Faith and worldview part 7 — on original sin and sins of weakness

In the last installment, I wrote at length about sin as a choice of what world view one accommodates.  I also mentioned the idea of original sin, and sins of “weakness.”

I’ll start with “original sin.”  Consider the possibility that moral laws are as inflexible and implacable as physical laws.  People have no problem with the fact that physical laws don’t “care” about one’s attitude, culpability, or whatever.  One might believe that a person who does something reckless and is harmed “deserved” it in some way (the famous dictum of “F**k around and find out”).  So, if someone drinks too much and falls from a roof while engaging in drunken horseplay, there’s not a lot of sympathy.  Gravity is gravity.   In terms of moral law, we feel similarly.  You shouldn’t be getting drunk and doing stupid stuff on the roof.  We may feel *some* sympathy, but it is what it is.

However, it’s different when breaking a moral law isn’t one’s “fault.”  If a man is repairing a roof and is hit by a falling limb from a tree, we will feel more sympathy.  However,  there is no (or at least rarely) the claim that the law of gravity should have been suspended.   Physical laws are physical laws.  We may not like them, but they are what they are, and we sometimes suffer the consequences of them through no fault of our own.   In contrast, if someone breaks a moral law but is either ignorant or well-intentioned, we somehow feel that the moral law should not apply.   Physical laws are not mitigated because of good intent, but moral ones should be.

This is most obvious in the story of Uzzah in 2 Samuel chapter 6.  When the Ark of the Covenant was made, God told Israel that anybody who touched it would die.   David was moving the Ark, and two of his subjects, Uzzah and Ahio, were driving the cart that held it.  The cart tilted a little and Uzzah reached up to steady the Ark.  When he did, God killed him:

They set the ark of God on a new cart and brought it from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cart 4 with the ark of God on it,[c] and Ahio was walking in front of it. David and all Israel were celebrating with all their might before the Lord, with castanets, harps, lyres, timbrels, sistrums and cymbals.

When they came to the threshing floor of Nakon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down, and he died there beside the ark of God.

 Then David was angry because the Lord’s wrath had broken out against Uzzah, and to this day that place is called Perez Uzzah.

Most of us feel a bit like David felt — that God should have given Uzzah a mulligan.  After all, Uzzah was trying to do a “good” thing by preserving the Ark.   A lot of people have tried to provide motivational excuses for punishing Uzzah, for instance claiming that Uzzah didn’t have sufficient faith to believe that God was competent to make sure the Ark would be fine.

But I don’t think that’s the case.  I think that God’s laws are like gravity.  The laws just are.  It doesn’t matter *why* you fall unprotected from a height, you are going to get hurt when you land.  It doesn’t matter *why* you break a moral law, you are going to suffer a consequence.   There are things you can do to mitigate the damage.  You can wear a parachute or fall onto a mattress.  That doesn’t change gravity itself, however.  Similary, there are things you can do to mitigate the consequences of a moral law, but it doesn’t change the rule itself.

A lot of people, for instance, have a hard time with the very idea that God the Father would “demand” that His Son come down to Earth, be tortured and executed, and break the bonds of Hell.  They think that God should just say “Oh no, just forget it, it’s all cool,” and move on.   I think He could do it, since I think God can do anything.  But I think that in doing so, He would necessarily also destroy reality itself.  It would be the same as saying “OK, let’s just do away with gravity.  It’s just a bummer.”  Gravity has some very  negative consequences.  But you can’t have our universe without it.

My working hypothesis of the Garden of Eden, the fall, and original sin (since this is written for Christians, I’m assuming you know all about these) is one in which major events resulted in a recoding of the  basic laws of existence.   Of course I don’t know if it’s true, and it’s completely unfalsifiable.  But, as an intellectual conceit, I find it appealing.

Some folk have seriously suggested that the reality we live in is consistent with, or indistiguishable from, a simulation.  There is certainly nothing to disprove it, and there are anomalies that are consistent with it.  This speculation has been the subject of lurid discussion in a number of popular press articles, such as Scientific American, NBC, Forbes, and others.   From an apologetics point of view, I always find it amusing that there are people who consider the idea of God stupid, but who nod and accept the possibility that we are living in a simulation — without considering that such a simulation would almost certainly demand a God whose instantiated thought we are experiencing.  I’ll also point out that this simulation idea is nothing new, having been discussed as the “Butterfly dream” of Zhuangzi in the 4th century BC (in terms of living in a dream),  Anaxarchus in ancient Greece, as well as Descartes and Nietzche.

A variation of this idea is proposed by Max Tegmark that the universe is actually a mathematical construct.   I am more sympathetic with Tegmark’s hypothesis.  It goes to a deeper issue of whether mathematics is “discovered” or “created.”  This has become a big deal in Progressivism, which claims that mathematics is arbitrary and represents “colonized” thinking and “white supremacy.”  If a culture decided that 2+2=5, then it would.  For those of us who believe that mathematics represents a description of reality, and is thus “discovered” and immutable, the idea that it is culturally determined is silly.

An important implication of either of these ideas, though, is that a minor change in the “programming” or the rules of mathematics could result in a radically different reality.  If either of these physical or mathematical laws are imposed, then they could be changed.  Changing those laws would result in changes in natural laws and in reality itself.  In addition, such changes may not be easily discovered, since they may be made to back-propagate in perceived time and in the physical record.

One possible interpretation of Genesis, for instance, is that it is not just a chronicle of people, but also describes multiple resets in reality itself, when the laws of nature were revised — as would be allowed in the simulation or mathematical reality hypotheses.  Thus, the creation saga in Genesis 1 reflects an instantiation of a set of physical laws, and the “days” would both be literal “days” of that version of reality while different than the 24 hour days of the finished reality.  Similarly, the fall of nature after Eden, the changes following the Great Flood, etc. could reflect these kinds of resets.   People really did live for hundreds of years and giants did walk on the earth, but it was a different reality with different natural laws.  It would also be an explanation of another singularity mentioned in the Bible — the death and resurrection of the Christ.  The period of darkness, the odd events, etc. could represent that “Great Reset.”  Instead of Matrix version three, we are living in Earth version six or seven or whatever.

Who knows.  I don’t, certainly.  But conceptually, it fits well into this worldview idea, and with original sin.   If one posits that Eden was an instantiation of the Kingdom of God, then Adam and Eve were living in a world that was in tune with God, and the very rules of existence were different.   The eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was exactly that — a discovery that there were possibilities of other realities and other laws — ones that even humans might modify.  In this analogy, eating of the Tree of Knowledge was not becoming the software engineer that created the program, but instead, becoming aware of previously hidden features of the program.    When God said “And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”   If reality is an instantiation of this kind of construct, then the trees of Knowledge and of Life may be visualized as glorified widgets for user privilege escalation. In addition to Eden,  consider Genesis 11 and the Tower of Babel:   But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.”

In this conceit, expulsion from Eden was expulsion into a world that was no longer an instantiation of the Kingdom of God, and which had different physical and moral laws.

Of course this is speculative, and I am more comfortable thinking of this as an example analogous reasoning.  I’m not trying to convince you that this is what reality is.  I’m trying to convince you that it is rational to view reality as perhaps something analogous to this — perhaps even in a way we biologically cannot really understand.   But this approach becomes can explain why the concept of  “original sin” is not just the introduction of entropy, as some have suggested, but that we are living in a constructed reality that by its very natural laws does not adhere to the instantiated Kingdom –  through ancestral choice.

One result of living in a world where the physical laws are incompatible with the Kingdom of God is that eventually we will be put in a situation where there are no morally acceptable actions.  We all constantly are presented with moral “Sophie’s choices“, where all options are bad ones.  It is thus impossible to be “sinless” in the world, because we are put in situations where there is no sinless option. Moral relativists posit that when one is given two bad choices, then the least bad choice is the ‘good” one.  But if moral laws are immutable, then that is not the case.  The lesser of two evils is still evil.  We do not choose between good and evil, but between evils.

While the physical world is structurally antagonistic to the Kingdom of Got, we can somewhat more successfully impose the Kingdom of God on our internal world.  Choosing the Christian worldview is an attempt to actively reject all those external evils by restructuring out internal selves.  But it’s like a game of Tetris — eventually you fail.  Every time you play.  That’s what happens in life, which is why Jesus and the Apostles warn us of moral hubris.  We *are* to judge, but in a very technical sense and to a practical purpose.  As in Teris, the “victory” is in the attempt itself.

There are, of course, non-faith-based analogues of this attempt to modulate our internal life  — so-called “mindfulness”, meditation, etc.   Unfortunately, many, if not all, of these focus on various tools for modifying one’s internal world, but they do not provide an appropriate worldview towards which to modify it.  A hammer is a great tool, but you don’t build a house by randomly whacking on things.  Many Christians, particularly evangelical Protestants, are suspicious of such tools.  I have heard more than one pastor say bad things about “mysticism.”  As a mystic, I think they are mistaking the tool for the goal, but that’s a different discussion.

So, “original sin” is the moral doom of living in a world where the very physical laws make ultimate moral victory impossible.   This is why repentance and forgiveness are so important in Christian thought.  It is impossible to succeed, but it is always possible to strive.  Antichristians accuse us of hypocrisy when we fail as we are doomed to do.   But there’s a difference between hypocrisy and failure that antichristians refuse to acknowledge.

So, now on to sins of “weakness.”  This failure to impose our internal world onto the external world is most obvious in physical weaknesses of the flesh.   Not all drug abusers *want* to be drug addicts, yet most Christians would agree that drug addiction — to the point of self-destruction at least — is a sin.  As Jesus noted in Gethsemane, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”  The disciples waiting for Him to pray did not fall asleep because of a deficiency in their worldview.  They were physically weak.

Paul spoke eloquently for every Christian fighting his or her weakness, and every addict fighting his or her addiction in Romans 7 (paraphrased in The Living Bible version):

I don’t understand myself at all, for I really want to do what is right, but I can’t. I do what I don’t want to—what I hate. 16 I know perfectly well that what I am doing is wrong, and my bad conscience proves that I agree with these laws I am breaking. But I can’t help myself because I’m no longer doing it. It is sin inside me that is stronger than I am that makes me do these evil things. I know I am rotten through and through so far as my old sinful nature is concerned. No matter which way I turn I can’t make myself do right. I want to but I can’t.  When I want to do good, I don’t; and when I try not to do wrong, I do it anyway.  Now if I am doing what I don’t want to, it is plain where the trouble is: sin still has me in its evil grasp.

It seems to be a fact of life that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong.  I love to do God’s will so far as my new nature is concerned; but there is something else deep within me, in my lower nature, that is at war with my mind and wins the fight and makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. In my mind I want to be God’s willing servant, but instead I find myself still enslaved to sin.

So you see how it is: my new life tells me to do right, but the old nature that is still inside me loves to sin. Oh, what a terrible predicament I’m in! Who will free me from my slavery to this deadly lower nature? Thank God! It has been done by Jesus Christ our Lord. He has set me free

But here’s the key.  If one’s worldview truly disallows something but one still does it out of some sort of weakness, then it is a form of addiction. In my personal opinion, and it’s just opinion, I believe that this is a failure of the discipline associated with the Christian worldview to overcome the flawed physical laws and biological realities of a fallen physical world. And the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ provided the mitigation for our failures.  He is the mattress under the window we are falling out of.  All we have to do is choose the right window by following Him.

Addictive behavior like this results in longstanding physical changes in the brain.  For instance, functional PET (positron emission tomography) scanning of the brain shows physical differences in the brains of people with drug addiction compared to people who are not addicted.  Further, it can take  years of abstinence to completely reverse those changes.  During those years, even though one had completely “detoxed,” one will still have severe addictive urges. As such, they are the long-term physical manifestations of worldview choices that can persist for a period even after the worldview has changed.  I can testify to this from personal experience.  I smoked tobacco for many years, but quit when I got married in 1990.  The first year after I quit, it was very hard — I constantly wanted a cigarette. The second year was not so bad.  The third year, I had the urge only intermittently.  I haven’t thought about a cigarette for 20 years — but it took awhile to get away from the urge.

All of us have these failings.  For instance, more people in the US die of complications of obesity than drug addiction — yet many Christians are complacent about the sin of gluttony. We tend to condemn the the sins we don’t have a lot invested in, but are sympathetic to the ones we cling to.  It’s easy for me to condemn opiate addiction while I have my second large order fries at McDonalds.  The acknowledgement that “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” is not an excuse.  It is an acknowledgement that we need to focus more on discipline, because the physical manifestations of non-Christian word views linger and can only be erased by focused Christian effort.  In fact, most of us do not have the strength or discipline to do it without the aid of our Christian brethren through the congregation.  To the degree that we choose not to make that *effort* we are choosing the non-Christian worldview.  And, as previously discussed, this is why encouragement, correction, discipline, and support within the context of the church is so important.

One action component of the Christian worldview is discipline.  The physical manifestation of that worldview is to *fight* to do the Christian thing in one’s life in the face of external *and internal* resistance and against physical laws that are incompatible with it.  In the case of addiction, for instance, the Christian worldview understands that we are all works in progress.  It doesn’t demand perfection, it demands *effort* in the right direction.  To the degree that the Christian, with the help of God, successfully combats these obstacles, he or she is successfully continuing to build his or her Christian worldview and enter more fully to the Kingdom of God.  To the degree that he or she is unsuccessful, he or she is suffering a temporary setback in removing this non-Christian component.  To the degree that he or she accommodates the failure, then he or she is accommodating the non-Christian worldview component.   Traditionally, the church is our collective method to provide resources *and discipline* to help each other.  Unfortunately, most mainline churches have taken the opposite path, and teach us to feel good about our accommodation to evil.   Even evangelical theologically conservative churches have largely abandoned the concept of discipline.  This is unfortunate.  You cannot have real success without mentoring and discipline.

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