Original Nature, Not Original Sin

Most of the Jesus Sutras I’ve read so far in Palmer’s book certainly haven’t been as interesting as The Gospel of Thomas was. In fact, the early versions Palmer discusses first seem little more than poor translations of Western versions. Though it is interesting to see how hard it is to translate ideas ingrained into the Westerner psyche into terms that Chinese of that period could relate to. In turn, this allows the reader to see more clearly the differences between the two religions while simultaneously being able to see the importance of certain concepts in both religions, as when the phrase “Cool Breeze” is substituted for “The Holy Spirit.”

It wasn’t until I encountered this passage, however, that Palmer really caught my attention:


One core concept that shapes all the liturgical Sutras is that of original nature. This is radically at variance with traditional Christian thought, which has tended to emphasize the defects of humanity: the fault of Original Sin. In China, the tables are dramatically turned. The Church of the East broke away from the West just in time to avoid the magnificence and the curse of St. Augustine of Hippo, who took the basic notion of original sin and built it into the destructive force it was to become. In looking at the theology of the Church of the East, we can see what Christianity without St. Augustine might have been like.

St. Augustine saw humanity as almost irredeemably wicked and perverse, rejecting any idea of some innate goodness. To him, salvation is an entirely undeserved act of grace that plucks us from our filthy state of evil. Augustine was opposed in his time by the first British theologian on record, a monk named Pelagius, who argued the opposite, that human nature was basically good but had been corrupted and misguided by human weakness. The theology of Augustine triumphed in the West, but it was a theology similar to Pelagius’s that triumphed in China.

The term “original nature” or “innate nature,” occurs in both Taoist and Buddhist thought. It signifies that all life is innately good but becomes corrupt or loses its way through the compromises of life and existence. A wonderful example of what this means is given in the writings of Zhuang Zi, the Taoist philosopher and wit of the fourth century p.c.: “Horses have hooves so that their feet can grip on frost and snow, and hair so that they can withstand the wind and cold. They eat grass and drink water, they buck and gal- lop, for this is the innate nature of horses. Even if they had great towers and magnificent halls, they would not be interested in them. However, when Po Lo [renowned as the first and greatest trainer of horses] came on the scene, he said, ‘I know how to train horses: He branded them, cut their hair and their hooves, put halters on their heads, bridled them, hobbled them and shut them up in stables. Out of ten horses, at least two or three die …. The people have a true nature, they weave their cloth, they farm to produce food. This is their basic virtue.” Zhuang shows how people have been corrupted by those who wished to control them, just as the poor horses were destroyed and damaged by the actions of Po Lo.

This idea of original nature could not be further from the concept of original sin. So the later Sutras adapted to the Chinese view that human nature was essentially good but could be distorted. In these Christian Sutras from China is the shape or outline of a post-Augustinian theology that the West itself needs in order to become free from the burden of original sin and thus reconfigure or rediscover Christianity. Given that original sin was unknown as a central theme of Christian thought before the early fifth century, it is possible to agree with Pelagius that true Christianity holds a notion of original goodness. In a post-Augustian Christian world, this rediscovery, embodied in the actual books and thoughts of a major ancient Church, may well be a version of christianity that can speak to spiritual seekers today.

All these liturgical Sutras celebrate freedom from karma, reincarnation, and the power of death, and the possibility of spiritual freedom from these forces on earth as well as in heaven. As Jesus said when asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was to come, “The coming of the Kingdom of God does not admit of observation and there will be no one to say ‘Look here! Look there!’ For you must know, the kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 18:20-21). These Sutras celebrate the inherent reality of that spiritual liberation.

First of all, I didn’t realize that this debate had ever taken place in the Catholic Church, though I was aware that it raged during the Enlightenment. Philosophically, I’ve been so opposed to the concept of original sin that I’ve found it difficult to take seriously any religion that advocated the idea. I had a hard time just plain not laughing out loud every time I had students’ read Jonathan Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The very idea of God hating his “children” struck me as absurd. Nor could I ever accept the concept that a child who had not been baptized could be denied entry into Heaven because his sinful nature had not been redeemed. Of course, that’s probably because I was raised by a Christian Scientist, though one who had left the church because he could no longer accept the idea that it was wrong to see a doctor.

I could never decide whether I believed in the inherent goodness of mankind or in “tabula rasa,” but I could easily learn to accept “ the Chinese view that human nature was essentially good but could be distorted.”

I’m looking forward to seeing what effect this assumption has on Taoist Christianity.

Even More Background

Although I’m still impatient to get to the actual Jesus Sutras, I found Palmer’s three middle chapters, “Panorama of the Early Christian World,” “The Church of the East,” and “The Multicultural World of Seventh-Century China” much more interesting than I would ever have expected, perhaps because they made me more aware of my vast ignorance in these areas.

Of the three areas, I did know the most about the “Early Christian World” because of college courses in European history, a long interest in The Dead Sea Scrolls, and a particular interest the The Gospel of Thomas (see my recent discussion of Elaine Pagel’s Beyond Belief ). Still, I found Palmer’s discussion of the early debates between various schools quite interesting, and the writer in me appreciated this metaphorical description of the early churches:

Beginning in the fourth century, Church historians and teachers presented a view of the early Church as a single ship plowing its way steadily through the tempestuous seas of the pagan world, buffeted by the winds and storms of heresy but nevertheless always finding the true path. Perhaps a better analogy would be to see the early Church as a series of small boats, setting off from different Places, using different designs, but all under the sail of the personality and teachings of Jesus. Gradually, those boats that were out- manned or outmaneuvered faltered and disappeared. Yet a small armada of boats survived and decided to sail together rather than separately.

Somehow I find the early searching of the early Church for Truth far more appealing than the certainty that many seem to feel in their church’s teachings.

I knew nothing about the Christian Church of the East, and judging from Palmer’s comments I’m not alone in this:

The extent, size, and diversity of the Church of the East is perhaps one of the best-kept secrets of Western Christian history, which has traditionally dismissed the Church of the East as Nestorian and therefore heretical. At its peak in the eighth century, this once mighty Church far outstripped the Church of the West in the size, scale, and range of cultures within which it operated. Unlike many of the missions of the Church of the West to the Germanic tribes and the Anglo-Saxons in England, for example, the Church of the East was dealing with ancient, highly literate, civilized cultures and peoples. It had to find its way in a world where theological writings, philosophical debate, and schools of education had been in existence for hundreds, even thousands of years. It was a remarkably different world from the world of the West, and it produced remarkably different churches and forms of Christianity. Perhaps one of its greatest achievements was the Taoist Christian culture and the writings of the Jesus Sutras.

I was nothing short of shocked to learn that there was an influential Tibetan Christian community,with a bishopric in Lhasa.

Although my recent interest in Chinese thought made me aware that Shamanism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism have a long history in China, Palmers short discussion of their basic ideas and relationship to each other gave me a clearer understanding of their relationship, though I was surprised to read that Buddhism is considered a “foreign” religion, since I’ve always thought of it as China’s main religion, at least before the rise of Mao’s form of Communism.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, I found Palmer’s discussion of Taoism most interesting, and particularly enjoyed this summary of Taoism:

Taoism as a religion rather than a philosophy or way of life emerges in the second century A.D. Founded by a series of remarkable mystics, it offered to ordinary people an alternative to the hierarchy and order of Confucianism, while also offering discourse and contact with the supernatural. In many ways, it is a codified version of Shamanism that became a whole way of life. It offers an understanding of the world, the Tao, and humanity’s place within it that is a very different vision from that of the Confucians. It is perhaps best summed up in the core creed of Taoism, captured in chapter 42 of the Tao Te Ching:

The Tao gives birth to the One, the Origin.
The One, the Origin, gives birth to the Two.
The Two give birth to the Three.
The Three give birth to every living thing.
All things are held in yin and carry yang:
And they are held together in the qi of teeming energy.

The Tao is before the origin of all. In this sense it is almost like the idea of God in Christian thought, except that the Tao has no personality, no emotions, no divinity. It simply is the ultimate principle of all and origin of the origin. The origin gives birth to the two cosmic forces-again, not deities, just forces: yin and yang. Yin is the female: the dark, damp, winter force of life; yang is male: the hot, dry, summer force. Together these two forces are locked in perpetual combat seeking to overcome each other. But this is impossible, for each carries the seed of the other within it. Autumn and winter are yin; just when it seems winter will never end, spring inexorably begins. Spring and summer are yang; when it seems the heat of summer will never abate, the cool winds of autumn begin.

The Three are Heaven, Earth, and Humanity. Heaven is yang, Earth is yin, and humanity combines both in the pivotal position of the balancer and arbitrator between yin and yang. Human error, pride, and foolishness disturb this balance. But at our best, humanity, through the rituals of Taoism, can ensure that yin and yang remain balanced and the world spins on.

Qi is the life breath that every living thing has and is an active expression of Tao. Life begins when qi enters the body; it is never added to but is steadily used up over the course of one’s life. Death comes when the store of qi has been fully exhausted. The quest for health, healing, and even immortality in certain schools Taoism consists of trying to hold on to qi and never use it up.

No wonder I’ve found Taoism so appealing since this description pretty well coincides with my own philosophical views.

This Moment

White-Crowned Sparrow

I was shocked to learn that Alan of
This Moment had passed away two days ago. I had never personally met Alan, but he stopped by here regularly and I visited his site daily until he stopped posting regularly.

I’m never quite sure what’s proper and improper etiquette in this virtual world, but I wrote him an email in October enquiring about his health. I never guessed from his reply just how serious his health problems were, especially since he ended with, “Your bird pics still put a smile on my face – I do like the ‘conducting’ mallard :)”

When I first cited this Thomas Hardy poem I said that I would be happy if my grandchildren remembered me this way.


When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,
And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbours say,
“He was a man who used to notice such things”?

If it be in the dusk when, like an eyelid’s soundless blink,
The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight
Upon the wind-warped upland thorn, a gazer may think,
“To him this must have been a familiar sight.”

If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
One may say, “He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm,
But he could do little for them; and now he is gone”?

If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand at the door,
Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees,
Will this thought rise on those who will meet my face no more,
“He was one who had an eye for such mysteries”?

And will any say when my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom,
And a crossing breeze cuts a pause in its outrollings,
Till they rise again, as they were a new bell’s boom,
“He hears it not now, but used to notice such things”?

I’ll miss Alan and his comments, but I’ll always remember with fondness that he “used to notice such things.”

Pt. Defiance Boathouse

I’d originally intended to include a couple more shots from yesterday’s trip to Nisqually because I didn’t plan on getting out today to take photographs. After two and half hours of exercise at the Y, I’m generally not up to going for a long nature walk.

However, it was sunny this afternoon despite the forecast of rain or snow for the next three or four days so I was tempted to head down to the Point Defiance boathouse. I was delighted to discover that my favorite Belted Kingfisher was sitting on his usual perch, just waiting to see me before flying off. But I sat around visiting with some fishermen long enough that he came back and stayed around long enough for me to get several good shots.

Belted Kingfisher

But he didn’t stay around nearly as long as this Red-Necked Grebe, or get nearly as close. I felt like I was having lunch with him as he came up with several delicious looking shrimp, larger than any I thought existed in Puget Sound. I found it fascinating watching him dive, particularly the way his feet propelled him as he dove and swam.

Red-Necked Grebe

I also liked this picture of a Common Goldeneye, who wasn’t nearly as excited about sticking around to have its picture taken:

Common Goldeneye Taking Off