Re-thinking sin and heretics

On August 26, 2012, in General, by Neil Williams

When tackling the topic of transformation, we need to identify areas that need transforming. The church has traditionally defined these areas as “sin.” But what is sin and how do we know? Do we look to history? But here we often find behavior that was once acceptable, yet it is now abhorrent to us today. Do we look to the Bible? But here, among the good, we also find patriarchy and slavery, genocide and allowances for capturing and raping women in war. We find that the way people understood “sin” underwent a transformation even in the Bible.

Sin has a varied history. The way people have understood sin has changed over time. Views on sin have morphed according to the culture and what made sense at that time.

In this new book I’m writing, I want to consider sin as “relational failure” and how this approach can speak meaningfully to people in the 21st century. There are many advantages to understanding sin this way. Some examples: viewing sin as relational failure eliminates a common split between so-called “individual transformation” and “social transformation.” Sin, in this sense, can be relational failure in marriage, relational failure with the world and its resources, or relational failure with “outsiders.” Sin as relational failure, keeps us from the easy attribution of the other person as the “sinner.” Understanding sin as relational failure exposes a legal understanding of sin as inadequate. It is quite easy to follow a set of rules and be mean about it. It also indicts those that use religion or theology to sabotage or destroy relationships. Heretics are now the ones who have used their theology to promote themselves and exclude others.

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18 Responses to Re-thinking sin and heretics

  1. Tim Beckham says:

    Neil, I have read your posts and must comment on what I see as a common thread that pervades your perspective and with which I fervently disagree. That perspective is your tendency to identify the spiritual with the social imperative to “get better” – one way or another. Your focus is on relationship as a means in that pursuit.

    It is certainly within the province of social norms and expectations to demand of its citizens that they improve their behavior toward one another, whether it is to restrain from misbehavior or to proactively engage in nurturing relationships. Your “relational” approach is certainly an appropriate objective for us to follow in our efforts to be good people. Loving, attentive, nurturing relationships keep us civil. I commend that goal as a way for building a civil society.

    However, I think it fails as a religious experience, because it is fundamentally human-driven, with human objectives and human values underpinning those objectives. I do not think that improvement of behavior is the province of religion, nor is it a fruitful personal goal in seeking the spiritual life. Your emphasis on transformation through relationship provides an excellent focus for social improvement and raising the standard for the common good, but it falls short, in my estimation, as a path toward spiritual/religious experience.

    We are quintessentially vain in our efforts to “find God”. That is a totally counterproductive goal for the religious life. It leads to nothing. We cannot find God. God finds us – completely and entirely. The most casual of reviews of all the religious laws and admonitions and proverbial tidbits of advice that we find in whatever religious texts you pick up for guidance are manifestly tools of enforcement of social norms. We read the bible and feel better, because we think we have the path to heaven in a few commandments and “relationship” guidelines.

    Nonsense. The spirit descends upon us quite independently of our efforts.

    I offer this as a slightly different focus. Think of relationship as an art form. Art invades us quite unexpectedly and performs its wondrous work deep within our souls, and before we have had time to realize what is happening, we are changed. So it is with religion and the spirit. That is why I so often regard the story of the spirit as the only reality in Christianity (or any other religion), quite independently of its historical authenticity. The story is the message, not the literal truth of the events.

    How would art change relationship? First, it would take it out of the sphere of our own control. The artist wields the brush; the pianist runs his/her hands over the keys, the poet writes the words, but the essence art comes into being without thought, from something inside that reaches out of the canvas past centuries and past cultures and finds its home in that “relationship” between artist and viewer that is impossible to plan but is irrefutably present.

    Second, it would be effortless. We certainly have to have relationships, and we have to work at them, but whatever is spiritual about those relationships will be there without our trying to make it happen or find them or reveal them in any way. Whatever we do in developing relationships with others will inevitably be laden with the sin of our own self-absorption, and we will be blind to God. It is an error to imagine that we are going to find the way.

    Third, it would be loving. This is the point. Actually, it is the only point. The only purpose of a personal religion is to help you find whatever state you need to hear the incessant love of the spirit surrounding you, forgiving you, embracing you. That is where the action is. After that, all else follows.

    So, to me, relationship is part of the human experience, but God is another thing altogether. I don’t expect to find God anywhere or in anyone. Every once in awhile, I become aware of God’s presence, but it is quite clearly independent of my efforts. Trying then to hold on to God is really just a way to pull back. That is where the art comes in.

  2. Richard Worden Wilson says:

    Interesting stuff. I came back to it after a day or so and was reading the GospelMemes: Thinking about Gospel in the 21st Century post of GospelMemes — A Draft to Share; July 26th, 2008 and thought, hummm, this could be improved on by incorporating some guy’s comments on sin as relational failure that I recalled as being insightful. Tracked it down and discovered that it was yours! Inclusion of some of this discussion could put a bit more flesh on the outline.

    Tim Beckham, I appreciate your reflections, including some of the more traditional ways of thinking of the gospel as not dependent on our efforts, but am inclined to think you may being a bit too either/or in your thought despite trying to resolve your dichotomies with “art.” In the NT the repentant sinner’s actions result in what Jesus calls “justification” and the generosity of gentile God fearer’s is honored by God’s noticing that very action. So, I think you may be overlooking some very important relational actions that God considers appropriate ways of relating to Him. God seeks relationship with us; responding to that initiative is essential and productive.

    Kevin, meme on!

    • Tim Beckham says:

      Richard, I am not a particularly religious fellow, largely because I sense the futility of interpreting the nature or intent of something so obscure, mysterious and ineffable as the Divine. Woody Allen commented once that, “God’s favorite game is hide-and-seek.” I sense that in every decision I make in life, in every breath I take.

      So any “revelation” I hear about God, whether it be from the New or Old Testaments or any speculation about God that emerges from the mind of mortals anywhere, leaves me wondering, “What makes you think that?”

      Faith and belief, to me, are largely a function of willful hope. We want the nature of God to be a certain way, and we are determined to make it so. Following any admonition that purports to come from on High, still requires our mortal interpretation and introduces our own vain, narcissistic efforts to believe that we have found the way. This determined intent may take a benign aspect (such as loving relationships), but it is still too human for my spiritual sensibilities.

      This miasma of powerless intellectual knots to which any religious argument inevitably descends, leads me always back to the “dichotomy” which you describe. That is, the choice between “I know God” and “God knows me.” It seems safer and less presumptuous to go exclusively with the latter. However, the fact is that there is no art in either of those positions. But it seems to me that the notion that God knows me and I will never know anything of Him leaves open the door through which art (and the love of God) can pass.

      I do not know what the art would be that opens us to the Love of God, that enables us to sense the wonder of His footsteps at our side, to know the footprints in the sand are those of God as he carries us to His home, but I am convinced that the mind of man is worthless as a tool in capturing hold of that Wonder. We ride on art, in some form or another, just as we ride in the arms of God.

  3. Richard Worden Wilson says:

    Oh, BTW, I really love this last sentence: “Heretics are now the ones who have used their theology to promote themselves and exclude others.” The whole history of heresy fighting does seem to be dominated by those who do just that, sometimes, but not always, on both sides.

  4. Jeremy says:

    I’m very much on board with this approach to defining “sin”. It seems like a natural outworking of sin as failure to “love God” and “love one’s neighbor”.

  5. Richard Worden Wilson says:

    Hi Tim,
    Uh, I may have supposed you were rather religious because you had so much to say that seemed spiritual–I’m trying to pull the saw backward here. I may be disinclined to follow the “I’m spiritual but not religious” thing (it is now being abbreviated as SBNR!), perhaps because despite my being mostly spiritually inclined I find the religion embodied in the Christian scriptures to be rather compelling. Yes, we are all too limited in our grasp of things divine, but roughly 2400 years of remarkable continuity (with diversity) for a religious tradition sure seems impressive to me–there is nothing else like it in the world (perhaps you’d noticed?) There may be a lot to KNOW of God in that history, however in a MIRROR tentatively. The art of knowing may not be as useless a tool as your completely empty glass dichotomy compels you to believe.

  6. [...] Sin and Heretics? Neil Williams Says “Yes”August 29, 2012 By peteenns Leave a CommentRead before you judge…..Over at GospelFutures, Williams suggests thinking of sin as [...]

  7. Keith Dager says:

    I think there is merit in your objective, but also peril. The peril is a “New Age” faith message that “we all have goodness in us; there is no evil, just a lack of light; sharing God’s love will set the misguided free from their darkness”. While that has a grain of truth, it is applied wrongly as sin being just an oops, a booboo. To “love your enemies” does not mean to respect their choices as being equally valued and correct to God. There are many good people who God will deal with later, after welcoming those who chose to be born again in Christ and live a righteous life through grace. I glad to leave to God to deals with the souls of basically good people who failed to embrace Christian faith… that’s above my pay grade. So, as a born-again Christian, I will respect others equal political and civil rights in earthly society… of course, but the spiritual realm is different. God’s realm also promotes equal opportunity… for personal salvation through Christ. God also wants us to create His Kingdom on earth so God’s grace will benefit even non-believers. God will not however, treat everyone as equals at the Rapture or on God’s Day Of Judgment. If that’s your direction… that we’ll all swing in the same hammock in heaven after we die, then you lost me.

    There is evil. It is found in bad choices. That can be a transitory phase, an error or a foolish mistake by some who eventually sees God’s truth, seeks redemption and is born again (like Saul/Paul). There are also people who have such core maliciousness in their character that whether or not they’re devils, they are dangerous. So, tell me how do you distinguish between evil deeds and evil people? Do you treat differently a misguided institution that can participate in a democratic process without destroying it, vs leaders or groups which attack God’s Kingdom the the goal to diminish it, even destroy it and establish the domination of evil? When do true Christians have to end dialogue with anti-Christians and simply oppose misguided leaders or movements to prevent them from creating great evils such as the NAZI or communist parties did? Oppose evil too late… and their temporal strength will crush Christians blissfully espousing “Love thy neighbor, Love thy enemies”.

    So, if your focus is on how can Christianity be redemptive without being “condemnatory”, then I’m with you. How do we “love our enemies” without being corroded or destroyed by them, ethically, spiritually, financially or even physically? Redemptive Christianity starts by rightfully understanding God’s Word, which can be quite uncomfortable for modern, successful people living comfortable lives. Doing what “feels right” in a politically correct world is not a guide post to redemptive evangelism. Redemptive evangelism still need some aspect of judgment. It has to involve conflict with those who oppose Christian ethics and goals. Trying to be a righteous Christian is all about making personal decisions through grace, sometimes painful decisions. Is judging what are correct choices in behavior for one’s own life, or voting your values in an election, the equivalent of spiritually condemning others for having different opinions. I don’t think so. When their differences in thought however, become actions that threaten us personally or could corrode or destroy God’s kingdom, then what? Sit on you hands singing Kumbaya?

    I get your blog message that many pious people forget that pride is a major sin. Of course, pride, ego, greed, the drive for inclusion (including power), acceptance (including sex) and fear of exclusion (leading to weakness or death) are all characteristics of the stain of sin on the human psyche. They are the core human instincts passed on to each new generation by our DNA. These traits continue to corrupt human behavior even when individuals seek salvation. Being born again so one can live life in-Christ, through grace, is all about controlling our base, human, inherited instincts. God’s redemptive learning curve invites all comers. That leave it open to fools to use faith as a bully tool to feel superior to others or for charlatans and even devils, to empower themselves as elites in churches or larger society for sinful goals.

    The misguided Christian usually lacks the understanding that God, through the Holy Ghost on Pentecost, offered any person in humanity two gifts: adoption into God’s chosen people (Israel); and God’s Grace to replace following Jewish Law as a guide for living for Christians. Without Grace replacing the Laws of the Old Testament, “Christianity” would have just become a weird branch of Judaism. Misuse of the Bible is not Grace, is not redemptive and is not Christ’s message. I believe that is why there is so much acrimony over same sex marriage today. Christians ignore Grace to find Laws against what makes them feel uncomfortable.

    I agree with this blog site that Christianity has lost many faithful followers over my lifetime. I feel one reason is that mainline reformer churches began promoting what was seems “marketable” to people “of goodwill”… the politically correct liberal left “reform” agenda. Being of “good will” is certainly not “wrong”, but neither is it unique to Christianity. Some evangelical churches choose the up-beat, personal improvement angle of faith, emphasizing self discipline and ambition… using one’s “gifts” fully.

    When church denominations make anything other than salvation their key focus, they move away from what is unique in Christian faith. My Buddhist friends promote peace and co-existence. Many secular programs teach self improvement or how to find personal happiness. Yoga teachers have the goal of a spiritual communion with the universal god. They’re all “good” and with yoga, you’ll stay limber. None of them however, have the unique Christian offering of being saved by God’s Grace. None of them offer to have our past sins, however horrific, be washed by Christ’s blood from our rap sheet in heaven simply by our accepting Christ as our savior and asking God to forgive us. No other self help program, faith or discipline offers the opportunity to be born again spiritually, to start with a clean slate. When we put our sinful past behind us and start living a righteous life thereafter, we receive the promise to join Jesus Christ in the Rapture…a rapture forever, not until the yoga class ends. We will enjoy being loved by God in Heaven for a blissful eternity. Here is a clear path to get there. Early Christians called it “The Way”. Churches have so sanitized “The Way” that given today’s world of freedom and personal choice, many believe that “any way” is equal as a path to heaven. The “Happiness and Self-Fulfillment By Any Way” seems to have become a creed of the liberal political elite. In some liberals’ minds, any righteous judgment based on Christian values is an attack on personal freedom and must be opposed.

    Many Churches began to sanitize the “fire and brimstone” preaching common in the per-industrial era, especially after World War II, as liberal political correctness gains influence in American society, especially thought televised and print media. Okay, some of that old fashioned preaching went over the top. As mentioned earlier, Christian faith is vulnerable to false prophets, scam preachers and cult leaders even today. Give Christian faith credit however, for instilling determination and confidence in early Americans with little or no resources, from the pioneers who settled the American west to slaves who endured their ordeal so their heirs may someday thrive. Our current crop of Americans, especially the self-indulgent, would wilt at either task. As Americans became more successful, more comfortable in life, more financially secure and enjoyed more freedom of choice, we credited this success to our intelligence and to science. It is foolish to think that intelligence, even scientific inquiry, can survive and thrive without humility. Hubris and greed corrodes intelligence and corrupts science.

    The more that Americans began to enjoy as modern age comforts, the less that we felt any need to pray to God for “our daily bread”. How many families still say grace before each meal? Christmas in American has always presented Christianity with a Disneyesque, polished image that appeals to our privileged, delicate senses and consumer mentality. The story of the manger is a dark story, full of social rejection, meanness, and great sadness. That the “greatest of us” was born as “the least of us” repeated God’s message with drama through the Christ-child’s own birth.

    Bible’s passages are often dark, gritty, and troubling rather than cheery and uplifting. That is real life. Mel Gibson’s 2004 movie “Passion of The Christ” was shocked some Christians. I suppose that the mean, painful reality of Christ’s death had become just symbolic to them. Gibson’s film made Christ’s final humiliation, torture and painful death just too real. Despite a lifetime of hearing about it in church at Easter, this was beyond what most Americans can comprehend today from our life experiences.

    I think the sanitized approach taken to preaching is why many ex-Christians dismissed faith and moved on, finding alternative pseudo-religious activities that appeal to their interests, PC sensibilities, and that make them feel accepted by non-Christian peers. Then there are superficial Christians… habit-driven, superficial church goers views faith with the American consumer mentality. The use faith to feel comfort from group affinity, familiar ceremonies, energizing psalms, symbolic charity and upbeat “God Loves You and So Do I” greetings. As to that common church greeting, I’d rather greet others church-goers by saying “Here’s to mud in our eyes, that we may see the truth”.

    ~ Keith

    • Tim Beckham says:

      And exactly what purpose is served by “born again” legalistic imperatives? Could it possibly be the enforcement of social norms, instead of the laws of a far-from-obvious god?

      I think it is the beginning of spiritual wisdom to recognize both our total, permanent ignorance regarding the nature of God and to realize that we are powerless in finding Him/Her. I also think it is the beginning of faith to accept, without preconceptions, the direct experience of God in our lives, without any effort of our own in any form – including, ironically, any purposeful faith.

      When religion takes the formulaic approach that defines spirituality or “salvation” in terms of right thoughts and right behavior, it places itself between us and God.

      I leave you with a question. If Christ/God is the ultimate reality, the most fundamental of all the aspects of the universe and beyond, the most transcendental of all concepts, the sum and substance of all that exists, then why isn’t that obvious to each and every one of us? Why do we need any arguments to convince us of that truth? No one questions that we need air to breathe and food and water to nourish ourselves, yet these are far less fundamental truths than the ultimate truth Christianity purports to possess.

      Is it possible that God is the most obvious truth of all, and that we are not able to see the forest for the trees? I believe that religion, as it has been practiced up to now (social norm enforcer), is a blinding force. We don’t need to find the forest if we are already stumbling through it. Just lie down in the meadow and let the sunshine warm you up, for Heaven’s sake!!

  8. Keith Dager says:

    Salvation is like work… you have to apply for the job but to get to that point, you have to be educated enough to hear and understand concepts and intentions. You need to be able to communicate intangible concepts and orient your actions on percepts that include intangibles values and objectives. With that, you may be qualified enough to be hired. Then you have to be open and intelligent enough to absorb the OTJ training from work place mentors. Still not “there” yet… you need to gain experience in handling problems and dealing with errors. Finally… you might call yourself a whatever the career designation is. Others will see you as being what you dedicated your licfe to become, and relate to you as such. Same with Christian faith. BTW, I prefer a hammock in the shade of trees over lying in the grass in the sun… less ants.

    You are very elequent but typically “new age” in your comments. How do you define and deal with people who appear by their acts and words to be evil, and buy their goals or irrational acts are a danger to society if not civilization? Thanks.

    • Tim Beckham says:

      First of all, I believe evil exists, but the reason I know that is because I feel the evil in my own heart, and I sense its permanence. The only reason I can recognize evil around me is because I reflexively see the mirror into my own soul presented by that evil. The struggle against evil from others is identical to the struggle against our own most elemental impulses. That insight is not a religious concept; it is a social “meme”, if you will, that must exist to allow expression of the more powerful and more socially creative impulse to love.

      It is pure trouble and a waste of time, in my opinion, to look to God in the struggle against evil. God has made it manifestly obvious that He/She is not going to help us in that matter. We work hard; we love; we play; we pray; we die. Some people live lives full of privilege; others are buried after a lifetime of injustice and misery. It is sad. It is true. It is incurable.

      I deal with people who I recognize as evil by struggling against them as best I can, and then I try to love. I do the same when I feel the impulse to evil in myself. I rely on God coming into my life enough to catalyze that love. It does not take work. It is not my creation. It is not something I “attain”. It is just God and me together.

      • Neil Williams says:

        I’m interested in the transformative power of the gospel story. Because we all live storied lives, what is it about this story that has been and can be transformative? Isn’t there hope in this story, given that Jesus reserved his strongest criticism for the religious leaders of his day?

        Your question about the absence of God is an important one. Theologians have often wrestled with the so-called “hiddenness of God” and the answers are unpersuasive to many. Or as some have asked, “is the absence of evidence, evidence of absence?” Many conclude that the universe is religiously ambiguous—that it is possible to interpret the world both from a religious perspective and from a non-religious. So given the suffering and neglect you mention, I think we should concede that it is at least reasonable to interpret the world non-religiously. But I find this unsatisfactory for other reasons. I think the gospel story has transcendent and lasting qualities, that when lived by, are transformative.

        • Tim Beckham says:

          Neil, in my opinion, the major problem with our present treatment of the gospel is our determination to interpret it. The gospel story is a work of art; it reaches into you and changes you. It is beyond our control, and when we try to control our responses to it by interpretation, It disintegrates into the chaotic array of guesses that only the confusion of the human mind could possibly create. Our determination to “understand” the message deafens our ears to the message and drives us into our egos, that emptiest of spaces, to find the “truth”.

          Why do we need to grasp the point of the gospel? Live your life and let the gospel work its love into your heart and soul.

          Over the years, I have found myself frequently at the shore, looking out to the majestic sea, wondering what mission, what purpose in life I should be learning from its steady power. I never found the answer. Then one day, while standing there on the sand, it occurred to me, “This is the point and purpose, this moment, this unanalyzed instant, this awe, this clarity.” I did not “understand” the ocean then or its power, but it worked its way into me to the point, where even after all those many other times I had stood there puzzled, I only remember with meaning that one, singular moment.

          So it is with the gospel, that story, that art.

  9. Peter Kress says:

    I am a rational being, an aesthetic being, a creative/productive being, a relational being. I will be engaging all of that as I respond to universe and the immanence/transcendance of gospel in relationship to it. If I profess to master gospel, i.e. KNOW it, then, like Job, I have presumed in my hubris. But don’t ask me to put aside my humanity. Story and Art are not a-rational, nor are they only rational. So I plan to interpret away.

    • Tim Beckham says:

      Peter, no doubt you will “interpret away”, and, being human, very likely so will I. But some day, when my gray hair has gotten even grayer, I will still think of that moment at the shore, when wonder trumped reason for me. I will think of the pastor whose sermon touched my heart with a story, rather than my mind with an interpretation, that chant at the monastery when all my analyses fell away and God entered on the wings of a psalm.

      No relationship is without God, but no intellectual construction of ours will bring Him to us or us to Him. We eat, and the nourishment becomes part of us. We live, and the fabric of our lives carries us in its weaving into relationships, the spirit of which is unplanned and uncontrollable. We are not the elucidative agents of understanding; we are each a part of a shared understanding manifest in the spirit that already exists in our relationship with others.

      We all have brains and we will use them, but consider this. All brains, no matter how smooth the seas are on which we sail, look for problems. Why do we do that? Why bother?

      • Richard Worden Wilson says:

        I admire your almost accidental eloquence. You seem to wish you didn’t feel bothered to smooth the seas of uncertainty with words certain in their ambivalence while searching for solutions to problems that simply appear, the antinomies for which we don’t have to look, but just show up. Your paradoxical perplexity seems enthroned on certain uncertainties plainly pronounced. You appear very confident that you can’t ever know God (except in everything or every relationship?) yet are confident in proclaiming the only ways God can be known. You say too much for one who claims to know so little.

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