In the second week of February, I attended the Daring Way™ conference at the Diocese of Texas’ Camp Allen, together with a hundred or so other clergy from across the Diocese and the Episcopal Church. The Daring Way™ is based on the research of Dr. Brené Brown of the University of Houston. Dr. Brown studies “self-conscious affect,” especially around issues of shame and guilt. You might have seen her TED and TEDx talks, or perhaps caught her on Oprah. Dr. Brown is an Episcopalian and attends Christ Church Cathedral in Houston.
Dr. Brown said that we would need to do the theological integration ourselves, but I was struck with an idea that many of the participants of the conference would find counter-intuitive: if you love the results of Dr. Brown’s research, you might believe in the doctrine of original sin.
Original sin is a theological idea that describes a human reality and supplies a story for its origin. The story is that human beings, Adam and Eve, were created naked in the garden, without shame (Gen 2:25). The serpent entered the garden and tempted the first couple, and they broke the commandment given by God. As a result, they felt shame at their nakedness, were excluded from the Garden, and all of their offspring were doomed to live in a reality where the fundamental relationships between humanity and God, each other, and the earth were broken. The practical results of the story are at least three beliefs: (1) Human beings can’t be perfect, at least in their current state. (2) All human beings are capable of all kinds of evil, given the right circumstances. (3) Even though shame is “natural,” in a specific sense, there is a deep-seated human instinct that says it doesn’t belong in the world.
According to Dr. Brown, shame is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging” (Daring Greatly, 69). We human beings don’t like to feel shame, so we armor up against it. A significant piece of armor we use is perfectionism. We feel that we are unworthy of love and belonging, so we go about trying to make ourselves worthy. “Shame is the birthplace of perfectionism” (The Gifts of Imperfection, 55). But, there is no way for human beings to be perfect (belief #1). Dr. Brown writes, “Perfectionism is self-destructive simply because there is no such thing as perfect. Perfection is an unattainable goal” (The Gifts of Imperfection, 57).
Shame is increasingly linked with all kinds of ills. It turns out that we human beings would do almost anything to avoid or mask our fear of disconnection. Dr. Brown writes:
Shame can make us feel desperate. Reactions to this desperate need to escape from isolation and fear can run the gamut from behavioral issues and acting out to depression, self-injury, eating disorders, addiction, violence and suicide (I Thought It Was Just Me, 29).
Dr. Brown doesn’t go so far as to claim that shame is the root of all evil, but she does seem to imply that with enough shame, most of us could be pushed into all kinds of evils which don’t align with who we want to be (belief #2).
And just because shame is “natural,” in that it developed somewhere along our evolutionary line, there is still the sense that it doesn’t belong in the world. Dr. Brown writes, “In any form, in any context and through any delivery system, shame is destructive” (I Thought It Was Just Me, 62). According to the Christian story, shame had no part in the way God made humanity. Here, too, Dr. Brown can find no constructive reason for shame to exist (belief #3).
Many Christians (liberal or conservative) might hear this and say (either in defense or attack), “Of course the doctrine says we’re flawed, and our flaw (original sin) makes us unworthy of God’s love. Original sin says we should be ashamed!”
But, I don’t think this is right. The doctrine of original sin says that we cannot earn God’s love, that we cannot be perfect. Shame breeds perfectionism, not the other way around. According to Dr. Brown, we cannot earn love and belonging from others. Perfectionism only reinforces our shame. The doctrine can be a healthy way for Christians to “speak our shame” because Scripture is clear: God loves his creation first, and therefore sets out to redeem it (John 3:16); and shame had no place in the world God made (Gen. 2:25). God loves us because God loves us, and he shares that redeeming love with us in Jesus Christ. The Gospel is that in Jesus Christ we are completely loved and accepted by God.
So, you might not buy the story that grounds Christianity’s doctrine of original sin. You might be reacting to some of the ideas of original sin that float in the ether (like that original sin destroys humanity’s created goodness, something that not even John Calvin could bring himself to say). But, if you take Christianity’s doctrine of original sin and put it side-by-side with Dr. Brown’s assertions about shame, guilt, and perfectionism, then you might just find they line up more closely than you first expected.
A short Brené Brown bibliography:
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. New York: Gotham Books, 2013.
I Thought It Was Just Me (but It Isn’t): Telling the Truth About Perfectionism, Inadequacy, and Power. New York: Gotham Books, 2008.
The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2010.