Over the next few posts I’d like to take a closer look at two of the most troubling and controversial topics in Christian theology – sin and suffering.
As a recovering evangelical, I hesitate to talk about ideas of ‘sin’ and ‘depravity’. I’m not convinced by the (alleged) Puritan/Calvinist view that humans are utterly depraved and evil to the core, incapable of any good thing. I certainly don’t believe that enjoyment of dancing, games, theatre, cinema or sex is inherently bad. Nor do I believe that we’re less moral than we used to be.
Yet I have to acknowledge the reality of persistent moral failure in my own life, and failure to be all that I could be. More than that, I have to accept the dark side of my own nature which is with me all the time like my shadow.
So I’m convinced from my own experience that sin is a significant reality; but I don’t always find traditional understandings of ‘sin’ particularly helpful. I’m not sure they go deep enough for a start. So I’m looking for new ways to express some of the old truths on which fundamentalist religion doesn’t have a monopoly.
Forgive the implied obscenity, but one way I look on sin is as the innate human propensity to **** things up. This includes our propensity to **** up our own lives, relationships and anything else we’re involved with for any amount of time. I use this wording to convey something of the intensity of the problem – the ‘offense’ of sin. It’s not just that we occasionally mess up a little. It goes far deeper than that, and has far more destructive consequences.
If we reduce sin merely to ‘sins’ – prohibited acts or behaviours like adultery, fornication, drunkenness, violence, theft etc – then we’re only dealing with surface symptoms and we miss the darker heart, the real roots of the problem.
So I don’t find helpful the understanding of sin merely as disobedience to a divine command or the violation of God’s law – at least not when that’s understood as anything equivalent to human law. If it is a violation, it’s more like a violation of a law of nature, indeed of a fundamental law of our own natures – of who we’re meant to be on the deepest level.
Sin is not an abstract concept, nor is it merely the breaking of an arbitrary law or moral code. It is rather the marring of the divine image in ourselves and others. It’s whatever leads to our becoming less truly human, and to viewing or treating others as less than fully human.
So sin is not so much about individual acts and words as about a deep inner brokenness. This manifests itself as an orientation of the soul away from reality, from rightness, from wholeness and health, from life, from love, from true intimacy, from openness, from mutual loving relationships. It is a self-destructive path that leads to increasing inner dis-integration. It’s an addiction to ways of being and behaving that makes us less real, less whole, less integrated, less able to give and receive love.
Failing to love
One way of looking at sin then is as the failure to love, to embody and live out of love – love for God, for ourselves, for fellow humans, and for the world and cosmos. Love is the overarching divine law (and divine attribute); sin then is whatever we do (and are) that militates against that.
Alternatively, Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga defines sin as the ‘culpable disturbance of shalom’. In this understanding it’s the shattering or violation of God’s intended peace, order and harmony, and in such a way that we bear responsibility for it.
Failure to be ourselves
I’ve written that our primary purpose in life is to become truly Christlike (i.e. completely good and loving) and fully ourselves.
So perhaps one of the most helpful definitions I’ve heard for sin is that it is ‘an addiction to being less than truly ourselves’. In this sense it is a ‘falling short’ as Romans 3:23 puts it; falling short of our real, full selves; the people we were created to become.
Sin is whatever gets in the way of human flourishing. Similarly, M. Scott Peck writes of ‘original sin’ as the spiritual entropy or innate inertia that holds us back from doing the hard work of growth, of becoming who we’re really meant to be.
For the point is who we’re becoming more than where we’re coming from. I’m no longer convinced that humanity was created perfect and fell. Rather, following Irenaeus I think that humanity was created incomplete and immature, needing like a baby to grow and develop towards wholeness and fullness. The ‘fall’ in this view was not from original perfection but was rather an attempted false shortcut to maturity, bypassing the all-important journey of growth.
Good aspirations, unhelpful instincts
So, like most of us, I have genuine aspirations to be a good, kind, loving, compassionate and ultimately Christlike person. I also want to be a truly happy, healthy and whole person. I believe that these two things are inherently bound up together; that goodness and wholeness are two sides of the same coin.
Sadly though there are also desires, drives and fears in me which militate forcefully against these good aspirations. And these unhelpful drives seem to be entirely natural, instinctive and innate – fundamentally part of who I am. They include the desires to be universally wanted, loved and admired; to experience pleasure and avoid pain; to be safe and comfortable and have an easy life; to be in control. They also include the instinct to hit back when I’m hurt, and to seek to blame others when things go wrong.
Many of these stem from perfectly natural, reasonable instincts. But if I let them rule in me, overruling my conscience, they can lead to harmful, addictive patterns of thought and behaviour. I can all too easily let myself be mastered by my urges, desires and fears, to the detriment of my character and my relationships. I know, because that’s what tends to happen a lot of the time.
Doing what comes naturally
Unfortunately, ‘what comes naturally’ – the default impulse or response – is very often the one of selfishness, greed, thoughtlessness, rage, fear, spite, envy or lust. It’s as though we’re fundamentally mis-programmed.
Our bodies crave unhealthy high-fat and sugary foods rather than the fruit and veg we need. Our souls long for love but we struggle to form meaningful lasting relationships. We find it so much easier to be hurtful than kind, critical than encouraging, destructive than creative. We find goodness boring and evil entertaining. We prefer ease to effort, comfort to character development. All in all, we just don’t seem naturally predisposed to Christlikeness.
Focus magazine ran an article a few years back which suggested that we’re biologically programmed towards the ‘7 deadly sins’ – rage, greed, gluttony, lust, pride, sloth, envy. These were all useful (even vital) for survival in our pre-human pre-history, but now they’re largely baggage – occasionally useful in specific situations but generally anything but.
Furthermore these responses are supposedly hardwired into an evolutionarily ‘primitive’ part of the brain which starts kicking into action before you’ve had time for rational thought. This doesn’t mean we have to act on these impulses or can’t overcome them, but lasting change requires long-term re-training.
It’s easy to see all these traits when we look at the instinctive behaviour of animals. Humans are not just animals; but from animals we were taken and to animals we can return, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis.
Another similar explanation relates to cognitive biases – unconscious, unquestioned patterns and habits of thought which we’re generally unaware of. We’re programmed this way in order to make sense of a chaotic, confusing world, filtering out things that aren’t useful and taking cognitive shortcuts to facilitate decisive action.
These mental shortcuts can sometimes be helpful. But they also include traits that are anything but – prejudices against anyone different from ourselves; stereotyping people who belong to particular groups; jumping to conclusions based on unquestioned assumptions rather than rational thought; and so on. We all tend to believe that we’re right and therefore others are wrong, and we all assume that we have far greater knowledge and understanding than we really do.
Then there are the unhelpful psychological traits which again we’re often largely unaware of. Again, these are often things we’ve learnt in order to deal with pain or troubling emotion in childhood – perhaps in response to fears of being rejected, abandoned, unwanted. We learn to project our ‘bad’, dark, unacceptable feelings out onto other people and things rather than owning them. This may turn into irrational hatred of particular groups or kinds of people, or a tendency always to blame others when things go wrong. Or it may turn inward into neurotic self-hate and self-blame.
We learn unhealthy patterns of relating to other people, perhaps manipulating them to get our needs met or clinging on to them to avoid abandonment. And all of these things lurk within our psyches, disrupting and derailing our attempts to be good, whole, happy people.
Or to put it another way, we’re all to greater or lesser extent messed up by our imperfect parents who were messed up by theirs. Call it original sin if you like, or call it evolution or psychology. Either way, we’re damaged and damage-causing people, receiving and spreading toxicity. Yet that’s never the whole picture, for we’re also made in God’s image and we bear his likeness, however blurred and blunted.