Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today


Original Sin

Branded From Birth & the Web of Meaning

Some of the best feedback I got last week, when talking about Social Costructivism being my philosophical orientation within my chosen discipline of Practical Theology, came from WrdsandFlsh

Responding to my sentence:  “I do not believe in the autonomousselective nor the pre-institutional self. I am a social constructivist who believes that we are socialized, groomed and conditioned from day 1.”,  She said:

Your social constructionist theory fits well within Serene Jones’ theology of sin. We are given “scripts” form the time we’re born. Those scripts teach us consumerism, racism, patriarchy, etc. So we are indoctrinated into sin in our very language. We are shaped before we have a knowing self into the language, patterns, etc of our families/communities. And, that includes being shaped by the societal institutions of sin.

I think there is much to explore in the idea that we can never get back to our “pre-conditioned” selves. We are always indoctrinated (for lack of a better term) into the communities in which we are raised.

So, my question to you as a Pastor and not as a researcher, is to say, how do you live theology differently with this in mind? (As opposed to study theology).Perichoresis

I am always honored when someone asks about translating a theological idea into pastoral practice. It is literally my favorite thing in the world – next, of course, to reflecting on the perichoresis. 

 Four things come to mind initially: 

  •  the first is a joke I got from Peter Rollins
  •  the second has to do with expectations
  •  the third deals with authority
  •  the last addresses translation


A man walks into a lawyers office to inquire about legal council and asks “How much does a consultation cost?”

The lawyer informs him that the fee is $200 for three questions.

Surprised, the man asks “Really?”

The lawyer says “Yes. Now what is your third question?”

Rollins used this joke to reflect on the nature of ideology: we find ourselves deep in the midst of it before we realize that we are even in it.

One of the most helpful things that we can do for people as pastoral leadership in the church is help them to realize the nature of inherited beliefs and assumptions. Through our preaching and counsel we can illuminate the nature of ‘what we are caught up in the middle of’.

While I tend to try and steer away from technological analogies for humanity, this is my one exception:

When people come to us they are often  wanting help to fix A) a glitch with the program they are trying to run or B) a problem with the hardware.

Rarely do they want to address the operating system that underlies the problem. We assume the operating system ( the ideologies and assumptions behind that which we can see)  and either want to fix the program we already use or to download a better version of it.

Getting people to examine the operating system that is in place is difficult because it is a much bigger undertaking than simply tweaking the program or trading out some hardware.

If  what they are using was working they probably wouldn’t come to us – we wouldn’t even know about. Like a medicine woman or a computer repair person we see people when something is broken. Being prepared with how to access the operating system–and not just fixed the program that is running on it–is a gift we can offer people.


I have told this story before but it is illustrative for this point.

A man in my congregation would lose his job at the big factory in town on a seasonal/semiannual rotation. When the economy was in a rut, he remained jobless for quite a while and his family was devastated that God had let them down.

We prayed as a congregation, as we did for everyone, for his employment. It dawned on me, however,  during this period that we might be better off addressing the systemic problem of how the major employers in our area conducted themselves.

 In many circles the way we pray exposes a gap in our understanding. We are fine to pray for people personally and to focus on their individual piety/spirituality (mirco) And to trust in the heavenly/divine of some transcendent realm (macro).  Where we are negligent is in the connective element of systems, structures, and institutions.

The work of folks like Walter Wink on The Powers is essential here.

We do people a great disservice when we neglect this essential component and allow people to conceive of themselves and their lives as individuals – and then jump right to the heavenlies. That enlightenment notion of self and society is deadly both to the soul and Christian community.

christian unity

Authority:  Whether you have a hierarchical model of pastoral leadership or a more egalitarian/communitarian conception, we each have a role to play. That role comes with some level of authority over a sphere of influence.

By first understanding, then articulating a better understanding of concepts like original sin (see part 1 of this post),  we recognize and account for the fact that we are all caught up in a web of conflicting desires and motivations. This acknowledgment is essential for the way one conducts her or himself in Christian community and especially leadership within the community.

The people that we interact with and give direction to are as multifaceted, complex, complicated, conflicted, irrational, and erratic  as we ourselves our!  Knowing and confessing this at the beginning and in the midst of every interaction will necessarily cause us to temper our propensity to be prescriptive and formulaic.

Translation:  In the previous post “Wrestling with Original Sin”  some fairly elaborate notions of human and societal makeup were put forward.  Contemporary work in the fields of sociology, psychology, and neuroscience ( just to name a few)  have radically altered the way that we understand and thus talk about what it means to be human and to participate in human social organization (society).

A significant gap forms for Christians who’ve been look to the Bible for direction if they do not account for this. One gift that a Reflective Practitioner  brings to a community is the ability to translate divinely inspired pre-modern notions in spiritual direction into the 21st century.

By helping people to understand the reality of the gap between some portions of our sacred text and the lived realities of modern society, we can bless people with the opportunity of insight and clarity. It helps no one to give old answers to new questions and call it being faithful. Being faithful is a willingness to up with new answers to new questions in a way that is informed by the way that the traditional answers were offered in response to questions within that historic context.

This is why I have little interest in the old ‘essence’ or ‘substance’ debates around notions like depravity. They just don’t work anymore. We waste a lot of time and energy trying to convince people or convert people to a pre-Copernican world view.

Those are the four things that came to mind  in response to your comment.

I would love to get your feedback on my 4 and to hear what you might add or substitute. 

Revisiting Original Sin

What follows in the next 2 posts is an attempt to address a theme that emerged out of some vibrant conversations I have been having this week. 

We have 3 good contemporary interpretations of ‘Original Sin’ on the table for discussion. I will call them:

  1. Evolutionary
  2. Realist
  3. Web -Networked.*

Evolutionary Types might talk about our ‘conflicted desires’ or ‘contradictory impulses’. This has been my favorite way to talk about what the ancients were attempting to describe with the idea of ‘original sin’ in the past. Something is wrong and we know it.

Even the Apostle Paul touched on the idea in Romans 7 by acknowledging that we don’t even do the good that we want to do! That is really saying something.

Evolutionary Types are fond of pointing to the conflicted nature of modern men to A) raise their offspring in a stable environment (like the mutually-beneficial social arrangement of marriage)  B) that is in conflict with another biological yearning to spread their seed far & wide to make more offspring. That is the most brute and easiest example.

Admittedly, this is not a very ‘christian’ perspective in some people’s estimation but I think that it illuminating.

  • Q: What if original sin is nothing more than what is going on at the ‘hard wiring’ level underneath the religions language?

Reinhold Niebuhr is famous for an approach called Christian Realism. He said some really interesting things about sin.

Aurthur Schlesinger Jr. says Niebuhr “emphasized the mixed and ambivalent character in human nature – creative impulses matched with destructive impulses, regard for others overruled by excessive self-regard, the will to power, the individual under constant temptation to play God in history. This is what is known in the ancient vocabulary of Christianity as the doctrine of original sin.”

James Cone summarizes this way:

“Because human finitude and humanity’s natural tendency to deny it (sin), we can never fully reach that ethical standard.”

He was speaking of love and justice. Cone comments, “Since Niebuhr saw justice as a balance of power between groups, whether classes, races, or nations, he saw it always in a state of flux, never achieving perfection in history.”

  • Q: What if original sin is better thought of as a deadly combination of human limitation and the natural tendency to deny it? 

A web approach can be heard from thinkers like Terry Eagleton in ‘On Evil’ and was suggested by Bo Eberly (also know as ‘Bo East’).

Eagleton on Original Sin:

“There is a sense in which freedom and destructiveness are bound up together. In the complex web of human destinies, where so many lives are meshes intricately together, the freely chosen actions of one individual may breed damaging, entirely unforeseeable effects in the lives of countless anonymous others. They may also return in alien form to plague ourselves. Acts that we and others have performed freely in the past may merge into an opaque process which appears without an author, confronting us in the present with all the intractable force of fate. In this sense, we are the creatures of our own deeds. A certain inescapable self-estrangement is thus built into our condition…

This is why original sin is traditionally about an act of freedom (eating an apple), yet is at the same time a condition we did not choose, and one which is nobody’s fault. It is ‘sin’ because it involves guilt and injury, but not ‘sin’ in the sense of willful wrong. Like desire for Freud, it is less a conscious act than a communal medium into which we are born. The interwoven of our lives is the source of our solidarity. But it also lies at the root of our mutual harm…

Original sin is not about being born either saintly or wicked. It is about the fact of being born in the first place. Birth is the moment when, without anyone having the decency to consult us on the matter, we enter into the preexistent web of needs, interests, and desires-an inextricable tangle to which the mere brute fact of existence will contribute, and which will shape our identity to the core. This is why in most Christian churches babies are baptized at birth…they have already reorder the universe without being aware of it.”

He goes on:

Original sin is not the legacy of our first parents but our parents, who in turn inherited it from their own. The past is what we are made of. Throngs of ghostly ancestors lurk within our most casual gestures, programming our desires and flicking our actions mischievously awry. Because our earliest, most passionate love affair takes place when we are helpless infants, it is caught up with frustration and voracious need. And this means our loving will always be defective. As with the doctrine of original sin, this condition lies at the core of the of the self, yet is nobody’s responsibility. Love is both what we need in order to flourish and what we are born to fail at. Our only hope is learning to fail better. Which may, of course, prove not to be good enough.”

  •  Q: What if the doctrine of original sin is addressing a tangled web of human desires and destinies that lies at the core of every self but for which nobody is responsible?

In part 2  I will attempt to address how the tangled web of inherited meanings and desires plays out when pastoring – but for now I would like to hear your thoughts on these theories.

* I am not that interested in conserving outdated discussions of ‘essence’ or ‘substance’ and how classical, patristic or Calvinistic understandings of century’s past may have framed it.  But if that is where you are at, you can simply state that and let it stand on it’s own merit. I don’t speculate about the details of ‘an’ original sin even while I am interested in the reality behind the concept. 

Humans: nipples, bellybuttons and the imago dei

3 themes continually emerge in my conversations these days – these 3 things about humans I have become convinced of:

Humans are mammals. The nipples and bellybuttons give it away. Some people will want to say that we are more than mammals, but we are not less than mammals. One can argue that we are exceptional mammals – but we are not exceptions to mammals.

Humans are social creatures. If biologically we are mammals then sociologically we are communal. We naturally break into families, clans, and tribes.

Humans are meaning making beings.  We have an inherent propensity to take any number of events or variables and assign them a narrative framework. Our minds long for reasons and explanation to tie together our experiences.

These three confessions have several deep implications. Continue reading “Humans: nipples, bellybuttons and the imago dei”

>Friday Follow up – Relational Religion


Two things that I wanted to follow up on – one brought up by Wanda on Facebook and one brought up by Joe on the blog. Luke gets my comment of the week.
Wanda asked if there was a difference between being born sinful and being born full of sin. That is an interesting question. It caused be to think.  I responded by saying being born sinners is Status. Being born full of sin is Substance. 
What I am suggesting is the we are born into families that have broken relationships, and that we are born with the ability (and propensity) to foul things up all on our own!

I once heard Brian McLaren say  (this my memory and not a direct quote) if you mean by original sin that humans don’t need any help figuring out how to mess things up and to be selfish… then yes I believe in it. But if you mean something at the cellular level or that means babies who die are going to hell… then no. 
That might be a good way to say that. 
Joe brought up a scenario about prayer – “A recent acquaintance requested a group of people to pray for his friend who had sent suicidal text messages to his wife and kid. So we did. There’s a relational connection there, but it’s a couple of degrees separate. There wasn’t anything we could do OTHER than pray…  By the way, the news was good, they got to him in time.”
 Let me put forward a definite theory and tell me what you think:
If we were having a small group meeting or a night of prayer and Joe said “God told me that we need to pray for Mike he is planning to commit suicide.”  We would pray for Mike.  But how would we know if it worked?  Would we just end the meeting and think ‘we did what we could – we did what God wanted us to do’?  But what if Joe said “God told me that it worked and Mike is going to be fine.”  Then we go home having detected and resolved a conflict without having any contact with ‘Mike’?
Now you may choose to concentrate on Joe’s quality of discernment or his track record. But what I am saying is that though those scenarios may be fantastic and exceptional – I actually think that it is not how prayer is designed and it is not how God wants work. Some people may be called to that kind of intercession. I just think that it is not and should not be the normative mode of prayer for the majority of believers. I think that we should pray for people that we know. 
 I am actually saying that God wants to work through relationship and wants us to pray for people that we know (even our enemies as Luke pointed out).  Maybe it is just me – but I do not want to go prayer meetings where people are pulling things out of thin air  where there can then be no verification or validation. I want to go to a prayer meeting where we pray for people that we know by name and then go love them in tangible ways. 
Luke had the comment of the week!  “I feel like the traditional idea of Original Sin views sin as kind of a cosmic STD. I think the idea of sin as primarily broken relationship  is much better, and much more in line with the biblical narrative.”
That got me thinking: we do talk about Sin as an STD – a Spiritually Transmitted Disease!   That is why you have to be so careful about who you interact with – and once you get an STD… it can be tough to get rid of and cause a lot of damage to your health and be passed onto others… Wow.  Scary.

I hope everyone has a wonderful weekend not matter what the weather is like where you live. I am researching a major project on the topic of the history of Practical Theology.  
Let’s keep the conversation going!  I will put up the new Podcast on Tuesday entitled  “Jesus is not Violent” .

>Relational Religion

> There are three significant implications for reading the Bible relationally. 

The first has to do with prayer. 
The second has to do with the original sin. 
The third has to do with Pentecost.                  by Bo Sanders

Prayer is a relational thing. We pray for people that we know. This is a good thing. That is how it is suppose to work. We need to be praying for the people that we know.
It is tough to pray for someone you don’t know. Let’s take two examples: letters in the mail and hiring a pastor.  

When a church wants to hire a pastor, they do not hold a prayer meeting and ‘discern’ a name and phone number out of thin air and then call that person and say “God told us that you are suppose to be our next pastor”.  That is not how it works. They look over resumes, they do phone interviews, they call the person in for the weekend to candidate and then ‘discern’ based on relational cues. 

When god lays on somebody’s heart to write an encouraging note, send a gift, or to make a phone call, it is always to somebody that we know. God works in and through relationship. If you want to send a check for $100 to help someone out, you don’t write a random name on an envelope and make up (or pray and discern) an address and then put it in the mail. You send it to someone you know – someone that you are in a relationship with. That is what God leads us to do. 
Can you imagine writing a check to Jackson Bolaliber, making out the envelope to 765 Kings Highway in Jacksonville Kansas and then making up a zip code (98126) and putting it in the mail?  I don’t even know if this person exists. I don’t know if Kansas has a town called Jacksonville. I don’t know if that zip code is even for Kansas or if it exists anywhere.

That is not how it works. That is not how God works. God works in relationship. God lays on our hearts to send encouragement notes to people that we know. To dial phone numbers that belong to people that we are in relationship with. 
Have you ever said “God give me 10 single-digits that make up a phone number of somebody that you want me to call and encourage.”  No.  You call somebody that you know and encourage them. You may even be led to call them because you know of something going on in their life and that they need encouragement.
I’ve said this before, when we pray for the people of Haiti, we are not asking God to fix the situation “from Heaven” – we are a) asking God to send the people that will fix the situation and b) making ourselves available to God for whatever situation God might want to use us in. 
Prayer prepares our hearts to participate with God in God’s world and work. God is relational. Therefore God’s work is relational. And thus, prayer is relational. 
The original sin
I believe in the original sin.  I do not believe in Original Sin. I believe in the original sin, but I do not believe in what has been the dogmatic teaching that children are born full of sin – that the cells of the body are corrupted or depraved and that unless they pray a prayer to Jesus or are baptized by a priest or belong to the right church (which is sanctioned by the State) they are “fallen” and will not go to heaven. I do not believe in that kind of original sin. 
The concern over Substance (corrupted) and Status (fallen) are not the concerns of the Bible and come to us via Greek philosophy (both Platonism and Aristotelean thought).
The concern of the Bible is relationship. That is the power of the original sin – that it broke relationship.  There were three types of broken relationship in the Garden of Eden narrative.  
But before we get to that … and while were are on the subject –  there is no such thing as the fall.   Look it up. The Bible never talks about a fall.  Adam and Eve did not fall.  Humans are not fallen.  If you look up ‘Fall’ in most biblical concordances you will see six verses listed. Not one of them uses the word fall.  It was a concept – a construct- that was added later – because of philosophy.
What happened in Eden is not a fall. It is a breaking of relationship, and it impacted three things. 

The first relationship that was broken was between God and humanity. They were afraid of God and they hid. The relationship was broken. 

The second relationship that was broken was between between humans – some focus on the split between the genders, some on the relationship between husband and wife, I prefer to look at the simple  human to human brokenness. 
The story of Cain and Able illustrated the brokeness of both of these first two levels – with God and between each other. 

The third relationship that was broken was between humans and the earth. It changed from a care – partnership – providing connection to a hostility (the earth to us) and domination (us to the earth). 
Good News: This is what Jesus comes to restore! Jesus heals our broken relationship with God. Jesus enables us to have restored relationships with other humans around us. And Jesus brings us into a new awareness of the earth beneath us.
I draw it this way: the Circle was broken in Eden. Three circles were broken in Eden. Living in Jesus restores those broken circles – repairs the brokeness and reconnects the unity of the circle. 
Living in Jesus connects the circle above us in a restored unity with God. It also connects us to those around us in the circle of community. Lastly, it connects us to the earth below so that we have restored appreciation and partnership with the dust from which we came and to which we will return. 
This is the idea of Shalom. It is peace-restoration-connection-wholeness. Living in Shalom is a circle running North-South above and below and another circle running east-west connecting us to those around.  This is healthy connection, mutual care and edification.
There was an original sin but there is no Original Sin. There was no Fall but there is restored relationship and connection.*
     As long as I am laying it all out I might as well say this: reading the Bible relationally changes everything.  Look at it this way – the Incarnation was Jesus taking on flesh and opening a new way for humanity to to relate to God. Jesus gives us a new relationship with God.
Many people that I know who self-identify as Christian live as if Jesus never came – reverting to a set of rules, regulations, and religious rituals. 
When Jesus dies, the veil in the temple is torn in two. God’s presence comes out into the world. God is no longer kept behind closed doors and God no longer lives in buildings built by human hands.  The Religious presence of God had come out into the world where the Natural presence of God had always been – but this was now in a new way. 
This move came to its culmination at Pentecost and God’s spirit – the Spirit of Christ – who is Holy Spirit now indwells us as the people of God. In the Hebrew Testament God’s Spirit would fill one person at a time (like a Judge or a Prophet) for one task or a specific time. Now, after Pentecost God’s spirit resides in every believer for all time.
God is with us. God is here among us. Christ’s Spirit is at work in the world and is with you – to guide you and use you and change you. 
God wants to guide you. 
God wants to use you. 
God wants to change you. 
This is why God gave Holy Spirit to the world as a gift. We are the people of God. We are the House of God. God dwells in us each of us and among us as a community. 
When you pray, you are not projecting your voice past the heavens and trying to get the attention of a God who lives on the other side of curtain – begging and pleading for God to ‘come down’.  God already came down – and died on a cross – that is when the veil was torn in two and God’s presence came out into the world. God is here with us now. God is at work among us. 
God didn’t write a best-selling book and then retire to the far corner of the universe leaving it all up to us to do what was said in the book. That book is not an instruction manual or a constitution or a rule book. It is a story. In that story God gives his own Son who dies for the world – to repair a broken set of relationship and restore us to right relationship – three new relationships. Then God gives his Spirit to the world as a gift so that we may have a new connection (Shalom) with God, a new connection (Community) with those around us, and new connection (edification) with the world that we inhabit.  
* My mentor Randy Woodley has given me a wonderful understanding of Shalom and he did his Doctoral Dissertation on the Harmony Way understanding of this concept by native American communities. 

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