Chapter 5 in Blake Ostler’s new book Exploring Mormon Thought Volume 2 is titled “Sin and the Uncircumcised Heart”. It follows his discussion in chapter 4 of why the doctrine of original sin should be rejected. But rejecting the doctrine of original sin leaves Mormonism with the task of explaining why every one of us who can sin does sin. And considering how similar some strains of Mormon thought are to Pelagianism, this question becomes even more interesting. If we have robust free will and come into the world sinless and free from any of Adam’s or anyone else’s guilt, why is it that 100% of us end up sinning anyway? Blake gives us some answers.
Nature, nurture, and free will
The primary explanation he gives is remarkably similar to the explanation I independently gave in a couple of posts here. The gist of the argument is that our spirits are placed in these mortal bodies and in a social context. That means that both nature and nurture have a massive effect on our behavior here in mortality, despite our robust free will. He quotes D&C 93:38-39 as evidence:
38 Every spirit of man was innocent in the beginning; and God having redeemed man from the fall, men became again, in their infant state, innocent before God.
39 And that wicked one cometh and taketh away light and truth, through disobedience, from the children of men, and because of the tradition of their fathers
The “tradition of their fathers” is another way of describing nurture. We all have histories and cultures and habits we pick up as part of our upbringing. Before we know it, we have all already sinned by succumbing to learned bad habits even though we have the power to choose otherwise. Further, we inherit genetic predispositions that lead to sin and as well. We have the power to choose otherwise in life but we inevitably sin along the way. As we learn in Moses 6:54-55:
54 Hence came the saying abroad among the people, that the Son of God hath atoned for original guilt, wherein the sins of the parents cannot be answered upon the heads of the children, for they are whole from the foundation of the world.
55 And the Lord spake unto Adam, saying: Inasmuch as thy children are conceived in sin, even so when they begin to grow up, sin conceiveth in their hearts, and they taste the bitter, that they may know to prize the good.
What sin do we all commit?
And what is sin as Blake defines it? He focuses on the two commandments upon which hang all the law and the prophets: Love God and love your neighbors. These are the things that we all fail to properly do in life and this is sin. Repenting inevitably means doing a better job at one or both of these two great commandments.
No Atonement = no freedom to choose
According to Ostler:
Thus, the Atonement results in a gift of freedom to choose that is prevenient or necessarily prior to any human choice. In this sense, the Atonement is the ground of human agency. Our ability to free ourselves from our own past, from the chains of perpetuated traditions and behaviors, is a gift given as a sheer grace; in other words, it is not within our ability to free ourselves without this gift. Without the atonement the past dictates our present and future. (156)
I think this is good stuff. Without the atonement we would all be unable to choose to escape sin. We would be like hopeless addicts with no one reaching out to help pull us out of our addictions. I must note though that Ostler uses the term “Atonement” basically interchangeably with the word “grace”. That is, Ostler is not talking just about the culminating events of the ministry of Jesus when he brings up the Atonement; he is talking about the ongoing offer of a loving relationship that God extends to all of us. So his point here is that if God wasn’t willing to open his arms of mercy to us and invite us into a loving relationship with him we would have no hope or even freedom to escape the shackles of our mortal nature and nurture. God’s grace, or atonement as Ostler calls it, allows us to be free.
Hard hearts and ego maintenance
Blake spends 20+ pages on the notion that we fail to love because at some point in our childhood we all get our feeling and hearts stomped on. In order to protect our hearts and egos we learn to harden them. The problem, as I understand his position, is that we get too good at it and we use this method to convince ourselves that we are right and good most all of the time — even when we are neither. We learn the art of self deception in order to protect our inner selves too well and in the process end up hardening our hearts against loving relationships with the Godhead and with others here on earth. I think this general concept is a fine idea though I must admit that Blake beats this particular drum a bit more than I would have – but that is a matter of taste.
So what do you think of Ostler’s alternative to orginal sin? Is this a Mormon view of why we all sin that you are familiar with? Do you think he’s right?
My opinion is that, as usual, Blake is on the right theological track here.
[Associated radio.blog song: The Killers - All These Things That I've Done]