ordinary sin

The doctrine of Sin has been something I’ve had an interest in for a while, and some of my research and writing has touched on both sin and the forgiveness of sin.  I think it’s a very important doctrine, and thus very important to understand with clarity and balance.

Scholars of Aristotle and Aquinas will be able to articulate it better than I, but I find the concept of the ‘mean’ or middle to be helpful here as at many points (nod to Aristotle).  Just as a ‘virtue’ seems to be flanked on both sides by two opposing ‘vices’ (nod to Aquinas), so also a healthy view of a doctrine (or dogma) seems to in between two extreme distortions of it.  Here’s a quick attempt to sketch this with regard to Sin.

The extreme of “totally evil” 

At one extreme, the “totally evil” view is based on the persistent and tragic experience of everything from indifference, busyness and rudeness to violence, terrorism and death.

The positive of this view is its ability to summarize (though perhaps generalize) and account for all of this activity with a single concept.  All of this ‘bad stuff’ is eventually the result of ‘sin’ at the personal level, and ‘Sin’ at a cosmic level.   Humanity and all of creation is ‘fallen’.  Like it or not, there is a great deal of accuracy for this view, both in terms of experience of reality and interpretation of Scripture.  A patient and discerning assessment of human nature can see past the cosmetic self-righteous and moralistic posturing that masquerades as ‘goodness’.  The best statements of so-called “total depravity” are about the full sweep and scope of Sin, reaching to every part of nature and human nature.  There is no ‘part’ of creation that is free from the influence of Sin and evil.  The brokenness and rebellion goes ‘all the way down’.   And the irony is that trying to deny one’s sinfulness and assert one’s goodness is itself one of the surest examples and breeding grounds for sin.

The negative of this view is… well.. its negativity.  In extreme form (hence me calling it an extreme view), it doesn’t appreciate or recognize any goodness to human nature.  And a thoroughgoing doctrine of Grace is thus undermined, because Grace creates and sustains at least some good in all people.

The extreme of “basically good”

This leads to the positive “basically good” view.  In a way, the very presence of the word “basically” is illustrative.  Philosophically, it can signal a nod to Locke’s notion that the ‘basic’ or original state of human nature is a ‘tabula rasa’ or blank slate.  In terms of modern usage, it can also signal a tempering of what could be seen as an absolute rejection of any evil in human nature.  Few people would want to say that humans are “totally good” and I’ve yet to meet anyone who serious defends human perfection.  So the “basically good” view is a very attractive option for those who wish to assert the dominance of human goodness, whilst not totally denying the ‘accidental’ circumstances of human ‘wrongdoing’.

The positive of this view seems to be the fact that it inherently avoids the absolutism of saying that humans are perfect.  It allows us to enjoy the widespread acceptance and agreement of modern society, which is quite nervous and concerned about those who think that there is something ‘wrong’ with us.  After all, that kind of talk makes people feel bad, and feeling bad is of course what makes people (accidentally) get tripped up into doing bad things, whether to others or to themselves.  Surely the way to fix things is to avoid this talk of ‘sin’ and restore people’s self confidence!

And here we see the weakness of this view.  At its core, this view is basically a way to justify oneself, and avoid responsibility for the ‘bad things’ that happen, either in the world or in one’s own life.   It is a ‘weak’ view in that it is not strong at helping to understand, account for, or of course do anything to change, the very real and tragic things that people do.  And wise therapists, social workers and addicts will testify that taking responsibility for one’s actions is the best way to work for change.

It seems that these extreme ways of looking at human nature tend to feed off of one another, rather like (and probably not unrelated to) right wing and left wing politicians. The more one person asserts human evil (more need for government and legislation?), the more another will assert human good (less need for government and legislation?); and vice versa.  What is needed is a view that avoids the extremes and includes the positives.

The Doctrine of Sin

It could be true that the biblical content on human nature may tend towards an emphasis on human guilt rather than human glory.  But the first thing to say about the Judeo-Christian notion of Sin is its remarkable breadth.  Humans are “very good” (Genesis 1), and “crowned with glory and honour” (Psalm 8).  To be a human is a glorious thing.  But at the same time, there are “none righteous” (Psalm 14 & 53), and too often it is true that we continually think evil in our hearts (Genesis 3).

The second thing to say is that there is something quite ‘ordinary’ and everyday about sin.  Every week at my church (Anglican/Episcopal), we are led by the worship leader or the priest in a confession that includes that we have sinned “in ignorance”, “weakness” and “through our own deliberate fault”.  That seems true to my life and the lives of people I trust to be honest.  Another great local Anglican confession prayer observes that “some sins are plain to us, some escape us, [and] some we cannot face.”  I’m thinking here of the vast spectrum of ways in which we all “get it wrong”.  We walk past one another without giving the human acknowledgement we all deserve.  We steal and cheat.  We parade our acts of charity on social media.  We lust after power, sex, status, moral standing, theological achievements, acceptance and a thousand other things that may be fine to pursue, but not lust after.  Even the ‘best’ person we can think of, if they are honest, has all manner of ‘ordinary sins’ the would admit to.

The third thing to say about Sin has to do with the implications… the ‘so what?’ of Sin.  So we are sinful.  So what?  Well, if we are sinful, then we ultimately need forgiveness, and need Ultimate forgiveness.  The forgiveness on offer through the gospel of Christ is something that is both a single once-for-all Act that cannot be repeated, and an on-going continual work that we must enter into more deeply.  Another bit of local Anglican brilliance announces that “God forgives you”, as a once-for-all fact.  But the stark announcement is followed by a gentle admonition: “forgive others… forgive yourself.”  This is an ongoing process to deepen for the rest of our lives.

human sin: an example

The sinfulness of humanity is nothing I am ‘proud’ to believe in.  Sin is tragic.  But, rather an illustrate this with a list of actions that are easily diagnosed as harmful, it’s more interesting to give an example where sin may not be so obvious.  Whether it’s an Olympic opening ceremony, a corporate philosophy or a debate over gun legislation, I am continually reminded of how easy it is to forget how deeply flawed we all are.  Human history and nature, business goals, or one’s ability to handle immense power are not as flawless as we may be tempted to imagine.

One simple example is giving a gift.  How selfless, generous and wonderful, right?  But, speaking honestly about my own experience of giving gifts, our motivations can be very often quite mixed.  Giving a gift can be motivated, partly or even mostly, by a desire for the benefit of the other.  However, other motivations can settle in among this, including but not limited to: being the best (generous/lavish), being the most (creative), being first, being included (“people like being around people who give gifts”), etc.

Our motivations tend to show up when our gift is refused, disregarded or otherwise received in a way we did not expect.  I recently found myself giving something that I’d hoped would be received and recognized in a particular way, and when it wasn’t, I had to check my motivations in giving it.

It can be confronting to face our mixed motivations, especially if/when we take pride in being a ‘good person’.  Of course, the point of this reflection is not to deny that we have any goodness, but that the very  notion of human sinfulness, particularly in the Christian theological tradition, is that we are not only flawed in obviously ‘bad’ ways, but even our ‘good’ actions and characteristics can be hindered, blunted and shaped by the influence of sin.

And if you don’t know me well, you need to know that my understanding of sin (from Scripture and theology) has less to do with us feeling constantly like a failure for breaking a significant amount of a very long list of specific actions which are ‘wrong’, and more to do with us being beautiful-and-broken all the way down to our motivations and identities.  And more importantly the great thing about the Gospel of Jesus is that God has eternally decided to love and work on, in and through us anyway.

May this work of transformation be something that we surrender to and collaborate with.

foolishness

This year, Resurrection Day falls on April “Fools Day”.  How fitting… Only a fool would believe in something like Resurrection, right?

Well… yes.  One of the more unpopular and counter-cultural aspects of Christian faith is its ‘foolishness’.  The Lord of all existence, meaning and being chooses not to select the best, the smartest, the most moral, the most successful, the strongest, the most desirable, to work through.  No.  In God’s economy, what society tells us are our assets are so often (if we hold them with pride) our liabilities.

Sure, in one sense, it is ‘foolish’ to deny the possibility of a thing like Resurrection.  How ‘unscientific’ is the emotion of disgust that poisons the well of honest and patient consideration of just what might be possible in this mysterious existence.

But the label ‘fool’ will inevitably be found on the backs of those believing in the impossible; that the days of Death are numbered, that another level of Life has emerged, undying, from the Tomb.  So be it.  I’m a fool.

18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
    the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him.

1 Corinthians 1:18-29

quarks, plants, and universes

A local apologist blog recently discussed Antony Flew, famously an atheist turned deist.  The good and accurate point discussed in the post is summarized as follows:

…the question [of God’s existence] should be placed under the jurisdiction of philosophers; for to study the interaction of subatomic particles, he notes, is to engage in physics; but to ask why those particles exist or behave in certain ways is to engage in philosophy.

I agree.  And it struck me that such a distinction goes all the way up from the micro (e.g. quarks), to the observable (e.g. plants), to the macro (e.g. the cosmos).

A slightly more  negative way to say that is: you don’t need modern scientific microscopic or telescopic insight to go beyond the mechanics of how something (e.g. grass) functions, to pondering ultimate questions of existence, purpose and meaning.

conversing with God

A friend of mine recently was talking about his struggle to ‘hear’ from God.  In the past, he had felt strongly that he had heard from God, but later events suggested that it wasn’t the voice of God.

It made me think about my own experience of communication with God.  It’s pretty mysterious when you think about it, even for those of us who have grown up with families and communities around us where it is an assumed thing.  It just seems impossible that an ultimate being such as God could be accessed with our ‘not-ultimate’ capacities.  In addition to the many things we might say in response to this, such as the idea that God speaks through Christ, Scripture, Reason, Tradition, etc., there is another perspective on this dilemma, and it seems to my mind to cohere with both our experience and the Judeo-Christian scriptures.  It’s the idea that God ‘meets’ us at our level of ability to communicate.

If this is true, then God may well be communicating to animals, plants, rocks, stars and the rest of created reality in a way that is appropriate to them.  Scripture seems to speak of these kinds of creaturely responses to the Creator.  With us, though, God seems to limit himself to the level of sounding like another human.

If we put aside, for the moment, the question of conversing with, speaking to and hearing from, God, we might observe the imprecise and imperfect, yet still wonderful and functional way that we communicate with one another as humans.  More often than we probably do it, we need to clarify or make sure we’ve been listening correctly.  We sometimes are mistaken about what people have said, sometimes we miss a tree from the forest, other times we miss the whole forest.  Shannon and Weaver’s theory of communication suggests that various kinds of ‘noise’ can distort the encoding, transmission, and decoding of our messages.

Wouldn’t human-divine communication be naturally subject to the same beautiful realities that make communication relational?  In the same way that God has not made us as robotic computers, executing every command with perfect precision, God, it seems, has chosen not to relate to us as a computer, but in a wonderfully down-to-earth, personal and even human way.

Now that this little piece of thinking is done, I think I shall get back to the lovely simplicity of approaching God as a child would their parent.  “I love you God, help me do good today.”

a more free will

Physics, chemistry and biology (and culture) seem to set up a kind of bell curve of freedom over the course of any individual human life.  The capacity for self-determination seems to emerge from invisibility, develop, climax, decline and disappear as we journey from zygote, foetus, infant, toddler, adult, mature adult, and finally at death.

The bodily equipment we possess does not provide us with complete and total freedom.  We will never be free to do anything.  Being fully human doesn’t need that anyway, it only needs freedom to do things that embody full humanness.  But at any rate, human nature and human culture have not combined to get us to perfect freedom.  The top of the bell curve may be a bit higher in some lives than others, but it never gets to perfection.

In this context, the question ‘do we have free will’ is easily answered: of course not.  We are slaves – at least to some degree – to all manner of things, both in our nature and in culture.  Processes, limitations, desires, needs, others, etc.

In Christianity, there is the tension between slavery to ‘sin’ and slavery to ‘righteousness’ (or Christ).  The great irony is that the more ‘enslaved’ we are to the latter, the more free and truly human we are.  The more you ‘chain’ yourself (through practicing and creating habits of mind and heart) to, for example, loving others as yourself, the more free you are to be human.  Like all kinds of growth, growing in slavery to Christ is a process.  Freedom, like all other aspects of salvation, is not experienced fully in the here and now.  Every habit created, every neural pathway nudged – and re-nudged, is one more step toward the hope and goal of full freedom in a freed and recreated cosmos.

…because the creation itself also will be delivered from the slavery of corruption into the glorious freedom of the children of God. (Romans 8:21)

malleable will

Study, work and life have been keeping me from blogging much, but I had a ‘free will’ thought to scribble down, so here goes.

I just moved my finger back & forth from pointing straight up and straight ahead.  This was caused at one level by the muscles in my fingers.  Why did my muscles do what they did?  Well, at one level, because of another muscle, my brain and the tasks it was performing – namely, thinking about free will and bodily function.  What made me think about this?  Well, lots of things, including things I’ve heard, read, or thought about previously.  Does any of this mean I did not, in a very real sense, freely choose to move my finger?  Of course not.

I’m something of a ‘both/and’ thinker.  This makes me, perhaps predisposed to think of free will as involving a tension between dual realities.  On the one hand, restrictions on our abilities and ‘freedom’ to act result in behaviour that is quite predictable.  I don’t have the freedom (naturally!) to make my finger change length or composition.  On the other hand, I deny that we are slavishly bound to genetic or neurological factors, such that we remain free acting agents, meaningfully responsible for our actions.  No judge worth her salt would be too persuaded to find someone innocent if they explained shooting someone in terms of the neuro-chemical causality behind the movement of their trigger finger.

Yes, it is a bit more complicated than this simple outline.  But to be honest, all of this debate I find rather silly.  (And in my research this year on human nature and sin, I interviewed two non-religious university level neurologists who agreed!)  I’m becoming less interested in exacting philosophical speculation about how to describe (or defend) human ‘free will’.  I’m more and more interested in the transformation of our will.

Whatever state human ‘will’ naturally comes to us, however much our wills are shaped by nurture/culture, it remains simply true that to greater or lesser degrees, we can grow, train and retrain, exercise, shape and reshape, guide, bend, manipulate, coerce, force, coax, form, reform and otherwise transform our wills.  Just as steel can be formed for various purposes, so also our wills are malleable and can be shaped to help us achieve a goal.

Some goals will be unrealistic for human nature – such as to fly, spin webs like spiders or what have you.  But others are not only realistic, but also freeing.  For example, we have all kinds of genetic and cultural pressures constantly and quite ‘naturally’ pushing us toward certain kinds and amounts of uses of substances (food, sex, drink, language, etc.).  But rather than be a slave to these natural inclinations, we can train and retrain our wills and plan in advance how and how much we will use them.

To change the metaphor away from the metallurgical one of hammering steel to the athletic one of swimming in a stream, take a young adult who ‘going with the flow’ of his or her peers who are also ‘going with the flow’ of cultural trends reflected in music videos and a thousand other expressions of the abuse of alcohol.  Hook them up to whatever kind of device it is that measures their choices.  Send them to a party with their mates.  Have someone offer them their favourite beer.  Hooray! You were able to predict their choice by observing this or that neurological activity.  Yay for technology!  Humans are so predictable! But you didn’t need that device to predict their choice at all, did you?   Now take someone who is deliberately and intentionally oriented to stand apart from a culture of binge-drinking.  They will exist in that same situation in a very different way – or indeed, they may likely freely choose to not go.  Indeed, they may not find that particular kind of space as fun.  And you know what?  If we hook them up to the machine, we could just as equally (if not more easily!) predict their choice as well.  The point is not whether or not we can predict their choice, but what choice they will make.  One that takes them toward slavery to alcohol (under the cultural disguise of being ‘free’ from any rules on how much they can drink!); or one that is a participation in a personal trajectory that is being built toward a different kind of freedom (and yes, one which may indeed involve a very different kind of ‘slavery’!).

So again, I’m becoming less and less interested in philosophical noodle-wrestling over what ‘free will’ means.  Rather, I think we all should be interested in what kinds of goals are good for us and others, and what kind of practices and networks help shape us (and our wills) to make progress toward those goals.  It all reminds me of some dusty old quote: “…do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”  A verse that is followed by a breathtaking consideration of just that kind of transformed living: humility, community, service, teaching, leading, care-giving, un-hypocritical love, wise judgment, affectionate love, walking a mile in one another’s shoes, etc.

if reason is a wrecking ball…

Using reason to establish a worldview, life-orientation, ‘religion’ or philosophy is like building a house with a wrecking ball.  Or perhaps that’s too violent a metaphor.  The point is reason is not a constructive tool but rather deconstructive. Reason does not construct, build or supply the thing itself: belief, idea, value, etc.  Reason only deconstructs what is already constructed, built or supplied by another source. So then, using and trusting reason alone, you will not ‘get’ anywhere.  More likely, you will critique and dismiss all views until you ‘get’ to the absence of a view, which is by definition agnosticism.  Reason is very popular.

Assumptions, on the other hand, are not popular.  When you ‘assume’, we chide, you make an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me’.  Assumptions, however, should not be assumed to be all bad.  They are not created equal.  And actually, assumptions, which none of us can avoid (and I note that it is a particularly strong assumption that assumptions should be avoided!), are the sort of things that we can (and do) actually ‘build’ with.  Assumptions are thus incredibly useful and impossibly unavoidable.

If reason is a wrecking ball, demolishing every constructed system of thought we could build, then assumptions are the ground that we always build upon.

dust in the wind?

“All we are is dust in the wind”, said Socrates.

In reading about sin and human nature for my mini-thesis, I’ve dipped into the nature/nurture and determinism/free-will discussions.  I tend to think that the biblical view of humans takes both sides of these conversations quite seriously.  We are limited by our nature/genetics in what we are capable of, and yet we are capable somehow of transcending our current neuro/bio/physio-logical states.

In other words, the biblical view of humans is that we are continually taken from pretty raw material (the dust of the ground) and formed and freed to be human by the Spirit (the breath of life).  Perhaps Socrates would agree.