accomplish that goal. That’s not a moral judgment, that’s a statement of fact.

The question then becomes, why do parents do something that’s ineffective at their stated goal? And why do they often perceive it as effective when it isn’t? (In other words, why do their perceptions fail to coincide with reality?) That’s another discussion, entirely.

Here I was simply pointing out that your assertion of fact (that spanking a child is an effective means of teaching them not to run into the street in the future) was incorrect. That’s not a matter of opinion. That’s as close as you get to an established fact in behavioral science confirmed in multiple studies by lots of researchers over the course of decades. Corporal punishment is pretty good at very short term behavior modification. It sucks at moral internalization.

Heck, I even read a study from more than a decade ago (not available online as far as I know) that didn’t rely on parental reporting on the specific subject of ‘running into the street’. Instead, they used a control group of parents who reported using spanking to correct that behavior (and controlled for as many factors as they could). And then they taught a study group of parents a relatively simple and straightforward disciplinary approach to teach their small children not to run into the street. Then they observed both sets of families as they were outside under similar conditions for similar periods of time each day over the course of a  period of time. (It was something like 2 weeks or a month.)

Over that period of time, the control group of kids who were spanked showed little or no reduction in their attempts to run into the street. The group that was effectively disciplined very quickly fell to almost no attempts to run into the street.

The same study also asked the parents questions designed to determine their perception of the effectiveness of their disciplinary approach. And this was the strange part. The study group correctly perceived the effectiveness of the approach they used, even though it was new to most of them. However, the group of parents who spanked also reported that they perceived their efforts as effective and further significantly under-reported the number of times their children tried to run into the street.

That’s a good illustration why our perceptions of effectiveness — without objective measures — are not particularly trustworthy. Heck, Michael Pearl perceives his approach as effective.

And I’m not particularly interested in sympathy for myself or my son (who’s doing pretty well for himself with a family of his own now). I was just explaining why I was motivated to actually learn what works and what doesn’t when it comes to discipline.

And corporal punishment doesn’t work in any of the areas I care about, and which I believe most parents care about, when it comes to disciplining children. (Even when compliance — short term behavior modification — matters, which isn’t very often, there are other approaches to achieve it that don’t have the negative outcome correlations of corporal punishment.)

I did notice one thing that I don’t think was clear in my abbreviated overview of the ‘running into the street’ study I described. All the parents normally spanked their kids. (I think this study was from the late 80s or early 90s when it would have been much harder to find parents in the US who wouldn’t have given their small children a swat for running into the street.) They first observed the entire group for a period of a week or two to establish norms in the study situation. They then taught a selected study group a different approach and continued the study for another week or two. Obviously they didn’t tell the control group that they were the control group and as little as possible to either about the purpose of the study. (I think they told the study group they were evaluating a ‘new’ idea for a parental discipline technique or something like that.) In human behavior studies, you can never control for everything. But I thought it was a pretty well-constructed study. That’s one of the reasons it lodged in my brain all these years.

This isn’t a moral judgment like any discussion of abuse must be. (Though I will note that there seems to be a pretty huge gray area between things that almost everyone would agree are non-abusive corporal punishment and the things that almost everyone would agree are clearly physical abuse. That’s another problem to discuss at another time.) This is a discussion of reality and the fact that so many parents’ perceptions of reality with their parenting techniques and children don’t coincide with what is actually happening.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 23

Posted: August 12th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 23

81. Four things make a soul cut itself off from sin: fear of judgment, hope of future reward, love of God and, lastly, the prompting of conscience.

There is a growth or progression in the path St. Maximos outlines. It seems to me that far too many Christians are trapped in one or both of the first two categories. There are entire groups that gain compliance through manipulation of their members based on fear of God’s judgment. And they try to grow by making others fear. And it’s extremely common today to see the entire ‘pitch‘ for Christian faith reduced to the reward of ‘going to heaven when you die.’

Neither of those ever had much hold on me personally. There isn’t much opportunity to fear judgment when you believe the ultimate goal is reunion with the all by eventually extinguishing your own sense of personal identity. Similar, reward-based motivations also have fewer opportunities to gain a foothold. Still, I see the value in both as motivators toward action and growth. It’s when your entire experience is limited to those first two things that they become problematic.

I’m not sure how well my conscience has developed as a Christian. Such things are notoriously difficult to gauge. But I do know that I am Christian and remain Christian because of the love I’ve found not just for some generic ‘God‘, but for the God made fully known to us in Jesus of Nazareth. And that love of God is wholly rooted in the love I’ve experienced from God, not in any fear of punishment or anticipation of reward.


Four Hundred Texts on Love 20

Posted: May 13th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

71.  Perfect love does not split up the single human nature, common to all, according to the diverse characteristics of individuals; but, fixing attention always on this single nature, it loves all men equally. It loves the good as friends and the bad as enemies, helping them, exercising forbearance, patiently accepting whatever they do, not taking the evil into account at all but even suffering on their behalf if the opportunity offers, so that, if possible, they too become friends. If it cannot achieve this, it does not change its own attitude; it continues to show the fruits of love to all men alike. It was on account of this that our Lord and God Jesus Christ, showing His love for us, suffered for the whole of mankind and gave to all men an equal hope of resurrection, although each man determines his own fitness for glory or punishment.

My mind often runs in slightly odd directions. As I meditated on the text above, a line from the season five finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer kept running through my mind. Buffy tells her sister, “Dawn, the hardest thing in this world… is to live in it.”

An infant is born naturally capable of perfect love. And then life happens. It could come crashing down on the helpless child as fetal alcohol syndrome, crack addiction, or similar unwanted chemical bath from the mother rewires the infant’s brain. Sometimes that love is crushed in the first few months or years through acts of abuse or neglect.

But even absent such extremes, life still happens. A child learns that people can and will fail them. Every child learns that others will try to take from them. Children learn that life is fraught with danger and risk. Love becomes a commodity in a zero sum game.

Jesus restored all humanity to life. But in order to live we have to love.


Original Sin 7 – God & Man in the Creation Narratives

Posted: February 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 7 – God & Man in the Creation Narratives

This post is not going to be one that covers the few prooftexts in Scripture that generally tend to be the focus in discussions on the topic of original sin. I wanted to make sure at the outset that nobody reading this post did so with the wrong expectations. I will look at those specific texts later as I explore the historical context for the development of the idea of inherited guilt within some segments of Christianity. That’s where that particular discussion fits in my personal narrative and I think that’s the best context in which to discuss those few texts.

In this post I’m going to explore a few things about the God I found in the Holy Scriptures as I began to try to grasp the uniquely Christian narrative of God, Man, and their relation to each other. The Scriptures are an ancient text and that tends to make them a little harder for a modern American to read and truly understand. But these were hardly the first ancient texts or the first sacred writings I had ever explored and tried to understand. I recognized the challenge and knew that I would have to have a better grasp of both ancient and second temple Jewish culture. And to understand the new Testament, I would have to then perceive that culture’s interaction (in light of Christ) with the ancient Greco-Roman world (with which I already had a fair degree of familiarity).

So I read the Gospels (the obvious place to start) several times, trying to absorb what they said about Jesus of Nazareth. And I noticed something that caught my attention. Jesus insists, in more than one place, that the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings speak of him. It’s particularly dramatic in Luke on the road to Emmaus, but that’s hardly the only place. And so I began to gather the impression that it was not enough to simply have some understanding of ancient Jewish culture and historical context in order to read what we call the Old Testament. From a Christian perspective, it had to be read and interpreted through the lens of Christ, which means that a Jewish and a Christian reading of a text might very well be entirely different. I was also reading other ancient Christian writings and their authors confirmed my impression. Any and every Christian reading of our Holy Scriptures must first and foremost be christological in nature. The text is illuminated in and through Christ. I explain that because it conditions the way I read and understand the Holy Scriptures and thus necessarily frames the narrative arc I see in the text.

The best place to start, perhaps, is at the beginning. In the West, Genesis 3 is typically read as a story of legal violation and condemnation. The first man and woman are tempted. The first man and woman knowingly break God’s inviolable and holy law. The first man and woman are “separated” (now there’s a concept that requires very careful nuance and unfortunately rarely receives it) from God. The first man and woman are condemned by God to death and punishment and eternal torment in hell for their guilt for breaking God’s law. (And tied into that usually runs a thread that creates a problem for God either with his honor or his ability to forgive. Basically, you usually end up with a God who is either overly concerned about his honor or a God who cannot forgive an offense without payment. Now, that does not correlate very well at all with the God we find in scripture and it oversimplifies mankind’s problem and the measures necessary to save us. But that’s an entirely different series. Not this one.) And then their descendants, all of humanity, inherit from that first couple the guilt for their one violation of God’s command.

The problem with that narrative is that Genesis 3 simply doesn’t read that way without some serious distortion. That part of the narrative opens with the serpent telling the woman that she would not “die by death” from eating of the fruit. Instead, they would become like gods — a short and easy path to deification. (Ironically, God had created humanity in his image to bless creation and to grow and mature into communion with God. But the proper path was through obedience and faithfulness rather than disobedience and faithlessness. The serpent tempted the first couple with a false path toward the goal for which they were intended in their creation.) When they eat, their eyes are opened and they know shame, something they had never previously known.

So now they are condemned by God and “separated” from him, right? So then why is it that the next twist in the story is that God comes looking for them? They have tried to turn from God. They have moved away from their only source of life. In effect, they are seeking a non-existence they have no power to attain (since everything is sustained by and contingent on God who is everywhere present and filling all things). Hiding from their only source of life, they are mortal and are now ruled by death. But God does not permit that separation. And in this first turn of the story, we immediately see Jesus, also called Immanuel — God with us. We hide. God comes to us.

And what does God do? He curses the serpent. But the man and the woman suffer the natural consequences for their choices. Moreover, all creation is cursed, not by God (read it carefully), but by us. And God tells us that we are formed from the earth, and it is only when the clay is joined with God’s breath that we become a living soul. So, having turned from God’s breath, from God’s life, we are dust returning to dust. And yet, we are also eikons of God — a God who does not begrudge any of his creation existence — and as images of God, however damaged, we have no means of completely ceasing to exist. (That’s the source of the description of death as Sheol, Hades, or Hel — in Jewish and Christian rather than pagan terms. We became ruled by death and descended into it, but were unable to pass completely into non-existence. That was mankind’s ultimate plight from which we needed rescue. That’s why our problem required a solution as utterly amazing and unimagined as the Incarnation.)

And then God clothes the man and the woman. He covers their shame. But in that act, I also see a prefiguration of the Incarnation. Jesus takes on our nature in order to clothe the nature of man with the divine nature and through that union to heal and transform the nature of man.

And finally, lest we bind ourselves forever in ever corrupting flesh, God seals us from any other path to a sort of fleshly immortality that would not heal our corrupted nature and bodies. It’s clear in the story that he does this as an act of love and mercy on our behalf.

So tell me, where in this story is man truly “separated” from God. Yes, we try to turn from God. We try to hide from God. But God searches for us. God clothes us. God protects us. We have created a sort of separation from God our source of life within ourselves. That is true. But God never draws away from man in the story.

And where does God condemn man? Yes, he describes the consequences humanity will suffer flowing from our turn from him. And God describes how through that turn from him, we have cursed creation and creation will therefore no longer exist in harmony with us. And yet even as he describes the consequences, he gives the first promise that he is working to solve the problem. The promised seed of the woman is Christ. In the story, God does not condemn us. Instead, he immediately promises to rescue us from our own folly.

The God in our text, the God revealed to us in Jesus, is not a God of condemnation. He is not a stiff and unforgiving God. He is a God who overflows with mercy, a God who is slow to anger and quick to forgive, a God whose justice is love. We’ll look more at that God in the arc of scripture tomorrow. I don’t know a whole lot about our sacred text. I still feel woefully ignorant. But nowhere do I see the story of the sort of God who condemns all of humanity for the inherited guilt of a single act by a single pair of distant ancestors.


Original Sin 6 – Guilt vs. Consequences

Posted: February 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 6 – Guilt vs. Consequences

I realized that while the distinction between guilt and consequences in the context of this series is one that is clear to me, I haven’t written anything in this series to explicitly draw that distinction. And it will become increasingly important as the series progresses. So I’ve decided this will be the topic for today’s post. The next post will be my first one directly venturing into my early interactions with the narrative text of the Holy Scriptures on this topic.

In my second post of the series, I tried to outline the specific shape of the problem of defining original sin as inherited guilt. In other words, before God as judge, each person is born already condemned or guilty as a result of their inherited guilt for the actions of some distant ancestor. However, the fact that I reject that perspective does not then mean that I believe that any of us are somehow free from the actions and choices of our parents and ancestors. Nobody starts life with a clean slate completely free from the influence of anyone but themselves. But the language for what we experience is not properly the language of guilt or innocence. It is the language of consequences.

And yes, just as I did in the second post of the series, I have a brief thought exercise that should help clarify the difference. So once again, I ask you to engage your imagination and travel with me on a short excursion.

A woman, perhaps as a teenager interacting with the wrong group of people and making poor choices, begins to experiment with illegal drugs and eventually becomes addicted to crack cocaine. As an addict, she continues to make poor choices and becomes pregnant. Over the course of her pregnancy, this woman continues to be ruled by her addiction and keeps using crack. Eventually, she goes into labor and delivers a daughter. Because of her mother’s illegal drug use during pregnancy, the little girl is born with crack cocaine in her system, already addicted to it. She is what we call a “crack baby.”

None of us would consider arresting that baby for the juridical crime of using illegal drugs. No judge or jury would find the poor infant guilty for the crime of her mother. In fact, we would in most cases take the child from the mother, not as some form of punishment, but in order to protect that helpless infant girl from further harm. The mother may have committed a crime, but the baby girl did not inherit the mother’s moral or legal guilt for that crime.

However, that infant was born into and bearing the consequences of her mother’s decisions and actions. Those consequences cannot be escaped. Depending on the circumstances and severity the child may suffer lasting physical or mental damage. Even if she escapes with no permanent physical damage, she is still beginning life without the safety and stability of a home with parents. That little girl will suffer to some extent the consequences of her birth flowing from the actions of her mother. She need not be ruled by them. People often manage to overcome the circumstances of their birth in amazing ways. But she will not be able to escape those circumstances.

The same thing is true for us all, though usually not in as clear a manner as in my little story. We are born into a dangerous and disordered world. We are born mortal and subject to death. We are born to parents who have been shaped themselves by that reality. We are surrounded by human beings also shaped by those same forces. In Christian terminology (which I am still not always comfortable using), we are born into a fallen creation and we suffer the natural consequences thereof. Moreover, we specifically suffer the consequences of our parents’ choices and actions. We might be born into poverty or wealth (and neither are free from pitfalls) as a result of what our parents (or their ancestors) have done. We might be born into a family engulfed by a multi-generational cycle of abuse. We might be born into families ruled by addictions. But even if we escape the most obvious sorts of negative consequences of our birth, we are still mortal. And it’s still a disordered and sometimes even dangerous world in which we live.


Original Sin 3 – The Fate of Children Who Die

Posted: February 24th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

As I have mentioned elsewhere, I engaged and sometimes practiced a broad spectrum of Christian and non-Christian religions and spiritualities growing up. So I was not ignorant about popular Christian teachings. But I did not really begin to seriously engage those teachings until I turned toward Christian faith when I was roughly thirty years old. By then I was a parent and had been a parent for many years, so it was perhaps natural that the first issue I had with the idea of inherited guilt revolved around its impact on children. For if we are born with the inherited guilt of our ancestor before God, then that means that every child is born already condemned.

Since I was not preconditioned to accept this idea of original sin, I made no effort to fit it into my developing Christian understanding of man and the particular sort of God we find revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. Instead, my initial reaction, once I traced its implications, was that the idea itself could not be right. I did not believe that the God whose love had drawn me toward Christian faith was the sort of judge who would condemn infants, not for anything they had done themselves, but for a legal and moral guilt they had inherited. As I often do when something does not require an immediate answer or solution, I set the matter aside for later exploration and, perhaps, illumination. But I do not recall any point at which I was willing to accept the idea that children are culpable before God simply for being human. I suppose on some level, I recognized from the start that this God I was discovering was a “good God who loves mankind.”

Of course, most of us instinctively reject the idea that children inherit guilt. We reject the image of a God who would condemn an infant simply for his birth. And we are right to do so, for such a God would be abhorrent. (Yes, I know there are some hardcore Calvinists who do actually hold that infants are born guilty and that at least some of those who die are condemned by God to an eternity of punishment in hell. But their God is already abhorrent for many reasons. That’s just one more entry in a lengthy list.)

Different traditions resolve that underlying problem in varying ways. I won’t explore them all here. But one example from my own SBC denomination is the so-called “age of accountability.” Essentially, it says that although children are born with the inherited guilt of original sin, God doesn’t hold them “accountable” for that guilt. Basically they get a free pass in God’s court. At some undetermined point in each child’s life, if they develop normally, they become able to grasp their guilt before God and at that point they become “accountable” for both their own guilt and their inherited guilt.

While the “age of accountability” idea does work around the abhorrent image of a God who condemns infants for eternity for the actions of others, it creates its own problems. Not least of those is the strange way it leads people to speak of and to children. We raise the child to love Jesus and tell them over and over again how much Jesus loves them. We teach them to pray and to sing to Jesus. And then at some point we tell them they are separated from God and they need to tell Jesus they’re sorry and that they love him and that they want him in their lives. But haven’t we raised them loving Jesus? Why is Jesus suddenly requiring them to ask for his forgiveness? How have they truly wronged him to create such a sudden separation? Yes, at some point every person will have to make their childhood faith their own if they are going to continue in that faith. I have no argument on that point. But doesn’t that only seem like an exceedingly strange way to go about it? Or is that just me?

However, I digress. We all recognize that condemning descendants for the actions of their ancestor is fundamentally unjust. That was the point of the thought experiment yesterday. The injustice of the idea is simply magnified when we consider children. And it was on this point that I first rejected the idea of inherited guilt. But it was hardly the only reason I found to reject it or the only problem I found it raised. So we’ll continue this meandering series tomorrow.


Original Sin 2 – Inherited Guilt

Posted: February 23rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 2 – Inherited Guilt

Before we can begin any discussion of Original Sin, of course, I think it’s important to provide some context and definition for the idea we will be discussing. (Or on which I’ll be having a monologue if nobody else has anything to say.) When I use the term, I have in mind the idea, first articulated as such by St. Augustine, that when Adam sinned, we all — as his descendants — participated in his sin and are thus born already judged guilty by God of Adam’s sin and, as a result of Adam’s actions, condemned to death and eternal punishment in hell. In other words, the entire concept hinges on the idea of inherited guilt. As the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, we are held accountable for their actions and crimes against God’s law. We are born juridically condemned for their acts. We are judged guilty at birth even though we have not yet decided or done anything ourselves.

Now, let’s consider this idea of inherited guilt apart from anything to do with Christianity, faith, or spirituality for a minute. A pretty simple story, a thought experiment if you will, should help put this idea into context.

Let’s say there was a notorious Nazi guard at Auschwitz during WWII. This guard actively participated in the torture and mass execution of many, many people. He was known and feared by many in the concentration camp and remembered by the survivors. Yet, in the confusion at the end of the war, he managed to escape, change his name, and build a new life for himself. Over time, he married, had three children, thirteen grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren, the youngest of whom is just two weeks old. Finally, as an old man, his true identity is discovered and he is prosecuted for the crimes against humanity he committed as an Auschwitz prison guard. In due course, the international court finds him guilty of those crimes and sentences him to life in prison.

However, the court does not stop there. It also finds that as his direct descendants, his three children, thirteen grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren (even the youngest who is now six months old in the narrative of our thought experiment) are also guilty of crimes against humanity. As the Nazi guard’s descendants, they are equally guilty for the acts of their ancestor, even though they had no knowledge of those actions and the acts themselves occurred long before they were even born. They share the same judicial condemnation and sentence as their ancestor. They are all sentenced to life in prison without any possibility of parole from the oldest to the youngest.

Would we call that justice? And yet it is precisely the scenario put forth by those who teach that juridical guilt can be and is inherited. At a later juncture, I will probably explore some of the historical framework and context for the development of this idea. But this post should help put into context the idea of “original sin” that I will be exploring in this series.