Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Nature of Conception and Childhood

My earliest recollections of life are of excitement, mystery, and joyfulness. I personally don't see how so many Christians can think babies are born sinful, that little children are full of original sin.

When our own first son, while still in the womb, used his feet to kick out bulges in the side of my wife's rotund stomach, I never once, not in the wildest imagination ever thought, let alone said, "There's our sinful pre-born baby, pre-ordained to be totally depraved..."

And I don't know any traditional Christians, not even any fundamentalists, who actually treat their new born babies as sinful, yet so many Christian leaders claim babies are "wicked sinners." In one famous Christian apologetic book, a Christian theologian explained the reason millions of babies die in infancy is because they are innate sinners.

Contrast this theological view with Jesus' way. When the disciples tried to keep children from coming to Jesus, he didn't say, "Don't bring the sinners any closer!"

He said instead, "Let the little children come to me, and stop keeping them away, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to people like these."

Doesn't sound like Jesus thought little children were totally depraved.

Yes, I know there are a few verses in the Scripture one must deal with such as Psalm 51:5 "Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me." I suppose that verse might be the one that allegedly led Augustine to think a man's semen transferred original sin to a conceived infant.

However, keep in mind that the Psalms are poetry! In poetry, then as now, hyperbole is often used. Have you ever said, "I'm starving!" when you hadn't eaten for half a day?

One of my mom's favorite phrases was "There's no rest for the wicked." She wasn't making an obtuse theological statement but poetically declaring it is important work hard in life. She certainly didn't think my sister and I were wicked, but that sometimes we didn't work as hard as we ought. Her comment had nothing to do with our spiritual or moral inner nature.

Even, if one dismisses the hyperbole argument (which is my own view; I taught literature for 26 years and am a published poet who loves to use hyperbole), a person still needs to be awfully careful of taking every word in the Bible as eternal truth, as a literal command, especially in the O.T. Consider the countless humans who have read the Abraham and Isaac story and sacrificed their own child because they erroneously thought God wanted them to do so. This tragically happened just last year back in Indiana or Ohio. The mother believed God would raise her little girl back to life if she had enough faith and killed her (like she thought God had told Abraham to do to Isaac)!

Babies are born innocent--natural. While conscious, a baby doesn't have a developed self-awareness, wherein he/she chooses to defy God and to hurt others.

Of course, when we grow, we do discover our finiteness. We then become aware of our self-focus and how our desires have no seeming limit. We then enter a stage where we are more than natural--and two opposite ways beckon. We are tempted toward selfishness. And yet we too sense our deep desire for the Ultimate--for truth, goodness, and love. How we respond shapes our lives. We are given the choice to respond to the wooing of Love or to choose our own selfish way even if it hurts others and ignores the Truth. And depending on our own culture and family some of us grow up potentially capable of more good or more evil.

Scripture from Genesis to Revelation emphasizes that we as humans should choose. I am aware of the few problematic verses which seem to posit God as an amoral supreme being who manipulates humans like unwanted pots. But the general trend of the Bible is God as mercy, as God as father, God as love--God who chooses us, not in order to damn others, but to bless all nations.

When a child, I don't ever remember thinking of God as an almighty sovereign who treats us kids as sinful objects created for destruction. In fact I've never met a child who thought of God in such a way, though I suppose it is possible there are children who think thus. More likely the view of babies as "totally depraved" comes from adults' philosophical/theological analyzing--and terribly misguided thinking that is.

About the age of 7, I came to what some Christians term "the age of accountability."--when a child reaches a moral awareness, an awareness that he/she, as good and precious as he/she is, has still "missed the mark,' that he/she has fallen short of all one could and should be.

I became aware that I was sometimes selfish, sometimes teased my sister, sometimes disobeyed, even had stolen a paint can from down the street and tried to help steal candy money out of my gramma's purse.

I came to sense deeply my moral failings, my sins. I remember once having a nightmare of Hell. I was no angel, but the ornery preacher's kid.

But notice, I wasn't a totally depraved sinner either. In the midst of my failings, there were also joys and times when I responded to Love and Truth and Light, when I experienced the joy of worship to God with all my heart, when I loved my sister dearly, when I helped my parents and the elderly women in our neighborhood, when I sought truth with all that was within me.

The Holy Spirit of God was wooing me as does God's Light within every person ever created. We are created on the dividing line of nature--finite beings with infinite desires. As the Bible says, God has put "eternity in our hearts." Whether we yield to the Truth and find the Infinite or yield to a self-centered focus, trying to make all others and life to swirl around us, or somewhere in between. It's up to us whether we respond to God or reject him.

It was a Thursday night after Bible study and prayer at our small Baptist church in the tiny village of Adams, Nebraska about 100 miles from the Missouri River. We were headed home in our 50's Chevy driving down a gravel road. My little sister, Margie, and I were in the backseat. Unlike usual I was very quiet. I felt the tug of God. I knew I wanted to respond to God's voice within. Whether the sermon that night was really any different than many others we had heard before is uncertain. But I felt God urging me to respond. I leaned forward to the front seat and told my dad I wanted to "ask Jesus into my heart" (a Baptist pietistic phrase meaning an individual was asking forgiveness for what he had done wrong and wanted to follow Jesus in his life).

My father slowed the car and pulled to the edge of the road. And that night was the beginning of my life journey to follow Jesus.

Never in that first major decision, nor in any wonderful times of spiritual inspiration over the last 54 years with God did I ever feel or think of myself as a "dead object of original sin" who God irresistibly made follow him, or worse, was preordained to Hell.

So then where does the complex theology of original sin, total depravity, etc. come from? Let me the philosopher butt in here for a moment. In my opinion the trouble seems to be one of epistemology. Instead of taking religious truth as story, as transcendent RELATIONSHIP, many theologians have tried to treat religious truth as factual propositions. But religious truth is poetry! Not prose. It is art. Not science. Religious truth is I/Thou, not I/it.

Okay, back to my narrative;-)

My life was transformed. I no longer stole; stopped teasing my sister as much. I even tried witnessing of Jesus' love to neighbor kids. Collecting the autographs of missionaries who came to our church to speak became my passion. I experienced a deep, deep compassion for those in need.

Dear to my heart (even at 62), is a transforming experience at a Youth for Christ rally when I was about 13. We were singing "Everybody ought to know who Jesus is" and I filled to bursting with love for Jesus and for others. Welled up with joy and love beyond measure--experienced true worship, a gathered meeting. Like so many other humans--encountering God, the Infinite filling the finite. Fox, Wesley, Woolman, etc. all spoke of times when their heart filled with limitless love.

This was before I had ever heard of complex, strange doctrines or read depressing sermons such as Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" where God is pictured as hating us and desiring to gut us and that we are filthy spiders he holds over the flames of Hell" and that God even willed Adam and Eve to sin, and that God ordains humans to be sinful so he can get glory. What a travesty! What twisted theology brilliant humans can come up with when they don't focus on Jesus' Parable of the Prodigal Son or the Lost Sheep, the Good News of the Gospels.

That is one of those baffling questions: Why do religious scholars from the Pharisees and scribes of Jesus' day down through church history, to the present often turn God's loving good news into a twisted message of despair?

It is true Jesus did warn of Hell, allegedly used the word more than the word Heaven. And, if I don't keep getting sidetracked we will get to that topic soon. But check out the Gospels. Jesus didn't throw Hell down on individual sinners caught in their own wrong choices. No, he spoke with tenderness whether it was to the woman caught in adultery, the rich young ruler, the tough fisherman, the woman at the well, the turncoat traitor and cheat...

He, as some theologians rightly point out, saved his hell-fire messages for general sermons against religious hypocrites, the power elite, those who abused the poor. And his warnings were just that, warnings, that even the arrogant might turn from their sinful ways and be rescued.

Well, I lost my narrative path and started preaching:-) Next time I will get back to further experiences of the joy and hope and faith in God and how like all humans, I, too, faced times of testing and despair. Life is a difficult journey, a crucible of testing.

Indeed, only a short ways up ahead in my story, I will encounter the secular world and the idea everything has no meaning...

To be continued

Daniel Wilcox


Hystery said...

Daniel, there is so much in this post that not for the first time I truly wish we could be in the same room so I could talk it all over with you instead of engaging in the halting, emotionally-deficient use of my written words.

Two random things that stick in my mind after reading this are that babies really are the most selfish people on earth but they are selfish unconsciously and out of necessity. If they aren't wholly invested in the needs of their bodies demanding immediate food, warmth, and comfort then they would die. Adults are designed to respond to those cries (which is why I'm told that first response vehicles sound like really loud infant cries. That sound plugs right into our sense of urgency.)

Perhaps "selfish" is the wrong word because an infant has no clear sense of self. S/he does not recognize their difference from their primary caregiver (generally mother) and it is only in later babyhood that this begins to kick in and they become difficult. Their ability to use symbols, their awareness of differences between their own and others' experiences, and their ability to differentiate between what they want and what others want begins to emerge. This makes them difficult. It makes them "terrible" as they realize that "NO!" is a very useful word.

In our family we didn't see this as bad. It was certainly no indication of human corruption! We called it "separation-individuation" and it was a cause for celebration (and a little nostalgic sadness.) We also knew the process would repeat itself at another developmental stage. In adolescence, we are again awkward and rebellious as we redefine not only ourselves but our relationships to our parents. I think all of life is a series of these little rebellions and recreations. I think this also applies to our relationship to the Divine. Clearly, I'm going through one of these stages right now. I'll stomp around and make faces for awhile then I'll grow out of it.

What strikes me about our spiritual development is that it is almost the reverse of our physical individuation. As our consciousness evolves and matures, we feel less separated, less individuated from our Source. Eventually, we will re-realize our immersion in and dependence on that Source.

The other thing I thought of immediately was that the belief in infant damnation played a critical role in the "feminization of the Church" in the nineteenth century and the rise of Spiritualism and then post-Christian spirituality. I'd write about that later (if I actually thought anyone would be interested! lol)

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Hystery,

Amen. (I agree with your comments.)

What intrigues me is your last paragraph. Please give me all the details
now that you have dangled the suspenseful hook;-)

I am very interested to hear.


Hystery said...

I'll start working on an abbreviated answer (all things being relative!) on my blog. Even my abbreviated answers are too long to post here as a comment. :-)