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Understanding original sin without religious certainty

Michael Pulley – Yesterday 5:28 AM

Some things were expected and sure, like measles, chicken pox and mumps. I was over-the-top sick with all of them, staying home from school, then watching kids walk home — I’d lift a Venetian blind louver and peer at them, as though I’d done something reprehensible not to be walking home, something I could have avoided if I’d only been more upright and wary.

Perhaps I thought that way because of a theological construct called “original sin.” I didn’t know the phrase when young, but might have thought that if I could work harder and believe the right things, I might free myself from some stain I was born with, that the human race shared with me.

Imagine a newborn first breathing oxygen, being brought into this planet through no agency of its own with its first act a bawling scream, as if to say, “I was once cozy, my cells dividing rapidly as I rested in a comforting fluid, only to be thrust into bright lights, loud noises and handlers tossing me back and forth! Any way I could go back?”

And then years later, the once-newborn learned it was born into “original sin,” that is, “bad to the bone.” And if asked “Why?” answered with a statement such as, “It was God’s will.”

“And who is this God that thrust me into sin I had nothing to do with?”

“You ask too many questions.”

“Any chance I was born into ‘original goodness’?”

“No chance at all.”

Such theological certainties not only made me scratch my naïve head as a child but continue to baffle me to the point of my casting off such notions like original sin. I’ve left so many absolutes behind, that discussions with people who hold them so often turn into fruitless talking — my wheels spin and go nowhere. What do I have to prove? Nothing, really.

Barbara Brown Taylor (priest, theologian): “I have learned to prize holy ignorance more highly than religious certainty and to seek companions who have arrived at the same place. We are a motley crew.”

Does arriving at religious certainty require more or less imagination than the holy ignorance Barbara Brown Taylor speaks of? Novelist Zadie Smith wondered “what it would be like to be Polish or Ghanaian or Irish or Bengali, to be richer or poorer, to say these prayers or hold those politics. I was an equal opportunity voyeur … above all, I wondered what it would be like to believe the sorts of things I didn’t believe.”

New York Times columnist David Brooks: “Imagination helps you perceive reality, try on other realities, predict possible futures, experience other viewpoints.” In other words, try on many outfits, see what looks good on and for me.

I was once ill-equipped to ponder more closely original sin, thinking I might need to work my way out of a guilty stain — possibly avoiding measles, chicken pox and mumps. My immaturity and naivete blocked my imagination to question what others had set before me as sureties.

Brooks goes on: “What happens to a society that lets so much of its imagination lie fallow? Perhaps you wind up where people are strangers to one another and themselves.” Where certainties cannot be formed by testing many hypotheses through the lens of imagining what might be.

I’ve no desire to be a stranger to others and myself, when I could — maybe for a brief time — imagine what others unlike me are thinking. Might be something there I could try on. See if it fits. Could just be worth a try.

Michael Pulley lives in Springfield. He can be reached at

This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: Understanding original sin without religious certainty


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