Towards a relational understanding of sin and everything

Conscientious vs empathetic parents

What kind of parents are you, or what kind did you have? As an incredibly rough over-generalisation, I would identify two main types:

The first group are the conscientious and critical (and quite probably Christian) parents whose children are well-behaved and considerate but slightly repressed and liable to feel guilt and shame for any ‘wrongdoing’, disobedience or rule-breaking. The second group are the kind, nurturing and empathetic (you might say indulgent) parents who are so in tune with their beloved children’s feelings and so keen not to squash their spirit that they are oblivious when their offspring’s behaviour is actually hurting others. On the plus side their children are likely not to feel the guilt and shame that will burden the offspring of conscientious parents; on the down side they are also likely to grow up without the appropriate boundaries or moral conscience vital for healthy relationships.

A related question – are you more neurotic or narcissistic? Neurotics tend to see themselves as being to blame when anything goes wrong; they are over-scrupulous, over-conscientious, over-burdened by feelings of guilt and shame, and they tend to take too much responsibility for other people’s problems and issues.

By contrast, narcissists tend to see everyone else as being to blame and wouldn’t dream of looking inside themselves for the source of any problems. They seem lacking in conscience and empathy; they easily shrug off feelings of guilt or shame, largely unaware of the consequences of their actions on others.

Okay, bit of a long shot here, but might it be fair to suggest that the neurotics are likely to be the progeny of the overly ‘conscientious’ or blaming/shaming parents? Sadly I’m not sure it’s true though that the overly empathetic parenting leads to narcissistic offspring – at which point my nice simplistic dualism starts to fall apart (thanks to smellofburntwiggle for pointing that out!). But perhaps overly indulgent parenting does contribute to narcissism. Well, maybe.

Irenaean vs Augustinian views of sin

At this point it’s worth mentioning the difference between two competing schools of thought in the church – that of the early church Father Irenaeus and of the later Augustine. Irenaeus thought that the world and humans were created imperfect, in the sense of immature or incomplete rather than morally bad; we were made in God’s image but needed to grow and develop into the fullness of God’s likeness. In Irenaeus’ view the Genesis fall was not so much an act of adult disobedience as a sign of childish immaturity. To my mind, this view accords broadly with the ‘empathetic’ or nurturing parenting style which sees children as basically good; immature but morally innocent.

Augustine by contrast held that humans were originally created morally perfect and then fell into imperfection through disobedience to divine command. According to this view, all humans since Adam have been essentially sinful; fundamentally morally flawed by that original fall. Augustine’s is of course the view that has prevailed in the western church, and it seems to me to accord naturally with the blame/shame style of parenting.

Evangelical vs liberal religion

The Augustinian view of human nature also seems to me to fit particularly well with the puritanical or evangelical religious outlook, whereas the Irenaean view seems to correspond with a more liberal religious perspective (though Irenaeus himself was no liberal).

If so, this may help highlight the strengths and weaknesses of both religious traditions – and of both styles of parenting. Evangelicals place a great emphasis on human sinfulness, and the need for moral uprightness – generally expressed in terms of obedience to a moral code. This arguably places impossible demands on children (and people in general), forcing them to hide and repress parts of themselves (such as sexual feelings or anger) which they then feel guilty about and ashamed of rather than accepting as part of the whole human being.

Liberals by contrast emphasise human goodness and potential, which is emotionally healthy in one way, but which fails to take account of the natural human tendency towards selfishness, hubris and power abuse; seeing ourselves as gods with the right to treat everyone else as servants to meet our needs and wants, without regard for their needs or feelings.

Nurture and limits

What’s needed of course is the far more difficult and complex balance of nurture and limits. We need to be taught that we are fundamentally okay, accepted and acceptable, loved and lovable, valued and valuable; that our needs and feelings and even wants matter – the more empathetic liberals get this bit right.

But we’re not yet perfect or complete. Within our basic acceptability and value, and stemming from that, we also need to be taught that others are equally (not more) important and valuable; that their needs and feelings and wants matter as ours do. We need to learn that our actions and words have consequences on others, just as theirs do on us. This is not so that we feel terribly ashamed and guilty at having done, felt or expressed something ‘bad’, but rather so that we learn what effect we’re having on others and are able to live in community, participating in equal and mutual relationships.

For this is surely what full humanity is about, and what the kingdom of heaven will be like. It’s not a place of perfect moral holiness in a vacuum; it’s a real human-and-divine community of mutual love, trust, respect and harmony.

I don’t often agree with mega-pastor Rick Warren, though I still receive his daily email devotionals (I’m too lazy to unsubscribe). By strange coincidence or not, today’s was about exactly this parenting dilemma, and for once I broadly agreed with it. It was titled ‘Correct your children without condemning them’. His point was that all children need to be corrected from time to time, but that this should be done without making them feel bad, guilty, shameful or unacceptable as people. Again, the overall context then is love and acceptance; the setting of limits and the teaching of morals can only properly be done within this loving relational framework.

However, if we’re the people teaching the morals or setting the limits, we should always bear in mind that we too are imperfect and are probably at least partly wrong.

A relational view of sin (and everything else)

Going back to the Irenaeus-Augustine debate, perhaps we need to broaden our understanding of sin. If we view sin merely as moral lapse or transgression (breaking a rule, transgressing a boundary or even disobeying a command) then we miss the essential relational nature of Christianity, and indeed of humanity and the universe. In my view, sins are sins primarily because they do harm and damage to ourselves and to other people, to relationships and communities, and to the wider world.

That’s not to say that some things aren’t simply ‘wrong’ in and of themselves; but in practice they are always wrong in a context, and the primary context of all humanity – and of all being – is relationship. Lying, stealing, adultery, violence and even envy all damage trust and undermine relationships. All sins are ultimately sins against love, which is the supreme law and commandment: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, strength and being; and love your neighbour as yourself’.

So perhaps neither side gets it fully right – neither Irenaeus or Augustine, evangelicals or liberals, neurotics or narcissists, super-nurturing or super-strict parents. Humanity, morality, sin and evil are more complex – and crucially more relational – than either view alone can encompass.

Tom Wright refers to the same basic dichotomy in Virtue Reborn, characterising the two usual approaches as rule-keeping versus ‘doing what comes naturally’ (or ‘following your heart’). He believes that both have part of the truth but neither have the full answer, which for him is the life-long development of ‘virtuous’ (or Christlike) character through training in habits of thought and action led and empowered by the Spirit of Christ. Or in other words, true virtue or goodness is always both incarnational and relational rather than abstract. It is lived-out goodness in the context of relationship; and it’s about who we really, deeply are rather than just what we do – inner reality and integrity rather than outward performance.

In the meantime, perhaps we can start by being aware of which side we err on and seeking to redress the balance a little – always bearing in mind that the whole context and point is healthy, loving people in healthy, loving relationships. Or in other words, the kingdom of heaven.


About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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8 Responses to Towards a relational understanding of sin and everything

  1. johnm55 says:

    Billy Bragg sums it all up quite nicely
    Something Happened


    • Not a bad summary from the old Braggster! Though I’m not sure if ‘lust’ is quite the right word for what he’s expressing – more like ‘abuse’. I take his point though. Saw him at Greenbelt last year and thought he was great – if perhaps very slightly self-righteous at times!


  2. smellofburntwiggle says:

    The thing I find tricky is expressing to offspring that our relationship has been negatively impacted by their lying to me… without doing a complete guilt-trip on them or emotionally manipulating them to say sorry. It’s in the back of my mind that Aslan did that our-relationship-has-been-a-bit-tainted-by-your-sin conversations well, but I can’t think where.. maybe it was just the odd well-placed growl or handily perceptive conscience of Susan or Lucy.

    Always thought Augustine was over-rated! Only remembered and quoted because he was from an amusingly named place… Might like to find out more about Irenaeus, haven’t read him since A level RE days.

    I know you say the empathetic versus heavily-conscientious parenting styles thing is a very rough generalisation but I’m not entirely convinced of the link with neurotic / narcisstic progeny…. But now joining in sweeping generalisations game I do think that that the heavy/conscientious style doesn’t necessarily lead to empathy in children, for all they might not snatch the others’ toys…just outward conformity. Maybe we should all have studied psychology at antenatal classes.


    • Yes, know what you mean about Aslan and also can’t quite remember where/how it comes up. Totally agree about the lying dilemma – parenting can be such a minefield!

      I’m not a big fan of Augustine the Hippo either – the only half-decent thing I can think of that he said was ‘our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you’. And I’m no longer so sure about even that – I’m all for a bit of divine restlessness!

      Yes, the neurotic/narcissistic thing was a bit of a long shot in the dark – more just putting the idea out and seeing how it felt. I do think that overly blaming/shaming parents are likely to produce more neurotic offspring, but I agree that I’ve met a lot of narcissistic folk who didn’t necessarily have overly-empathetic parents. Damn, my nice simple dualism falls apart! 🙂


      • Eric says:

        He also said, “Children are innocent by the helplessness of their bodies and not the quality of their minds,” or something very similar. That’s gold right there (as I learned the first time I helped out in Sunday School for 2 year-olds).


        • Very good! 🙂

          As a dad I certainly don’t have any dewy-eyed view of the natural innocence of children – they have all of the flaws of human nature in miniature, and none of the social training yet to hide it. Which conversely may be their greatest quality – they actually say what they mean and feel.

          Yet I do think there are problems with Augustine’s view of human depravity. We’re flawed for sure, and have inbuilt tendencies to all sorts of unhelpful and unhealthy patterns of relating and behaviour. But I think that there’s a psychological healthiness in seeing this as, at root, immaturity rather than total depravity. Which isn’t to deny we need a saviour, but just to put a slightly different gloss on what salvation might actually look like.


  3. johnm55 says:

    Yes, the neurotic/narcissistic thing was a bit of a long shot in the dark – more just putting the idea out and seeing how it felt.

    It’s called blogging Harvey.


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