Jan Brueghel the Elder and Pieter Paul Rubens, Fall of Adam and Eve (Wikipedia)

When God closes a door, as an old saying down South has it, God leaves a window cracked open somewhere. We may have to exercise a little creativity to find it, but there’s always another opening. Another old saying, one I learned in 12-step groups after I moved up north, goes like this: A coincidence is what happens when God wishes to preserve God’s anonymity. Nothing happens entirely by accident.

So by coincidence, just when our weekly bible study Zoom sessions at church were about to go on hiatus for a month, I discovered Fr. Richard Rohr’s daily meditations. And with them, a new way of thinking about original sin and a new, quite possibly heretical, way of thinking about the story of Adam, Eve and the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden.

Yep, that’s right. Original sin.

A fun thing to think about over Labor Day weekend, eh?

But that’s how coincidences work, I guess. Rohr’s meditations elaborate on a common theme, A Time of Unveiling, that runs throughout the year. The name fits! The last year or two, we’ve been living through kind of an apocalypse — which means an unveiling as well as our contemporary meaning of an absolute Dumpster fire. Either way, the meditations give a little structure to my reading.

So one of the first meditations (for Monday, Sept. 6), Rohr titles “Participating in Original Goodness.” Notice the play on words? Original goodness, not original sin. It’s in line with something I’m beginning to recognize as a typically Franciscan spirituality, an emphasis on the essential goodness of God somehow infusing all of God’s creation instead of the badness, or total depravity, of humankind.

So how do we take part in this “original goodness?”

Asked and answered, at least according to Rohr: Weaving together language from the book of Genesis and St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he says “[e]veryone and every thing is created in the ‘image of God'”; all creation is good; and the “only three things that last [are] faith, hope, and love.” Rohr doesn’t quite reject the idea of original sin, at least not as far as I can tell, but he thinks the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century and “many cynical Catholics” went a little overboard with it. (So do I.) He says:

We are made out of the faith, hope, and love of God—to increase faith, hope, and love in this world. If you have a negative anthropology, as some Reformers, and many cynical Catholics do, even a good theology cannot really undo it.

Maybe I’d better try to unpack that one a little.

When Christian theologians talk about anthropology, they don’t mean the study of potsherds, firepits, cultural myths and rituals you’d find in an Anthropology 101 course. They mean the study of human nature as it relates to God. A “negative anthropology” is one that takes a dim view of human nature. (So do I, but I try not to go overboard with it.) The orthodox Lutheran take on original sin, set out in the Augsburg Confession of 1530, is a casebook example:

It is also taught among us that since the fall of Adam all men who are born according to the course of nature are conceived and born in sin. That is, all men are full of evil lust and inclinations from their mothers’ wombs and are unable by nature to have true fear of God and true faith in God. Moreover, this inborn sickness and hereditary sin is truly sin and condemns to the eternal wrath of God all those who are not born again through Baptism and the Holy Spirit. 

This doctrine of original sin traces back at least as far as St. Augustine of Hippo, but it found its heyday with the Reformation, and it’s still around today. Early Calvinists equated it with a “hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature,” and the Church of England followed Calvin.

Growing up in an Episcopal church in the 1950s, I remember flipping to the back of the prayer book when sermons got too long, and reading stuff like Article IX from the XXIX Articles of Religion, adopted in 1571:

Original Sin standeth not in the following of Adam […] but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is ingendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated; whereby the lust of the flesh, called in the Greek, Φρονεμα σαρκος, which some do expound the wisdom, some sensuality, some the affection, some the desire, of the flesh, is not subject to the Law of God. And although there is no condemnation for them that believe and are baptized, yet the Apostle doth confess, that concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin.

I never did find out what Φρονεμα σαρκος was all about. Nor did I much care. Then there was a charming little passage in Article XI about “[Good] Works before Justification.” Flipping through the prayer book as a teenager, I had no idea what that meant, either. For the record, Wikipedia defines it like this: “In Christian theology, justification is God’s righteous act of removing the condemnation, guilt, and penalty of sin, by grace, while, at the same time, declaring the unrighteous to be righteous, through faith in Christ’s atoning sacrifice.” Anyway, the XXXIX Articles were very clear that good works without it “are not pleasant to God.”

Well, OK, I figured, if God’s so hard to please, why bother trying?

A disclaimer: I don’t want to go overboard here, since I didn’t hear much about this stuff from the pulpit in my Episcopal parish or in Sunday school — it was more about loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself — and I had to look it up in the back of the book. Nor do I think the 16th-century language of the Augsburg Confession accurately reflects what the Lutheran church (ELCA) I attend now teaches about justification, although what Luther thought about the subject is certainly of historical interest. We’re more likely to say we’re both saints and sinners, and to talk about faith, unmerited grace, or what theologian Olli-Pekka Vainio of the University of Helsinki calls “union with Christ, which means participation in Christ’s divine nature.”

But the Augustinian tradition is still around today, and its emphasis on hellfire and damnation — especially the Calvinists’ formulation of it — is deeply embedded in American culture. For example, I remember reading Jonathan Edwards’ classic sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in high school English. “Therefore let everyone that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come.” By the time I was taking American lit, I’d heard so much of that fire-and-brimstone stuff from sidewalk preachers in Knoxville, I was pretty well immune to its literary merits, whatever they might have been. In fact I was pretty well inoculated against hellfire-and-damnation Christianity, period.

And that’s why I was delighted to learn that Rohr, a Franciscan priest who heads a retreat center in Albuquerque called the Center for Action and Contemplation, finesses that stuff.

Instead, his brand of Franciscan spirituality offers an alternative to the doom, gloom and guilt-tripping of the Augustinian tradition. I’ve blogged about it recently, HERE and HERE. I’ve been reading up on it and ordering books from Amazon, too, and I’ve learned the great Franciscan scholars of the Middle Ages like Bonaventure and Duns Scotus offered an alternative to the negative anthropology (see? now I’m using the word) of St. Augustine and the later Reformers.

In a useful summary titled “The Retrieval of a Distinctly Franciscan Spirituality and Intellectual Tradition,” Keith Douglass Warner of Santa Clara University suggests the difference is basically one of emphasis. Here, according to Warner’s summary, is how Duns Scotus handles the questions of original sin, atonement and justification:

Jesus came to express God’s love, and not as a result of human sin. Thus, the Incarnation itself is a communicative strategy that reveals the character of God and love. It is not only a discrete historical event, nor merely a precondition for the Word to be preached to us. Christ is the meaning and model of creation, and every creature is made in the Image of Christ. […] His method was deeply faithful to the Christian tradition, yet highly original, challenging shallow or distorted assumptions serving as obstacles to God’s love and grace.

I’d only known of Duns Scotus before as the inspiration for the dunce’s cap (after the Reformation, it came to typify what was seen as the foolishness of medieval philosophy). And his emphasis is a lot more congenial than the doctrine of original sin and the idea that Christ came into the world to atone for Adam’s sin and the depravity of humankind.

Which led me — by coincidence — to a painting variously known as The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man or The Earthly Paradise with the Fall of Adam and Eve by the Flemish masters Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Ruebens (Brueghel did the landscape, and Ruebens did the figures of Adam and Eve). The painting is featured prominently on Wikipedia’s page on original sin.

It’s lovely. And I think every creature, to paraphrase Keith Warner’s paraphrase of Duns Scotus, is made in the image of Christ.

Brueghel’s symbolism is elaborate, Wikipedia tells us in its entry on the painting itself, with a monkey biting an apple in the foreground that “represents sin,” and a “choleric cat near Eve’s heels [that] represents cruel cunning.” The kitty, a tabby barely visible behind Eve’s left heel, has its ears laid back. But what strikes me about the painting is the sheer abundance of animal life.

Wikipedia allows you to click on the painting and study it by enlarging it and hovering over the details. It’s worth the effort. Under the trees of knowledge and of life, both fully laden with apples and other fruits, Brueghel has a wild menagerie of horses, goats, pheasants, turtles, rabbits, chickens, various waterfowl, songbirds, a woodpecker, owls and what looks like a parrot, fish, elephants, a camel, a white horse, a bullock, a crocodile and a pair of dogs barking at the wood ducks in an adjacent stream in the foreground. My favorite vignette — since I’m a sucker for cat pictures — shows a pair of tigers tussling like kittens while a lion in in the background looks on unamused, perhaps wondering why the kids don’t behave themselves like they used to anymore and wishing they’d get off his lawn.

While the focal point of the painting is clearly Rubens’ Adam and Eve (and of course the serpent coiled around the tree of knowledge with an apple bough in its mouth), Brueghel’s background is like a painterly hymn to the diversity and wonder of God’s creation. I don’t want to go overboard with this, but it reminds me, at least in spirit, of St. Francis’ song of Praise to the Creatures (Laudes Creaturarum). Citing art historian Arianne Faber Kolb’s study Jan Brueghel the Elder: The Entry of the Animals into Noah’s Ark, the Wikipedia page on Brueghel says his depiction of “nature in all its various forms, in flowers, landscapes, animals, etc., was clearly in line with the view that study of God’s creation was an important source for knowing God.”

What I take away from Brueghel’s and Rubens’ Fall of Man: You can have both. The story of Adam, Eve and the fall of humankind is a story of lost innocence, and the wonder of God’s creation is part and parcel of the story. Even after they are expelled from Eden, Adam and Eve are still part of God’s creation — you can’t have one part of the story without the other. We’re saints and sinners. But you can tell the story without elaborate theologizing about forensic atonement and a wrathful God who sends God’s son into the world as a scapegoat to die for the sins of humankind.

Which brings me back around to Father Rohr’s meditation. For all of its doom, gloom and negative anthropology, he says, Christianity teaches that “faith, hope, and love are planted deep within our nature—indeed they are our very nature.” And that gives us a job to do. He quotes Sr. Ilia Delio OSF, who puts it like this:

Our nature is already endowed with grace, and thus our task is to be attentive to that which is within and that which is without—mind and heart—so that we may contribute to building up the world in love. Every action can be sacred action if [it] is rooted in love, and in this way, both Christians and non-Christians can participate in the emerging body of Christ.

So what does that mean? This:

Our lives have meaning and purpose. . . . We either help build this world up in love or tear it apart. Either way, we bear the responsibility for the world’s future, and thus we bear responsibility for God’s life as well.

Works Cited

“Articles of Religion: As they appear in the 1789, 1892 and 1928 Books of Common Prayer,” The 1928 U. S. Book of Common Prayer http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/1928/Articles.htm.

Eric Grundhauser, “The Dunce Cap Wasn’t Always So Stupid,” Slate, Oct. 13, 2015 https://slate.com/human-interest/2015/10/john-duns-scotus-and-the-dunce-cap-a-brief-history-of-a-pointy-hat-that-was-once-a-symbol-of-respected-scholars.html.

Fr. Richard Rohr OFM, “Participating in Original Goodness,” Living Inside God’s Greatness and Glory, Center for Action and Contemplation, Albuquerque, Sept. 6, 2021 https://cac.org/participating-in-original-goodness-2021-09-06/.

Keith Douglass Warner OFM, “The Retrieval of a Distinctly Franciscan Spirituality and Intellectual Tradition,” St. Francis and the Americas, Arizona State University, Tempe https://stfrancis.clas.asu.edu/article/retrieval-distinctly-franciscan-spirituality-and-intellectual-tradition.

Olli-Pekka Vainio, “Martin Luther and Justification [Summary],” Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Oxford University Press, Aug. 31, 2016 https://oxfordre.com/religion/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199340378.001.0001/acrefore-9780199340378-e-336.

Wikipedia pages on St. Francis’ Canticle of the Sun, Brueghel’s and Rubens’ Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man, Jan Brueghel the Elder, Justification (theology), Original Sin and Jonathan Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.

[Revised and published, Sept. 15, 2021]

One thought on “Stray thoughts on original sin, Franciscan spirituality and a painting of the Garden of Eden by Jan Brueghel the Elder

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