Should Religious Progressives Still Speak of “Sin”?

Having thrown off the burdens of oppressive fundamentalisms and religious hierarchies, those of us who are religious progressives tend to think that we have found freedom, at last. In many ways we have. The chains and shackles of blind conformism are removed. We no longer need to recite creeds that we don’t believe or understand or that don’t resonate with us, simply because convention says we must. We no longer have to observe special holy days, which are not particularly “special” to us. We no longer need to observe the Sabbath – we claim (we say) every day or any day is or can be a sort of Sabbath day. We no longer have to live under a threat of hell fire or divine condemnation for the things we do. We understand, rather, that there are prices to pay here and now for our actions, and we simply have decided to strive to be decent human beings. We interpret our emotional maladies in psychological terms, our puzzle at certain of life’s realities in philosophical terms, if we have a taste for that sort of thing, and the price we pay for drinking too much or eating too much or working too much, well, we are content to just put that in medical terms. We see the conflicts between states in political or economic terms, and the crises between individuals we see in terms of relationship management. When we spend too much or charge too much on our credit cards, we think the way to characterize it is in terms of poor money management skills or bad financial literacy. And when we hear sermons in progressive houses of worship they often sound like self-help lectures, riddled with clichés and truisms, rather than inspirational messages that challenge us to deepen – well, to deepen what exactly? We are content to understand our need for fulfillment in life as characterized by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Our talk of stewardship of the environment comes in the form and language of cost-benefit analysis, or wispy talk of interdependence in biological systems.

Our pull-back from what we take to be bad tradition and bad religion have caused us to so secularize our lives, to cut them up into so many rationalized slivers and pieces, that we have become afraid of hot religious language, so a very critical question remains – Do we believe in or have faith in anything anymore? In jettisoning all of that language, one of the words that got tossed was the word “sin”? Now you might be inclined to say, “And good riddance, too!” But as I am in an ongoing process of reclaiming some of the things that I think we erred in tossing away from our traditional past, I am not so sure that the word “sin” and much of what it entails should be tossed aside so quickly.

“Sin” is not a word about problems with our body images or our bad relationships or our tempers or our spending habits, and how we can, in some piecemeal way, fix them. It isn’t a word about specific failings, it is a word that frames a different kind of discourse about those failings. It is a word that bespeaks a complete spiritual and existential condition, a condition that seems to be pretty much proven out if you look at the way human beings tend to treat one another. If we speak of “sin” as a condition, we are of course using old religious symbolism. It we speak of “sin” we speak of a condition, and not merely a medical or psychological one. If we speak of “sin” we think of the whole person as caught up in a web of capacities and incapacities – the capacity for good and for justice, on the one hand, and the capacity for evil and for treachery against our fellow human beings, on the other hand. And it seems clear to me now that “sin” is not something that can be overcome – for at any moment that which we know is right, just, and magnanimous (that is, that which we know is loving) – that good that we set out intending to do, is blocked by something in us that rebels against the right, the just, the magnanimous and the good, that rebels against the impulse to love. That is why I wanted Romans 7 to be read, in which Paul says pretty much the same thing. And this is as true for the martyr who marches for justice, as it is true for the saint who repairs to the monastery, as it is true for the everyday people we meet in the street, among whom we ourselves live our lives. “Sin” is the word we may use to represent this cleavage within us that prevents us from calculating the thing that love demands, and then to do it.

I’m sorry to have to get dark with you this morning, with all of this talk about sin, but all you need to do is see that we are creatures of fear, anxiety, selfishness, self-absorption, narrow-mindedness, caprice, callousness if we are to any extent as good and decent as we think. The spiritual masters of the past grasped this truth, and that is why the language of salvation emerged. And nothing has changed for us in lo these thousands of years. As smart as we moderns think we are, as clever as we think we have become, as sophisticated and above all of the mythologies of our “poor, ignorant ancestors,” we are as sorry a lot today as they ever were. Our misguided acts and poor calculations and woes are not bettered by our new technologies and modes of communication – in fact those new modes of communication amplify them. When once we could catch a letter written in hand before it was posted, having thought better of the sending, we now act out in a blaze of anger and push a button, and undo a perhaps long and cherished or at least salvageable relationship with a single thoughtless move of the finger, and then dig in deeper into our own justifications for having done so. When once we were blocked by the sheer burdens of seeking out illicit and surreptitious relationships, we now only need to scan the web and visit chat rooms, and off we can go at warp speed to indulge ourselves.

The same hearts that launched the butcheries of the Romans and of the Ancient Israelites launch the imperial invasions and neo-colonialism we see taking place today – and literally today, as yesterday [January 3, 2009] we witnessed tanks and heavy artillery launched into the populated territory known as Gaza by a state that claims to be at the root of the Abrahamic tradition, killing indiscriminately men, women and children in an effort to root out, unilaterally, terrorists who launch the equivalent, in relative terms, of bottle rockets. This response of Israel violates the basic tenet of all known just war doctrine – the tenet of proportionality and the requirement to target only combatants. When you and I sit by out of fear of being branded anti-Semitic, as so many Jews and Christians and Muslims sat back in fear of being called “nigger lovers” or communists during the years of struggle against Jim Crow, and as many hold back out of fear and watch the denial of the right of gays and lesbians to loving and committed relationships, we are living in sin. Terrorism is always wrong, so Hamas is wrong for launching rockets at civilian populations in Israel. But let us not forget that Gaza is a territory of oppression, and oppressed people, being already stressed by the burden of sin, will lash out at their oppressors unless courageous moral leadership is present, which is not the case with Hamas. It is equally not the case with Israel, which continues to conveniently whitewash the past, the imperial mechanisms of the West that planted and secured the Jewish state, and ushered in the Palestinian Nakba.

But we are no different in this country. We are the same; we all carry the same genes. The same human blood that courses through the veins of Israelis and Palestinians courses through our veins, and coursed through the veins of Zulu and Germanic and Roman and Hittite warriors who split open the heads of men, women and children. We love war – love it, despite our protestations. Despite our claims to want peace in our lives, we constantly pursue the tempestuous in the name of success or progress, perhaps, as the psychologist James Hillman suggested, perhaps it is because we feel more alive when we are at war than when we are in the midst of peace. And in our gossip and backbiting, we remain at war in petty ways, preferring that conduct, the conduct of strategy and attack, to praising and nurturing and edifying one another.

We love our freedom, crave freedom, our individualism, and claim that we will die for it, but when we get it we make a mockery of it with our excesses and self-indulgence. We create free markets, for example, and then we act to undermine and destroy them. We can harness very little of our animal nature. It seems that many of us Americans can eat in moderation to about the same extent that we can harness our tongues or our genitals. The adolescent graffiti scrawled on the walls of ancient Rome and Pompeii by men (not adolescents), is scrawled on the walls of bathrooms and train stations today, also by men. Yet we are also capable of sublime and holy acts, but these must emerge, often, by coercion, or else ejaculate into the world, interrupted by long interregnums of selfishness and concupiscence. Even our cathedrals, mosques and synagogues sit on foundations of blood. This land, in which we decry the frustrations of our trivial wants (we lack the money for that new purse or that new car), even this land was wrested away from others at the point of gun and sword.

These are tough words. But I am going here this morning because, in my view, progressive religion is too bourgeois, too unserious about the human condition. But the ancient Buddhist, Jewish and Christian leaders, for example, knew better. They believed in real discipline, real work on the self. So, given all of this, I think we would be foolish to do away with the notion of “sin.” We need it in order to remind ourselves that at any moment we may and certainly can undo all the good that we have done in our lives, and all too often will do just that. This is why the need for love and forgiveness are so important, yet these too are only spoken of as mere slogans once they are removed from the soil of the religious traditions that have spent centuries thinking about the meaning of these words, and about how hard they are to achieve.

The world will, apparently, always be a tragic place. Bridges collapse, trains derail, volcanoes erupt and fetuses are lost in utero. But there is a difference between tragedy, over which we may have little control, and evil, which is brought into the world by our own hands. I see the permissiveness of much of progressive religion as a kind of adolescent romp, as unserious spirituality and religiosity, just as I see the obsession with sexual ethics and the cool organizationalism of many conservative religious institutions as stumbling blocks and as thorns that choke off real spiritual growth.

The ancient Masters’ decision to frame our persistent failures to make the world a more loving place, and our households more loving places, as sinfulness rather than as just bad policies or bad decisions, was not an accident. The Ten Commandments, which many religious progressives think quaint, were laid down because of a recognition of the propensities of the human heart – its capacities for good and evil, and as a way to mitigate the damage that we can do in community, in our households, and to our lives. And that is why Moses stated, before listing the “thou shalt nots,” reminded his followers of something that might just be the only thing that could motivate them to try and try mightily to observe them: “I am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” Whatever name we choose for God or for what we take to stand in for God, if our lives are not placed under the high, sprung arch of something much larger than ourselves, that darkness in each of us will at times lead us to forget that the course we are supposed to be on is a course toward a life of love and peace.

To reclaim the language of sin is not to reclaim the language of puritanical guilt, and repressions that lead to psychological malady. No, that would be to go backward. It is only to place ourselves back within a moral and spiritual conceptual frame that allows us to remain on guard. We need to be reminded constantly of the good that we wish for ourselves and for others. That is way a religious discipline of some kind is so important – whether it entail wearing a red ribbon around your wrist as our Kabbalah friends do, or wearing a cross around your neck, or carrying the small dagger that our Sikh brothers do (to wage war against their baser inclinations), or praying five times a day as our Muslim brothers and sisters, or by observing the Sabbath, or by coming to services like this one early on a Sunday morning. If we are committed to the law of love, if we are committed to a life of faith, we must discipline ourselves, or we will be weak and overwhelmed by those inclinations in us that cause so much pain and ruin. If we must suffer, let us suffer for love’s sake, for God’s sake. If we must be here for a little while longer, in this vale of soul making, as Keats called it, let us stand up for what we believe, and not meet the end of our days as just one more sot who muddled through life – weak, cowardly, selfish, and blind to the great need that surrounds us.

The old language of sin is before the house. What do you think? Let’s have a discussion.




Topics: Progressive Christianity 101. Texts: Romans. Resource Types: Sermons.

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