Sin. I have to be honest, I don’t think about it much anymore. I know a lot of Christians do, though. I used to be one of them.
I used to think sin was what folks like Augustine thought it was. Essentially, a moral stain or deficiency in humans which is transferred through “corrupted semen” and something for which we have those original sinners, Adam and Eve, to thank.
In this post I’m not going to spend much time going over the traditional doctrine of original sin. I will, however, briefly describe how I think about sin now (which again, isn’t very often) and how one can still be ok with sin as a theological concept and as something that is mentioned in the Bible (if that old collection of books happens to be important to you).
Values, Morality and Sin
When I talk or think about sin I have to also think about values and morality. At the moment, here is how I think this stuff works: morals do not determine values, values come first, and our values then form morals.
This is important.
I’ve written before about values and morals in regard to evil, but briefly, I really like the way Philosopher, Steve McIntosh, sums up values as being “shared societal agreements that generally arise out of the struggle to find solutions to the problematic life conditions faced by those who participate in a given worldview. Each stage of culture thus develops a discrete set of values that are tailored to its location along the time-line of human history. This is one reason why values are ‘location specific’ — as life conditions change with the progress of cultural evolution, that which is most valuable for producing further evolution likewise changes.”
In his book, Evolution’s Purpose, McIntosh explains that “purpose plays a key role in the emergence of value. It’s obvious to most that all forms of life have a purpose–unlike non-living things, even the simplest organisms strive to survive and reproduce…as life evolves, the semi-automatic purposes of primitive organisms develop into more conscious and powerful forms of purpose that can make complex choices and solve problems creatively…with the appearance of self-conscious humans comes the dramatic emergence of a wholly new level of purpose. This unique form of emergent purpose possessed by humans is a kind of “second-order purpose”–a self-reflective type of purpose that includes rational, moral and aesthetic aspirations.”
As humans evolved, so did our cultures, so did our purposes, and so did our values. McIntosh designates three particular values which are our primary values: beauty, truth and goodness. McIntosh again:
“…these are the fundamental values that have been recognized since antiquity as the intrinsic qualities from which all values are essentially derived. Just as a million shades of color can be mixed from three primaries, so too can a million shades of quality be traced back to these primary values.”
As a process-relational thinker, I would add “enjoyment” to the list and suggest that there is a Divine Eros at work in the world pulling us toward greater levels of beauty, truth, goodness and intense enjoyment (zest). These expressionistic mixtures of beauty, truth, goodness and intense enjoyment will look different from culture to culture and, further, if we zoom in, they will look different from person to person because each persons subjective Divine aim, in each moment, will differ depending on ones own self-purposes or decisions from their the past.
Now, as we proceed, I think a better picture of morality and sin can come into focus.
the word morality comes from a Latin word meaning “manner, character, proper behavior.” To put it very simply, morality is more or less a system of belief that is taught in order to determine right from wrong (e.g., the Ten Commandments, or the U.S. Constitution). Moral philosophy, or ethics, is the branch of philosophy that addresses questions of morality and it involves formulating concepts and principles that guide us in determining what behavior helps or harms sentient creatures, and the environment.
The Judeo-Christian concept of sin is closely associated with morality. The way most define it, if one “sins” they have done something wrong or bad.
Simple, right? If only it were so.
What’s really interesting to me is that for many Christians, their entire theology and faith rests on a very particular understanding of the doctrine of Original Sin (which is not “Biblical” by the way), specifically the doctrine originated by Augustine that sin is some kind of intrinsic, impure defect within the human creature that Jesus is supposed to “purify” somehow. This extremely negative and pessimistic view that humans are corrupt never sat well with me. Thank goodness that, in my experience, the contrasting message of God’s unconditional acceptance and love outweighed this terribly negative message of human moral stain. However, I’m afraid to say that, for some, this is not true. For many, this message of shame, guilt and depravity is the primary one that they receive in and/or from the church.
This makes me very sad.
Jewish, Eastern Orthodox, and Process-Relational Understandings of Sin
I remember hearing about the Jewish understanding of sin a while back and being amazed at how different it was from the popular Christian understanding. Theologian Tony Jones explains:
“Jews take the original sin of Eve and Adam to be just that, the first sin. Subsequently, they refer to a sin, and to sins, but not to sin as a concept. Sin is not a darkness of the soul, passed from generation to generation through semen, a la Augustine. Sins are inevitable. Interestingly, the Mishnah teaches the God created repentance before creating the world, so God knew that humans would spread their wings and need a mechanism to get back in concord with God. As I’ve written elsewhere, the doctrine of Original Sin is neither biblical nor believed by Jews.”
Other Jewish authors I’ve read, who address this Christian doctrine of original sin, all find it profoundly hostile to the central teachings of the Jewish Scriptures. This Augustinian notion of inherited guilt, and this Calvinistic notion of humanity’s hopeless, depraved condition makes no sense to Jews who see in Moses, for example, an unwavering ability to choose good over evil and remain faithful to God.
Further, this twisted notion that somehow sin causes death, I think, is simply wrong and should be completely rejected by any Christian. Give me the the Jewish and Orthodox version any day: death causes sin.
Reordering this “sin formula” may seem trivial but trust me, it makes a HUGE difference and helps make so much more sense of the creation account found in Genesis. According to Jewish and Eastern Orthodox interpretations, the story about the Garden of Eden is not about the origin of sin, but about the origin of death. As theologian Kyle Roberts puts it (citing Richard Beck), the creation story in Genesis “is a theodicy–a theological explanation of the presence of death and suffering–rather than a soteriology–an explanation of the origin of sin.”
Accordingly, process-relational visions of sin are in line with this way of thinking. Bruce Epperly sums it up nicely in his introduction to process theology:
“God is active in every moment of life, gently guiding the universe part and whole toward the possibility of greater complexity and beauty of experience. Long before the emergence of humankind, God was at work in the evolutionary process, which from the birth of this universe has reflected the interplay of creative wisdom and creaturely decision-making. The realities of beauty and conflict, and life and death, preceded the evolutionary emergence of the human species. Accordingly, process theology does not ground sin in a historically datable decision of a primordial couple. Sin as an inherited problem and chosen act emerges from a world in which the realities of cooperation and competition already existed before the emergence of humankind. Just as the experience of pain may require a certain complexity of experience, the reality of sin requires creatures who can consciously turn away from their highest personal, environmental, and communal good as well as repeat the dysfunctional and harmful behaviors of their community or family of origin.”
For process-relational Christians as well as (I assume) most Eastern Orthodox Christians and Jews, sin simply means what it meant in the old days, i.e. it’s an archery term used when someone misses the “gold” at the center of the target. As I touched on above, I think process-relational thinking, with it’s dynamic understanding of the Universe and Divine action, is able to best get at how this works. Marjorie Suchocki explains:
“What, then, is sin in process views? It is, as the tradition claimed, “missing the mark.” And what is the mark? The mark would be the fullest development of what we can be, individually and communally, in expanding circles of caring to God, self, and
neighbor. To talk about sin is to talk about the refusal of love from and to God and from and to neighbor and even from and to oneself. Still another way of talking about sin is to say it is unnecessary violence.
In a process view, one must talk about communal as well as individual sin. We live interdependently, and we act interdependently. Individual sins are magnified when exercised through our communal identities, creating great evils through such
things as oppressive systems of exploitation, wars of aggression, economic systems based upon greed, or systematic decimation of our environment for the sake of profit.
Because we believe God is always calling us toward the good, we believe that God calls us toward transformation from violent ways of imposing our wills on other creatures toward ever-new cooperative ways of creating good on this earth. When we fail to heed God’s call, we fail to contribute as best we can to the commonwealth of all. This failure is sin. Sin—whether personal or societal—has ill effects that spiral beyond its origins in this interdependent world.”
In short, and in conclusion, Jews, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Process-Relational Christians et al., do not believe in the existence of Original Sin. Death did not enter the world because Adam and Eve ate fruit from a tree that was forbidden. No. Death has always existed. We do not die because we’re being punished for disobeying some cosmic rule. We die because Death, like Birth, is a natural part of Life.
Additionally, sin is not a moral stain. It is simply a term that indicates that one has failed to actualize the ideal aim of God in any given moment. This should not lead one to believe that there is some master plan written in the stars, however. God’s plans are responsive, not static. God works with the world as it is given in each moment, serving up an offering of the best and freshest possibilities in any given circumstance. Again, it’s reasonable to believe that God generally works toward greater complexity, harmony, intensity, beauty, truth, and goodness, but how this looks depends largely on the world and on the actors involved in the play, and in my view one of these actors is God.
Drawing above by Dania Fleites