Tuesday, June 03, 2008

On Sin 3

If sin may be primarily thematised under 'pride' - as it has been for millennia - then the appropriate response must be 'humility and obedience'.

But despite its seemingly strong pedigree, this also raises all sorts of questions.

One question which Matt Jenson raises in his book The Gravity of Sin*is, does this thematisation do justice to the actual experience of sin - does everyone suffer from simple pride, or might, say, women, or others, have a different wrestling with this? He responds that, yes, people actually do have different characteristic experiences of sin, that sin takes different shapes for them. Drawing on the work of Augustine, Luther, and Barth, Jenson paints an alternative picture of sin as homo incurvatus in se, using the Latin, or 'humanity curved in on itself', and therefore not able to be open to God or neighbour. I agree that this far better thematises the broad category of sin than simply 'pride'.

This also suggests - quite helpfully - that the 'solution' to sin is not force. If sin is primarily pride, with the appropriate stance being simply humility and obedience, then this implies that the problem is having a will - having a self - and one ought to get in line and do as one is told. It is a military-style solution intended to create identical repetition. It also - at least in effect - discourages thinking. Obedience in this sense is not to be considered, not to be interrogated; imagination has seemingly no role in such obedience; it is simply to be enacted.

There is a deep and disturbing finitude to this which seems not to do justice to the excessiveness of God's grace in Jesus Christ. Put another way, it is hard not to see legalism as the 'solution'** to sin as pride; and legalism and its attendent self-righteousness are, it must be said, godless foolishness.

But if sin - which might well be pride, yes, but is much broader than that - is more a matter of 'one being curved in on oneself', then the response is more a matter of 'opening oneself up', or 'being opened up'. One is opened up to who one is in God and in light of the neighbour; the problem is not one's will or self in themselves. These are themselves gifts of God, and for God's creation to be its fullest we must participate in it, rather than shrinking back from them, or using them for our own ends over others. We need to be healed, redeemed, reconciled, certainly: we should use these gifts appropriately rather than using them abusively, or failing to use them.

If our selves are brought into play in this way, then, it also means that we are also free to think. We are not to shelve ourselves and cease thinking: rather we are to embrace thinking - and acting - in their fullest ways. As I like to say, the life of faithfulness requires thinking and thinking about thinking. That is to say, when we hear - in Barth's terms - the command of God come to us, that command is itself always mediated through the human, whether ourselves or others. Since it is always mediated through the human, it is always already involved in thinking - language, judgement, and so on - and so it is only appropriate that we engage in thinking about thinking. We are not to be formed into a military-like obedience (sorry, Ignatius of Loyola), but rather a thinking faithfulness which is consonant with creativity, yet which is also able to self-interrogate.

I call this a 'light' hermeneutics (or, thinking about thinking) of suspicion. (I need a better expression!) With it, one is open to possibilities in God, perhaps surprising possibilities, for nonidentical yet faithful repetition of Christlikeness in our lives. But one is also open to the possibility of self-deception and ideology. This is meant to instill a vigilance as well as an eagerness to hear. And part of this vigilance is a vigilance against our own perfectionism - 'I must know everything before I can act' - as well as being able to interrogate our own interrogation - 'Am I suspicious of this just because I don't like it?' It is, in philosophical terms, a non-foundational hermeneutic; I mean it to be an ad hoc and ongoing practice rather than some sort of all-encompassing theory of understanding.

And so, in this way, perhaps we might see that the revelation of God to sinful humanity - to quote Rowan Williams, drawing on Paul Ricoeur - 'is addressed not so much to a will called upon to submit as to an imagination called upon to "open itself".' (from 'Trinity and Revelation' in On Christian Theology, p. 147.)

* I reviewed this work - mostly favourably - in International Journal of Systematic Theology. I am not sure if you will be able to access the review, but the link is here.

** How I despise thinking there is a 'solution' to sin! To say there is a solution to it implies that it is essentially something isolable to be managed, simply to be controlled. It not only seems not to do justice to the reality and scope of sin, it also seems to (even more!) domesticate grace, as perhaps some sort of 'strategy for living', an idea which can be plucked out of nowhere and adapted to whatever we're doing, rather than something elemental and awe-inspiring, which cannot be adapted to whatever we're doing, but transforms us in the deepest ways.

Labels: , , ,


Blogger Pamela said...

Very interesting post, Jason. I remember as a freshman in college returning to my home church's Sunday School class where pride was being discussed as the root of the problem in the moments before humanity fell in the Garden. In my own mind I soundly rejected this oversimplified diagnosis. Little did I recognize at the time how cozy I was with a proud attitude myself. But I emphathize with those who express essentially what you've put forth here.

I would suggest, however, that the reason why humanity is not able to be open to God or to his neighbor is because of pride. Pride is the obstacle to that openness.

True submission comes from a relationship characterized by love and trust, far from the military metaphor you suggest. That's why God didn't assign a drill sergeant angel over Adam and Eve. Such a situation would have hidden the intents of their hearts, making their obedience a lie.

Rowan Williams' quote is somewhat unfortunate in the sense that he seems to ignore some key scriptures that describe and proscribe our relationship to God and to others, and that he seems to set up a false dichotomy between a submissive will and an open imagination.

Christ submitted to the will of his Father. Was he forced to do it? Did he do it unthinkingly and unimaginatively?

Just about all four weeks of this past month have been characterized by opportunity to serve our brothers and sisters in Christ. We humbled ourselves, arranging our schedules and even our own overnight accommodations for the sake of these wonderful people.

We did it out of love. That was our motivation. We did it in submissive obedience to God's requirement that we pursue hospitality. That was the spirit in which we did it. We did it with all the grace and thoughtfulness we could. That was the personal expression with which we did it.

It became difficult at times. But it was so much easier when I was able to just let go of my self and keep a humble spirit about the whole thing.

I'm really sorry that so many people have difficulty with the notion of submission and obedience. I suspect this is due to a societal rebellious attitude to authority, even though everyone is subject to it.

If our Master submitted to the will of his Father, will his servants chafe against the same?

I've been mulling over this a lot recently, since having read Romans 6 on Friday. The metaphor doesn't simply say that we were once slaves to sin and leave it at that; it says we are now slaves to righteousness, slaves to obey, slaves of God. Slaves! And still this is a good thing, because we serve a good Master.

Consider the metaphor of a bondservant in this context. He has been redeemed for a price he can't repay, his life is owned by his master. His master clothes him, feeds him, and requires work from him. He is deeply grateful for having been freed from his debt that his slavery is of no matter to him. He is dressed more finely than he otherwise could have been, the food is richer, and the work is a joy to him. The spiritual parallels form consistant themes throughout the New Testament.

It's a rich metaphor. It's a rich way of life.



Tuesday, June 03, 2008 10:27:00 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Dear Pamela,

Thank you for your thoughtful response.

I would like to be clear that your suggestion - viz., that pride is the reason that humanity is not able to be open to God (and, particularly, the implication that pride is the only such reason, or at least best summarises all such reasons) - is specifically the claim that I wish to refute.

You will note that I do not valorise pride or claim that it is less than sin. But it simply doesn't do justice, considered as a sufficient and overarching theme, to the character of sin or (even more) the character of redemption and the redeemed life. There's a lot more there than that.

Glad to hear from you. Hope summer in Chicago is good (Go Cubs!) - we may even see some sun here sometime soon, who knows?


Thursday, June 05, 2008 4:53:00 PM  
Blogger Crimson Rambler said...

Just a comment in passing, Jason -- that I've heard it argued that the least tractable of the classic "seven deadlies" is not pride but envy...

Thursday, June 05, 2008 9:32:00 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Thanks, CR, that's intriguing - you don't remember a reference for that, do you?

It is fascinating - and outrageous - that in numerous identifiable ways the seven deadly sins are now no longer considered sins as such, but rather are actually relied upon and positively encouraged as the basis of much of our society and (especially) economics, and in that sense has become the basis of our supposed security.

If we did not have envy, for example, we could not have fashion - the planned 'obsolescence' of otherwise serviceable clothing - and could not then have an industry and its resultant profits surrounding it. (Not that it is only envy, but it is at least that.)

One of the dilemmas of capitalism, historically, is how to create demand in order to sustain production. Recourse to (at least some of) the seven deadly sins has been one of the solutions.

Naturally, for Christians at least, any structure which relies on - rather than merely accounting for - the seven deadly sins must be held in some suspicion.

But turning to the seven deadly sins themselves, I wonder if there isn't actually a polarity or dualism within them? (I haven't done much work on these, so this is probably a banal observation.) That is to say, it seems relatively easy to get locked into an orientation which reacts against (say) lust, and assumes the opposite (say, anhedonia) to be the virtuous position. But to take this position - reacting against lust - actually incorporates lust into virtue, as virtue becomes a reaction against it, a rejection of it, rather than something which has gone beyond it. Getting beyond these dualisms seems increasingly important to me.

If we instead think of virtue as - well, not merely a mean between extremes, but rather something escaping or transcending the dualism, then we seem to get closer to what we are called to by God as humans.

Anyway, more to be said - maybe I'll turn this into a post as well! Thanks again.

Friday, June 06, 2008 8:52:00 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home