For those of us born into Christian families, the disturbing idea of original sin has been drilled into our heads since the beginning. As children we were told that baptism was necessary to wash away the sin that was inherited from Adam. Most of us probably couldn’t comprehend the idea that we, as children, should be responsible for the sins of a stranger who supposedly lived ages ago. How can I be responsible for someone else’s actions? I personally resented Adam for this debacle. Because of him I had to go to church each week and endure endless hours of boring monologues by an old curmudgeon of a priest. Today, countless children are still subjected to this torturous misery. It is torturous because it is an intellectual concept, vague and alien, that has no basis in daily life. Humans cannot experience concepts but they can certainly connect with the feeling of being trapped by patterns, addictions, anxiety, depression, lack of self-worth and a host of other psychological maladies.
Now as an adult, I am beginning to understand the idea of original sin as inherited psychological patterns. While it is not the only perspective, psychology is one way of understanding this idea. Original sin is a metaphor for a very real phenomenon that all humans endure and cannot avoid. We are all born into families that have been conditioned by dynamics specific to those families, from generation to generation, and to the local culture. Traditions, rituals, mindsets and environmental factors shape culture. Teachers, politicians, the clergy, parents and others are carriers and promoters of a culture just as any biological organism is a carrier of a certain set of genes. Culture can be thought of as a type of software that gets slowly but effectively programmed into the minds of children. Therefore, children not only inherit their parents' physical traits but also their psychological genes, shaped by culture.
We don't even need to step outside our front doors to witness this phenomenon at work. We see it in ourselves and in others. Countless people each day live out their lives without ever questioning the paradigm or system into which they were born. Most of them in fact are hard at work to support, protect, and defend this system that lords over them with every fiber of their being, even to the detriment of their own well-being. Some with time, those with even the slightest sense of self-awareness, begin to notice patterns in their thinking and behavior that they cannot control. To their horror, many begin to see their parents in themselves. How often have we all expressed to friends that we are fighting to avoid becoming like our parents and repeating their patterns! This is the paradigm at work and no amount of intelligence or reason or logic can make one immune. The very eyes with which we see the world and ourselves have been inherited from our families and our culture. But this is not the entire story for there are mysterious, autonomous processes in the human psyche that somehow give us the potential to come face to face with our own programming and perhaps change the course of our lives.
One example of inherited patterns can be found in the culture of the West, which was based in part on common values from ages ago. The three great religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam were built upon the Ten Commandments. The first set of these commandments establishes the god Jehovah as the ultimate authority. No one can question his word and the declared hierarchy. He demands total obedience and homage. What follows the first set is a commandment to honor one's parents and then other admonishments regarding theft, murder, adultery, etc. that regulate social behavior. These commandments can be viewed as a system of crowd control. The first set of commandments cements the unquestionable authority of the system that is in place. The commandment to honor our parents ensures its survival and propagation from generation to generation. While I am not questioning the validity or value of the behavioral commandments regarding theft, murder, etc., I suggest that such an authority based on fear can become the basis of an oppressive system. When an external system infiltrates the depths of our minds, dictates to our inner life, and shapes our own self-image and worth, it can cause a multitude of problems and ills. When our personal ideas or values conflict with those of god's (or society's), then we are challenged to reconcile them or resolve the conflict in some way.
The gospel of Jesus is a story of a resolution of this conflict. As we are told, Jesus was not born of the flesh but of the spirit. He was not conceived from man and woman. This virgin birth is symbolic of his life and his overthrowing of this system of fear and control. All arguments aside regarding his historical existence, he can be viewed as an example of one who is guided by his own inner impulse to life. He lives from a space within himself, within his own center, not directed by an external source. In other words, while Jesus recognizes the value of and abides by social laws or commandments, he does not allow them to dictate to his mind, to tell him how to feel about himself, to tell him who he is. He is representative of a free human being in the most fundamental sense. Furthermore, only free people can take responsibility for their own lives and make choices and vice versa. Those who live without this inner guidance or impulse to their own lives are simply reproducing the system; they are agents of it. In the syntax of the Bible, they are born of flesh and blood and not of the spirit. They are mere re-productions and carriers of the paradigm and they pass it on to their children.
The idea of Jesus as taking on the sins of the world symbolizes his willingness to accept whatever psychological patterns that he has inherited from his family and culture. It represents his ability to completely and willingly take responsibility for his situation, shaped by the conditions under which he was born. The psychological baggage of his family - and of previous generations - becomes his own. He did not try to put the blame for his fate on his parents or teachers or politicians or high priests. As we are told, he stood before Pilate, his accusers and the whole world with his head bowed with barely a word spoken in his own defense. And of course he was tried and convicted by the Romans and sent to his crucifixion. He took on "the sins of the world" and descended into the pits of his mind and into his own swirling psyche to peel off encrusted layers of traditions and mindsets, to reveal internal conflicts, and to arrive at that sacred and mysterious place where "The Father" resides. Here, he comes in touch and becomes one with the source of his own life, which is the source of all life. The suffering of Jesus at the hands of the Romans (or the established, external system of the day) symbolizes the difficult process of bringing these inherited psychological patterns to light. In the West this path is not without its pain and suffering. In the East, stern discipline is required. Both paths invoke the shattering of boundaries that have hardened over a long period of time. Interestingly, the process flows both ways. Inasmuch as unconscious psychological patterns of several generations can be passed on to and ensnare an individual, an individual's act of bringing these patterns out of the shadows can also impact the entire world. And thus it is said that Jesus is the savior of the world and that Gautama became a Buddha, an awakened being.
Original sin then can be interpreted as lack of awareness or as inherited ignorance of the patterns and paradigms that control us. They cause tension and conflict with our own impulse to life and generate dissonance in our daily lives that manifest as addictions, depression, anxiety, divorce and even suicide. We are intellectually impotent to resolve this crisis because it is rooted in a dimension that operates at a much deeper level than our logical or conscious mind. That level is the ground floor of our programming. The subconscious mind inhabits those dimensions and it is into those depths that Jesus descended, metaphorically speaking, after his crucifixion. And as the story goes, he died to the world and was reborn deathless (into the realm of the spirit).
The subconscious mind is aligned with our profound impulse to life and reaching those depths requires a certain level of awareness, as mentioned. The way to those depths in the West - at least without the use of psychedelic drugs - is through prayer. In the East, meditation is the way. Both have the same essential function and require devotion; each in their own way is meant to essentially hold up a mirror to oneself and bring attention to the workings of the mind by focusing the mind on its own awareness. They shed light on our minds' programming. From the beginning of time, sages have told us that prayer and meditation bring clarity to the mind, reduce stress and generally result in a feeling of wellbeing. Strangely, the simple act of recognizing the patterns or bringing them to our awareness somehow changes us. In other words, accepting who we are as we are now at the most fundamental level brings about a revolution in our perception, our awareness, our mindset, and ultimately our behavior. We are no longer vehicles for these patterns, identifying with them; we are no longer held by their gravity. This process is represented as the birth from spirit and is symbolized through baptism. Note that in dream interpretation and psychology, water often represents the subconscious mind because of its fluid nature. It is no accident that baptism is usually performed by dipping a person in water.
In the East, being born of the spirit is referred to as enlightenment. It is the awakening from the drama or dream of life (or maya) and transcending the system or programming that determines the mind's habits and thoughts. It is characterized by spontaneity, lightheartedness, creativity, vitality, childlike zeal and innocence. Enlightenment in part is the experiential (or spiritual), not merely intellectual, realization that our lives are determined by the quality of our own minds. We are the result of our mental patterns that are formed at a deeper level than our intellect. Meditation is meant to bring to light the crusty layers of thoughts that generation after generation has built up, to peel them away and integrate the various autonomous processes that operate in the mind; hence the East's approach, specifically Buddhism, may be described as more psychological. The West's is more poetic or dramatic, perhaps reaching its pinnacle through mysticism.
Clearly, the greatest barrier to our fulfillment is our own mind. One of the most gripping experiences for any human being is the realization that our conscious mind is only a fraction of our totality and that there are other dynamics at work. To truly realize and experience firsthand this idea is mind-blowing but it is also a door into unimaginable, vast dimensions. It transforms our entire way of thinking. We come to understand that our ignorance of these inherited patterns, or sin, is the root of all of our problems and conflicts and that we have been suffering all along because of it. It is futile to try and change these patterns because the conscious mind is impotent against the vast dimensions of the subconscious mind. All we can do is bring these patterns that haunt us to light. Such an act is heroic. It can empower by engaging the revitalizing forces within our psyche and bringing about a profound change. That is the gospel or good news that Jesus sought to teach. It is, in its purest form, salvation.
© 2014 The Forbidden Heights