Exploring Mormon Thought: Original Sin

Chapter 4 of Exploring Mormon Thought (Vol. 2) surveys and critiques traditional approaches to the doctrine of original sin. Chapter 5 will give us Ostler’s own approach to the problem. I haven’t read chapter 5 yet (Joe will address this chapter soon), but chapter 4 has got me thinking about original sin.

First, it’s important to recognize that there is something important going on with the doctrine of original sin, however problematic its deployment has been. We can’t just dismiss it. As Ostler, Immanuel Kant, and Paul Ricoeur note, “we find that, whenever we reflect on the choices we have made, we have always already made evil choices” (2553 of 7837, Kindle edition).

Evil – even our own – precedes us. Even “the situation in which we choose and the very ‘self’ from which we choose have been shaped by evil choices that we have already made” (2570 of 7837).

The doctrine of original sin tries to articulate how Sin (i.e., something like “sinful-ness”) is not just a matter of individual “sins” (plural) but of a disposition and it tries to account, then, for how Sin as a “natural” disposition seems to always precede and shape both our selves and the shared situations that call for us to act. Recognizing the problem of Sin (rather than just the problem of our sins) forces us to recognize that, in order to be saved, “we need a make-over at the most fundamental level of being – a change of heart” (2570 of 7837). 

But the trouble is that, as traditionally formulated, “the doctrine of original sin is part of the very problem it seeks to address” (2570 of 7837).

In short, it seems to me that the doctrine of original sin is fundamentally misleading because it frames the problem of sin from the distorted perspective of the unredeemed sinner rather than from the perspective of the redeemed lover. It is a sinful assessment of Sin.

As Ostler puts it, with respect to Sin, “the problem is one of self-deception or refusing to know what we know. The problem is a self-absorbed way of being that fails to take cognizance of the truth that is made plain to us, changing it into a lie so that we can avoid what we know to be true” (2746 of 7837). Or, again: “The problem of sin is the alienation that arises from our own self-deception” (2766 of 7837).

There is something about Sin itself that leads to a distorted understanding of its own character and, on my account, the tell-tale mark of this self-deception is guilt.

In Sin – as a self-absorbed natural man suffering from an ingrown will – I make the compound mistake of thinking that even my evil choices are about me. Guilt is a red alarm that I’ve done something wrong, but it’s a red alarm that directs my attention back to the “I” that is suffering it’s own wrongdoing rather than to those that I’ve injured.

The irony is that this proto-penitent involution of my guilt is itself a predictable feature of Sin.

Guilt is a sinful response to my own sinfulness. Guilt is a dependable aspect of my own self-deception.

Jesus isn’t interested in guilt, he’s interested in responsibility. He’s interested in my learning how to forget myself and respond lovingly (i.e., be response-ible) to the others that lay claim on me.

Repentance is not fundamentally a juridical business. There is no ledger here. Satan is the Accuser. Jesus is the Mediator.

Repentance is the business of being reborn and reoriented. Christ frees us from sin by freeing us from our guilt in order to free us to be responsible for what we’ve done.

Or, better: by making me responsible to and for others, Christ automatically frees me from the guilt that accompanies my crippling (and sinful) self-obsession.

Guilt is a self-deceived way of trying to be responsible that, in its self-deception, prevents me from actually taking responsibility for what I’ve done.

Guilt is surpassed only by the grace of forgetting myself in the hard work of taking responsibility for the demands placed on me by others.

Guilt is surpassed only by love.

God’s own love, extended through his Son, inducts us into this grace.

18 comments for “Exploring Mormon Thought: Original Sin

  1. You know, if there were three misconceptions that drive me crazy, that I could get every single member of the church to understand, they would be these: the immaculate conception IS NOT the same as the virgin birth; the doctrine of the trinity DOES NOT teach that Jesus Christ is the same person as God the Father; and the doctrine of original sin IS NOT the same as the doctrine of original guilt. In other words, it doesn’t teach that we are actually personally guilty or responsible for Adam’s sin, or that newborns are personally guilty of committing any actual sin.
    Indeed, most Mormons often point to the second Article of Faith as a ‘disproof’ of original sin. However, the second Article of Faith merely disprove original guilt. Indeed, I find it most amusing that possibly the most concise, succinct and clear definition of original sin that I have ever come across is Mosiah 3:19.
    Original sin teaches that because of the Fall of Adam, human nature has a natural disposition towards evil. Infants are born, not guilty of any sin, but with a fallen, depraved nature that gives them an overwhelming inclination towards sin. Infant baptism is seen in most of Christendom as being a prevention rather than a cure.
    The natural man is an enemy to God. However, because of the Atonement, God’s grace is extended towards us. God can overcome our fallen nature, He can overcome our sinful disposition towards evil, something we cannot do ourselves. This therefore places us in a position of freedom, a position where we are perfectly at liberty to exercise our agency. We are free to choose whether we will yield to our fallen, sinful nature, or whether we will accept God’s grace and allow His love and power to overcome our disposition towards evil. We are free to choose whether we will remain a slave to our depraved, sinful, fallen nature, or whether we will invite God to overcome our sinful inclinations and, through His grace made manifest in the Atonement, conquer the natural man.
    Incidentally, I always have to laugh at the irony when I hear members scoffing at the ‘despicable and abhorrent doctrine’ of infant baptism. They cry out that it is a terrible thing to suggest that a newborn baby needs baptism, when they are clearly not guilty of sin. And yet these same people happily baptise their children on their eighth birthday, when Mormon theology clearly teaches that children do not become accountable for sin until their eighth birthday. So they are, in effect, practising a Mormon version of infant baptism – baptising someone not because they are personally guilty of sin, but because baptism is not merely some kind of ‘wipe the slate clean’ balancing of our cosmic debt, but is instead a change in our nature, one that remedies our natural disposition toward evil and places us in a position where we are truly free to choose the natural man or the grace of God. To me, this is both very Mormon and very much tied up with the doctrine of original sin.

  2. Adam it might be fruitful to distinguish between the two ways of treating guilt. After all the major form of dealing with guilt is to simply see it as a poor judgment and that one shouldn’t be guilty for ones acts. That’s a rather common secular view and has been elevated to a rather high degree in certain individualist philosophies (Ayn Rand, Nietzsche, certain strands of Libertarianism and psychiatry).

    However it seems that guilt holds an important place within Mormon thought in that it shouldn’t be neglected or denied – rather transcended. To deny guilt is to avoid the very stepping stone that allows that transcending.

    themormonbrit (3) I think it’s a bit trickier than that since I doubt accountability is an all or nothing proposition. However we do baptize say Downs Syndrom kids and most read Moroni to entail that they don’t need baptism. So one could make that criticism. I think the doctrinal point is much more about the need to emphasize intent and reasoning for responsibility. That is baptism and forgiveness presuppose a kind of responsibility. That element of responsibility in the symbolism is lost when one practices infant baptism.

    The way the Book of Mormon tends to present the ideas is that we are balanced between two choices – the natural and the celestial. We have to reach a point where we can freely make that choice. The only way that choice could be free in terms of consequences is if there were an atonement. (This is a point Blake gets at quite well in his books even if one disagrees with him on particular nuances)

  3. That’s one reason why, Clark, I’ve tried to distinguish between guilt and responsibility.

  4. interesting. virgin birth AND immaculate conception i.e. two generations of stain free people. I had to google that. those catholics.they know how to rub it in. I grew up Lutheran, I find that Lutherans kind of gloss over sin things and anything my husband would call sci fi (anything not provable by science, he is not LDS) . I thought I just read in the BoM that little children are sin free(nephi 3 17 20 or thereabouts). I cannot see how all sin is truly part of agency since Adam had to eat from the forbidden fruit, or else God’s plan would have been obsolete. In other words, some of the choices we make will come back to us time and time again until we choose “wrong” because it is just part of the plan. I think we have to choose as though we lived forever and were accountable forever, which, it seems, we do and we are. Since every sin we commit was already forgiven with the eternal atonement, one wonders sometimes, i.e. the way Catholics can receive absolution in the confession stand for just about everything, similarly Mormons also know they can repent and participate in the eternal atonement no matter how huge the sin,since we live in an era post Christ martyrdom and post blood atonement. I do believe that persons affected by Down Syndrome can know the difference between right and wrong.

  5. Clark, I also doubt that accountability is an all or nothing proposition. However, I do think that is the way it is generally interpreted in the church – you can’t be baptised until you’rre eight, because until then you’re not accountable for your sins and then WHAM! It’s your eighth birthday so all of a sudden you are now completely accountable for your actions. That’s the way I’ve generally heard it taught. I find this incredibly irritating, as I believe the accountability process is gradual. I don’t personally agree with infant baptism, I was just pointing out the irony, and perhaps even the hypocrisy, of church members who were baptised on their eighth birthday criticising infant baptism. I personally think that the Baptists have the right way of doing things (on this issue anyway) – believer’s baptism. There should be no ‘magic age’ of accountability, simply whenever the Bishop, individual and family feel that the person is old enough to understand the significance of their commitment and understands the difference between right and wrong to a satisfactory degree.
    I agree that the symbolism should suggest that reasoning is necessary for responsibility. But I just think that the symbolism would be so much more effective if the person being baptised was actually capable of moral reasoning. Which isn’t to suggest that eight-year olds never are, just that sometimes their conscience can be fairly basic and their moral compass rather individualistic. All I’m trying to suggest is that I agree that baptism symbolises that reasoning is necessary for true accountability, but I doubt moral reasoning or accountability are universally linked to age, and thus I think baptism should be done on the basis of moral reasoning skills rather than age.

    Christine, I disagree that us making ‘wrong’ choices is part of the Plan. It is inevitable, but to suggest that God wants us to make sinful decisions that stunt our spiritual growth is, I believe, a misrepresentation of His loving nature. Adam and Eve, in partaking of the forbidden fruit, were transgressing God’s commandment, but not sinning, because what they did was not wrong. Indeed, it was essential, as you pointed out. Yes, God gave them a commandment not to do it, but He also gave them a contradicting commandment: to multiply and replenish the earth. They could not have children in the Garden of Eden, so them partaking of the ‘forbidden fruit’ was actually their way of being obedient to God’s commandment to multiply and replenish the earth. So in essence, they had to choose between two contradictory commandments, and thus they needed to exercise moral reasoning, and thus they became accountable for their actions. In the case of Adam and Eve, they actually made the ‘right’ choice.

  6. at mormonbrit. So original sin does not count for you ? I allege Adam and Eve did not know what the fruit would do.

  7. No, Adam and Eve knew what the fruit would do. It says so in several places, for example God told them all about it in Moses 3:17, and Moses 4:12 is especially noteworthy. Eve at this point saw and understood that the Fall was necessary and desirable, and encouraged Adam to eat as well. So they can be held accountable for their actions, but their actions do not truly constitute a sin, as the Fall was an overwhelmingly positive step forward in the Plan of Salvation.

    “So original sin does not count for you?” No, I believe in original sin. I just don’t believe it is a bad thing. It is necessary for us to have sinful inclinations and tendencies, because we grow and progress only by overcoming these tendencies and inclinations.

  8. themormonbrit (#9): You’re reading a lot into Moses 3:17 and 4:12. Neither says anything about how much Eve and Adam understood. In fact, they seem to understand what has happened only after the fact (Moses 5:10,11). Given the several narratives we have, it is possible that the First Couple partook of the fruit contrary to the plan that God had prepared, though he was able to deal with that eventuality.

    For example, as a hypothetical alternative, they could have seen the difficulty of their situation and consulted with him before eating rather than eating first. Not to say that’s what the plan is; just to say that the narratives we have don’t exclude that possibility.

  9. Adam, I’m interested, and you’ve got me thinking. But there must be more to the story. I very much agree with you about the lack of a ledger – I think the individualistic + quantitative approach to the atonement which one hears weekly over the pulpit misses the very notion of what an infinite atonement is. But my reading of your post makes Christ rather superfluous. As Nietzsche made quite clear, I certainly don’t need a Christ in order to move from guilt to responsibility. In fact, being anti-Christ might help. What it seems we have a collective (if not a scriptural – to be honest, I haven’t searched our scriptures with this in mind) value for is (as Clark points out) guilt as a stepping stone, which parallels our values for the fall as a stepping stone. Discussion of godly sorrow as a variable in transformation is common. I’m still not sure Christ gets us anywhere in this discussion – perhaps as a catalyst?

    I think your (Ostler’s) discussion of the positive (phenomenologically accurate) value of original sin is really important – particularly at the collective level. There’s a sense in which we both embrace and speak of our need to be redeemed from collective sins and impurities that we inherit in our particular generation. We inevitably begin with specific, particular handicaps whose origin is the sinful action of others. So help me see what it is about the traditional notion of original sin as collective-wrongdoing-that-handicaps-my-progression-and-for-which-I-require-redemption that leads to a distorted view of things that our own notions of generational collective sin does not have.

  10. so this would all be a lot easier if in preexistence 2/3 had not voted for the difficult choice (satan thought he could make it all very easy and save us all with one hand tied behind his back) where we all get agency and therefore a good part of our actions will be in the spectrum stupid to criminal.

    So since this sounded awfully difficult, and Satan was already gearing up to make everybody the worst possible person only to show that he told them so and they should have taken his plan, Jesus said at some point he will come down and by his martyrdom create infinite atonement , i.e. forgiveness of all past and future actions in aforementions spectrum if we remember him always and ask for forgiveness and (a lot of people forget this part) promise to give our utmost strength NOT TO DO IT AGAIN.

    if that last part does not stand there is no move from guilt to responsibility. just an endless sinning and atoning loop which leads to absolutely nowhere.
    I would hope it will all end eventually and in heaven there is no sin.
    i.e. the word Infinite Atonement does not point to a possibility of sinning into all infinity including post mortal existence.

    original sin is really more of a catholic concept, I am surprised to see it with LDS. I really think LDS scripture shows babies are not born with sin, as they are in catholicism.

    Catholic babies are born with original sin, baptized as soon as possible after birth because the catholic doctrine is that a person cannot go to Heavenly Father unless baptized, and this is all because of Original SIn, as perpetrated by Adam and Eve.

    So I am really intrigued about LDS version of original sin, since obviously with LDS kids being baptized at 8 there is no comparison.

  11. Christine, I think the summary given in the article you linked to is actually a very good summary of the doctrine of Original Sin. That’s why I emphasised in my first comment the vast difference between the doctrines of orginal SIN and original GUILT. LDS doctrine despises the whole concept of orignal GUILT (ie the idea that newborn babies are guilty of Adam’s sin, or that they bear any kind of responsibility for Adam’s transgression. In other words, the second article of faith, plus D+C 29 and 137, and Moroni 8). However, in my opinion, LDS doctrine strongly affirms original SIN (ie the doctrine that one of the effects of the Fall of Adam is that “children are conceived in sin, [and] so when they begin to grow up, sin conceiveth in their hearts, and they taste the bitter, that they may know to prize the good” (Moses 6:55)). In other words, LDS doctrine (to my understanding) teaches that while children are not born into the world bearing personal guilt or responsibility for the sin of Adam and Eve (which wasn’t really much of a sin anyway, in my opinion), they nevertheless are born with a weakness or tendency or inclination towards evil, so that they experience a strong pull toward evil, and their natures are corrupted, so that it becomes increasingly likely that they will one day commit sin. That is the doctrine of original sin, and I think it is a core part of LDS teachings, while the doctrine of original guilt is completely alien and foreign to LDS doctrine.

  12. I’m not done.

    The relationship between the Catholic Church and original sin is really quite complex. It has pretty much always affirmed original sin, but original guilt is still controversial. The Eastern Orthodox Church’s position is, I would suggest, somewhat similar to the LDS position. They too affirm original sin (in other words, they affirm that because of Adam’s fall mankind are born with a natural tendency towards evil that makes it easier for them to sin than to choose the right) but deny original guilt (or the idea that babies bear personal responsibility or guilt for any kind of sin that they haven’t committed). Yet both these churches practise infant baptism. I am neither Catholic nor Orthodox, but perhaps I can attempt to explain why they do this. I will take the Orthodox position because it is much more clear cut than the Catholic one.

    In the Orthodox church, baptism is not seen as a ‘wiping the slate clean’ ordinance, or at least it is much more than just that. It doesn’t just absolve and clear us of guilt and responsibility for our past sins. Indeed, because infants are born innocent of any personal guilt, and newborns haven’t had any time to commit any sin to be guilty of (according to Orthodox teachings), Baptism would be wasted on the newborn. However, Baptism is seen as much more than that. It not only absolves us of responsibility for our previous sins, but also cures us of the sinful inclination that we are born with. It counteracts the effects of the Fall of Adam, and places us in a position where we are truly free to choose whether to yield to our natural sinful tendencies or choose to follow Jesus Christ by the grace of God. Baptism is preventative, it cures us of the natural inclinations we have towards sin so that we have the grace of God with which to resist those evil tendencies toward sin. In the Catholic view, a baby not baptised would go straight to hell not because they are guilty of sin at that moment, but because they are in a condition where they would not be able to do anything but sin for the rest of eternity, because they haven’t been ‘cured’ of their sinful inclinations and original sin. That’s their idea anyway.

    Original sin is really more of a condition that humans are born into rather than a personal guilt or responsibility we bear. God’s grace, manifested through the atonement, ‘cures’ us of this condition. We are thus placed in a position of agency, free to choose whether to follow the sinful natural inclinations inherent in our human nature as a result of original sin, or to “[put] off the natural man, and [become] a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord”.

    Regarding your comment at 10, I see original sin starting with Adam and Eve’s decisino to partake of the fruit. Or more specifically, a sinful nature and a tendency to yield to sin was passed on to their first children after the Fall.

    Jim F, perhaps you’re right. Perhaps Adam and Eve only fully understood the implications of their decision after their action. However, I don’t really see why it makes much difference. I personally believe that they understood the consequences of their actions before they acted, because for God to leave them in the dark as to what the consequences of their actions would be is contrary to my understanding of agency. If we truly don’t know what the consequences of our actions will be, then how can we be truly free? We choose our consequences by choosing our actions. For a God that endorses agency, it seems remarkably out of character not to inform them of the consequences of their actions. But ultimately you’re right, there are several ways of interpreting the narrative, this is merely my personal interpretation. And as I prefer to view Adam and Eve more as archetypal and symbolic representations of everyman and everywoman rather than as real, flesh-and-blood historical characters, my interpretation resonates more with me than the idea that God gives us a choice without telling us what the consequences of the choice will be. For example, if God were to give me the ability to choose between two buttons, one which would blow up my house and kill my family, and the other which would put a billion pounds (or dollars or whatever) into my bank account, but he didn’t tell me which was which, that seems rather contrary to my idea of agency. If I don’t have any idea what the consequences of my actions will be, then I don’t really have agency in the fullest and truest sense of the term.

  13. Mormonbrit,you must have done a lot of thinking about this (so have I actually) I think God told Adam and Eve NOT to press a certain button of which they were not sure what it did.
    The more a person is told NOT to press a certain button the more they want to.
    Plus we have the horrible button pressing experiment which comes to my mind whenever button pressing is mentioned. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment
    In Milgram button pressing is certainly evil, evil and obedient. so obedience is NOT always good. In other words, a marine would say you can disobey an unlawful order.

    I cannot personally commit to believing that Adam and Eve pressing their challenge button is evil.
    To me this is curiosity overriding an obedience that they were supposed to accept at face value not knowing why they were not permitted. Which is the worst possible case of obedience. Understanding why the rules are there is most helpful to all of us. And we have to accept that in the context of our human existence we are more curious than obedient. Certainly this is how I am wired and this is how I ended up a Latter Day Saint. By curiosity. And flying by the seat of my pants.
    And to me, this is how most of us humans are psychologically wired. If we were not paradise would still be in existence. If given half a chance between commitments humans will explore at their leisure and as far as their curiosity can lead them when there is no perceived risk. A& E (as all of us) had forgotten the stuff that had been decided in Preexistence …so A and E had a LOT OF LEISURE TIME TO THINK ABOUT WHAT COULD BE FUN and what kind of risk would be involved in tasting the fruit. like us they are now IN THE GAME so they and we have to play our cards as best we can and…seriously who of us mules can say that they can infinitely restrain themselves from snatching the carrot dangling in front of their/our noses. we cannot forever resist temptation hence we have a human race with all its implications. A human race which inherited the curiosity gene. Which is what God wanted. Otherwise how can any story be propelled forward. If no one is curious how it will end. The way we function, we have to realize we cannot afford to buy large quantities of chocolate to store them in our homes when we want to lose weight. Just ONE piece of chocolate cannot put 5 kilos on me. but who eats JUST ONE PIECE when there is a whole lot ? ANd in A&Es case, they did not have to REPEATEDLY try the forbidden fruit (if my understanding of scripture is correct), just one bite and all hell broke lose.

    As much as it might disappoint you, we individually do not really have any idea of the consequences of our actions.

    All we can do is Best Guess. We might bring a child into the world who changes everything, invents time travel. How do we know if time travel will be good or bad. Interestingly though, could a time traveller change Adam and Eve’s decision./ In my opinion No because the opportunity to try the fruit does not go away. God wants it to be taken up by humans and his will rules over any temporal implications. In other words, some things are totally up to agency, but important things that change the history of the world, are up to God. If a time traveller prevents A& E to eat the fruit on a certain day it is only a delayed outcome. the next day, A& E will make the decision all over to eat the fruit because it is a pressure build up decision. Nothing can change it, it was engineered by steam engine master God. Some people at great expense at CERT just found the Higgs Boson particle. Is this good in your opinion or evil ? In my view, only God knows.

    How do you think Oppenheimer’s parents felt when they realized their IQ 110 son laid the ground work for the most vicious weapon of mass destruction the atomic bomb.

    Yes we have free agency over every moment of our lives but THAT’s it. Moment by moment. We do not get to decide over interwoven fates and how ironic life can be. However, with LDS faith, we have an assurance that the outcome will always be the same. We end up in one of the heavens what more can I say.

  14. Christine, I believe that, while we may not be able to foresee exactly or perfectly the consequences of our actions, God can. And I believe that through the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, He can tell us/show us what the consequences of our actions will be. I believe that He told Adam and Eve what the consequences of their choice would be, simply because it seems more fair to me and more in keeping with my idea of God. I don’t worship a God who deliberately withholds vitally important information to people making a vital decision. But as I have said before, I don’t really see Adam and Eve as literal historical persons (I know I am being very unorthodox in that regard), but more as symbolic archetypes who represent each and every one of us. So the issue becomes somewhat hypothetical, and even somewhat irrelevant for me personally.

Comments are closed.