February 3, 2008
Psalm 51:1-4 “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment”
Revelation 5:1-5 “Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals; and I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it. And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”
If you open your newspaper, turn on the TV news, surf around the web or – better yet – read a good history book, I think you’ll quickly become convinced that the world around us is in a lot of trouble – poverty, disease, war …. the list goes on and on – and it isn’t a modern phenomenon, it has been going on throughout history. Further, it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. So is the best we can do?
Let’s do a quick comparison of the 1300s and the present day. In the 1300s, the black death swept across Europe and killed, very roughly, a third of the people – maybe 35 million. The 100-years war started and the death toll was most likely around 10 million people. As we look back, perhaps we think those were barbaric times and we’ve come a long, long way since then. Well, it is certainly true that in the 700 or so years since 1300, we have discovered the scientific method and the whole of science as we know it has become accessible. And from science, technologies have evolved that are astounding – computing, global communications, the molecular basis of medicine, transportation, the list goes on and on. During those 700 years, whole new philosophical systems have been developed, new modes of government have been explored, and we have even put a man on the moon. And so we sit today as HIV/AIDS sweeps across Africa where it seems destined to kill more than a third of the people and we recall World War II, which killed 50-70 million people. All that hard work and clever thinking during the 700 years since 1300 didn’t get us very far, it seems.
Many have looked at this issue and concluded, “If we just educate everyone, things will get better”, or “if we just try harder, things will get better” or “if we just fix the governments, things will get better” and so on and so on. In fact, it doesn’t look like all our determined human effort over 700 years made things better at all, does it? Of course, it might look better for us living in the US, but that is an illusion as the rest of the world pays the price for the way we live and the price is very high.
So, what is the problem? In the language of the church, the problem is understood to be… SIN!
The existence of sin is so obvious that The London Times Literary Supplement stated, “The doctrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith” – this statement was endorsed by (and often attributed to) Reinhold Niebuhr, whom we have discussed before.
So what is SIN? There are as many opinions as there are authors! Some of the options are:
1. Thinking in terms of “law” (e.g. 1 John 3:4 “sin is transgression of the law”; John Wesley: Sin as a willful violation of a known law of God). BUT … if it is all about rules, we’ll simply find ways around them!
2. Thinking in terms of “missing the mark”. A common image is to talk of “missing the mark” – be it by an inch or a mile – as the meaning of “sin”.
3. We could turn to the great writers for ideas – what did Luther, Calvin and Zwingli think? I, of course, turned to Terry Pratchett in the great theological work, “Carpe Jugulum” (seize the jugular) :
Carpe Jugulum (A Comic Fantasy by Terry Pratchett):
“There is a very interesting debate raging at the moment about the nature of sin, for example,” said Oats.
“And what do they think? Against it, are they?” said Granny Weatherwax.
“It’s not as simple as that. It’s not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of gray.”
“There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.
“It’s a lot more complicated than that –”
“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”
“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes –”
“But they starts with thinking about people as things …”
The theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg described sin in a way complementary to the description of Granny Weatherwax, as follows:
• To be a “person” entails interdependence
• Breaking interactions isolates and therefore destroys personhood
• Sin is therefore “self love” – the fixation on the self that diminishes personhood, both of the self and the other (note that “self absorption” may be a more helpful term in English as it would include “self love” and “self hate”).
If Granny Weatherwax and Wolfhart Pannenberg are correct, then the tell-tale signs of sin are:
• Fixation on the self
• Disrupted relationships
• Treating others (including God) as “objects”
• Loss of humanity
So where does sin come from? Lots of options have been considered in light of the Adam and Eve narrative as a model. Two answers stand out from the crowd: (i) pride led to the Fall, and (ii) Disbelief led to the Fall. The former is the Catholic emphasis 9and if pride is the problem then humility is the solution, which we see reflected in the Order of Benedict and other Catholic teachings that emphasize humility). The latter is the Protestant emphasis (and if disbelief is the problem, then faith is the solution).
If the solution is faith, we can ask, “How is faith to be lived out?” In the light of our recent conversations, we might respond:
• “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind … and your neighbor as your self”
• Love is an act of the will (Free will aligned with God’s will)
• Prayer is being open to God’s will working in the world.
And so, reflecting on our earlier conversations about Free Will and God’s Will, we had concluded as follows:
• Does God REALLY have a plan? Yes!
• Can we thwart God’s plan? Yes.
• Can we thwart God’s plan forever? No.
• Will God’s plan become reality? Yes.
Now perhaps we are in a position to elaborate further and add:
• Does God REALLY have a plan? Yes, and we can be open to it through prayer.
• Can we thwart God’s plan? Yes, through sin.
• Can we thwart God’s plan for
ever? No, and that is why we have hope.
• Will God’s plan become reality? Yes, because love will overcome.
These are the reasons that we often speak of the marks of the Christian life as “Faith – Hope – Love” (the theological virtues). Maybe the next 700 years don’t have to be like the last 700; perhaps we can identify the problem and move forward. We’ll need to move forward in faith (because if the root cause of the problem is disbelief, then faith is the answer); and in hope (because God’s plans will eventually come to be) and in love (because it is through our free will that we can choose to love God and neighbor). Amen!