The fragrance of old books mingled with stale pipe tobacco washed over me like finely aged wisdom, fermented from years of deep contemplation. Every wall of the late history professor’s study was concealed behind rows of shelves fully stocked with hardcover and paperback treasure. My sense of gratitude for the invitation to come “pillage” Robert’s library morphed into unbridled excitement. I soon had three boxes full of literary gems that would profoundly alter the course of my spiritual journey.
“So you’re studying theology?” Mary asked as I thanked her yet again. I’d never met Robert’s widow Mary before, but she seemed pleasant. She was short and unassuming but her eyes revealed an enormous and fiery personality.
I commenced with the customary small talk and social niceties but she cut me off.
“Are your theology professors still teaching Augustine’s “original sin” baloney?
She spoke with a bluntness only elderly women can get away with. Her no-nonsense, “I don’t give a snap!” attitude simmered with confidence, passion and humour. I pictured her donning a purple jumpsuit and giant red hat whenever she left the house.
“The doctrine of original sin is child abuse,” she continued. “The first identity we give our kids is shame. Terrible! It’s the church that should be ashamed! Raising children to believe they’re bad from birth, teaching them they’re wicked, sinful creatures who deserve to burn in hell, just for existing. Ridiculous!”
I could tell Mary was as compassionate as she was direct. I got the sense she wasn’t interested in debating me. She was trying to set me free. From what, I still wasn’t sure.
“Does the Bible story start with the Fall?” she asked.
“Good heavens. I thought you studied theology. The Bible starts with creation, right? You’ve read Genesis haven’t you?”
“And what does God say about creation, about human beings?”
“That they are good?”
“Don’t answer like you’re asking a question. Have some confidence boy. This is what I’m talking about. You kids walk around like you’re unworthy and don’t know anything because that’s what the church taught you. They gave you shame instead of a blessing.”
“I’m not sure you do yet son. The Bible story starts with creation and tells us three things about human beings. First, we’re made in the likeness of God, male AND female. Second, we’re blessed by God. And third, we’re very good. But our salvation theology doesn’t start there. It begins with the fall, the belief that we’re bad, sinful creatures who are cursed and deserve to burn in hell.”
“But the fall did happen.” I responded.
“But it’s not where the story begins. When we start with the fall we’re not telling God’s story. Where we start matters.”
Mary elaborated on how our theology has practical implications. Humans are prone to self-fulfilling prophecies, she explained. We’re wired to become what we believe we are. A child who is repeatedly told he’s stupid will eventually believe this and not live up to his intellectual capacity. If a child is constantly reminded the Bible says he’s innately bad and deceitful, his behaviour and desires will be inclined to reflect this negative identity. However, if he believes he’s ultimately good and made in the image of God he’ll grow into this positive identity more readily.
Starting with the fall puts us at odds with who we are. Starting with creation and God’s pronouncement of our innate goodness invites us to be reconciled or renewed with our true identity—the image of God. Where we start makes a huge difference.
One morning I started typing an essay and gibberish appeared on my screen. I’m confident in my typing skills so I assumed my computer was messed up. It wouldn’t be the first time my computer acted up, doing inexplicable things. It turned out it wasn’t the computer or my typing. My hands were in the wrong starting position on the keyboard. Although my computer and typing technique were fine, the result was utter nonsense because I’d started in the wrong place.
The same goes for my theology. If I start in the wrong place, my theology will be off, even if my line of reasoning is sound and my Bible study skills are exemplary. Most theological frameworks are reasonable if you accept the assumptions (presuppositions) they start with. It’s where we start that makes the difference.
Troy Watson is pastor of Avon Mennonite Church in Stratford, Ont., email@example.com