Sunday, November 18, 2012


I have to admit that I have never fully comprehended the concept of sin. But two disparate sources have enlightened me. These are a young, Buddhist-flavored self-improvement guru and Francis Spufford, author of a recently published book, "Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense."

Possibly my problem comprehending sin was, as Spufford describes, reliance on the conventional  everyday-parlance version of "sin," conveyed hilariously in this Creme d'Or ice cream ad. Fussing about delicious naughtiness trivializes and prissifies. With so many other conspicuous sources of evil in the world, how could anyone, any institution worth attention, waste its time on peccadillo?

And then there's the judgmental side of sin, as  David Cain writes in his Raptitude blog:
The word got a bit loaded somewhere along the line though, and the S-word became a word to use almost exclusively in indictments of other people.... Sinners!
In more recent years, I tried on a definition of sin as referring to anything that separates us from God. But when you struggle to find God at all, this definition becomes pretty useless. And hidden within it is an assumed knowledge of realms that are "of God" versus remote from the Almighty. If you acknowledge that God is beyond human comprehension -- or, for that matter, if you start by saying that God is in all things, as far as the farthest corners of the universe and as close as your next breath--how can one ever be separated from God -- or actually know that this is the case?

Both Spufford and Cain, reject the conventional versions of sin and simply consider it as "the human propensity to fuck things up" (HPtFtu as Francis Spofford writes) or, as Cain raises (sorry):
...the word sin derives from a word that meant “to miss the mark.” Not to do something bad per se, but to make a mistake. In modern terms, maybe the closest phrase to the original meaning of sin is “to fuck up.”
From this redefined version of sin, Cain finds a footing for self-improvement:
once we drop all of its religious baggage, we can use the concept of sin in our own lives to recognize those instants when we’re about to do the dumb thing, the bad thing, the lazy thing, the self-defeating thing, and do something else instead.
Spufford does something a bit complex, but ultimately finds in the HPtFtu one (of several) emotional grounds compelling his belief in a God of unconditional love, as well as a foundation for his affiliation with the universally broken, defective companions who call themselves Christians.

I haven't finished Spufford's book yet, so I don't know whether I will buy his case for God based on human emotional needs. But I certainly can see in myself (and everyone I've ever known closely) the HPtFtu. I see the value in reflecting on and acknowledging one's individual HPtFtu -- both single acts of Ftu and our larger personal Ftu- tendencies. These have the potential to plague us with guilt, steal life and joy from our lives,  poison our relationships, cause us to lose face, undermine our communities -- and send dark ripples out from there to our society and the wider world.

I am also powerfully attracted to Spufford's concept of Christians as a society that confesses to its HPtFtu. It's kind of the opposite to the cartoon Christians -- self-righteous holier-than-thou's (thinking here of Ned Flanders on The Simpsons). It's more like a Dirty Dozen or Imperfects Anonymous. Hi. My name's Celia and I have a tendency to fuck things up.

One of the quotes that first got me back to church as an adult was: “A church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints” (attributed to "Dear Abby," Abigail Van Buren). Anthropologists say forming groups is woven into our nature as a species. Even if the affiliative group is what  Spufford calls "a league of the guilty," I expect it can serve all the useful functions of a welcoming tribe.  And credentials for belonging to this hive are universal.

There's a pool of much-disputed, murky atonement theology surrounding Jesus' death and how he reconciled humankind to God through his crucifixion, death, and resurrection. All that arm-waving and windy philosophy are wasted on me. But I do appreciate, as Spufford argues, that the Christian faith has at its core the concept that humans are all flawed, all doomed to Ftu, but that there is a way to repent, or turn things around, wipe the slate clean, and start again on the path to a fuller, more joyous life. There's real hope, and probably some very good psychology, in that.

Spufford makes an interesting distinction between Christianity, on the one hand, and Judaism and Islam on the other. The latter he says, attempt to define a good, moral life through a series of rules laid down in sacred texts and updated by teachers and Talmudic rulings. Live by those rules and you'll be at one with God.

 Christianity's new Jesus-based approach is more pragmatic. Acknowledging the impossibility of rule-making to cover all human error (much less actually following such a complex, self-contradictory compendium of transgression in a changing world), Christianity indicates broad general areas of what to do (love God; love your neighbor as yourself) and not do. But it also sets an inhumanly high standard for us -- give up worldly goods and love our enemy, for example -- and says that messing-up begins in one's heart and mind. Even impulses can have dire consequences. Vile instincts are part of our animal nature.

But -- returning to the wonderful opening lines from Tree of Life-- beyond the way of Nature is the way of Grace. While I may never embrace philosophical atonement theology, I do believe -- yes, emotionally HAVE to believe -- that we can change course, wipe the slate clean, move on, repent and be "at-one" (atoned) with grace. That is the heart of Christianity.

In "How to be a Bad Christian... and a Better Human Being," Dave Tomlinson gives an upbeat description of what can be a very painful process of purging guilt and resuming the way of grace. The steps he lists are: 1.) Identify specifically what you feel guilty about. 2.) Accept responsibility by confessing or admitting your error, be it to priest, therapist, or friend, and, without self-justification, apologize to the person you have wronged. 3.) Take proportionate, appropriate steps to right the wrong. 4.) Accept God's forgiveness, forgive yourself, and move on. Tomlinson stresses the importance of fully forgiving ourselves, opening ourselves to God's love, and internalizing every day the gift of God's forgiveness. This is vital to returning to full life in the here and now, rather than continuing to be preoccupied with feelings of guilt.

So, the gem of a quote I will end with ultimately speaks to the guilty as well those they've hurt:
Forgiveness is not the misguided act of condoning irresponsible,
hurtful behavior. Nor is it a superficial turning of the other cheek
that leaves us feeling victimized and martyred. Rather it is the
finishing of old business that allows us to experience the present,
free of contamination from the past.  (
Joan Borysenko, Ph.D., neuroimmunologist)
Update: This is a lovely column on sin by Rob Bell:
Bell defines sin as disrupting the shalom -- the peace, health, wholeness and blessing -- that God intends for the world. He argues that this puts sin in a wider context of the harmony of God. It's maybe not so helpful for people who struggle with belief in God, but I think almost everyone has a sense of a wider goodness and peace that we know are just right -- inherently good -- for our immediate community and the world beyond. Think of the last time you said "It just felt right."

Bell says there's a tripartite Christian story to sin that starts with humans being born in God's image, with goodness, glory, and honor. Sin is the bit in the middle where, as imperfect beings, all of us disrupt the shalom of the universe in ways great and small. But being the bulls in God's china shop is not the end of the story. Part 3 says that the crucifixion of Christ "restored, redeemed, reconciled, and renewed. We are invited to live as if this is actually true, letting it shape us and mold us and transform us into grounded, centered people who increase the shalom in the world."

I still don't really get how that all works, but I wholeheartedly endorse the concept of living "as if this is actually true." I'm not sure I'd be able to face the mirror each morning if I didn't.

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