Original Sin or Inter-Generational Trauma?

Pelagius famously taught that human nature is good in its essence and that original sin, as Augustine taught it, is a dangerous doctrine that leads people away from virtue and into despair of ever being good. This is something I discussed recently in another article The Gift of Hope. This teaching that humans are naturally good raises one serious question from those who defend original sin: if we are good by nature then why is human society full of evil? Anyone who studies history or current events knows that humans are capable of all sorts of evil, from slavery to genocide to environmental destruction (and much more). Our own history shows that sin is part of what it means to be human.

Pelagius was not so naive to think that there was no sin in the world, in fact he was really quite hard on sin. His stance on the matter was that we all have to up our game if we want to live the way Christ taught. His belief in human goodness does not mean that we are all perfect just the way we are. It means that we have a lot to live up to. We have a great potential and gift from God which we are squandering like ungrateful teenagers. Our goodness is something which must be utilized, developed, and nurtured. We have free will which means that even though we come into this world innocent and even though we have an infinite well of goodness within us which we can always draw from, we still have the capacity for evil – if we choose it.

Pelagius described it like this:

“We do not defend the good of nature to such an extent that we claim that it cannot do evil, since we undoubtedly declare also that it is capable of good and evil; we merely try to protect it from an unjust charge, so that we may not seem to be forced to do evil through a fault in our nature, when, in fact, we do neither good nor evil without the exercise of our will and always have the freedom to do one of the two, being always able to do either.”

The message here is not that there is no issue with sin in the human condition but rather that we cannot pass the blame for our sinful ways off onto the abstract concept that we are sinful in our nature. We are not excused from doing good simply because we believe in the doctrine of original sin. As Pelagius rightly points out, why would Jesus and the writers of the bible give us so many teachings about avoiding sin if it were not possible to do so? Are we to assume that Jesus did not mean what he taught in the sermon on the mount?

So then, where does sin come from? Why do all of us struggle with it so much? What is the cause of things like systemic racism? And if we have free will to do good at any time, how do we account for things like addiction or inter-generational trauma which seem to control us and take away our free will? I think that these questions delve into something we would call today the subconscious mind but which Pelagius referred to as habit. He didn’t have the psychological language we do today, but I do believe that what Pelagius means by habit is something along the lines of acting from our trauma or addictive behaviours.

Pelagius goes on to say:

“Nor is there any reason why it is made difficult to do good other than that long habit of doing wrong which has infected us from childhood and corrupted us little by little over many years and ever after holds us in bondage and slavery to itself, so that it seems somehow to have acquired the force of nature. We now find ourselves being resisted and opposed by all that long period in which we were carelessly instructed, that is, educated in evil, in which we even strove to be evil, since to add to the other incentives to evil, innocence itself was held to be folly.”

This is what we would call today inter-generational trauma. The idea that our bad behaviours are largely a product of our upbringing and influences from the world around us. In the debate of nature vs nurture Pelagius is giving a different framework. He is saying that we are good by nature, potentially corrupted by nurture, and adds to that discussion the extremely important element of free will. These three aspects of ourselves (our nature, our nurture, and our will) all work together to make us either good or evil (or let’s be real – usually a mixture of the two).

Sin is not a part of who we are, rather it is something we have accumulated throughout our lives partially by our own choices but also largely from the people around us. Our families and cultures are the primary sources of our sin and we have the ability (as difficult as it may be) to overcome those influences. There is hope for every addict and every survivor of abuse, none of these things define who we are but rather they are piled on top of us and can be swept away.

We are in a process, in the Western world, of waking up to this reality. We are beginning to realize that our culture is a repository of sin, it is the conveyor of the “long habit of doing wrong” which Pelagius described. We are realizing this in the way systemic racism, sexism, and classism affect our governments, schools, and all elements of society. We are beginning to realize that there is a fog over our people which has blinded us and led us astray. This fog has not only hurt the people victimized by systemic oppression but also the people committing the sins. This fog is something which Pelagius describes in a few places. For instance:

“For I know that there are those whom the deep fog of evil and greed has so blinded that, when it has turned out so successfully for them that they have been able to fasten their bonds on a poor man by means of their power over him or to overwhelm an innocent man with false witness or to overcome a weak man with their strength or commit theft or plunder, they give thanks to God, with whose help they believe that they have perpetrated such crimes, and judge God to be so unjust that they think him to have been their partner in crime.”

Fog here is another way of trying to get at the idea of the subconscious. The person Pelagius is describing above has become so fully immersed in their habit of doing wrong that they believe the wrong they do is actually good. They thank God for helping them to do wrong. I bet you can think of many examples of that playing out in the world right now. Inter-generational trauma is a fog which clouds our vision and not only does it prevent us from seeing the error of our ways but it also prevents us from being open and receptive to divine inspiration. As Pelagius goes on to say,

“The thick fog of folly and ignorance has so blinded our mind that it is incapable of feeling or saying anything divinely inspired.”

This fog keeps us from seeing the world correctly. It is what allows a person to read the bible and then think it is telling them to hate LGBT people or that it somehow justifies racism. This fog is what allows a parent to feel justified in abusing their child because “they deserve it.” This fog is what has corrupted Christianity into a religion of conquest and nationalism. This fog is very dangerous.

So, contrary to what many people believe, Pelagius’ teaching of human goodness neither denies sin nor portrays a naive and foolish understanding of the human condition. By acknowledging the divine image in which we are created Pelagius compels us to allow the light within to dispel the fog clouding our minds. By utilizing our free will and by returning to the light of Christ, which dwells within the heart of every person, we are able to undo these long habits. We are able to overcome addiction, trauma, toxic masculinity, and all the other things handed to us at birth and throughout our lives which incline us towards sin so long as we are patient, diligent, and keep the hope which Christ promises ever in our hearts and minds.


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