ORIGINAL NATURE NOT ORIGINAL SIN
from the Jesus Sutras Rediscovering the
lost religion of Taoist Christianity by Martin Palmer
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 nom 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.
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 nom 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 B.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 gallop, 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."
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.
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 Augustinian 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
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