Sunday, May 14, 2006

Sin, Identity and Destructive Culture

To write a book on sin is definitely on my list of things to do in life. This is not the appropriate moment for that, so here I will only share some ideas that I find important and relevant. I’m borrowing loads from Augustine and other fathers, as well as Tillich and Rahner here.

The doctrine of sin is one that is a bit different in the various Christian traditions. As with doctrinal differences in general this is a difference in language, (there, I said it!) and one can use whichever one want to, as long as one is aware of the differences. Protestants – if they know what they are talking about – tend to talk about sin as something in the human person, while Catholics and Orthodox tend to use the word for the an act or choice. They do not, however, teach that a sin is to brake moral code. This is not a Christian idea.

A proper doctrine of sin is a matter of balance. What one is trying to balance is the individuals freedom: On the one hand we are responsible for ourselves, on the other hand we are limited by our nature and history. Christian theology has gone to far in either direction many times. To over-emphasize responsibility is called Pelaginaism, and to over-emphasize dependence is somewhat misleadingly called Manichaeism.

In its essence sin is about turning away from God. But to understand sin one have to realize that to turn away from God is at the same time to turn away from oneself. This is, to me, the key to understanding sin – and at the same time, redemption. Sin causes us to be something else than we really are. And here we have another key point: sin is not our true nature: deepest down in our selves we are not sinners, but the Image of God. Sin is a layer above this image that distorts it, but does not destroy it. This means there can never be a conflict between what God wants me to be and what I want to be myself. Sin is what hinders me from being who I in “my heart of hearts” want to be.

So sin is about identity. But this could easily make us think that sin so defined has little to do with our day-to-day life. This is not the case. Sin in its essence is about who I am, but I am who I am only in my day-to-day life. Thus we are talking about choices and acts that are very ordinary, very practical. It can be anything, and everything. When we start to define certain acts as sins we are always missing the point, because there are no acts that are sins in themselves. They are only sins if they are betrayals of our true identities.

In an earlier post I said that God is against us as a culture that is on the way towards ruining the culture. If we understand ourselves as individuals as the Image of God in our innermost, than it should be clear that to take part in such a destructive culture is not to be in accordance with our true identities. When we, as we do, take part in a culture that lives on destroying the environment and creates human suffering in poorer countries, we are betraying ourselves and God in us.

According to Christian doctrine it is beyond the power of the individual to overcome sin. Only God can overcome sin and help us become ourselves.

As I said, I’m basing this to a degree on Tillich and Rahner. I would be intrigued to know what your favourite theologian has to say on the subject, as well as your own thoughts, of course!


Ben Myers said...

"To write a book on sin is definitely on my list of things to do in life."

Good! There are not nearly enough decent books on the theology of sin.

joshua said...

I second Ben with the lack of theology of sin books. Although, I do know that two of my profs are both currently working on their own interpretations of the doctrine.

Have you happen to have read Serene Jones' short chapter on sin:grace denied in her feminist theory and Christian theology?

Patrik said...

Re: Serene Jones: No I haven't. What does she say?

D.W. Congdon said...

The single best discussion of sin that I have yet read is in E. Juengel's recent book, Justification: The Heart of the Christian Faith. Check it out. It's heavily influenced by Barth and Luther -- which is fantastic, in my opinion -- but it is also quintessentially Juengel. Some of his best dogmatic work.

Patrik said...

What are his major points?

byron said...

Hi, I came here from your post on resurrection, where you say that sin is "the sum of all the things that affect our personality but does not come from ourselves".

I think that many of the best things about me come from outside: others shape me, grow into me as I grow into them. I am open, moulded, broken, re-formed and reforming. Isn't it called love? (when done well)

I take responsibility for the ways that others shape me, and in that sense, I 'internalise' what has come to me. But this is often done without (or perhaps sometimes against) my conscious will.

I like your idea of humanity being, deep down, still in the image of God (I prefer 'in the image', to 'the image', since the latter is Jesus (Cor 1.15)). And yes, only God can scrape away all the marring accretions. But doesn't he often do this through the (sanctified) actions of our friends (and even enemies!).

Patrik said...

That comment of mine was bit careless, I guess i should have said that original sin is the sum of all things outside me an affects me so that I am something else than who I genuinely am.

Of course there are many outside influences that are very positive, influences that we may well incorporate in our personlaity. And I don't mean that you have to be conscious about these choices. It can well be something that feels like instinct, something that you subconsciously agree with.

What I find problematic is when one does not take responsibility over one's own identity and just kind of floats with the stream. If everyone else gets tattoos I get one too. This is, religously speaking, to give up you freedom, with is the essence of the being-created-by-God.

This is the glorious paradox of Christina anthropology: Because we are created by God we can trust that who we are is in accordance with God's will. But we decide ourselves who we are. God has created us free.

Patrik said...

Somebody else wish blogger would let us edit our comments?

Read: something else than what I genuinely am

byron said...

A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.
A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.
-Luther, The Freedom of Christian

Anonymous said...

Talking about books on sin, are you familiar with G C Berkouwer's large book on 'Sin'?