Monday, March 2, 2009

The Problem with Sin or the Sin of the Problem?

In this new post, I planned to write on the wonder of worship--about a deeply moving time of spiritual encounter we had at Central Coast Friends yesterday. However, as a lead-up to writing, I stopped by Quaker Quaker and clicked on a link
to "Why do some Quakers hate to talk about sin?" by Timothy Travis, a convinced Beanite Friend. His blog reflection jumped out very violently;-) and grabbed me by the spiritual throat.

Ah, the problem of sin or the sin of the problem or of the sin problem-- "Missing the mark," "Original Sin," "national sin." Trying to reduce this horrendous topic to thought and then to print is no doubt like trying to tame Hurricane Katrina to take a shower:-) But here I go--

First a couple paragraphs of autobiography:
Growing up in a devout home and religious community in Nebraska in the 1950's, I very early came to awareness that all was not right within me and in my own moral choices. I was about six or seven. I loved my sister dearly but would sometimes be vindictive and tease her. And I knew stealing was wrong, but oh how I did want (and take) that item at the corner drug store..etc.

And I had a very deep sadness with how adults so often hurt others by their immoral choices both in my small town and in the world. I also received many, (probably more than my share of) spiritual talks on sin and its results and on justice.

What delivered me from my own guilt, helped me make wiser choices, and gave me a deep passion for seeing spiritual change and harmony come to all humans was an encounter with Jesus Christ (in my own childish way)one night on a gravel road coming home from prayer meeting. I was only eight years of age, but I still get spiritual goose bumps remembering that night and, now, when I feel the wonder and joy of God's love for everyone.

So I am not big on focusing on the negative, on the problem of sin, but rather dwelling on the Good News of God's love--sharing of the deliverance from sin and all the messed-upness that we experience in this broken world, from petty gossip to war in Iraq and Sri Lanka.

We all do have a problem with wrong-doing. Some think it is a problem that others have, not us, at least not Friends. Others think they are worthless and there is no cure. Others that there is a problem but no right or wrong--we're just one form of primate living out survival in a meaningless cosmos. And, of course, many religionists such as the Calvinists think we are born evil, have no choice but to sin, and there is only help for s few selected ones, while God leaves the rest of us to wallow down to despair and eternal judgment.

So what's the truth?

Original sin, total depravity--What about those abstract ideas? This last week, I again encountered individuals who hold very strongly to such a theological worldview:
We're all born evil and sin constantly and can't do right or seek God.

When I started this blog this morning, I thought maybe I would have something to say of such a philosophical outlook, but now that I am to this point, I realize that such a view of life is totally contrary to everything I have experienced and everything I hold dear.

As a literature teacher for many years, every five months I taught the famous Puritan poem "The Day of Doom" to high school students (and Edwards' Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," too). I sought to help them intellectually understand the Puritan mindset, though within my own spiritual self, I couldn't (and still can't) understand Michael Wigglesworth or Jonathan Edwards at all. Their view that infants who die shortly after childbirth go straight to Hell to be tortured for ever because of Adam's sin is abhorrent theology which makes no rational or spiritual sense to me whatsoever.

While I as a child did have a sense that I had deeply "missed the mark" and needed forgiveness, I also distinctly remember how I, too, had very deep spiritual yearnings. So while there was an ocean of darkness in myself and in others, I also saw Truth and Love, and Goodness--and trusted that the latter was far more powerful than the former. And that we all have a choice for God loves each one of us with limitless mercy and compassion.

Then, of course, there is the other extreme--the so-called "liberal" view of human nature where only murderers, tyrants, and "fundamentalists" commit evil. Most of us are decent human beings. We may err, but certainly aren't sinners, nor by any stretch of the imagination, are we evil.

This, too, doesn't resonate with either life experience or reasonable thought (in my opinion). While I consider myself a "liberal" Friend, I can remember very vividly times in my life when I have been tempted to commit horrendous sin. I can remember times, I chose wrong and how it hurt others.

And it strikes me as highly hypocritical that at the present time Americans of most persuasions oppose terrorism by others such as the Palestinians, yet the United States in the twentieth century carried out some of the most horrendous terrorist attacks in history! And this was done by "liberals." Maybe we nice "liberal" people are not nearly as nice and good as we think we are.

And when was the last time among Friends, that wiser ones, privately, sought to guide members who were making immoral choices?

As a "liberal" I would not want to go back to the days of the 1800's when members were excluded for wrongdoing. But should we not in love speak the truth to erring ones?

I guess all this leads to my next point which is the experience of Friends such as George Fox and John Woolman. In their journals both speak of the darkness of evil and sin, of humankind's need of deliverance. But their focus is not there; it is on God who loves us, on the Ocean of Light, on the spiritual symbol of the atonement.

Well, that's a start.

Any comments?

To be continued--


Hystery said...

An excellent and thought-provoking post as usual. I tend to arrange my American history class along the theme of the evolution of religious history. These questions seem to me to be at the heart of many of the political and human rights debates in our national development. Your arguments fit in with the "feminization of the church" which really kicked in within the first quarter of the 19th century. Seems as though women wanted to address social justice issues and weren't keen on being told their children were condemned to hell. Those pesky women! LOL

Tom Smith said...

My own take on sin is similar to my take on the "original" sin of Adam and Eve. The Ocean of Light cannot be overcome by the Ocean of Darkness. I believe the sin of Adam and Eve(prototype humans) was that of placing their own desires above that of God's will. Thus they built a barrier, symbolized by fig leaves, between each other and God. Building barriers is the only way of "creating" darkness. The self centeredness of humans, which seems to be innate, starts as innocent needs in small children, but inevitably? leads to building barriers to others and thus to God. (What you have done to the least of these...) The Light can overcome darkness but darkness cannot overcome Light, only barriers can do that.

[I like the song in South Pacific (based on "Hawaii" written by a Quaker teacher) "You have to be taught to hate, before you are seven or eight" ]

I have many more thoughts on this, but will stop for now.

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hello Hystery,

Thanks for commenting. If you teach American history, I think you would have loved one class I took at Cal State Long Beach called American Intellectual History. The prof was Jewish but had done his PhD thesis on Jonathan Edwards. We used to have some great bull sessions after class about truth and religion and philosophy.

As for the "feminization of the church", while I agree the 19th century was a watershed, a number of scholars hold that Christian faith (not necessarily Christiandom-dumb or some passages in Paul)
is radical because it emphasizes the "feminine" more than say Judaism or Islam or Buddhism--all of which are heavily male centered.

Daniel Wilcox said...

HI Tom,

Thanks for commenting.

How do you like your new time at Walton and your new meeting?

Hope this change will help overcome your "cloud of darkness" of which you spoke.


Hystery said...

Dear Daniel,
I agree with you that the nineteenth century is certainly not the first time Christianity has shone itself to be "a women's religion." Those seeds were sewn in the first generation and we have been harvesting those fruits ever since.

Probably the way I differ most markedly from other "Goddess women" is that I see that some of the deepest roots of feminist spirituality and Neo-Paganism are in Christianity.

Tom Smith said...


We are finding our new home comfortable and challenging, a great combination I think.

The "ocean of darkness" has essentially nothing o do with our current living or Meeting situation. It basically is "beyond our control" in many ways as it deals with a legal situation which was brought against me 2 years ago and regardless of the facts or our efforts the plaintiffs continue to carry out legal proceedings and "discovery" with no evidence on their side but they continue to "dig." I seem unable to break the barriers that have been erected and "continual and continuing" efforts to build those barriers on the part of the legal "community" seem to be impermeable. However, that "ocean of darkness," which has at times impinged on my own "Lightness" will not and can not overcome the ocean of light that is apparent in our living and Meeting situation.

Katya5 said...

Hello, Daniel,
Long time, no see...
When thinking about the idea of the "sin," I ask myself, first of all: who - or what - makes the definition of the sin, of right and wrong? The answer for me is - our conscience. An individual is his own worst critic, and, even if his mind can come up with excuses for every bad thing he did, his conscience is not fooled, for he still knows he has done something bad... In this sense, I think that hell is also a very individual place for every one of us, and it's created for each individual by his troubled conscience. What can be more painful than reliving the memory of something one has done wrong and unable to correct in any way?
I'm not sure if I am repeating myself - it seems we may have had a similar conversation previously.
Thank you,

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Katya,

Hope things are better for you this week. Any possible jobs?

Thanks for leaving a comment on my reflection.

As for the definition of sin, of right and wrong, finally one has to say it must come from Ultimate Reality.

For our cultures and societies often distort our conscience so that it is not reliable. Conscience insists we do what is right, but doesn't in itself tell what "Right" is.

For instance think of Christians who slaughter other humans because they think they should even though Jesus said such acts are evil.

I would agree partially that Hell starts in the living out of evil and the suffering of its consequences.

Hope you and Joseph can make the discussion on Pasternak April the 6th at bookclub