I have not been one who has subscribed to the notion of original sin, which is the legacy Christians have inherited from Adam and Eve, whom the Judeo-Christian tradition have identified as the first man and first woman. We meet them in the Garden of Eden, which is filled with food, beauty, water – everything that they need. It is a perfect environment. They are given the responsibility of tilling the garden and keeping it – maintaining its perfection. They are given free reign – except, they are told, they are not allowed to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Which, of course, is one of the first things they do – and all hell breaks loose as a result. They are cursed for their disobedience, and that curse has – according to much of Christian theology, carried down to us. The doctrine of Original sin.
I have not been one who has subscribed to the notion of original sin. That said, I have given in – more times than I can count, to pride. As former Archbishop of Canterbury describes it, pride is the refusal to acknowledge or live with limitations. It was Adam and Eve’s pride that caused them to eat from the tree of knowledge. They refused to accept limitations placed on them. They wanted to be masters of their own destiny.
We have been refusing limitations ever since – and are often engorged with our pride.
There are millions of people who refuse to live with limitations on guns – what kind of gun, who can use a gun, where people can bring a gun. There are millions of people who refuse to accept limitations on their carbon footprint – by denying the existence of climate change. There are millions of people who refuse to accept limitations on free speech – insisting that if they feel it they can say it.
And on the other end of an attitudinal spectrum, there are millions of people who refuse to accept limitations on abortion – when it can happen and who is eligible. There are millions of people who are reluctant to put limitations on immigration – how many can enter this country, and for how long.
And most of all of us – from every point on whatever continuum we design, resist accepting our own death as an inevitable limitation of life. We live in a culture than avoids death, denies death, and creates a pornography around death – with endless depictions of wanton violence. All of that serves to keep death at a distance, build up our pride – and become nearly blind to this inevitable limitation.
Most of us have heard, “pride goeth before the fall”. It is close to what is written in the Book of Proverbs: “pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18) The aphorism we have learned, and the biblical passage which gave rise to it, suggests that pride is – has been, and always will be, a gateway to self-centeredness and a threat to community.
We are living in a world, especially in America, where pride is considered to be treasured and honored. Where we seek to pose limitations on others, but resist them ourselves. Coming to terms with humility – and even embracing it, can be a corrective to the prideful energy which resists, if not refuses, our limitations.
Last week, much of the Christian world observed Ash Wednesday. People had the option to have ashes smudged on their foreheads with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The ancient Jewish notion of remember is not about recalling an event, but carrying that moment with us into the here and now. We came from dust, and will go back to dust.
It is the ultimate limitation. We would do well to accept it.