Friday, December 08, 2006

What's So Original About Sin?

Today is the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception. According to the catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, Mary, the mother of Christ, was redeemed from the moment of her conception. In one of the only two dogmas proclaimed as infallible by a pope, Pius IX declared in 1854 that
The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.
The other infallible dogma is the Assumption of Mary, proclaimed in 1950 by Pius XII.

Why is Mary so highly favored? Because as the presumed Mother of God, generations of theologians as well as humble believers could not believe that she was, like the rest of us, tainted by original sin. In addition, she was not stained by sex. When the stories of Jesus began to be written down, two of the texts, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, speak of her as a "virgin" when she became pregnant. Even death could not touch her, for she was assumed body and soul into heaven, according to the teachings of the Church.

As a humble follower of the Roman Catholic path (with frequent diversions down side roads to Buddhism and Hinduism), I find all of this very hard to take. And I write this not to denigrate the power and influence of representations of Mary. I see the focus on Mary balancing somewhat the patriarchal drift of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. An icon of Mary, the Virgin of Guadalupe, has empowered Latinos for generations, returning some of the independence and self-determination they lost at the hands of the Spanish conquistadores. And Mary is an exquisite symbol for openness to the divine and the incarnation of the Holy Spirit within each of us. What bothers me is that the Church commits the sin of hubris by making her special. Who can identify with the Mother of God who remains unblemished by original sin?

I also have a problem with the notion of "original sin." According to the RC Catechism:
By his sin Adam, as the first man, lost the original holiness and justice he had received from God, not only for himself but for all human beings.
Adam and Eve transmitted to their descendants human nature wounded by their own first sin and hence deprived of original holiness and justice; this deprivation is called "original sin".
As a result of original sin, human nature is weakened in its powers, subject to ignorance, suffering and the domination of death, and inclined to sin.
Much of the theology for this comes from St. Augustine who had a very Manichean (black/white, good/evil) view of human nature. Matthew Fox has countered this idea of sin as a crime which requires atonement with his theology of "original blessing," which cites God's blanket approval of his creation from the book of Genesis.

The idea of sin encoded in our DNA for something done by the primal man and woman, and for which only a blood sacrifice can set things aright, seems absurd to me. The Greek word for sin in the New Testament is hamartia which literally means "missing the mark." Salvation or redemption, in the perspective of this translation, would be a correction of aim so that the target could be hit, or the goal achieved. This I can understand. And Mary is a paragon for the straight shooter.

While we're on Mary, let's discuss her virginity, another translation error. There are two words for virgin in Hebrew, 'almah, which can also mean young woman, and bethulah, which is more properly translated as virgin. This was is turn translated by the Greeks as parthenos, which means strictly virgin, and by Jerome into its Latin equivalent, virgo. The more familiar passage about Mary's virginity in the Gospel of Luke is patterned after Isaiah 7:14 where the word used is 'almah. Only Matthew and Luke speak of virginity. Neither Mark nor the letters of the apostle Paul, written years earlier, make any mention of it. Quite likely the idea was borrowed from neighboring pagan religions in order to show the superiority of the Christian way.

Because Mary's virtue is dependent on the absence of sexual relations with a man, the history of Christianity has been marked by a hatred of sex and the body. And some of us are struggling to reconcile our spirituality and our sexuality with the help of the Gospel message of reconciliation and love, not desite it. In the reading for today from Luke, Mary responds to the news that she bears the divine son within her by saying to the messenger of God, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word." May we all so freely choose to follow the will of God, free of the noxious label of "original sin."

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