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A fallen race?

13 February 2011

Rarely do I take extreme offense at the Book of Common Prayer 1979. Most of the time its words lift me to realms beyond my everyday existence and inspire my imagination. Today, however, is a noted exception.

The collect for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany reads:

O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

When I heard this read this morning, my muscles tensed, my skin crawled, and my emotions flared. “In our weakness we can do nothing good without you”? I’m sorry, but I don’t think so. Yes, yes, human beings are a pretty awful lot sometimes. And we can do absolutely horrible things to one another. But “we can do nothing good”? Calvinism’s “total depravity” is not something that the Anglican tradition has ever espoused.

Rather, we are created in the image and likeness of God. Genesis tells us that God saw all that was created and called it “very good”. Yes, from time to time, all of us fall short of the greater calling to be conduits for love and peace. But this does not change the fact that God’s face has been stamped across ours. We all need grace, that is certain. But our need for grace does not entail that we are completely incapable of doing anything good on our own.

It’s really the notion of “original sin” that sits at the heart of the problem. This concept, ensconced in the writings of St. Augustine, was a convenient way of explaining the fact that Christians–though endowed with grace–could still sin, because sin is part of our nature. The problem is that it was explained as being inherited, something that our parents pass along to us, all the way down from the mythological first man’s sin of disobedience. This idea created a system of forlorn guiltiness that continues to plague Western Christianity–that there is something innate within us that is wrong because of something our mythological great-great-great-…-great-grandparents did. The son is convicted of the father’s sin.

This does not have to be, however. The Eastern Church understands our problem not as something that is innate within us, but as something about the way the world works. Original sin is not genetic, but social. The fact of the matter is that the processes of growing up and of coming to terms with mortality make us self-centered, and thus makes us act in ways that are self-preserving, other-denying, and–in a word–sinful. (If you’re thinking Rousseau at this point, you’re on the right page.)

But, it is not always so. There are people who do much good all of their own sense of the value of their common man. People constantly act generously without any notion of this corresponding to a Judeo-Christian value set. If the collect were to be true, atheists would be completely incapable of being good people, but–gasp!–they are. And guess what…lots of them are actually better than most Christians (double gasp!)

Yes, Christianity claims that our exemplar of this model is Jesus, that the Cross shows us that the ultimate way of love is self-giving, a way that lets go of ego to see the value in other people and not just in ourselves, and that in that action, the darkness of the world from which we try to shield ourselves from so tenaciously is shown to be an illusion.

But to say that we are so flawed that no good can come from us without God specifically working it through us seems…I don’t know…freaking stupid. It creates a God that is micromanaging, extremely selective, and really, really small.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 13 February 2011 21:14

    Good post – I told someone once that we need to bring our mind and our ethics into the sanctuary (this had to do with what to do with certain Old Testament passages). You did this within the context of corporate prayer.

    Along the lines of your post, my awakening came when I left the Deep South and went to the West Coast. I had been surrounded by church people all my life. While I was working and going to schoool in California, I came to see that people who claimed no religion were just as good and decent as the “redeemed” of the church that I had been raised in. Conversely, I also realized that church members can be just as self-centered and mean-spirited as the “unredeemed” of the world.

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