The Quaker says I’m a bad person

Philip Gulley on original sin:

That is the doctrine of original sin laid bare, and that is where it always leads. That is where it always leads. Not to our wholeness and well-being. Not to our growth and maturity. Not to an increase in love. It leads only to self-hate, to seeing sin in every thing and every one, including four-year-old children who just wanted to play basketball with their little friends.

How can that not have a profound effect on us? I tell you, it is nothing short of spiritual molestation.

Gulley’s take is not new. John Wesley knew it well. He’d heard it preached and advocated in his day. Wesley described views very similar to Gulley’s in his sermon “Original Sin.”

Gulley – like many others – seems to equate the doctrine of original sin with cruelty. Telling a person – or telling yourself – that something fundamental in humanity is broken and sick is interpreted as being mean. Telling someone that the gap between a creature and the Creator cannot be bridged by earnest effort and better education programs is compared to child molestation.

The rhetoric is nice, if the traditional church has been wrong for 2,000 years. If the Scriptural references to sin and forgiveness are just a minor note in the symphony of salvation, then perhaps Gulley and his fellow interpreters are correct. But I do not hear the music the same way Gulley does. When I look at the world, I certainly see ample evidence of sin rooted deep in human beings and human society. And I see the glorious transformation that can happen in the life of a sinner like me.

I don’t like being called a spiritual molester, but I cannot square Gulley’s reading of Scripture with the Bible or with the life of faith as I have seen it.


15 thoughts on “The Quaker says I’m a bad person

  1. John, you have no idea how hard it was for me to read that. Thanks for linking it. Do they sell soap for your theological mind?

    1. Thought I should offer the clarifier that my thanks was in no way shape or form sarcastic. I need to read stuff I disagree with sometimes.

  2. Anyone who knows me knows that I believe profoundly in my own sinful nature[1] and that of others. Yet, I totally understand where Gulley is coming from.

    In a very real sense, my own conversion was understanding that God loved me rather than that he hated me.

    I’m told that the belief that “the universe is against me” is a common feeling in those who are depressed but I was actually taught that. Just substitute “God” for “The Universe”. I feel that I was saved from believing that God hates me.

    A friend from a secular activity here who attends a congregation of one of the new consciously conservative denominations that is springing out of the mainstream told me how her pastor preached that children’s wills need to be broken. This was the exact concept used by the denomination in which I was raised: breaking children’s wills. The first thing I remember being told as a five year old was that God hates sin and I am a sinner. If you know anything about five-year-old conceptual development you know that, to a five year old, this means “God hates you”.

    So: I think it’s incredibly important how our doctrine of human sinfulness is applied in practice and it’s important how we communicate it to adults. There are all sorts of practical issues besides giving five year olds the impression that God hates them. Also, for example, the mindset that God only wants us to do what is difficult and punishing. One of my jokes from this era in my life is “If you think you’d enjoy being a teacher and hate being a dentist, then you can be sure that God is calling you to be a dentist because that will make you miserable”.

    1. I agree it is important how it is applied, and I agree there are destructive ways to apply it. But I don’t think poor application is an argument against the doctrine itself – or as Gulley argues – I don’t think the doctrine always ends up as spiritual molestation.

  3. Oh. The footnote. I prefer the term “human sinful nature” to “original sin” as I do not believe in Augustine’s doctrine of original sin – that the very act of marital sex is sinful and that, because of sex, we are conceived in sin. That had obvious consequences on generations of people too.

  4. I am John Meunier’s daughter, and Phillip Gulley is by far my favorite religious writer. If it weren’t for his book, “If Grace is True,” I doubt that I’d still be a Christian. I just thought that was worth adding to the discussion.

    1. I’ve also totally enjoyed ‘Grace is True” and “God is Love” and I’m currently partway through “Church is Christian.”

  5. A more serious reponse to my daughter and Jeremy:

    I find Gulley’s books enjoyable to read, too. I disagree with him strongly that a strong view of human sin always leads to some sort of abusive theology, though. And – not the topic of this post – I don’t find as gracious as he does the thought that Adolf Hitler is in heaven.

    I share Gulley’s affirmation that God created us good and for goodness. But I see our sinfulness as much more pervasive than he does. Paul’s advice to overcome evil with goodness should guide our response to this deep sinfulness, but we should not treat the naming of sin as sin as itself mean-spirited.

    And – back to what sparked the post – I find it curious that Gulley’s argument for graciousness and kindness does not extend to those who differ with him theologically. It seems the greatest sin is to think that we are sinners.

    1. John,
      What struck me as most curious was the failure to acknowlege the God’s response to our sin (seperation from Him) was grace and mercy, not only once, but three times! Three Times, did God enter into covenant with humankind in order to provide a way that we might be restored to Him.

      Of course, I guess if you do not see that we are in need of restoration, then you would not see those acts as being of grace and mercy.

      1. Of course, I guess if you do not see that we are in need of restoration, then you would not see those acts as being of grace and mercy.

        Yes. If we can get there on our own steam, then it is not grace.

  6. How can God be against us? When we got lost in the wilderness, He launched the most massive search-and-rescue mission in the history of the world!

  7. John,

    Thanks for the link. I will need more time than I have now to digest his points. I thought I would drop a different point of view into the discussion. Marjorie Suchocki published this article in Christian Century quite a while back. She also has a book out that somehow I didn’t get on my screen until last month.

    Seems like she cuts the cake differently than Niebuhr (who most of us grew up with) with her more process approach that recovers some of the original context of the discussion of original sin. Seems to me that in order to address some of the questions here, we may need to make distinctions between my individual sins and alienation from my neighbor and the larger corporate (social) sinfulness that is passed on generation to generation even before I self-consciously participate in it – before I even know that it is part of my being.

    That helps a bit, when I mis-interpret the doctrine of depravity as meaning that I need to turn to the nice lady in the pew behind me and say to her that she is so depraved.

    Once we make such a distinction we can move beyond the wierd notion that this is about sexual transmission – Racism as a sin was not passed on by sex, but by the fact that who I am is a product of the racist society that makes up my being.

    Such a distinction can also address the inability to draw distinctions between sin and not just put is all in the same bucket.

    It is helpful to see that original sin is not primarily about me as an individual, but me as an individual in society where society is in me.

    This also then begins to open up a broader conversation about redemption and re-creation that operates at both the individual level, but also at the social level as well.

    1. John, thank you for the link. I hope to make some time to read it soon. And thank you for the thoughtful comment. I’m afraid my reply right now will not be worthy of the thought and time you put into your comment.

      The discussion about the social and personal nature of sin is one I certainly need to learn and listen more about. I am heavily influenced by Wesley’s emphasis on personal salvation rather than systematic social redemption.

      Your point about not turning to the lady in the pew next to us speaks truth to me. If Gulley had said that – rather than condemning the idea of original sin as a concept – I think I would have found his sermon much less difficult.

      I don’t think the sexual transmission mechanism is central to the concept of original sin. The ubiquitous and rooted nature of sin is the important piece of it – at least as I understand it.

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