Quotes & Sayings

We, and creation itself, actualize the possibilities of the God who sustains the world, towards becoming in the world in a fuller, more deeper way. - R.E. Slater

There is urgency in coming to see the world as a web of interrelated processes of which we are integral parts, so that all of our choices and actions have [consequential effects upon] the world around us. - Process Metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead

Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem says (i) all closed systems are unprovable within themselves and, that (ii) all open systems are rightly understood as incomplete. - R.E. Slater

The most true thing about you is what God has said to you in Christ, "You are My Beloved." - Tripp Fuller

The God among us is the God who refuses to be God without us, so great is God's Love. - Tripp Fuller

According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater

Our eschatological ethos is to love. To stand with those who are oppressed. To stand against those who are oppressing. It is that simple. Love is our only calling and Christian Hope. - R.E. Slater

Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger

Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton

I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – Anon

Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII

Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut

Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest

We become who we are by what we believe and can justify. - R.E. Slater

People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – Anon

Certainly, God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater

An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater

Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann

Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner

“Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14) or, conversely, “I AM who I AM Becoming.”

Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton

The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens, we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – Anon

The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul

The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah

If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – Anon

Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord

Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another, so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

To promote societal transition to sustainable ways of living and a global society founded on a shared ethical framework which includes respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, universal human rights, respect for diversity, economic justice, democracy, and a culture of peace. - The Earth Charter Mission Statement

Christian humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, and unencumbered rational inquiry are compatible with the practice of Christianity or even intrinsic in its doctrine. It represents a philosophical union of Christian faith and classical humanist principles. - Scott Postma

It is never wise to have a self-appointed religious institution determine a nation's moral code. The opportunities for moral compromise and failure are high; the moral codes and creeds assuredly racist, discriminatory, or subjectively and religiously defined; and the pronouncement of inhumanitarian political objectives quite predictable. - R.E. Slater

God's love must both center and define the Christian faith and all religious or human faiths seeking human and ecological balance in worlds of subtraction, harm, tragedy, and evil. - R.E. Slater

In Whitehead’s process ontology, we can think of the experiential ground of reality as an eternal pulse whereby what is objectively public in one moment becomes subjectively prehended in the next, and whereby the subject that emerges from its feelings then perishes into public expression as an object (or “superject”) aiming for novelty. There is a rhythm of Being between object and subject, not an ontological division. This rhythm powers the creative growth of the universe from one occasion of experience to the next. This is the Whiteheadian mantra: “The many become one and are increased by one.” - Matthew Segall

Without Love there is no Truth. And True Truth is always Loving. There is no dichotomy between these terms but only seamless integration. This is the premier centering focus of a Processual Theology of Love. - R.E. Slater


Note: Generally I do not respond to commentary. I may read the comments but wish to reserve my time to write (or write from the comments I read). Instead, I'd like to see our community help one another and in the helping encourage and exhort each of us towards Christian love in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. - re slater

Friday, September 10, 2021

Thomas Jay Oord - Process and Wesleyan Theologies

Process and Wesleyan Theologies

By Thomas Jay Oord
August 15th, 2011

Process theology is a way of thinking about God and the world that continues to attract Christians. Those who appreciate John Wesley’s theology are often especially attracted to process thinking.

Of course, no theology is perfect. Every theology – including Process theology – has flaws. We all see through a glass darkly. But contemporary Wesleyan theologians are attracted to Process theology for good reasons:

1. God is Relational

Process theology offers language and ideas to support the idea that God is essentially relational. Rather than being distant, aloof, and unaffected, Process theology affirms that God is present to each of us and all creation. God suffers with us all. Process theology supports the Apostle Paul’s words: “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God” (2 Cor. 1:3-4, NRSV). The idea that God is relational helps portray the covenantal and incarnational God the Bible describes. Although distinct from the world, God is in the world as one “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

2. Prayer Changes Things

Process theology argues that prayer makes a difference both to us and to God. Our prayers affect the way God chooses to act. Many biblical stories tell of how God acted differently because people prayed. Process theology supports these stories, because God as described by Process theology sometimes acts differently because of what creatures do. For instance, the Lord told Isaiah to inform Hezekiah that he would die. But Hezekiah prayed that God would spare him, and God changed his mind, adding fifteen years to Hezekiah’s life (Isaiah 38:4, 5). Other theologies cannot account for a God who changes plans because we petition. They teach that God has the past, present, and future already decided and settled. Petitionary prayer makes no difference to the God who rigidly pre-determines all things. Process theology fits with the biblical revelation of a God who is influenced by our prayer.

3. God Made Us Free

Process theology emphasizes that we are free — at least to some degree. Our freedom is not unlimited, of course. Creaturely freedom is an important category for Wesleyans. It plays a crucial role in rejecting predestination and in placing blame for sin on creatures. Joshua understood the importance of free responses to God when he told the people, “choose this day whom you shall serve… but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). John Wesley called this “free grace”—God’s free gift and our free response. He even sounds like a Process theologian when he says, “Were human liberty taken away, men would be as incapable of virtue as stones. Therefore (with reverence be it spoken) the Almighty himself cannot do this thing. He cannot thus contradict himself or undo what he has done.” Overall, I know of no better conceptual scheme for affirming the Wesleyan doctrine of prevenient grace – with its view that God acts first and provides freedom to creatures for response – than the Process tradition.

4. God is not Responsible for Evil

The significance of creaturely freedom, as Process theology understands it, solves the problem that atheists claim remains the primary reason they cannot believe in God: the problem of evil. Process theology blames free creatures and the agency of creation for genuine evil. According to Process theology, God lovingly gives freedom and therefore neither causes nor allows evil. It affirms with James, “God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one,” but that “every good and perfect gift comes from above, coming down from the Father of Lights” (1:13b, 17a). Process theology rejects John Calvin’s idea that God is the source of Adam’s sin. In sum, many believe that that Process theology provides the best solution to the problem of evil.

5. Community and Individual Matter

Perhaps no theological tradition better grounds the Apostle Paul’s view of the Church than how Process theology explains the centrality of relations and community. It takes with utmost seriousness Paul’s words that “we are members one of another” (Rm. 12:5). Process theologians lead the way in criticizing modern individualism, without rejecting the dignity and responsibility of persons in community. Process theology’s proposal regarding interconnections and interrelatedness is important for considering what it means to be the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-14). I know of no conceptual scheme that better describes how Christians are both persons and a relational community.

6. Contemporary Issues must be Engaged

Process theology engages the issues that characterize our postmodern world better than other theologies. This is especially true of contemporary science. It also deeply engages and effectively addresses environmental and ecological concerns. Process thought actively tackles the ideas of contemporary culture. Wesleyan theologians think engaging contemporary issues is crucial if Christians are to be salt and light in these wonderful and woeful days. Wesleyans and Process theologians want to “always be ready to make a defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you” (1 Pt. 3:15).

7. Love Reigns Supreme

The previous statements represent significant reasons many in the Wesleyan tradition are attracted to Process theology. However, I personally find Process theology most helpful as a resource for understanding Christian love. No other theology better describes God’s love as both creative and responsive. No other theology better makes sense of what Jesus called the first and second commandments (found in Matthew 22:37-40 and other gospels). No other theology better grounds Christian agape. Process theology is a first-rate theology of love, and it is little wonder Mildred Bang Wynkoop found it so helpful. If “above all,” Christians should “clothe themselves with love” because it “binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col. 3:14), Christians should explore the fruits of Process theology.


Process theology also has weaknesses. As I said at the outset, no theology is perfect. And there are certainly differences between what some Wesleyans believe and what some Process theologians believe. We should not ignore them.

But Process theology’s central claims about God’s love, prevenient grace, creaturely freedom and responsibility, the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Church, etc., fit under the Wesleyan theological umbrella. There are good reasons many Wesleyans find at least some aspects of Process theology attractive.

* * * * * * * * *

How to Be Evangelical without Being Conservative Hardcover
by Roger E. Olson, February 19, 2008

Many people equate evangelical Christianity with conservatism in religion, politics, theology and social attitudes. Some are scandalized by any separation between them. As one evangelical pastor's wife declared to a church group 'We are a conservative people!' In fact, however, evangelicals have not always been conservative; radical stances on doctrines, worship, social norms, politics and church leadership have often marked evangelicalism in the past. The 2007 movie Amazing Grace about William Wilberforce's protracted battle against the slave trade featured a small group of British evangelicals committed to abolition. The same radicalism characterized much of American evangelicalism in the years before the Civil War. In recent years the American media have portrayed the evangelical movement as a conservative force in society sometimes equating it with fundamentalism and puritanism. The missing piece of the story is, however, that both fundamentalism and puritanism contained radical elements that opposed the status quo. This book sets forth evidence that the link between evangelicalism and conservatism has not always been as strong as it is today in the popular mind and it will provide suggestions for contemporary evangelicals who want to remain evangelical (and not become 'post-evangelical') without identifying with conservatism in every way.

Authorial Works by Roger E. Olson

  • Olson, Roger E. (1984). Trinity and eschatology : the historical being of God in the theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg (Ph. D). Houston, TX: Rice University.
  • Grenz, Stanley J.; Olson, Roger E. (1992). 20th-Century Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  • Grenz, Stanley J.; Olson, Roger E. (1996). Who Needs Theology?: An Invitation to the Study of God's Word. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  • Olson, Roger E. (1999). The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  • Olson, Roger E. (2002). The Mosaic of Christian Beliefs: Twenty Centuries of Unity & Diversity. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  • Olson, Roger E.; Hall, Christopher A. (2002). The Trinity. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
  • Olson, Roger E. (2004). The Westminster handbook to evangelical theology. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
  • Olson, Roger E.; English, Adam C. (2005). Pocket History of Theology. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  • Olson, Roger E. (2005). The SCM Press A-Z of evangelical theology. London: SCM.
  • Olson, Roger E. (2006). Arminian Theology: Myths And Realities. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.
  • Olson, Roger E. (2007). Pocket history of evangelical theology. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  • Olson, Roger E. (2007). Reformed and always reforming : the postconservative approach to evangelical theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
  • Olson, Roger E. (2007). Questions to all your answers : a journey from folk religion to examined faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • Olson, Roger E. (2008). How to Be Evangelical without Being Conservative. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • Olson, Roger E. (2009). Finding God in The shack : seeking truth in a story of evil and redemption. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books.
  • Olson, Roger E. (2009). God in Dispute: "Conversations" among Great Christian Thinkers. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
  • Olson, Roger E. (2011a). Against Calvinism. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • Olson, Roger E. (2013). The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.
  • Olson, Roger E. (2014a). Arminianism FAQ: Everything You Always Wanted to Know. [Franklin, TE]: Seedbed Publishing.
  • Olson, Roger E.; Collins Winn, Christian T. (2015). Reclaiming pietism : retrieving an evangelical tradition. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
  • Olson, Roger E. (2015). Counterfeit Christianity : the persistence of errors in the church. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
  • Olson, Roger E. (2017). The Essence of Christian Thought : Seeing Reality Through the Biblical Story. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • Olson, Roger E.; Mead, Franck S. (2018b). Handbook of denominations in the United States (14th ed.). Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Grace and Responsibility: A Wesleyan Theology for Today
by John Cobb, May 1, 1995

A distinguished thinker ponders the meaning of Wesley's theology.

John B. Cobb, Jr., draws on the historical, critical, and literary work that has characterized Wesley studies in recent years, but moves beyond them to propose one way of reconstructing and reappropriating essential elements of Wesley's thought in service of the church's life and mission.

John Cobb - Wesley, the Process Theologian

​Wesley, the Process Theologian

a reflection by John B.Cobb, Jr.
[all subtitles and updated commentary are mine - re slater]

This is one of a series of five lectures delivered at Point Loma University,
San Diego, February 2000. Published by permission of the author.

Substance Theology v Process Theology

Cobb holds that Wesley was a process theologian in the sense that Wesley sees God as working with each human being through the course of our lives — a process. Wesley pays close attention to the actual changes that occur: the emergence of faith, growth in love, falling back into sin. A large part of his preaching and theology deal with the stages of this process and how God works in them. None of this is decided from all eternity. It is worked out in a real process of interaction between the individual and God.​

You may understandably think that this title is the most anachronistic of all. If a process theologian is one who has been influenced by philosophers such as Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne, then obviously you are right. Historical influence does not work backwards in time.

But my argument is that in a general sense process thought has been around for a long time. In philosophy in the West, we trace it back to Heraclitus. In India it was richly developed by Gautama Buddha. In general, if we consider the two main sources of Christian theology as the Bible and Greek philosophy, we can say that process thought is more characteristic of the Bible than substance thought of the Greeks. Given this broad use of the term, it is not anachronistic to claim that Wesley came down much more on the side of process.

Let me explain my use of the terms "substance" and "process." If I ask you give me examples of substantial things, I suspect you will point to rocks and sticks, plants and animal bodies, perhaps also atoms and heavenly bodies. Most Greek philosophy, except for Heraclitus, took its cue from reflection about things like this. Most modern science did so as well.

Now if I ask you to identify some processes, you might find that a bit less clear. It might be better for me to ask you to identify some events. That you can do easily. A lecture is an event, and so is an election. A wedding is an event, and so is a war. Birth and death are events. I could then explain that by a process I refer to a sequence of events. A person’s life from birth to death is a process. So is the history of Israel.

It should now be easy to understand the sense in which I claim that the Bible is more about processes than substances. There is very little reflection about objects and their attributes. There is a great deal of story telling and history.

[Continental Philosophy would rightly identify process as a series of narratives criss-crossing through meta-narratives as we find in the bible with the individual life stories of biblical figures weaving in-and-out of the meta-narratives of the bible such as atonement, redemption, salvation, mercy, grace, service, stewardship, etc, all tied up through the centralizing figure of Christ. - re slater]

The Evangelical Problem

In the formation of Christian theology, the Greek influence was very great. Whereas most Biblical talk of God locates God as an actor in a story, the theology forged in the early centuries is deeply influenced by Greek reflection about substances. The resulting picture of God is in severe tension with the actor in the story. We are told that God cannot be affected by anything that happens. God cannot act differently at different times. [e.g. the philosophic theology undergirding Christian theology is Hellenistic Greek philosophy; more specifically, Platonism as versus the actualities of affectuating and effecting events. - re slater]

The understanding of Jesus is also affected. Instead of thinking primarily about the story of Jesus in the gospels and how God is involved in that story, we are offered reflections about how the divine substance and the human substance can be united in one person. The resultant doctrine led many to suppose that Jesus was not really affected by interactions with others. He was so far removed from ordinary human experience that Christians needed an intermediary in order to relate to him. Mary served that purpose for many.

The Reformation was in part a protest against the dominance of Greek substance categories over biblical historical and personal ones. But the former were never systematically excised from official doctrine, and Aristotle quickly recaptured a leading place in Lutheran theological education. To a surprising extent, conservative Protestant philosophers of religion continue to follow the guidance of Thomas Aquinas, the great Aristotelian theologian.

Calvin belonged to the nominalist or voluntarist theological tradition. Instead of focusing with Thomas on the being of God, he focused on God’s will. This could be a more biblical, event-oriented, approach. But Calvin emphasized the immutability of God as much as the earlier substance-oriented theologians had done. The logical implication is that everything is determined from the outset by God’s one, unchanging act of will. The narrative history told in the Bible is, then, simply the outworking in time of that eternal act.

Now there is much in Calvin and in subsequent Calvinists that is far more fully influenced by the biblical account. There is much process in Calvin. Nevertheless, his most fundamental pronouncements work against this, and to a considerable extent he was willing to draw the logical conclusions. Some of his followers went even farther in doing so.

At this point you will understand why I claim Wesley for the process side of this long debate. Wesley sees God as working with each human being through the course of our lives. He pays close attention to the actual changes that occur: the emergence of faith, growth in love, falling back into sin. A large part of his preaching and theology deal with the stages of this process and how God works in them. None of this is decided from all eternity. It is worked out in a real process of interaction between the individual and God.

Of course, Wesley did not think of this in terms of the distinction between substance and process. Hence he did not thematically work out the implications of choosing for process. He is not a process theologian in the sense of having chosen to build his theology in relation to a process philosophy instead of a substance one. He was far from ignorant of philosophy and he engaged philosophers in significant ways, but these philosophers did not themselves develop their thought in terms of this alternative. They were all substance philosophers, even though their work began the process of undercutting the concept of substance. Wesley was a process thinker, I believe, because he was immersed in the Bible and because he was radically open to what he actually experienced.

*This far you may be able to accompany me even if you are not sympathetic with any of the forms of contemporary process theology. But I would like to persuade you that there are important features of Wesley’s thought that parallel closely with more technical doctrines arising out of recent process philosophy. In short, I believe that Wesley’s theology as some forms of contemporary process theology are more closely related than one would expect from their quite different social locations and histories.*

The contemporary form of process thought to which I will limit my remarks is that of Alfred North Whitehead and his followers, among whom I count myself. Whereas Wesley came to his theology chiefly out of his study of the Bible and his personal experience, Whitehead was a mathematical physicist trying to make coherent sense of deep perplexities created by new discoveries in the early part of this century. On the other hand, this exaggerates their differences. Wesley was keenly interested in science and saw it as another basis for understanding God and the world. Whitehead was keenly interested in religious experience and believed that any adequate cosmology must learn from it and make sense of it. Incidentally both were products of vicarages of the Church of England.

Wesley's Approach

In my opinion, the greatest theological contribution of Wesley was his way of affirming human responsibility for our ultimate destiny and daily life while strongly maintaining the primacy of faith. This provided a third way between Calvinism and deism. Calvinists thought that they must exclude any human contribution to salvation to avoid allowing Christians to believe that they were saved by their virtue. Deists thought that God gave us free will and that everything else is up to us. Wesley found both views deeply alien to the Bible. The problem was formulating a coherent alternative.

  • One possibility is to say that God urges all of us to accept the gift of salvation, and that some do and some don’t. This is a sense acknowledges the primacy of grace, but since the result depends on a human decision, the Calvinist fear is realized. Finally, believers can claim that they deserve salvation because they chose rightly. Wesley agreed that this possibility of boasting must be excluded.
  • To exclude boasting, one may say that God works faith in our hearts, but that this grace is not irresistible. We contribute nothing to the positive outcome, but by our resistance we may prevent it from happening. In this case, while we are rightly blamed for failing to be saved, we can take no credit for our salvation.
  • Wesley comes close to this view, but it does not quite express his understanding. This view is normally associated with a somewhat external view of God’s working and the notion that human nature is completely sinful. In this case there is a competition between the gracious work of God and the sinful resistance of human nature. But one wonders how there can be degrees of resistance on the part of a completely sinful nature. One wonders also whether it must not be God’s decision to overcome or not to overcome the resistance.
  • Wesley changed this picture by locating the working of God within the human being. He kept the view that human nature is entirely sinful, but he regarded human nature in this sense as an abstraction from real human beings. An actual human being, even a baby is already the union of God’s grace and human nature. Thus an actual human being makes choices that result from the particular way in which grace and nature are united in that person. This choice is constantly affecting the way in which grace can function in the next moment. It clearly affects the question of whether justification will occur and how far one will go on to perfection in love.

In this way Wesley gives a large role to actual human decisions. But these decisions are never made independently of grace. To the extent that they are oriented to the reception of more grace, they are already informed by the grace that has worked there before. None can [therefore] boast of any achievement as if that were not dependent on the working of grace. One can only thank God for the great gifts bestowed on one and pray for continued strength to make the decisions for which one is responsible.​

Theoretically, one can still press for more clarity about the respective contributions of human nature and grace. I am not sure that Wesley had the tools for a wholly satisfactory answer. But for the practical purposes of preaching and teaching, Wesley’s formulations offered a third way that won the hearts and minds of many. In earlier lectures I have bemoaned its loss in Methodism if not in the Wesleyan movement as a whole.

Whitehead's Approach

Now let us turn to Whitehead. He formulated his model of human experience for quite different purposes. But in surprising ways he supports and clarifies Wesley’s vision.

Whitehead saw every occasion of experience as a coming together of the whole world in that locus. Our personal past informs the present. Recent bodily events. including sensory awareness of the external world, also enter into that experience. Through these, the whole human past and even the whole cosmic past play some role. All of this is heavily laden with emotion.

If we suppose that this is an exhaustive account, however, we cannot understand either novelty or human freedom. The present would be simply the outcome of the past. In William James’ words, "We would be living in a block universe.". The all-determination of God’s will in Calvin would be replaced by an all-determination by nature. [Both choices omit the novelty of process events and the novelty of human freedom as truly free - re slater]

Much scientific work is carried on as if this were an exhaustive picture. But Whitehead points out that the scientist who engages in this work acts as though he were a responsible person who chose to do this work. Whitehead insists that this practical assumption of all action, deepened in religious experience, must be accounted for in an adequate cosmology. This requires that there is something present in each occasion of experience that is not derived from the past [e.g., affected by the past... prehension... but not determinative of the future. - re slater]

This factor must introduce into the occasion of experience the possibility of responding to the inflowing world in more that one way. These ways include the appropriation of novelty. Of course, the possibilities are closely related to what has happened thus far, and in the great majority of cases, the range of possibilities in a single moment is quite limited. But cumulative decisions can still make a great deal of difference.

[Whitehead] God calls this factor [of indeterminate novelty as an] entering into every occasion of [the] experience [of] God. God is thus the source of freedom and responsibility. God is also the calls [creation] to make the best choice among the  [all possible] possibilities. In this way God is the giver of life, the explanation of conscience, and the ground of hope. [I reworked the awkwardness of Cobb's paragraph structure, hopefully extending and improving upon it. - re slater]

Extending Wesleyanism towards a Process Perspective

First Contribution

Let us look at Wesley’s problem from this perspective. Apart from God’s presence in an occasion of experience, there is the total impact of the past world on the present moment. This has elements in it that are both good and bad. If we trace back the good elements, we will find that their goodness derives from God’s contribution to them. That contribution is so thoroughly intermixed in the whole that one cannot sort it out.

But without God’s fresh incursion, the present will simply reenact that past in some changed pattern generated by the respective strength of the many forces that impinge on it.

The fresh coming and calling of God in this moment changes that. Because of it, the present moment can, and must, make a [free willed] decision. It can decide largely to ignore the new possibilities God offers and fall back into habit. It can decide to adopt the finest possibility, the one to which God calls in that moment. Or it can make an intermediate decision. That decision will influence the kinds of possibilities God can give in the next moment and how open the person will be to God in the next moment.

What determines the person’s choice? Here the answer is: Nothing determines it. The choice emerges out of the interaction of the whole past with the call of God in the present. It is, in a sense, causa sui. But whereas it is caused by nothing other than itself, it is influenced by everything, and especially by the decisions made in the past and by God’s persuasiveness. Those earlier decisions were also the self-determined outcome of the interaction of the pressures coming from the past and the fresh calling of God.

For my own part, I find this eminently congenial to Wesley’s thought, illuminating of my own experience, and conceptually satisfying. No doubt my own reading of Wesley has been influenced by what I have learned from Whitehead. I am sure also that the existential meanings I draw from Whitehead’s cosmology are deeply affected by the influence of Wesley on my life. All this, I think, is as it should be.

A Second Contribution

There is a second contribution that process thought can make to Wesleyan theology today. This is a critique of the dominant worldview. I will pick up from my discussion of how liberalism has been radically open to the sciences and to historical scholarship. I said that I thought Wesley would approve that. But I do not believe that Wesley would be happy with all the consequences of this openness. I believe that Wesley would have approved a counteroffensive against a good deal that we are asked to think and believe as people open to contemporary scholarship and science.

To take a rather obvious example, God has been excluded from the university. To affirm that God acts in the world is to violate the canons of science and scholarship as they operate in our world. When we bring standard historical scholarship to bear in the interpretation of the Bible, this means that a priori we exclude the activity of God as an explanation of any historical occurrence reported there.

The weight of the modern worldview goes further still. There are many extraordinary events recorded in the Bible. We call them miracles. In the eighteenth century, believers in God divided between those who thought that God set up a law-abiding world and left matters to these laws and those who believed that God also intervened supernaturally from time to time. The latter lost out so far as the course of scholarship is concerned. That is probably inevitable, and even desirable, if these are our only choices. The result has been that scholars simply deny that any of these events actually occurred. [I prefer to think of all organic events we selectively call miracles as continuous normative events of the nature and teleology of the cosmos' organic whole; BUT, importantly, not as selectively non-normative interference of the process of the cosmos but as a heightened experience of the normative generation found immanent within the organism of the cosmos/creation. - re slater]

Process theology advocates another possibility. Since God is present and active in every event, the notion of supernatural intervention should be rejected in favor of a theistic naturalism. But in such a naturalism the activity of God is an explanatory factor to be reckoned with. Furthermore, the range of possible events is far wider in a process world than in a substance world. The evidence for parapsychology, so commonly excluded because it violates the dominant worldview can be sifted, and in large part appropriated. In this view, many strange and wonderful things have happened. We should not be simply credulous, since we know that imagination and literary license play a large role in reporting what has happened. But we should also not be dogmatically incredulous. [e.g., process thought allows for the cosmic feeling of the entirety of the created creation; an organic wholeness thus pervades creation not only in pan-experientialism but as well pan-existentially throughout the cosmos' living organism... thus allowing for the parapsychology mentioned above in non-human terms of feeling as one organic whole. - re slater]

A Third Contribution

Process thought also provides a way that overcomes the tendency toward relativism resulting from openness to the wisdom of other religious traditions. Let us consider why that tendency is so widespread. It is typically thought that if two traditions hold different views of ultimate reality, they cannot both be correct. One may defend one against the other, or one may become skeptical of both. One may take the linguistic turn and deny that religious statements are about reality, interpreting them as expressions of value and ways of ordering life meaningfully. It seems that only those who defend the truth of one traditional affirmation against all the others are likely to maintain evangelical zeal. And to many, this seems narrow, rigid, and bigoted. Liberals often decide that there are many paths up the mountain of truth or salvation, and that one should not judge the beliefs accompanying one path better than those accompanying other paths.

There is another way of looking at matters. Process thought understands the totality of reality as being far richer and more complex than any individual or culture can ever appreciate or realize. Each culture highlights certain features of the whole and learns much about that. The features highlighted in cultures differ. What they come to know in their attention to these different features of the totality is, or can be, mutually complementary. To learn what another culture has discovered does not necessarily conflict with affirming the full truth of what one’s own culture has learned.

[Like describing the proverbial elephant in the room, one examiner feels the legs, another its tail, a third its ears and trunk, and so on, process thought is the elephant to which many parts of it is recognized and culturally described in human experience, science, religions, and philosophies. But in its entirety process thought is an integral theory subsuming all other psychologies, sociologies, and the like, into its own process domain of evidentiary experience and event, including Far Eastern religions, astrologies, etc. Said differently, not every particle of another system is fully process except their process parts, which taken together form an uncompleted puzzle. And yet, in its entirety, process thought is so large that its elephantine structure is marveled at in its parts where some linger and those rare travellers are passing through to another enlarging plane of panentheitic, panexistential experience. - re slater]

To make this a bit more concrete, consider the difference between the cultures from which Christianity comes and those of the East. In both a great deal is said about form, but what is said is quite different. Aristotle distinguished between form and matter and saw the imposition of form on matter as of primary importance. Mathematics and science developed through the study of form abstracted from matter. There is little attention to matter as such.

In the opening verses of Genesis we are told that when God began creating the Earth was a formless void. Thus the reality of the formless is acknowledged. But attention is directed entirely to God’s creation, which entailed the imposition of form on this void. There is little reflection about the void and formlessness. All value is associated with what is formed.

In contrast, any Westerner who studies Hindu, Buddhist, or Taoists texts is startled to find the fascination with the formless. Somehow the formless seems more real, more ultimate, than what has formed. To reach it one goes behind the forms. One comes to realize that at the deepest level one participates in this formlessness. The quest for release from the world of appearance is pursued through meditational practices that move beyond form.

Of course, this is a vast oversimplification. In the West we find mystics who seek the Formless. There are great differences among Hindus, Buddhists, and Taoists with respect to their valuation of form and formlessness. Nevertheless, it is not an exaggeration to say that the East has been learning a great deal from the West about form, especially as that has been studied in mathematics and science. And a considerable number of Westerners have been seeking to learn about the Formless from Eastern teachers.

Process Absorption of Differing Observations

There are great differences between the ways of thinking, the valuations, and the orientations that arise out of these two foci of attention and concern. Many of the formulations developed by their practitioners are in conflict. But in principle and in general, it is possible for knowledge of form and of the formless to be complementary and to be unified into a larger whole. In that context it is possible to affirm both the Christian God and the Buddhist Nirvana. Learning about Nirvana and accepting the wisdom associated with it need not in any way weaken our convictions about God. [Again, like the elephant metaphor, it is possible to identify the true ears and tail without having to synthesize the entirety of a belief's belief in non-ears and non-tails. Thus, this would not be an instance of a true synthesization but of allowing the process elements of an observation, belief, practice by a culture to rise over the shrift left behind, such as New Ageism. Some is process like and much is non-process like. - re slater]

I will illustrate also in a more familiar example. Western medicine has been based on a well-established understanding of the human body. Eastern medicine, I will take the Chinese version as my example, has been based on a different understanding. The tendency of Western doctors has been to assume that their picture of the body is virtually exhaustive. It has no place for the kind of energy flows on which traditional Chinese medicine is based. On this basis, one might simply reject Chinese medicine a priori as superstition.

Fortunately, this has not happened. Enough Western doctors have observed the efficacy of acupuncture that they have recognized it as a valid approach to healing. Meanwhile the Chinese have recognized the great achievements of Western medicine. The two are complementary. There is still no fully articulated account of the human body that shows how the Western and Chinese maps are complementary, but that is implied by the fact that both systems work. To accept Chinese medicine in no way denies the efficacy of Western medicine.

How a Process Worldview Might Work

To point out that a process worldview critiques assumptions that are almost universal in scholarly research and opens is significant only if people are open to issues of worldview. Many of our contemporaries have concluded that interest in such questions reflects a now outdated mindset. Since Kant, it is widely thought, the effort to hold scientific and moral questions together in a unified context has been shown to be misguided. As the sciences have developed, any effort to derive a unified coherent picture from them has also been abandoned. Even within physics there is not much interest in developing a coherent quantum theory or integrating relativity theory with it. Certainly the social sciences have quite separate assumptions and implications. Deconstructionists tell us that any effort to achieve a unified worldview aims at hegemony and is thus oppressive.

Many theologians rejoice in this abandonment of worldview interest. It means that they need not concern themselves to relate the articulation of faith to other arenas of thought. On the left, this often means that theology is a system of symbols that does not claim to describe any independent reality. On the right, it often means that one can describe reality as revealed without concern about other approaches to reality.

Both find an advantage in the new autonomy of theology. If theology must adapt to new scholarly findings, it can never be settled or complete. It is always vulnerable to new discoveries by historians and scientists. To relate theology to a cosmological scheme such as Whitehead’s either leads to failure to recognize its provisionality or to an endless modification both of the cosmology and of theology as scholarship advances.

Process thinkers accept this condition. Whitehead’s cosmology seems to us the best we have. He himself certainly recognized that it is incomplete and provisional. He did not think that meant that it was likely to be totally overthrown by new developments, but it certainly means that it is endlessly subject to revision. Process theologians believe that the same is true of the affirmations of Christian faith. It is the human condition that we must live and think without finality or certainty. That does not mean that we cannot have considerable confidence in some of our assertions! It does not mean that we are unable to act decisively in terms of the best that we know.

This is why I have chosen to lead off with a quote from Kurt Godels on Relevancy22's main web page:
Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem says (i) all closed systems are unprovable within themselves and, that (ii) all open systems are rightly understood as incomplete. - R.E. Slater

such is the state of Process Philosophy and Theology....


Few would claim that Wesley thought in these post-Kantian ways. But I have argued on other matters that Wesley would have been open to new forms of scholarship and would have adapted his teaching to their implications. Hence both liberals and conservatives who reject the quest for a comprehensive overview could claim that given the course of intellectual life, Wesley would have followed the direction they have taken. In their view, his confidence in reason would have been replaced by a formulation of beliefs that was fully autonomous from other lines of inquiry.

I recognize that Wesley might have responded that way over time. I affirm, however, that this would have been a profound change that he would not have relished. The union of faith and reason in his theology was important to him. That he could appeal to scientists in support of his teaching gave him great satisfaction. The liberal replacement of statements about objective reality with the ordering of images and symbols appropriate to a community is quite foreign to his vision. It tends strongly to undercut the passion for evangelism, working much better in established communities of believers. The claim that revelation provides us with knowledge of objective reality would have been much more readily acceptable, but that this knowledge is disconnected from that gained from other sources would have been disturbing to Wesley.

My claim, then, is that Wesley would be sympathetic toward fresh efforts to develop an overview inclusive of both science and faith. That this overview supports some of his central beliefs would have added to his interest. That it also provides a basis for criticizing scholarly assumptions that undercut acceptance of much in the biblical stories would also register positively with him.

At the same time, I acknowledge that we cannot tell whether he would have been willing to side with a small intellectual minority against the dominant thinking of the time. Perhaps he would, after all, have felt that Christians must accept the predominant intellectual consensus and find some way to articulate their beliefs within it. In that case, the efforts of Wesleyan process theologians turns out not to be faithful to his spirit. Although I prefer to think that for the sake of affirming the unity of all God’s work, Wesley would have been willing to counter the dominant intellectual currents of our time, I know that I do not know.


Thus far I have been primarily making the case that process thought can be helpful to those who want to be faithful to Wesley. It is not parallel to evangelical, liberal, and liberationist forms of the Wesleyan movement. Whereas most practitioners of all three reject process thought, a few in each group appropriate it in part or in whole. It is obvious that I wish more would do so.

Amazon Link

One obstacle to its appropriation by evangelicals and liberationists is that the theological appropriation of Whitehead’s thought occurred initially among liberals. That means that process theology as it now exists has a strongly liberal caste. Liberationists initially took it as just one more instance of comfortable members of the white male establishment indulging their intellectual interests in a profoundly oppressive world. There was some justification for this critique. But on the whole process theologians have been open to learning from liberation theologians, and some liberation theologians have recognized their need for types of reflection with which process thought can help them. The lines are not as sharp as originally posed from the side of liberationists.

The strong support among process theologians for liberationist concerns has not always helped to bridge the gap toward evangelicals. Especially those evangelicals who maintain a strongly Calvinist tradition are understandably suspicious of process thought. Nevertheless, there is a large overlap of concerns between evangelicals and process thinkers.

Many evangelicals share with process thinkers resistance to the fragmentation of knowledge that characterizes the modern university and the world in general. Their believe that God created and rules all things leads to different conclusions. Sometimes their efforts to bring coherent lead to imposing answers on scientists in ways that do not seem responsible, but most of them prefer to find ways of dealing responsibly with science without allowing its implicit atheism to determine the outcome.

Most evangelicals also share with process theologians the commitment to be realists in their theological affirmations. In terms of the current use of language, this means that they remain metaphysical, refusing to think of "God" as only a symbol of the community’s faith. They share interest in God’s nature and actions with process theologians. In the case of the more Calvinist evangelicals, it is true, the resulting dialogue is likely to be polemical.

Many of the reasons for the hostility toward process thought by Calvinist evangelicals are similar to their reasons for suspicion of Wesley. Hence there is no need for Wesleyan evangelicals to share in this hostility. Those who continue Wesley’s emphasis on God’s love and on human responsibility find at least some congeniality with Whitehead’s philosophy. Accordingly, a number of Wesleyan evangelicals have allied themselves with process theology on many points. A much friendlier relation is possible here.

I need to close by noting differences between Wesley and process thought and the warnings we process theologians should expect from Wesley. The most obvious is that it is quite possible to become so enthusiastic about Whitehead’s cosmology that the primacy of devotion to Christ is lost. One can become a Whiteheadian instead of a Christian. This has happened. And of course one can become a Whiteheadian as a Jew or as Buddhist. In other words, a Whiteheadian Christian may end up serving two masters. A Wesleyan process theologian cannot follow this course.

This warning can also be formulated in terms of the role of the Bible in process theology. Many process writings in the field of theology approach biblical teaching from the outside, whereas Wesley approached all questions from a point of view that was immersed in scripture. This expresses the fact that most process theology to date has come out of the liberal camp. Two hundred years of biblical scholarship have led to a more external relation to scripture on the part of too many of us. This is a problem that can be corrected by those evangelical process theologians who are genuinely immersed in scripture rather than distinguishing themselves by their objective statements about biblical authority.

Wesley would also warn us about an intellectualism that turns attention away from the personal needs of ordinary individuals. To accept process philosophy does not need to have this effect. But excitement about the solution of intellectual problems can easily distract from effective dealing with deeply personal ones. Wesley organized believers so as to strengthen their faith and enable them to support the evangelism of others. Liberals have lost touch with that, especially the evangelistic dimension, and process theologians coming from the liberal tradition share this weakness. We are more likely to be evangelical about process thought than about the Christian gospel.

Obviously, I am not the best critic of process thought. I hope the previous paragraphs indicate that I have heard criticisms that I take seriously. I am personally clear that my deepest loyalty is to Christ. I came to Whitehead at a point in my life when my Christian beliefs seemed unsustainable in the light of what I was learning of the modern world. The encounter with Whitehead enabled me to remain a Christian and, indeed, to deepen, and I hope, purify my faith.

For me the task is so to understand Christ that the tension between my belief in him and my conviction of the fruitfulness of Whitehead’s philosophy is overcome. Today my faith in Christ is so informed by the worldview I have learned from Whitehead that I can hardly separate them. Perhaps Wesley would warn against that as well. But for myself, I find it an empowering basis to challenge the unchristian culture in which I live. I like to think that Wesley would approve this vocation.

Original Sin Revisited, by Marjorie Suchocki


by Marjorie Suchocki

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 233, Vol. 20, Number 4, Winter, 1991. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock. It is reposted here from Religion Online.


Dr. Suchocki addresses the wavering fortunes of original sin in these past few centuries and explores some of the resources of process, feminist, and black theology for a contemporary development of this doctrine.

Sin has fallen on hard times. We exist in the paradox of a time with a profound realization that our problems are systemic, far exceeding individual is-tic consent or solutions, but the fundamental approach to sin in our society remains a litany of personal failures. Yet ecological disasters, fearsome instruments of war, vast systems of classism, racism, and sexism all have impact upon our lives, and we experience ourselves as caught up in such systems with or without our consent. At a time when it could be argued that we most need it, we have lost the ancient Christian doctrine of original sin as a corporate human condition preceding and affecting each individual.

The issue, then, is this: most contemporary analyses of sin begin with the personal, and transfer it to the social, but individual analysis seems hard-pressed to account for the gravity of social ills confronting us. The tradition did a somewhat better job, even though it began with a personal analysis of sin: Adam’s fall. However, it then interpreted Adam’s fall as the corporate corruption of human nature per se, so that every human being is born already dealing with the effects of sin not directly its own. Original sin conveyed a corporate problem that then yielded individual sins, Something like this would now seem necessary, but we no longer have access to the old myth of Adam and its corporate corruption. Instead, we deal with individual sins that either remain in the private realm, or if projected into the wider social realm fail to deal with the collective power of sin and its relation to individuals. While we cannot use the myth of Adam and corporate corruption, we need to go beyond the mythology to recapture its meaning in forms that address the human and indeed, the planetary situation today.

My supposition is that the individualization of sin is the trivialization of sin, and given the systematic connection between our understanding of sin and our understanding of God as the one who addresses us in our human plight, the trivialization of sin has an inexorable affect upon two areas: the doctrine of God, and the sense of individual and corporate responsibility for social ills. hi this article, however, I will explore only the second of these suppositions and that insofar as it is entailed in a reappropriation of a doctrine of original sin. I will briefly address the wavering fortunes of original sin in these past few centuries, and then begin to explore some of the resources of process, feminist, and black theology for a contemporary development of the doctrine.

A Brief Contemporary History of Original Sin

Since Pierre Bayle launched his satirical attacks on Adam in his immensely popular Dictionnaire in the seventeenth century, the doctrine of original sin has never been the same. Perhaps it was the rise of rationalism, with its corollary emphasis upon the individual, or the discovery of history, or the questioning of biblical authority -- but the age-old notions of the corruption of the race through Adam’s fall itself fell from theological favor, never to be thoroughly recovered. In the seventeenth century, phenomena such as the environment and the humors became substitutes for original sin in explaining the peculiar tendency to perversity within humankind, but with the loss of corporate corruption and corporate culpability, the focus on sin began its slow shift to sins, individually committed and individually suffered.

Schleiermacher was the first theologian after Bayle to resuscitate the doctrine of original sin without reliance on the myth of Adam. While Immanuel Kant also made an enormous contribution with his theory of radical evil, his emphasis led more to individual rather than corporate responsibility, and thus continued the Enlightenment trend toward individualism. Schleiermacher, however, built a theory of the solidarity of humankind in sin upon an evolutionary view of human nature. His basic thesis was that the physical aspects of human existence preceded and provided the basis for spirituality. Our physicality involved a necessary self-preservation instinct that led to protection of one’s own self or kind over against that which was defined as other -- a view not too dissimilar from what Cornel West develops in the late twentieth century as the "normative gaze that tends toward universalization of one ‘s own kind to the detriment of otherness. For Schleiermacher, spirituality -- or the God consciousness -- involved a reversal of self-interest toward an inclusive care for all existence. An important supposition in this thinking is that all existence is in fact bonded together, interwoven in a solidarity whereby each actually is involved in the other’s well-being. That is, there is a fundamental falseness to the egotism that develops from one’s physical instincts for survival, since the ontological reality is that one’s own survival is bound up with the survival of all else. As process thought would later say, all reality is interconnected. Spiritual existence, recognition of our bondedness and therefore mutual care, is congruent with our ontological reality.

For Schleiermacher, the solidarity of the race and its mutual struggle toward spiritual existence from a starting place of sensuous existence accounts for the universal tendency of humans to act against one another’s good, and so against their own good as well. Sin is not an individual phenomenon, but a social phenomenon in the sense that each individual sin is only properly understood in relation to the backdrop of sin evidenced by the race as a whole. Further, the sin of one contributes to the deeper plight of the whole, for each one affects the condition of all. Solidarity, not individuality, is the fundamental basis for understanding sin. Thus Schleiermacher reestablished a notion of original sin apart from reliance on the myth of Adam.

Schleiermacher’s major influence in the nineteenth century was in areas other than this unique development of the doctrine of original sin and its transmission. Ritschl was one of the few theologians to expand on his insights,’ considering the solidarity of the race as the fundamental condition of religion, plunging us corporately into sin and making way for a new corporate reality of righteousness in Christian salvation. But on the whole, nineteenth century philosophical theology was not particularly interested in the question of original or corporate sin; it was far more involved in various responses to Hegel, the new prominence of biblical study and its corollary "quest for the historical Jesus," and the implications of economic and psychological developments for Christian faith. The theology of original sin lay languishing in the lurch. The alternative voices came primarily from Russia in Dostoevsky, and in America through Josiah Royce. Dostoevsky also saw all humanity existing in an interconnected web of mutual responsibility, mystical in its dimensions, where each was responsible for all. In American theology, Josiah Royce probed the communal nature of sin through what he called "social contentiousness" in the tension between the individual and the community.

It remained for Walter Rauschenbusch in A Theology for the Social Gospel to deal simply and forcefully with the social nature of sin and its transmission from generation to generation in a way somewhat reminiscent of Schleiermacher, but far more oriented toward the pragmatics of contemporary life than toward the metaphysics underlying the phenomenon of sin. Rauschenbusch presumed the solidarity of humankind, and focused upon the effects of that solidarity in the transmission of sin such that each generation is predisposed to evil. He cited both biological and social transmission of sin: biological in that we inherit a physical nature with conflicting instincts, and with a great capacity for ignorance, both of which foster inertia and/or inappropriate behavior which, depending upon the degree of intelligence and will involved, lead to sin. But by far the greater factor in the transmission of sin is our embeddedness within a ready-made social system. We draw our ideas, our moral standards, and our spiritual ideals from the social body into which we are born; these are mediated to us by the public and personal institutions that make up the society. Our norms for moral action are not drawn from a disinterested study of objective reality, but are absorbed from the social environs of our childhood. Even though these norms can easily tend to the destruction of the common good, the norms are buttressed by the authority of the dominant social group, its idealization of the structures that work evil, and by the profitableness that most often is entailed in the norms of destruction. One might paraphrase Rauschenbusch by saying that "the problem of sin is that it is profitable."

From a contemporary perspective, it is clear that Rauschenbusch’s absorbing passion was to expose the capitalistic sins of American society; he did so under a normative vision of the Kingdom of God that entailed shared rather than shirked labor, and full opportunities for self-realization for all. War, militarism, landlordism, predatory industries, and finance are the demons he named that shape social institutions toward fostering their own respectability and perpetuation at the expense of justice. The individual sins that Rauschenbusch named are drink, overeating, sexualism, vanity, and idleness -- actions that were often associated with the excesses of a victimized working class. Rauschenbusch focused almost entirely on an economic understanding of sin, and did not see the psychic structures of racism and sexism that accompany and undergird the classism of economic systems. Nonetheless, his achievement is that he built on the earlier work of Schleiermacher and Royce, showing the pragmatic working out of the solidarity of the race that Schleiermacher developed. Rauschenbusch gave the strongest statement in the first half of the twentieth century relating sin to social conditions that form us against the common good, such that each generation corrupts the next.

Two world wars and the increasing importance of existentialism interrupted the theological agenda begun by Rauschenbusch. Not until the liberation theologians began to write in the sixties would social forces of evil receive again such forceful attention in American theology. Indeed, Reinhold Niebuhr, perhaps the most influential American theologian relative to political and ethical action in this century, wrote his theories of sin under the grip of Soren Kierkegaard’s more individualistic notions of the origin of sin. There is little evidence in his analysis of sin in The Nature and Destiny of Man of any indebtedness to Rauschenbusch, and as for the solidarity theories developed by Schleiermacher. Niebuhr dismissed them by saying that "the ‘cultural lag’ theory of human evil is completely irrelevant to the analysis of . . . sin (NDM 250)." Niebuhr’s antipathy toward any form of inherited sin reflected his fear that it would mitigate responsibility; hence he writes: "the theory of an inherited second nature is as clearly destructive of the idea of responsibility for sin as rationalistic and dualistic theories which attribute human evil to the inertia of nature" (NDM 262). Solidarity and its inevitable implication in corporate sin gave way to every individual’s encounter with the tension and anxiety of finitude and freedom.

Reminiscent of Kierkegaard’s development of the individual before God, Niebuhr sets the self as caught between finitude and freedom, seeking to escape vulnerability and anxiety. But this tension can only be lived creatively insofar as the individual trusts in God. Apart from this trust, the individual is pulled by the tension into either pride (the act of treating the finite as if it were infinite), or sensuousness (the sloth that causes one to retreat into the finite as if it alone were of consequence). With regard to political or corporate ills, Niebuhr tended toward a projection of the individual dilemma upon the body politic.2 He saw corporate evil as the gathered force of individual evils within the looser structure of a corporate body. Since the looser structure of the corporation, be it nation or institution, lacks anything analogous to mind or conscience, the corporate structure has little power of self-transcendence, and hence is governed by the unrestrained egoism that Niebuhr attributes to human nature in its finite aspects. Since sin is located fundamentally in freedom, and freedom is connected with human self-transcendence, corporate evil is something less than sin. Original sin relates solely to the individual’s flight from anxiety.

Early in the movement of liberation theologies, attention was indeed given to the problem of corporate evil. However, initial forays into the problem tended to see the issue in totally externalized terms. For example, James Cone wrote devastatingly about the sins of white society, and Mary Daly was exceeding clear in delineating the evils of patriarchy, but for both, the problem of corporate evil was "out there." Blacks and women deal indeed with the effects of the sins of others, but it was as if the corporate sins of the others totally absorbed all the sin there is. To speak of sin as also involving Blacks or women was to fall into the sin of "blaming the victim"; there was a myth of presumed innocence for all but those involved in perpetrating or benefiting from the structures of oppression.

The exception to this is the early work by Valerie Saiving suggesting that the sin of pride as defined throughout the tradition, but particularly in the works of Niebuhr, actually defined male existence, and that the sin most apt to describe female existence is the sin of a lack of centered existence. In the late seventies Judith Plaskow picked up this insight in Sex, Sin, and Grace. She critiqued Niebuhr for excessive attention to the sin of pride, and corrected him by expanding his understanding of sensuousness to describe the conditioning women receive that mitigates against their responsible development of selfhood. Susan Nelson Dunfee expanded this yet further, speaking of women’s "sin of hiding." However, in none of these writers is there any attention beyond the individual’s sin toward an analysis of social or corporate sin. They, no more than Niebuhr, had any use for the insights hidden within the old doctrine of original sin.

Meanwhile, one process theologian in particular began to address the problem. John B. Cobb, Jr., in his small publication called Is it Too Late? A Theology of Ecology, began addressing the corporate structures of evil insofar as they wreak their damage on the environment. Earlier, in The Structure of Christian Existence, he had also developed a system that can yet prove helpful in reconsidering the doctrine of original sin. In that work, he analyzed the peculiarities of the cultural transmission of structures of consciousness. He was concerned to explore and then compare the pluralism of these structures as evidenced in the various religions of the world, and to develop the unique particularities of Christian consciousness. There is no application of his work to original sin, but the insights are there: the dynamics of becoming are ontologically given for selves as for every other actuality, but the parameters of what a self may become are not an ontological given, but are in fact mediated by one’s particular cultural/religious situation. One could develop the insight as a metaphysical basis of Rauschenbush’s claim for the social transmission of sin.

There are several further developments in both Black and feminist theology that took place in the eighties that must be mentioned before moving on to the development of process/feminist resources for a reappropriation of the doctrine of original sin. Cornel West, in Prophesy Deliverance, speaks of the "normative gaze." Like Cone, he is addressing the racist structures of society, expanding upon Cone’s work by delving into the human tendency to universalize one’s own experience. One might associate the normative gaze with Schleiermacher’s analysis of the physiological development of self-protection and own-kind preservation that evolved through humanity’s long struggle for existence, although West does not make this association. Instead, he traces its manifestation in the past few centuries, and its invidious effects when it is accompanied by power. In dominant groups, the normative gaze becomes the creation of norms that idealize one’s own kind, subordinating otherness to serve the dominant group’s ends and purposes. In subordinate groups, the normative gaze translates into social inferiority, and internalized images of inferiority. In the latter case, the social and personal combine to produce variations of self-hatred, with a corollary projection of these feelings onto one’s own kind as a whole. A failure to own or develop one’s full potential as a human being is the result.

The feminist parallel to this development is Rosemary Radford Ruether’s analysis of sin and evil in Sexism and God-Talk. Unlike West, she relates her insights to the old doctrine of original sin, stating that "feminism can rediscover the meaning of the fall in a radically new way" (SGT 37). Sin is both individual and systemic: individually, the human condition is radical alienation from one’s true relationship to self, nature, and God; systemically, this translates into structures of domination and subordination that are enforced by the group in power. However, even though she goes so far as to say that alienating social structures are central to the transmission of the alienated and fallen condition of patriarchal sin, she no more than Niebuhr goes beyond the analysis of individual sin as the primal cause of social structures. Like Niebuhr, she speaks of both active and passive sin, or pride and sloth. Pride is acting on the capacity to set oneself up over against others, and sloth is the passive acquiescence, manifested by men as well as women, to the dominant group ego. Apart from the assertion that socioeconomic and political structures transmit the effects of pride and sloth to successive generations, there is no investigation of the differences and connections between individual and social sin.

What is needed at the present time, then, is a theology of sin that builds upon the work of the persons cited here, but that can develop a stronger connection between social structures and individuals, and with the ancient insights concerning original sin.

A New Basis for Original Sin

To restate the problem, original sin defined the human situation as one of universal implication in sin, apart from any conscious consent. Sins arise from the condition of sin. Whether classical theologians dealt with the nature of sin as pride, sloth, unbelief, disobedience, or any other variation, the exercise of such vices depended upon this original condition. The mechanism used to account for universal perversity was that the supposed first humans deviated from their given good, and with this deviation, corrupted the nature that was then passed on to their progeny. The plight today is that we experience an enormity to social evils, but we have no mechanism such as "original sin" to account for them theologically. Issues such as racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, handicapism, anthropocentrism, and whatever other ‘isms" we have devised toward the ill-being of peoples require more than an analysis of individual sin to account for the pervasiveness and depth of the problem. We must re-appropriate the doctrine of original sin in such a way that it speaks to our condition, and lends heuristic power to our personal and corporate forms of addressing evil.

Interdependence, intersubjectivity, and the peculiarities of consciousness are tools provided through process thought for developing a notion of original sin in which original sin can be interpreted as inherited structures of consciousness, acting as socially sanctioned norms, that assume the ill-being of earth or any of its inhabitants. These norms predispose us toward their perpetuation, and inevitably involve us in sin. My operative definition of sin is those intents and actions that work the ill-being of any facet of existence.

I recognize the vast inclusiveness of such a definition, and hold that there is a great variance of degrees of culpability for sin, from negligible to great, but that the working of ill-being is nonetheless appropriately named sin.

Like Schleiermacher, process theology depends heavily upon the notion of an evolutionary world of interdependent actualities. Both draw from the sciences of their day: Schleiermacher on the developing notions of evolution, and process from early twentieth-century physics. There are in fact parallels between Cobb’s exploration of the structure of Christian existence, and Schleiermacher’s development of God-conscious existence, both of which draw upon evolutionary suppositions. Process thought, more than Schleiermacher, develops the dynamism involved in evolution and in the interconnected nature of existence that is essential to both systems.

A process model is a relational model, drawing on the data of physics and biology, maintaining that we do indeed live in an interconnected universe where everything relates to everything else. From the world of the physicist Freeman Dyson, we learn of the butterfly effect: a butterfly, taking off from a flower in Beijing, has an effect on the weather patterns of mid-America. We already know of the interconnected life patterns whereby oxygen generated by rainforests nourishes all the earth, or where water falling in northern mountains means green gardens in southern California. We are no strangers to the daily witnesses of interdependence. A process-relational philosophy suggests that the interconnectedness that we experience at a macro-cosmic level is also operative at a microcosmic level, and in fact accounts for the dynamism of existence itself. Everything exists in and through its creative response to relationships beyond itself. This means that everything matters: each reality receives from all that have preceded it, and gives to all who succeed it.

If there is no reality that does not participate in this dynamic process of existence, surely it sets up a structure whereby the interactive influence between the individual and society is highlighted at the personal as well as microscopic level. If each moment of existence inherits from all of the past, then the individual and corporate actions of the past have an effect on what the present individual might become. Further, one’s social location is a critical factor in this inheritance, since one’s incorporation of the past is perspectival, rooted in particularity. One receives the past already weighted in value relative to one’s own place in the sun. There is an inevitable intentionality within that which one inherits, and this inherited intentionality strongly influences the direction of one’s own intentions.

Within this process-relational model, the totality of ourselves must be considered as a matter of relationships; these relationships are internal to who we are, and not external. We inherit from a personal past, a familial past, a social and cultural and political past -- but these are truisms. Process simply points out that this inheritance is woven into ourselves, together with our own creative response to those relationships. We become ourselves in a relative freedom through the many relationships that influence us at the depths of our being. The case is easily illustrated in every instance where one whom we love encounters hardship. Our own well-being is affected by the well-being of the one we love, so that the other’s pain causes us distress. We are internally affected by the other, and therefore dependent upon the other. Process provides a model to discuss this internality of relation: we receive from the past in our innermost nature, and through our creative response to that past, we become ourselves. In our own becoming we in our turn influence others, who must take our influence into their own becoming, and so the dance of relationship fills our days with variations of pain and pleasure. Relations are internal to who we are.

Process suggests that most of the relations that we experience are much deeper than the conscious levels of our being. We, too, inherit from the butterfly in Beijing! Most of the effects of the vast network of relations impinging upon us are screened out at preconscious levels; others are projected back onto environmental phenomena; very few make their way into conscious existence.

The implication, of course, is that the relationality that makes up the personal world of each one of us encompasses all other persons, as well as all elements in the universe preceding us. On the physical level, our very bodies are made up through internal relations to atoms streaming toward us from throughout the universe; physicists become poets when they tell us we are stardust. For the purposes of this investigation of original sin, the singularly important facet of this reality is that the old views of the solidarity of the race have a basis in ontic fact. Whether we like it or not, we are bound up with one another’s good, woven into one another’s welfare. Such a reality is easy to acknowledge at the level we call collegiality, community, and family, but the deeper reality is that our consciousness is but the rim of what we receive. Freeman Dyson reminds us of the little old lady who confronted the scientific view of the origins of the universe with the retort that everyone knew the universe was really held in existence by being placed on the back of a giant turtle. "Aha," said the scientist, "and what holds up the turtle?" "You think you’ve caught me, young man," she replied, "but it’s turtles, all the way down!" In a process world, it’s relation, all the way down. We are bound up with one another throughout the earth, inexorably inheriting from each, inexorably influencing all. Our prized individuality exists through connectedness. Individual inheritance is at the same time social inheritance.

If this is the structure of personal existence, clearly there is a renewed basis for discussing the universal effects of sin. It takes us in several directions, the obvious and the implied. Obviously, we are not isolated from the ill-being of others in the world. Events in distant Kuwait affected many families; drought in one part of the world affects the food supply in another. But if such macrocosmic and obvious interrelatedness is common, the model again says these are but "tip of the iceberg" occurrences, and that there is a lessening of our own humanity with every human evil, a heightening of our good with every human joy. There is no such thing as private ill, having no effect upon others, for private ills both derive from social effects and have social effects, yielding again further private ills.

Schleiermacher spoke of a solidarity of the race through an evolutionary journey as we evolved from purely physical existence, bound up with survival, toward modes of spiritual existence, where our survival depends upon our extending our own sense of well-being to include the well-being of others. Process affirms this insight, and expands it by going deeper into the nature of interconnectedness, and by arguing that the metaphysical basis of spirituality is the increasingly complex organization of relationships until they create first consciousness, and then self-consciousness. With self-consciousness comes in-creased responsibility for the quality of relationships, and hence the basis for the spirituality of which Schleiermacher speaks.

However, while this basic interrelationality is the foundation for a process view of original sin, it requires expansion into the peculiarity not simply of subjectivity, but of intersubjectivity at the level of social institutions that organize the shaping influence of the past upon the present. For I am convinced that the dynamics of the individual alone are not enough to account for the pervasiveness of sin, and that we need an understanding of institutions and their relationship to individuals as well.

The increased complexity of relational organization does not stop with self-conscious existence, but, upon this basis, develops yet further modes of complexity in institutions. In order to push toward a comprehensive understanding of sin that undergirds and expands insights from Schleiermacher, Rauschenbusch, Ruether, and West, process thought must focus on the intersubjectivity that is uniquely characteristic of institutions. Just as there is a grouping of many actualities in the creation of the complexity of embodied personality, even so there is obviously a grouping of many persons in the creation of an institution. Personal existence becomes uniquely personal in the achievement of self-consciousness; institutional existence gains its character through its unique form of intersubjectivity, or the cooperation of many self-conscious subjects in the joint creation of a supra-personal form of existence.

The intersubjectivity works both personally and institutionally. Notice the peculiar dynamics of a new association with an institution, whereby a person encounters a whole new configuration of her or his personal past. One’s history is contextualized in a different way, being intertwined with the histories of all others in the institution, and by the history of the institution as a whole. Part of the jarring sense of transition is the ontological demand at subliminal levels of one’s being to respond to newly relevant relationships, weaving them into one’s own continuing becoming self. New associations place new demands and invitations upon one’s becoming. Personal participation in the intersubjectivity of an institution is the recontextualization of identity. But by the same token, one’s own energies become newly interwoven with the institution and those associated with it, adding a new dimension to its character which will be manifest at greater or lesser intensities, depending upon the size of the institution. The complexity in the resulting intersubjectivity is increased still further by the overarching reality of the institution, which is woven not simply through the intersubjectivity of its members, but through the tendrils of its relationship to all of its constituencies in its own unique trajectory of time.

Institutions and social organizations work through the intersubjectivity created by concentric rings of participants, governed by the dynamic force of a rather fluid mission, or purpose for its being. The peculiar power of an institution is the sense in which its central purpose is reflected a myriad of times as if in some great hall of mirrors through the intersubjectivity created by all of its participants. This reflection process need not be at explicitly conscious levels for its effectiveness; it is enough that one has absorbed the institutional purpose to whatever degree into the internal structures of one’s identity, and then, in the naturalness of a relational world, woven that purpose into the projections of one’s own influence upon others. Within the institution, this reflection-projection process creates the peculiar intersubjectivity of the institution, nuancing and intensifying the institutional purpose, and therefore creating the power of the institution’s psychic impact on society as a whole. This psychic impact is woven into the physical or material effects of the institution as it carries out its reason for being.

Agency in institutional existence is diffuse, shared, and mutually delegated. It can take the form of hierarchy similar to that which exists in an individual person, where there is a unique governing center coordinating the relationality of all its parts, or it can build upon its ontic base of intersubjectivity and act through consensual modes. The size and complexity of the institution influences the mode of agency, in that the larger the institution, the greater the likelihood that its agency will be coordinated hierarchically. Responsibility is created and shared through the intersubjectivity of the institution, but in varying degrees, depending upon the particular institutional structure. All who participate in an institution bear a real responsibility, to one degree or another, for what the institution is.

It should be noted that the intersubjectivity of an institution allows a peculiar manipulation of that intersubjectivity for individual or specialized group advantage. Its diffuse complexity of agency can mask personal responsibility; intersubjectivity can be used to hide one’s subjectivity. That is, while institutions are more powerful than individuals, exerting greater social force, their looser and intersubjective structures lend themselves to manipulation of that social force by individuals.

In any form, institutional agency is created through intersubjectivity; it is a cumbersome agency, because diffuse. At the same time, its compounded complexity of intersubjectivity gives it power that is greater than that of a single individual, even though it may be subverted by an individual. Intersubjectivity differs from a person’s subjectivity in and through this different order of complexity. It entails a multiple nuanced and mirrored and repeated intentionality of purpose that exercises its corporate influence on the rest of society, particularly those within its immediate environs.

Institutions themselves, however, are hardly the final word, for they contribute to larger groups that are more loosely organized to create a culturally defined society as a whole, bound together as a unit through mutually albeit somewhat loosely reinforced language and customs. Again, responsibility is diffuse, permeating the intersubjectivity that actually and dynamically creates the whole, of whatever proportions that whole might be. We live in a Chinese-nesting-box world of interconnected societies, all of which impinge upon the forming consciousness of every individual. Subjectivity, or the unique mode of existence that belongs to individuals, is replaced by intersubjectivity at the level of institutions and society.

The importance of this brief discussion of persons, institutions, and society relative to the notion of original sin is that all three are involved in the mediation of both good and ill, that which makes up the richness of communal existence, and that which mitigates against it. All three are routes of inheritance, receiving the past, weaving the past, and becoming the past for the future that will succeed them. Their gift to their progeny is to provide the parameters within which consciousness becomes self-consciousness, ordered into a world. This is both bane and blessing, and insofar as it is bane, it is the perpetual origin of original sin.

The psychic power of the forms of intersubjectivity that create institutions and societies lies in their being channels for a multiply reinforced group structure of consciousness, a common grid for interpreting experience in the world. Intersubjectivity itself creates the normative structures whereby we individual subjects order our lives. Further, these structures are not externally imposed, they are internally inherited through the relationality of existence, contributing to the formation of every subjectivity that receives them.

Given this structure to social existence, then, there are two basic elements that contribute to the situation of being disposed toward sin prior to one’s consent. The first element is the interconnected structure of existence, as outlined above, and as developed through process thought; the second draws from the profound insights of black and feminist theology relative to the shaping power of the "normative gaze," or the tendency to value one’s own kind as over against the other. The normative gaze, sanctioned and channeled through the intersubjectivity of institutions and society, is sufficient to shape the consciousness of persons from birth and throughout life. The background of the normative gaze is intersubjective and therefore diffuse, but its foreground is its shaping of the norms and expectations of each individual consciousness. Since it is the individual self-consciousness that is so formed, it becomes constitutive of the self, and difficult to transcend. One’s actions from this center of consciousness will then actualize the norms, perpetuating them relative to one’s own position and perspective within the grid of the intersubjective society at large. By definition, the inherited norms cannot be questioned prior to their enactment: one is caught in sin without virtue of consent. Original sin simply creates sinners.

Against this definitional understanding of original sin, Rauschenbusch’s insights may be given full rein. He spoke to the economic dimensions of original sin when social structures are used to the so-called enhancement of the few at the expense of the many. John B. Cobb Jr.’s insights concerning the devastating effects of anthropocentrism upon earth as a whole through the restriction of well-being to the human community also follow. These views drawn from process, feminist, and Black thought are also extensions of Schleiermacher’s analysis of physical and spiritual existence, albeit translated into the language of "normative gaze" and "own-kindness.

The question remains that if we can refer to inherited structures of consciousness that normalize the good of some at the expense of others, and if these structures of consciousness form persons apart from their consent, how is it that original sin entails guilt? For we suppose that some degree of freedom and responsibility is necessary for the attribution of guilt. The requirement in a process metaphysics that freedom inhere, to one degree or another, in every subject whatsoever is the route to establishing responsibility for one’s actualization of sin. The "Catch 22" -- and the reason for appropriating the name "original sin" instead of simply describing these conditions as the way of things -- is that personal action depends upon structures of consciousness which themselves involve seeds of their own transcendence. The possibility for self-transcendence through questioning one’s structured norms creates the responsibility and therefore the guilt that is entailed in the transition from original sin to sins. However -- and we are again in a "Catch 22" -- in the nature of the case, we inherit structures of consciousness from our birth onward, and hence by the time questioning is possible, the destructive norms are already internalized. The combined power of intersubjectivity creates the grooves of subjectivity.

My introduction to this topic indicated that we need to reappropriate a doctrine of original sin to illumine the ills of our day, and our own participation in those ills. The purpose of such theologizing, however, is not to wallow in the problem, but to name the problem. Naming is itself a form of self-transcendence that has the power to draw us into transformed structures of consciousness, and a wider embrace of the well-being of all earth’s creatures. Such transformations, however, must necessarily involve a transformed mode of communal existence, a renewed intersubjectivity intentionally open to multiple forms of well-being. Such a topic also requires much further development. For the present, my aim has been to explore new foundations for the old doctrine of original sin, allowing us once again to name its power. Such naming is itself a mode of transcendence that can begin the process of transformation toward the good.


BS -- Susan Nelson Dunfee. Beyond Servanthood. University Press of America, 1989.

CF -- Freidrich Schleiermacher. The Christian Faith. Harper & Row, 1963.

Eth -- Dan Rhoades. "The Prophetic Insight and Theoretical-Analytical Inadequacy of ‘Christian Realism.’" Ethics 75/1(October 1964).

IAD -- Freeman Dyson. Infinite in All Directions. Harper & Row, 1989.

NDM -- Reinhold Niebuhr. The Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. I. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941.

PD -- Cornel West. Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity. The Westminster Press, 1982.

SCE -- John Cobb, Jr. The Structure of Christian Existence. The Westminster Press, 1967.

SGT -- Rosemary Ruether. Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology. Beacon Press, 1983.

SSG -- Judith Plaskow. Sex, Sin and Grace. University Press of America, 1980.

TE -- John B. Cobb, Jr. Is it Too Late? A Theology of Ecology. Bruce Books, 1971.

TSG -- Walter Rauschenbusch. A Theology for the Social Gospel. Abingdon, 1945.


1Julius Mueller also developed a work on original sin that harks back to Originistic theories of pre-existent souls; however, this thesis entails many of the problems of a mythic Adam, which truncated its twentieth-century influence.

2See Dan Rhoades, "The Prophetic Insight and Theoretical-Analytical Inadequacy of Christian Realism’," Ethics, LXXV/1, October, 1964.

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~ I have placed the following article last as opposed to Suchocki's
to highlight the differences of approach ~

R.E. Slater

The Christian Doctrine of Original Sin

Summarized by Jim Palmer

The notion of original sin is an invention of the church. It asserts that all human beings are born with a sin nature as a result of Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God in Eden. According to the doctrine, humanity shares in Adam’s sin, transmitted by human generation. This idea is not unique to Christianity. Ancestral fault whereby the sins of the forefathers lead to the punishment of their descendants was a common belief in ancient Greek religion.

The Christian concept of original sin was first mentioned by Church fathers such as Irenaeous and Augustine in the 2nd century. The issue needing resolved was: How could sin have entered the world if God is good? Answer: Adam and Eve’s disobedience and subsequently the entire human race, their offspring.

To believe in the doctrine of original sin you would have to uphold the following:

1. That the Bible’s creation story is to be taken literally – that there was an actual Adam and Eve who were the first human beings, and that the family tree of all humankind is traced back to them.

2. That Adam and Eve’s act of disobedience and rebellion of God resulted in a sinful condition that can be propagated through human conception and birth.

The doctrine of original sin posed as many problems as it solved. How could Jesus be God, as Christianity claimed, if he was born a human? Hence the doctrine of the virgin birth – the belief that Mary was not impregnated through the sperm of Joseph, which would have been contaminated by the sinful condition, but impregnated directly by God himself. The Catholic Church takes it a step further with the teaching of the Immaculate Conception, which asserts that Mary was conceived by normal biological means, but God acted upon her soul, keeping her “immaculate,” at the time of her own conception.

A further complication of the original sin doctrine is the question of how one can believe and appropriate God’s remedy of Jesus if our natural fallen state is one of rebellion. Hence the doctrine of “regeneration,” which states that God first changes the sinner’s nature to make it possible for them to repent. Repentance and conversion both follow regeneration because the sinner cannot naturally obey God's command to repent and be converted unless and until God alters his nature. Don’t feel badly if all this starts to feel a bit convoluted. In divinity school I learned how to become a theological contortionist – stretching, bending, twisting and beating doctrines into submission until they somehow managed to hold several absurd notions together, if only hanging by a thread.

The Bible itself is contradictory when it comes to the matter of original sin, and there is no consistent or coherent message about it. The Apostle Paul wrote that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and yet Jesus himself said, “blessed are the pure in heart,” implying that one’s innermost being is untainted. Even in the Genesis creation story, prior to the fall of Adam and Eve, God’s original pronouncement upon all creation, including the human person, is that they are “good.”

The doctrine of original sin is problematic from every feasible angle of a reasonably thinking person. So the question is, why do so many people believe it? People once believed the world was flat and the earth was the center of the universe, but once they were given more accurate information they eventually adopted the new view. And yet, people hold onto religious beliefs despite their absurdity and the absence of evidence.
Religious truth is often held to a different standard. It gets a pass in terms of how we typically determine the truth of a proposition. When a religious belief appears unfounded or illogical, we often hear the phrase, “God’s ways are not our ways.” It’s considered the height of arrogance to think one can comprehend the ways of God with the human mind. After all, God is “omniscient” or all-knowing.

Insert the carrot and the stick. Let’s say you believe there is a God who rewards and punishes people, and that your eternal future of heaven or hell are hanging in the balance. If the authoritative people (clergy, Bible scholars) impart a set of beliefs you’re expected to uphold to remain in good standing with God, then you could be persuaded to accept in any number of absurd things. The alternative would be to question them, jeopardizing your standing with the Almighty. So the short answer to why people who should know better believe nonsensical religious ideas is fear.

- Jim Palmer

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Jim Palmer offers one view as to why the Doctrine of Original sin was proposed and promoted.

I would add some other considerations.

1.The idea of "original sin" does not appear anywhere in the Old Testament or in Judaism.

2. Its development is based first on assumptions and then on circular reasoning.

3. The absurd teaching that Jesus had to be born of a virgin so that no human sperm and thus the Adamic sinful nature would not be present, contradicts the clearest teaching that shows that the Miracle of Jesus birth, is NOT the Virgin Birth and the absence of Joseph's sperm but rather as we are told from the nativity narratives that it was the "Conceived by the Holy Spirit" and that Jesus' name would be Eman-u-el, being God with us. So his name was not "Adam absent" and therefore no "Joseph" but rather God in the being of the Holy Spirit visiting Mary so that that which is conceived in her and come to full term is "God"... with us.

Having to get around the invented doctrine of the Original Sin it follows logically that they then had to invent the Immaculate Conception. Circular reasoning based on false assumptions.

4. As a hint to why Augustine came up with a doctrine of "original sin", consider that he is known for his "confessions" and his own profligate youth. We had a fun period of a well known comedian whose line was "The debil made me do it". Isn't that a much more convenient way out to account for our "sin" that to admit that we have no control over the flesh?

5. We had "original innocence" or "original trust/faith" and it is this 'trust' that Jesus speaks of when he describes the way of the natural animals. The sin of "adam" mankind is NOT eating of vegetation, nor even coming to experience the full range of human living, ie. knowledge of all things good and all things of misery" but that it was to "have one's eyes opened and to be as gods". And to have this prematurely to their being ready or able to handle it. It was the demand for independence that was the 'sin'. And Jesus confirmed the same teaching as Genesis 3 when he tells the story of the Prodigal Son. It is not the awful "original sin" but the natural and healthy desire to grow and mature, but short circuited by rushing to it before a proper time of fledging. And the result whether in Genesis 3 or in Luke 15 is that spiritual death which is only undone, when the child admits the need of the Father's presence and guidance. In other words when the breach of trust is confessed and trust (or faith) brings restoration or "at-one-ment".

So as in the rebellion and breach of trust in adam all died SPIRITUALLY, so in the trust and restoration of faith, in Christ, all are made alive [SPIRITUALLY].

The just (or righteous) shall live (walk) by faith (trusting.)

- Grant Alford