- What Is Wrong with Us?
Christianity and Buddhism, in diverse ways, assert a fundamental flaw in the human condition expressed by terms like "sin" or "delusion"—a flaw that we are largely unconscious of, which prevents us from noticing the extent to which we ourselves as individuals and societies contribute to the harms we see around us. In what ways are Christian or Buddhist diagnoses of a basic human flaw critical for understanding the causality of current world problems, such as growing social and economic inequalities, religious animosities, racism, environmental degradation, and violence? Can any of these problems be addressed without adequate consideration of such traditional diagnoses? If not, what specific Christian or Buddhist understandings of the human condition need to be raised up today to shed light on such problems? How might Buddhist and Christian perspectives challenge or complement each other? And how might these traditional perspectives on the human condition undergo reinterpretation when relating them to current problems? [End Page 2]
The Christian tradition contains several ways of thinking about an answer to this question. They have different contexts and perform different functions. I will point to five Christian approaches and indicate why one of them might be the most adequate and comprehensive response to the question as it is posed. The five are (1) dogmatic conceptions of an original sin, (2) descriptions of an existential sinful condition, (3) the social character of our sinful condition, (4) counsel from an ascetic tradition, and (5) a position generated by what might be called a Christian naturalism.
original sin: an objective sin and its consequences
The doctrine of original sin corresponds with an experience of a tendency to sin that appears in various ways as a condition prior to the exercise of freedom, inclining us toward action that is harmful to others or to ourselves.
The concept of an original sin of the human species goes back to Scripture and the sin of Adam and Eve. It refers both to the first and originating sin of the first couple and the state or condition in which it left their progeny, that is, humanity. This sin stands (a) at the beginning of human history. Narrated in a myth about human beginnings, the symbol (b) represents appropriate feelings of guilt for the human condition: we are immersed in an evil that overwhelms us. But it is our fault for God did not create us this way.1 For centuries the story was taken literally and (c) human nature was considered "fallen:" all human beings begin life with a darkened intelligence and a weakened or impotent will relative to virtue and good actions. "Original sin," therefore, also refers to a condition of actual human nature. This became (d) an important part of a pervasive Christian metanarrative that affects Christian understanding of humanity, Jesus Christ, salvation, the church, and the sacraments. This understanding of an objective originating sin effecting a fallen human condition still informs the language of prayer and worship. It is a deeply engrained element of Christian self-understanding that resides in the Christian psyche and continues to be promoted in liturgy and spirituality. I consider it one of the tragic vestiges of premodern Christian self-understanding.
The doctrine of original sin contains aspects that are both positive and negative. It will be good to call attention to some of these features in order to open up reflection on how the doctrine functions within the Christian community and what it represents to outsiders. [End Page 3]
The genre of a mythical story of the first sin of the original human beings, Adam and Eve, in itself offers a sound approach to the mystery of human existence. We need symbols to open up the imagination to aspects that are not fully available to clear conceptual analysis. The narrative of their typical actions opens up a venue for a far-ranging analysis of what goes on in the drama of sinful behavior. The story has been an object of reflection over millennia, yielding new psychological, social, and cultural insight in different historical contexts and in response to always new examples of finite human existence. The theology of sin is not static...