My Most (Un)Original Sin

May 10, 2004 | 17 comments
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This is quite long and confessional. Feel free to skip it, if you’re not in the mood for either.

I’ve been doing a great deal of thinking, praying and soul-searching of late. While I haven’t focused on this internal evaluation with constant intensity, it has been a major effort of mine for the last few months. It began in earnest back at the beginning of Lent, has continued through Easter and other recent events, and is still ongoing. I don’t know if I’ve come to any real conclusions; perhaps “conclusions” are not what periods of spiritual (self-)testing are all about, anyway. But it has helped me, I think, to understand a little better something about why it is that I so often go so very, very wrong.

The finest Mormon personal essay that I am aware of, Eugene England’s subtle and beautiful “Easter Weekend,” contains a haunting passage in which Gene imagines his pioneer ancestor, George England, as his guardian angel, wearily writing another report on his charge. Referring to him as George (which was Gene’s actual first name), this unseen spirit writes:

“The main problem is that George understands what is right to do but does not do it….Many people praise him for what he says….But he still does terrible things. It is still hard for him to be honest. He covers over his mistakes with lies. He pretends to know things or remembers people or has read books when it is not true. I think he loves to do right, but he has a hard time being honest or kind when the chance to do so is sudden or embarrassing or when he is painful or lonely. If he has time to think, he is very often good, but is not when he is surprised.”

Gene–an academic, an intellectual and occasion critic, like me–put better here (for my purposes at least) than anyone else I have ever read the truism expressed by Paul: “I am carnal, sold under sin….for what I would, that I do not; but what I hate, that I do” (Romans 7:14-15). I hate the fact that I lie (to myself, most frequently, but to many others as well), that I pretend and make excuses and rationalize and cover things up and generate all sorts of strategies and duplicities that, in my better moments, I recognize as nonsense. I wish I would not do those things; I wish I would stop fearing and posing and–especially when confronted, tested, put on the spot–making so much out of what is, quite literally, nothing (see Moses 1:10). I can (and do) do good–when I can clear my head, see through what some part of my brain or heart is throwing up before me, escape the (pretended?) double-mindedness, and remember what it is I know. But still, more often than not, I do all those things I hate. Why?

The most direct answer from Mormon scriptures is King Benjamin’s: “the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam” (Mosiah 3:19). In what sense am I–naturally, at least–God’s enemy? President Benson taught that it is our pride which makes us so, enmity–toward God and toward our fellow man–being the “central feature” of pride. But what am I proud of, exactly, and why does my pride take the form of my pitting my will against God’s? There are many ways to answer that question, I’m sure. But an answer I have found, one that has seemed truer and truer to me the longer I’ve reflected upon it, comes from another Easter essay, a longer and more theological one, written by the Catholic priest Richard John Neuhaus. In it, he writes about the inherent flaws of theodicy, the presumption that we can judge God: “The philosophical problem of theodicy is that of trying to square God’s ways with our sense of justice. This assumes that we know what justice is, but the entire story the Bible tells begins with the error of that presumption. It is the original error of our wanting to name good and evil.” Or in other words, as he puts it at greater length:

“Something has gone dreadfully wrong with the world, and with us in the world. Things are out of whack. It is not all our fault, but it is our fault too. We cannot blame our distant parents for that fateful afternoon in the garden, for we were there. We, too, reached for the forbidden fruit–the forbidden fruit by which we know good and evil but, much more fatefully, by which we presume to name good and evil. For most of us, our rebellion did not have about it the gargantuan defiance depicted in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Most of us did not, as some do, stand on a mountain peak and shake a clenched fist against the storming skies, cursing God. [I know I do not. My rebellions are common, sheepish, furtive, full of practiced self-consciousness and role-played deniability. Hardly sounds like pride at all.]

“But then, neither were Adam or Eve so melodramatic. On a perfectly pleasant afternoon in paradise, they did no more than listen to an ever so reasonable voice. ‘Did God really mean that? Surely He wants you to be yourself, to decide for yourself. Would He have made something so very attractive only to forbid it? The truth is He wants you to be like Him, to be like gods.’ The fatal step was not in knowing the difference between good and evil. Before what we call ‘the fall’ they knew the good in the fullest way of knowing, which is to say that they did the good, they lived the good. They knew the good honestly, straightforwardly, simply, uncomplicatedly, without shame….[T]o ‘know good and evil’ is to reach for a universal knowledge, to be unbounded by truth as it is presented to us, to aspire to create our own truth. I say we were there in the garden when humanity aspired to ‘be like gods’ by knowing good and evil, by reaching to know the power to define what is good and what is evil.”

I think that is right. I think my pride, my unwillingness “to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon” me, has little to do with my actually loving or willing wickedness. I’m not a psychopath; thankfully, few of God’s children are. No, my sin begins with a desire for control, for naming, for knowing. I want what I am and what I know to be my own: sufficient, complete, and sovereign (like God). And so when faced mistakes or needs or problems or other people or the world in general, I double-check my answers, survey where I’m standing, insist on making sure all my ducks are in a row. (The needy can wait until I’m sure of what I’m doing…and if I’m not sure, I’m sure as hell not going to let any pathetic supplicant–or worse, anyone whose favor I want to curry–be aware of that. No sir. I am who I am, after all.)

It may be easy to think, given some of the passages in Lehi’s famous sermon, that the whole purpose of life is being your own person: “to act for [ourselves] and not to be acted upon” (2 Nephi 2:26) I’ve often thought that myself; but now I’m not sure that’s what the text teaches us. In fact we cannot, I think, freely choose to be like God; on the contrary, we cannot “act for [ourselves]” at all, “save it should be that [we are] enticed…[by] the will of his Holy Spirit” (2 Nephi 2:16, 28). Yes, we are to choose the good; but as things now stand, I wonder if we can only choose the good by viture of a context for choice created through the will, the controlling action, the knowledge and power, of God (an “opposition” to the “will of the flesh and the evil which is therein”–2 Nephi 2:29).

All of which makes me think twice about the passage in that sermon which most Mormons treasure most highly: “Adam fell, that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.” Properly understood, I’ve no doubts about the second half of that scripture. But I find myself increasingly wondering about the first. To quote Neuhaus again:

“Some thinkers have argued that ‘the fall’ was really a fall up rather than a fall down. By the fall our first parents were raised, it is said, to a higher level of consciousness in the knowing of good and evil. Now they know no longer simply and directly but reflexively; now they know in the consciousness of knowing. This, however, is but another conceit of our fallen nature. It is as though a paraplegic, marvelously skilled in the complex maneuvering of his wheelchair, were to despise the healthy as belonging to a lower order because they walk simply, in blithe ignorance of the complexity of movement that the paraplegic knows so well. The conceit is that our complicated way of knowing is superior because it is ours [italics added]….The reflexive mind, the divided soul, the conflicted heart–these many take to be the marks of maturity and growth. To know the good simply, to love the good and do the good because it is self-evidently to be loved and to be done, that is taken to be the mark of those whom we condescendingly call simple. So it is that sin’s injury is declared a benefit, our weakness a strength, and the fall of that dread afternoon a fall up rather than down. Of those who thus confound good and evil, St. Paul says ‘they glory in their shame’. If good would come from eating of the Tree of Knowledge, God would not have forbidden it.”

Everyone knows that much pride is intellectual; that it takes root in thinking we know better, or even best. But perhaps its roots go even deeper than that. For me, at least, I see that I am often false, led inexorably into conniving and rudeness and judmentalism and self-justification, because I want to be something (no: I want to be able to say–to myself, to others–that I am something) that I am not, something that I, in fact, may have no control over at all. And that makes me mad, fills me with enmity, hardens my heart. And maybe that madness–my madness–is all due to thinking that I ought to be able to name what I am to be in the first place. So if it is the case that salvation comes through backing away from such thinking, through becoming a child for whom good and evil are not mediated concepts, but lived realities, then I have to wonder if I ought not mourn Adam’s Fall, and the sin of self which it made most originally my own, after all.

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17 Responses to My Most (Un)Original Sin

  1. greenfrog on May 10, 2004 at 1:09 pm

    Letting go can be harder than acquiring.

  2. William Morris on May 10, 2004 at 3:57 pm

    Russell writes:

    “And maybe that madness–my madness–is all due to thinking that I ought to be able to name what I am to be in the first place.”

    And that gets complicated when you are able to rationalize that that “named something” is good and going to help others and is a natural outgrowth of your own personality/being.

    A minor example:

    I’m still trying to figure out if I am actually a writer or if I just like the idea of being a writer.

    Another minor example:

    I have a talent for teaching, I think. It’s always a struggle for me to do the thing that I do — which is to try and make gospel concepts fresh and tied into the fundamental facts of our existence in this temporal, mortal life, to reinvigorate and deepen LDS discourse — in a way that is true service and comes out of a pure desire and isn’t just showing off. It’s not hard to tell afterwards — when I’m doing it right I can feel the spirit much more strongly when I’m not, it’s still there but sort of a fog of calm, sort of affirming the truths I speak but not fully endorsing the entire project.

    Finally:

    Intellectually I’ve liked the idea that several of my priesthood leaders over the years have stressed — that gospel is all about service and that paradoxically the only way to truly find ourselves is to lose ourselve in service. But in practice, I often hold back. I’m reticent. Sure outwardly, you’d look at what I do in relation to the Church and you’d put me in the isn’t a 100%-er, but can be relied upon most of the time category. But everytime I do do something it’s a struggle for me and I don’t really give of myself as I could. And it’s because I fetishize my being and my privacy. It’s as if I don’t fully trust that I can retain myself if I get *too* swept up in the work of the Lord [and the Church]. That’s not quite it. It’s more like while I enjoy doing service while I’m performing it, I ultimately begrudge the time away from my own little world [and I'm not talking about the world of my family, here, more the intellectual/creative world].

    This is not to say that intellectual/creative pursuits are bad. Or that we should feel guilty about not responding to every single call to serve.

    It’s more that I know that I’d actually be more productive and happy in the rest of my life — and esp. in my creative/intellectual one — if I was a littly more fully engaged. I’d have more energy. And I’d fret less.

    But fretting and being lazy and simple consuming the fruits of others labors is easier. I think that fiction and media has become for me a form of junk food. But it’s so closely tied into my sense of self that it’s hard to curb my consumption.

    But, hey. At least I’m engaging somewhat. Four years ago I would have simple lurked at T&S and not posted any comments at all.

  3. Rob on May 10, 2004 at 4:12 pm

    Mebbe we all need a little more Buddhism sometimes…or to lose our life for Christ’s sake. This may be *the* fundamental challenge. But, at risk of feeding our egos, it may be good that we are struggling with this rather than trying to avoid urges to knock over liquor stores, beat up gay people, or embezzle funds from our employers. We may not be all that evolved…but we’ve seen where we need to get eventually.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the struggle. It’s really hard to let go…I’ve wondered for years about Pres. Benson’s talk that we will make more of ourselves if we give ourselves to the Lord than try to do things on our own. For my part, I know that most of the single sets of footprints in the sand are my own…wandering off on some idle path.

  4. William Morris on May 10, 2004 at 5:10 pm

    Speak for yourself Rob.

    I still sometimes have the urge to smash large plate glass windows — esp. if expensive consumer items are displayed in them.

  5. Rob on May 10, 2004 at 6:28 pm

    Ah…sticking it to the man may actually be the morally superior thing to do, rather than a sin. Of course, you have to decide if you are ready to spent a few nights in jail for your righteousness. If God can tell Nephi to chop off a head, I’m fully willing to believe he can tell you to pick up and hurl that curbstone–better that one manequin should be defaced, than a whole nation perish in apostate consumerism ;)

  6. William Morris on May 10, 2004 at 6:34 pm

    If only my motives were that pure.

    Alas, sticking it to the man is only the thin veneer of justification. I have to admit that my fundamental desire to throw stones comes out of an adolescent fascination with the sound of breaking glass.

  7. Rob on May 10, 2004 at 6:47 pm

    Maybe breaking glass is like home teaching…you may start off doing it for the wrong motives, but eventually, if you are faithful, you can get the true spirit of it. happy heaving.

  8. Adam Greenwood on May 10, 2004 at 7:32 pm

    This morning the question came to me, “Is God introspective?”

    And here you embark on a journey of introspection whose conclusion is that introspection–self-regard–has been at the root of many difficulties.

  9. jeremobi on May 10, 2004 at 8:00 pm

    “Is God introspective”

    I’d say “yes” since I cannot fathom a God who does not contemplate or ponder His own thoughts and feelings.

  10. greenfrog on May 10, 2004 at 11:18 pm

    What would perfection in self-contemplation look like?

  11. Adam Greenwood on May 11, 2004 at 12:26 am

    You may be right, Mr. J., but I just can’t wrap my mind around it. Introspection, to me, is a process of self-discovery. Why do I do what I do, what am I thinking, feeling, and so on. Why would God still need this kind of unpleasantry?

  12. jeremobi on May 11, 2004 at 2:18 am

    Adam,

    Sometimes, for me anyway, introspection is about self-discovery. And yes, that can be painful–but very useful. More often than not it’s self-awareness, though it does not occur in a vacuum. That is, introspection need not be navel-gazing and may involve pondering how I affect others and how others spark my thoughts and sensations.

    This sense of self is what I believe the Lord has all the time, while I can only glimpse it in bits and pieces. It’s not unpleasant; it’s liberating and invigorating.

  13. Russell Arben Fox on May 11, 2004 at 8:41 am

    Jeremobi,

    Possibly there are some big differences (philosophically and otherwise) between how you and I would define a “sense of self.” For my part, I strongly suspect that God never thinks about Himself, ever. Indeed, I wonder if He even “thinks” at all–if “thinking” is to be understood as a purposeful, self-aware application of mental powers to a problem (whether self-generated or other-generated) in contrast to action (as in “let me think about that for a minute” or “hold on, I’m thinking!”). The Lectures of Faith speak of the Holy Spirit as the “mind of God,” but even assuming we accept the Lectures as written as a good guide to theology, I’m not sure that tells us much about the modality of God’s consciousness. In any case, I find myself becoming ever more convinced that the original sinfulness of mortality is a conceitedness, a self-importance attached to our ability to “think things through” on our own, and by so doing make them (and us) our own (“this was MY decision!” or “I can make up my OWN mind!”). I think Christ’s counsel that we must lose ourselves is probably much deeper, and much more literal, than most of us moderns are prepared to realize.

  14. Jack on May 11, 2004 at 4:51 pm

    What does it mean to study things out in our minds? Certainly “study” must involve thought. Nephi sat pondering with an intense desire to know the interpretation of his father’s dream. Only after such focused thought did he recieve a glorious vision. I think it is significant that the detail of Nephi sitting while pondering is included in his account. Not only does it convey the idea that he was still; it also suggests that all of his energies were devoted to pondering – or thinking.

    That said – I would ask this question: Would such a powerful desire to know for one’s self the things of God (or anything worth while) constitute an inappropriate sense of self?

    That and that said – I thinks it’s usefull to consider how Nephi used his ability to reason in order to fulfill the Lord’s command to slay Laban. His “shrinking” wasn’t a result of doubt toward God or His commandments but rather his (Nephi’s) own capacity to fulfill them (the Lord’s commands). It is with awesome personal integrity that Nephi reasons out in his mind all of the reasons why he should kill Laban rather than why he shouldn’t. In this way he uses his
    God-givin cognitive abilities to increase his faith.

  15. jeremobi on May 11, 2004 at 5:21 pm

    Russell,

    I readily accept that every person will have a different, philosophical or otherwise, definition of “sense of self”, and I’m curious what leads you to suspect that “God never thinks about Himself” nor would engage in “self-aware application of mental powers to a problem”.

    I’m not trying to be disagreeable in any way, but eager to learn how you or others reach this understanding and what you make of it for your own life.

    “In any case, I find myself becoming ever more convinced that the original sinfulness of mortality is a conceitedness, a self-importance attached to our ability to “think things through” on our own, and by so doing make them (and us) our own (“this was MY decision!” or “I can make up my OWN mind!”).”

    I couldn’t agree more. My wife regularly attends ACOA meetings and I’ve been to a few AA meetings with a friend and we’ve found these experiences to be among the most spiritual, transcendent of our lives–in part because these sort of explorations require an honesty with self and others of the sort not practiced in daily life, concomitant with an admission of the overwhelming need for intimacy with higher power outside ourselves.

    Any trained psychotherapists out there to chime in?

  16. Jack on May 11, 2004 at 5:28 pm

    The Savior said that eternal life is to know God. John says that the faithful will be like Him when He appears “for we shall see Him as He is”. I believe this could mean that we will recognize in Him those things that are attributable to God because we posses them ourselves (though to a much lesser degree). We, therefore, know Him because we are like Him. The fact that we are able to measure ourselves, using the Savior as a standard, suggests that there is somekind of introspection happening. Now, perhaps God who swears by Himself because there is no greater, has no need or purpose for introspection as He is the standard by which all things are measured. Nevertheless, until we arrive at such an exalted station how can we “learn our salvation” without taking a good look at ourselves from timt to time?

  17. Grasshopper on May 12, 2004 at 6:57 pm

    Russell,

    How do you understand God resting on the seventh day?