Sin is ignorance, said Socrates.
If people only knew the good, he felt, they would do it, and the only reason not everyone does the good is because they are uninformed.
If Socrates is right, then education is the solution. Sin exists because of lack of knowledge, and mere information will save the sinner.
But what Socrates leaves out, of course, is the notion of defiance. No concept of human culpability in his vision.
“The intellectuality of the Greeks,” muses Kierkegaard disparagingly, “was too happy, too naïve, too esthetic, too ironic, too witty—too sinful—to grasp that anyone could knowingly not do the good, or knowingly, knowing what is right, do wrong.”
And yet, though there are many who are legitimately ignorant, there are others who do knowingly do the wrong. Education does not make the difference.
So, against Socrates, Kierkegaard argues in Sickness Unto Death that sin is willed. Even if a person is ignorant, this is because he or she willed to be ignorant.
“In short,” he concludes,
the Christian teaching about sin is nothing but offensiveness toward man, charge upon charge; it is the suit that the divine as the prosecutor ventures to bring against man.
In this case, given humanity’s obvious culpability, the necessary response is not education but (following Kierkegaard’s courtroom motif) penalty.
Contra Kierkegaard and Socrates, what I find especially useful—and true, and brilliant—about the Christian doctrine of sin is that it is able to encompass both sides of this dichotomy at once: sin is ignorance, and it is defiance.
The crucified Christ requested on behalf of his tormentors that they be forgiven, “for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). In other words, ignorance.
Yet on the other hand, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them” (Rom. 1:18-19).
So sin is defiance.
By proclaiming our ignorance and our defiance simultaneously, Christianity is able to recognize our helplessness, our “bondage” (Rom. 7:14), and our unwilled participation in sin, yet without excusing sin or denying human responsibility.
The subtlety of this biblical understanding of sin is matched only by its genius, for such a depiction of the human condition is astounding in its accuracy. We are indeed helpless, yet also (and inexplicably) willful participants in our own demise.
If the Christian diagnosis is eminently accurate, the solution proposed by Christianity is equally fitting: neither penalty nor education can finally resolve the problem of sin—penalty because it has no power to rejuvenate the heart of the sinner, and education because it is no answer to willed defiance.
The problem is a corrupted heart; hence the solution Christ offers is a fundamental one: he promises to make all those in Christ into a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17), giving them flesh hearts to replace hearts of stone, and a “new spirit within them” (Eze. 11:19-20).
“Certain new theologians,” G. K. Chesteron once noted, “dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”
Catholic I am not, and therefore my understanding of original sin differs somewhat from Chesterton’s. Yet despite all that, I am convinced with him that original sin is real, and I know it’s real because I can look around and see it manifested all around me—and, yes, in me.
The biblical story of original sin—that story of a perfect creation, marred by an Edenic fall, now ethically debilitated and groaning for redemption—is perhaps the most important of those compelling stories of the Bible that keeps me in this faith.
The existence of original sin, in other words, is one of the most important reasons why I am a Christian. The virgin birth, the resurrection, the ascension—all those are articles of faith, but this, this thing of original sin, is empirically observable. All around me. Every day. This story resonates.
Donald Miller, writing in Blue Like Jazz about sin, describes his own experience of coming to realize the truth of original sin:
I knew, because of my own feelings, there was something wrong with me, and I knew it wasn’t only me. I knew it was everybody. It was like a bacteria or a cancer or a trance. It wasn’t on the skin; it was in the soul.
I share this experience; I know that cancer and that bacteria he’s talking about. And I too have woken up in the middle of the night and been struck, like Miller, by the realization that the reality of the biblical fall is true in me:
I am the problem.
I think every conscious person, every person who is awake to the functioning principles within his reality, has a moment where he stops blaming the problems in the world on group think, on humanity and authority, and starts to face himself. . . . The problem is not out there; the problem is the needy beast of a thing that lives in my chest.
The brilliance and resonance of Christianity lies in the fact that it pictures humanity as utterly fallen and without hope, yet maintains this truth without denying the greatness of our race.
We are, to borrow philosopher Douglas Groothuis’ words, “royal ruins.” Royal, for we have the divine imprint and traces of the glory in which we were originally created; yet ruins, because we are manifestly flawed, damaged, depraved.
I see this reality patently evidenced around me. We have our skyscrapers and our trips to the moon and in little acts of everyday heroism, and that is the pretty face of our race. But behind it lies the evidence of our ruination: our ghettos, our genocides, our little everyday treacheries.
I see this duality in my neighbor; I see it in me. The story of the fall is accurate in my life; it reflects truly on my experience of the world. Therefore I believe.
I’ve tried for two years to figure out why I am a Christian, and have only in the last month started to articulate what binds me to this faith.
I am a Christian because of the stories.
Other people have their own reasons: My friend Karl insists he’s a Christian because of his confidence in the Bible’s “prophetic word.” Others would say their Christian belief rests on archaeology, a miraculous answer to prayer, or the testimony of a transformed life.
For me, it’s the fact that the stories of Christianity are my own stories. The biblical narratives resonate, they give substance to my human experience, they are true in my own life.
I am a Christian because the stories of the Bible are the stories of me.
One of the strongest cases in point is the story that came back to me over and over as I struggled two summers ago with serious doubts about my own faith.
It’s the story of Jacob, that conniving birthright-snatcher-turned-fugitive, who, on the run from a brother with a score to settle, finally comes to his wit’s end at the bank of the river Jabbok.
Out of schemes and knowing that the moment of truth is upon him, Jacob sends his family across the river, and he alone remains behind to wait out the night.
The book of Genesis states simply, “Then Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak” (32:24).
I read this verse in a book of religious quotes once, and it was filed under the heading “Overcoming Self.” I found that illuminating. Jacob wrestled with a Man, and came away saying he had seen God face to face (vs. 30), but Jacob was alone, and the man with whom he wrestled was himself.
By the time the new day broke, Jacob was crippled by the battle with that Man, crippled physically and crippled spiritually. The one who had resisted through the night now clung to his antagonist, insisting, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Gen. 32:26).
Oddly, it’s biblical stories like this one that help me navigate my doubts about biblical faith. On long nights after I’ve lain awake for hours, struggling under the monotonous whir, whir, whir of my ceiling fan beating the air, this story becomes true for me.
I am Jacob.
It is me wrestling with God (with myself?) in the darkness of the night. It’s me who walks away in the morning wounded and limping, but with the instinct that God was somehow there in the middle of that night. It’s me who takes my stand and insists that I, too, will cling to this spot until I am blessed.
I know about facts and proofs and science and history, and all those are important to me.
But like I said, it’s the stories that get me. Doubt I might, but at the end of night, those stories are the stories of me.
It’s that change of season again, where most women of the western world suddenly have “nothing to wear” and “must” buy new clothes.
This morning, the top email in my inbox brings me up to date on the fashion imperatives for the season: “Ankle boots are a must-have for fall!” blares the subject line.
It’s tempting, I admit it.
Although I’m not much of a shopper (my friend Josie told me this summer in an accusatory voice that I “shop like a man!”), I still succumb to the pressures of my body-conscious culture: Must have those heels; must have that neckline; must have that image, that look, that appeal.
But now I’m guilt-plagued about all this consumerism. Why is it that I have to have new clothes every season, when the clothes that I had last year still work just fine? How is that those advertisers convince me to surrender so much of my cash just for body image?
So in a rash fit of anti-consumerism, I promised myself last month that I’m not buying any new clothes this year. Used, ok, but not new. I’ll allow myself to switch out some of the clothes I have for something different, but I at least won’t pop for new ones. It’s my small act of resistance against the consumerist onslaught in my inbox.
So far, I’ve discovered that buying used is a lot more fun than I thought. It’s creativity-inducing, it’s greener, and the price tag is decidedly better. Not to mention the strange sort of satisfaction that comes from realizing that I don’t need as much as I thought I needed.
All in all, I think I’m hooked.
I read Kierkegaard’s Sickness Unto Death a couple weeks ago. I’m here to tell you, that guy is abstruse in the extreme! But it was a worthwhile read.
A comment on one of the [relatively minor] points of the book:
It is certain and true that the first one to come up with the idea of defending Christianity in Christendom is de facto a Judas No. 2: he, too, betrays with a kiss, except that his treason is the treason of stupidity. To defend something something is always to disparage it.
This rings true. The times in my life when I have been most anxious to defend Christianity are the times when my faith was weakest and my experience of Christianity least potent.
On the flip side, the Christians I know who are most secure and vibrant in their faith are the ones least defensive. They simply live what they believe, and feel no need to defend themselves (or, for that matter, hit anyone over the head with their views). Frankly, the mere sense of security that they emanate–genuine, authentic security that comes from a genuine, authentic experience–is way more powerful than any defensive posture.
Unfortunately, I get the impression that quite a few Christians are insecure about their faith, and easily feel on the defensive if ever anyone asks about their beliefs. Anyone else sense the same thing?
Over the weekend I finished reading The Shack, a novel about which there has been a lot of hubbub in Christian circles recently.
My two-sentence review: Author William Young depicts God and his character in a way that will be largely old news to many readers, but radical for some; the questions he poses of God and about God should certainly provoke thought in all readers. Although the Shack is overly sappy and a bit patronizing at times, it definitely has its profound and provocative moments.
If you’ve read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Meanwhile, here’s one point that struck me…
An inappropriate question?
After finishing The Shack, I read a negative reaction to the book over at Boundless. The author of the review, Gary Thomas, challenges Young not only for providing inadequate (heretical?) answers, but for asking what he thinks are inappropriate questions.
Our duty, says Thomas, is to accept the mystery of God, and there are certain questions we ought not ask:
Job had a lot of questions to ask God, and he asked them in an impertinent manner. Instead of answering Job’s questions, as “Papa” does in The Shack, God responded, ‘Listen now, and I will speak. I will question you, and you shall answer me.’
Specifically, Thomas takes Young to task for putting God on trial in his book.
The narrator’s main contention against God is this (paraphrased): ‘You’ve created and/or allowed a world that has hurt me deeply; what do you have to say for yourself? Why should I believe in you anymore?’
Thomas criticizes The Shack for depicting God as being willing to answer those questions:
For 2,000 years, Christians have believed that God sent His Son because He put us on trial and found us wanting. The proper response of humans is, ‘I have sinned and fallen short of Your glory. Have mercy on me.’ Today’s believer and non-believer is far more likely to respond, ‘There’s evil in the world; God, if You really exist, explain Yourself!’
Ask humbly, but do ask
Sticky issues, methinks.
It’s true, The Shack does come close to crossing the line in the way that it “channels” God, and Thomas has a point that impertinent questions are out of line. God is not obligated to answer our questions, and surely it can’t be right for us to try to hold the omnipotent God accountable for the way he runs his universe. (Even supposing He were in the wrong, there’s not much a pawn can do to the chessmaster, right?)
On the other hand, I think Thomas is too willing to shut down human questions. Biblically, there is nothing wrong with asking questions of God; God actually seems to handle it just fine.
For example, although it’s true that God does appear to chide Job for being too cocky, it is also true that he still interacts with Job and engages his questions. Additionally, God defends Job against the latter’s friends, who, God says, “have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:8).
Further, God was willing to take some rather “cheeky” questions from Abraham, Moses, David and others, and he never appears to be fazed by it. Quite the contrary, he seems to want to engage with his servants’ questions; he goes out of his way to invite them to dialogue (e.g. God’s conversation with Abraham before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Gen. 18; also his conversation with Moses about destroying the Israelites in Ex. 32:7-14).
So I’m not much in favor of a shut-up-and-do-whatever-God-tells-you-to-do mentality. That sort of blind obedience is not exactly the biblical model. Seems to me that God is fine with our questions, if we ask humbly.
But that’s a key word–humbly.
Personally, I think Young is respectful enough in his questions, although perhaps sometimes speculative or presumptive in his answers. Regardless, though, there’s definitely a fine line. Biblically, as Thomas points out, it is God who is the judge; He is not the defendant. That’s a point worth remembering.
It’s 10 months since I’ve had internet access. Access at home, that is. I can still drive a mile to the seminary building whenever I want free wifi, but that mile is amazingly inconvenient and strikingly effective at paring down my usage.
Prior to these 10 months, I averaged multiple hours per day online (more hours than I’d like to admit, unfortunately); now I regularly go 3-4 days without checking email, and not infrequently manage a whole week without racking up even a full hour of internet usage.
Funny. Internet access used to be classified as a need; now it barely even makes it into the “want” category.
Weird how this works, but disconnecting myself gave me a lot better access to that elusive connectivity that all our technological contraptions are supposed to provide. I mean, I spend a lot more time with real live people now.
Also, though I can’t say I’ve conquered my habit of procrastination yet (still working on it), I have very few of those moments anymore where I glance up from my keyboard and realize I’ve just screensucked for an hour and a half taking 6 Facebook quizzes (“Which Jane Austen character are YOU?”)
True, I had a mild setback last week in Seattle; with DSL in the hotel room, I succumbed to checking email every day and spending too long over several afternoons looking up Thai peanut sauce recipes.
But I’m glad to be back in Michigan now, where “connectivity” is sufficiently inconvenient to preclude much usage.
There is life after internet, and this life might just be better than what went before.