Original Sin and other social diseases

“The civil religion of our nation [is] fundamentally anthropocentric and anti-ecological.”

It was 1992 when William Becker spoke out against both ecological sin and the religious establishment that seemed to be ignoring it. There has been some progress on the theological issues he raised. There has far less progress in addressing the personal aspects of the social disease of original sin.

For Becker, original sin is not just a matter of personal choice; we inherit our choices from our social environment and thus the ‘fallen’ nature of humans perpetuates itself. In his article, Becker singled out those who believe affluence is a measure of success in God’s eyes, saying that they do so because they think success is spiritually good, and they hold that belief thanks to a very Western, and certainly American obsession with progress and technology and control/acquisition. For Becker, this was a perfect example of how “civil religion” eventually trumps received religious doctrines, and how sin subtly exonerates and perpetuates itself.

Becker saw a link between the American view of autonomy and individualism, the church’s emphasis on redemption, and our unwillingness to address our ecological trespasses. The root of the problem lay in the emphasis on redemption. First, a redemption perspective emphasizes Christ as redeemer at the expense of God the creator. Second, it makes the world about us value-less at best, at worst hostile and threatening to our personal composure and development. It also makes us lazy: original sin makes us depraved by nature, inviting us to let God do all the work while we wait for Christ to save us from ourselves.

Becker invoked Thomas Berry’s notion that the universe is based on self-sacrifice, as entities live in order to provide resources to other entities [think of both the soldier’s self-sacrifice and the food chain]. Then Becker says: “The tragic flaw in our industrial-technological civilization, which is at once a moral-spiritual and a biological-ecological flaw, is that it seeks to evade this law of sacrifice and reciprocity.” This was perhaps his most damning charge: it makes ecological sin simply a symptom of a more fundamental spiritual corruption – sloth.

When we make god (any god) a Moral Terminator, when we reduce ethics to a punch clock and set of work instructions, effort and actions we expect in the end to redeem, then we jettison love and devotion and the self-sacrifice that goes with them in favor of an economy of act and reward. That in turn trains us that we can be “ourselves” to whatever extent we choose, so long as we do not cross the line into socially-defined sinful behavior. We can then, in a perverse sense of ‘good conscience,’ complaisantly ignore the effects of our actions on other humans, on the natural world, or on the social environment we live in and in part create. We do not have to sacrifice anything terribly significant to be ‘good’. We can punch the clock and cruise along until we get ours in the end.

That, of course, is exactly what Becker was worried about.

Perhaps we need to take stock of our 2014 civil religions – from atheist to deist to panentheist – and find those attitudes and dicta that, like original sin, have degenerated into expressions of and excuses for despair.

Becker, W. H. (1992). Ecological sin. Theology Today, 49(2), 152-164.


About caerdescri

Author, editor, educator.
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