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Brené Brown, shame, and original sin

Brené Brown, shame, and original sin

Jason Ingalls, in the Living Church’s “Covenant”, writes about the connections between Brené Brown, shame, and the doctrine of Original Sin:

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.


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Philip B. Spivey

I’m a great fan of Dr. Brown and I enjoy her creative and productive meanderings through psychology and theology. In the realm of human experience, shame does play an inordinate role in our day-to-day existence. I can easily connect the dots among shame, guilt and perfectionism and I do believe there’s something very toxic about all three that eventually leads to bad behavior (for some, self-destructive behaviors; for others, a propensity to hurt others). But I would like to take the conversation in a somewhat different direction in the hopes of achieving some confluence.

James Alison (The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes. New York: Crossroads, 1998, pg. 119) writes that “This might be said to be the first approximation to original sin: that the doctrine of original sin is the doctrine according to which divine forgiveness…(through the Resurrection of the forgiving victim, Jesus)…makes known the accidental nature of human mortality, thus permitting an entirely new anthropological understanding.” Alison writes like Paul, so allow me to attempt to unpack this paragraph.

For Alison, sin is accepting death, not mortal death, but the death of our spirit and soul. For Alison, if Jesus can overcame the death of his soul by forgiving those who crucified Him, so can we mortals. According to Alison, Jesus (and the Christian Testament) has ushered in a new cultural concept of death: the notion of death-as-a-living-belief-system which separates us from God.

Regarding the Garden of Eden, I believe that Alison may see things differently, also. For him, the purloined “apple” represents the human proclivity to covet what is not ours. The sin in the Garden is not so much our loss of modesty, but our coveting what is God’s; ergo, believing we are God.

As I see it, original sin is our DNA-inspired proclivity to seek things that aren’t ours (to possess)—at any price to ourselves or to others.

Scott Slater

I recently attended a conference in the Diocese of Texas that featured Dr. Brown and her work. She talked explicitly about the differences in shame, guilt, and humiliation. My takeaway was that shame tells me I am bad whereas guilt tells me I did something bad. Humiliation allows me to feel bad about what I did. Guilt and humiliation are motivators to do better in the future whereas shame by itself is not. It was a wonderful conference and the topic of Original Sin was raised to her. She deflected back to the clergy in the room and asked them to figure it out based in her research.


God made us, and blessed us, God loves us. Period. That is the “meaning” in our lives. That is the Good News. God did not make us and say, “Oops – let me try again.” After he created man and woman, he said, “It is good” and Blessed us. Our meaning comes from the fact that we are made in God’s image, full of his divine love As the author said, Meaning in our lives is found in God’s love – pure and simple. God loves us because God loves us.

Ann Fontaine

AGoodRN: please sign your name when you comment. Editor

Suzan Frazier

According to this line of thinking , What is God redeeming us from?
In my opinion we all sin and we should feel bad about our bad actions. In addition God’s judgment on our lives is what gives our lives meaning .

JC Fisher

“In my opinion we all sin and we should feel bad about our bad actions.”

[Following is not original to me. It’s said a lot in 12 Step programs.]

Guilt says “you did bad.” Shame says “you ARE bad.”

That’s the difference. Guilt helps you reform your behavior; Shame is sent by the Evil One to tell you that you are beyond help.

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