Unsystematic theology: Sin

First in an occasional series of essays in unsystematic liberal theology, in which I assume theology is a literary genre more than a science, a conversation more than a monologue, descriptive rather than prescriptive.

The very notion of personal sin causes problems for many religious liberals. We religious liberals tend to be optimistic folks who believe human beings are mostly good. Rather than say that someone is sinful, we are more likely to say that someone has been forced by circumstances to act in a certain way. We are usually careful to separate the behavior labeled “sin” from the person who engaged in that behavior. We like to give individuals the benefit of a doubt. Even if we reluctantly conclude that someone has been sinful, we hope for the possibility that person might be reformed. We generally think of personal sin as something that’s done intentionally. An accident is an accident; an error is an error; personal sin requires a certain amount of free choice, and you have to choose to engage in sin.

On the other hand, we religious liberals are generally willing to talk about social sins. Even religious liberals who dislike to use the word “sin,” which seems to them old-fashioned and overly punitive, might be convinced to call racism or sexism a “social sin.” The word “sin” seems to carry too large an emotional impact to be applied to individual persons; but for most of us the vast amount of damage done by racism or sexism warrants the use of such a powerful word.

But who is it that is sinning when we’re talking about broad social ills? Take racism, for example: we know racism is social sin, we know that individuals engage in racism, but is it the individual racist who is committing the sin? We are much more likely to talk about personal sin when an individual has participated in broader social ills, but even then we tend to assume that an individual can be educated out of their sexism or racism (or other social sin). We imagine that sin is too big to be carried out by one individual; sin is so big we imagine it as being carried out by groups of people.

Sin doesn’t usually end suddenly; it usually ends through a long-term communal effort. There are no magic wands that can be waved, no sudden conversions from sinfulness to sinlessness; it takes time and effort. So, for example, people of good will have been working to end the sin of American racism for centuries now, and while progress has been made, much remains to be done. It would seem that the greater the magnitude of the sin, and the more people who are involved, the longer it will take to end sin.

We can make a personal choice to stand up to social sins. We know that if we don’t try to resist social sin to at least a small degree, then we will be participating willingly in that sin. (Sometimes when we learn about a new social sin that we weren’t aware of before, we groan inwardly, and wish to ourselves that we had remained ignorant a while longer.) There are so many social sins in the world — from racism to climate change, from toxics in the environment to poverty — that we can’t work on all of them simultaneously; we tend to believe that if we work on eradicating at least one social sin, we don’t have to work on all the other sins (as long as we know that we’re resisting that social sin in our hearts, if not in actions).

Where does sin come from? Mostly we believe that human beings are the cause of social sin; social sin also results from the randomness of the universe. Yet when we witness social sins that are very personal, like domestic violence or child abuse, we may be willing to place some of the blame on the individual committing the sin. Thus social sin and personal sin can overlap; the abuser can choose to seek help, and if s/he doesn’t, then we may well be willing to think of that person as sinful.

Those are some preliminary observations about we religious liberals think about sin. What have I forgotten? Where do you disagree with me?

8 thoughts on “Unsystematic theology: Sin

  1. will shetterly

    “Where does sin come from?”

    I got that one!

    The love of money, aka greed. Which liberals often aren’t willing to talk about, ’cause most of the prominent ones are rich. (If you’re doing better than 90% of the population, I’d say you’re rich.)

    The line between greed and domestic abuse isn’t always easy to see, but most bad things are done by desperate people, and desperate people tend to be doing poorly, or perceive themselves as doing poorly. I really need to read The Spirit Level, which argues that societies with great inequality suffer from many problems.

    Which may mean that another way to translate “love of money”, at least in its practical effect, is “inequality.”

    Hmm. Inequality is the root of all evil? Jesus might agree. The original phrase, after all, was Paul’s, not his. Jesus tended to be much more blunt in his egalitarianism.

  2. naomi king

    I’ve found it helpful to return to the understanding of sin as missing the mark. Missing the mark does cause harm; when I am aware of that harm, I try to be a better moral archer. Reflection on my own moral archery is part of my personal spiritual practice. I’ve done it long enough that I’ve also come to the conclusion such reflection would be a good practice to restart communally, in Unitarian Universalist worship, and be taught in our faith formation programs. Why? Because of the blocks you name above: the lack of ways to speak about how good people contribute to harm and without that way, no ritual transformational process that permits, channels, and allows real transformation seen in the actions of becoming better moral archers.

  3. Jean

    To be human is to be a sinner, sinful, sinning. We’re a flawed nasty species a lot of the time. We want what we don’t have and we are willing to do whatever it takes to get it — “it” being the new job, next car, the woman next door, power, drugs, money, etc. Animals go after what they want too — food, space, sex, water, etc. — but they don’t plot the overthrow of their brethren, or the dominance of their mates, or the downfall of an entire herd, in order to get it. Certainly animals battle one another for needs — food, space, sex, water — and some will lose (aka die) in the process.

    But animals don’t want more and more and more than they need. Even my insane little dog, Owen, who really “needs” to chase tennis balls, never wants more than one tennis ball at a time. If he were human? Owen as human would be constructing a tennis ball empire, with himself as overlord, and thousands of minions toiling away making millions of tennis balls, and billions of dollars in profits, no matter the effect on the environment, the workers, the world at large. And why would this mythical human Owen do this? The simple fact that he is human. Designed to want more than what he has, and do whatever it takes to get it. This is our fatal flaw — *when* we allow it to drag us into getting and spending and laying waste our powers; this is also our greatest gift — *when* we train it to propel us into creating and giving and using our powers for only good.

    And Owen, as human, really would not be a dark overlord; he, I am sure, would use his powers for good. Tennis ball camps for everyone! Fetch as a spiritual practice! Runs in the woods! Belly rub love ins! The world would be a far far better place because of Owen.

  4. Dan

    Will @ 1 — As a post-Marxist and historical materialist myself, I’d tend to agree with you. But you and I are outliers on this point within liberal religion (indeed, we are outliers on this point within U.S. society in general). And I agree with you that Jesus probably understood inequality as the main taproot of evil. Now our task is to get the rest of liberal religion to move towards our position!

    Naomi King @ 2 — The idea you propose, that sin is missing the mark, is of interest. It goes back at least to Plato, and often appears in Western culture. However, the common understanding of sin among religious liberals seems to involve some intentionality; if you fall short of the good but don’t intend evil, most religious liberals are willing to cut you some slack; e.g., if someone makes a racist remark unintentionally, and is embarrassed and apologizes when this is pointed out to him/her, most religious liberals would accuse that person of stupidity but would not accuse them of sin. Instead, religious liberals would understand the sin to be located in the social system that perpetuates racism; and racism in the social system would be seen by most religious liberals as involving some form of intentionality.

    Jean @ 3 — Uh, oh, another outlier. Will and I are with you (though I would have used a cat as an example, but let it pass).

    Bill @ 4 — Sorry, I missed the point of your question. I don’t think most religious liberals spend much time thinking about the Kulaks, and if they did they would assign the “liquidation” to the category of societal sin. Does that get at what you’re asking?

  5. will shetterly

    Naomi, I also prefer the old definition of “missing the mark.” But what’s the mark? I think it’s radical sharing, at least as extreme as John the Baptist’s “if you have two, give one.”

    Bill, blaming communism for the treatment of the Kulaks is like blaming capitalism for the Holocaust–it misses the mark.

  6. Victor

    My concept of sin is radically different – it’s a failure to enjoy life and to be at peace with yourself. All religions strive to provide us with a pathway to eternal bliss, but, ultimately, no religion has the “right” answer. Each individual must decide for her/himself what they must do to lead a sin-free and happy life. Reliance on external systems (religious, ethical, philosophical) to do that for us rarely works.

    That process of decision-making would include how we choose to deal with evil and really, really bad things when they inevitably happen to us. We can choose to be happy or to be tormented. Choosing the latter is choosing to sin. The people who impress me most are those individuals who are happy in the face of unspeakable evil or suffering.

  7. Desmond Ravenstone

    One sin not talked about here, but which I’ve given much thought to: Idolatry.

    Many orthodox Christians summarize idolatry as “worshipping the creation in place of the Creator.” How do we as a pluralistic faith which embraces nontheists and skeptics, find a new language for talking about idolatry?

    I’ve considered John Dewey’s definition of God as a synthesis of ideal ends. With that in mind, idolatry in my mind could be considered the transposition of means and ends. That can be seen in the context of religious life, where legalism — putting moralistic rules above core values of love and respect — can be seen as a form of idolatry. And what about when some liberal churches place such an emphasis on social justice (and social sins) that they neglect other aspects such as pastoral care and personal spiritual growth? Or when established congregational leaders ask how they can find ways to grow, but then refuse to consider innovative changes in church structure because “we’ve always done things this way”?

    The real concern with idolatry is that it simultaneously steers us from our core values and vision — our ideal ends — and prevents us from seeking or seeing new means towards advancing those ends. Idolatry, in every form, is a “falling short” (hamartia) in what we do, and one we must all be on our guard against.

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