Sin, Hope, and Responding to Tragedies
Conor P. Williams wrote an excellent reflection on why sin is no excuse for inaction in response to tragedy, and I’ve been meaning to comment on it.
Although it wasn’t his topic, he captured exactly why religion, generally speaking, should focus on love rather than on sin. Sin is not an article of faith; salvation is. When sin is made the focus, religion turns away from fostering the loving and personal dispositions of hospitality, forgiveness and reconciliation, of mending bonds broken by sin; instead it becomes prideful organized loathing of everything unlike its own idolized vision of itself. Cruelty, joylessness, and alienation are its fruits, its delivered “good” news. The story of Jesus Christ, meanwhile, tells us that God is mindful of sin, but responds to it with love, with risky self-giving, with an invitation to return to the way of love and become whole once again. It’s a story of whole-making, as Ilia Delio would say: the weakness of God overcoming the strength of sin, love rising before death.
I have one quibble with Conor’s post. He writes:
That which appears to be tragic and sinful now will someday be redeemed, since history must eventually be redeemed as ultimately, fundamentally Good. God’s unquestionable goodness requires Christians to believe that the innumerable pains and tragedies of human life will someday make sense when Creation’s plan becomes evident. We will not know their final meaning until that time, but humans are capable of grasping it in part. Without these brief moments of transcendent clarity, there are no grounds for hope. At all.
I would say that what we’re able to grasp, in part, is not the plan of creation, but the path of love. Without freedom, there is no love. A price of freedom is the refusal of salvation–the refusal to reconcile and be reconciled–and the possibility of this refusal means that God doesn’t necessarily get what he wants. The plan of creation, if there is one, may not become evident because it may not be wholly in effect. I have no expectation that life’s innumerable pains and tragedies will make some kind of final sense, but my hope does not lie therein. I hope because I see amidst tragedy people selflessly caring for one another and weeping with one another and hoping against hope to prevent future disasters. We are the ones who must make sense of the senselessness of sin and tragedy, and we do this by the risks of love.
This is a great post, Kyle – partially because I totally missed Conor’s piece when it was published, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, too.
Further, I had a similar quibble with that paragraph, and I think you capture my thoughts pretty well (though being a bit of a Calvinist, if we drilled down deeper we might find some differing opinions).
I imagine it is naive and selfish to hope that, should I find myself in God’s embrace after my demise, Understanding would accompany Reconciliation. (“Then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”) But I still have a childlike desire to believe that somehow things have made sense in a way I couldn’t understand.
“We are the ones who must make sense of the senselessness of sin and tragedy, and we do this by the risks of love.”
I don’t see that love makes sense of anything. In fact, we love outside of our particular kinship groups (if we do) despite the fact that it’s usually an absurd response to a given situation. Moreover, it doesn’t take love to motivate individuals to care for others. Such caring can be motivated by duty, as defined by a purely secular ethic; an ethic which is arguably more “sensible” than altruism that is motivated by love.
As for the plan of creation, I would argue that the “plan” is incomprehensible when examined according to the tenets of orthodox Judeo-Christian religion, simply because the premises laid down by those tenets range from inadequate, to mistaken, to deliberately obfuscatory.
As opposed to orthodoxy, some of the mystical traditions–Kabbalah, Gnosticism–at least make the attempt to reconcile human existence as given with a reasonable set of premises. I also think that the reported teachings of Jesus make more sense as considered within these kinds of contexts. The plan of creation, given the state of creation, is Tikkun: our role is to be of service in “fixing” what is broken.
The Venerable Bede left us a prayer at the end of his Ecclesiastical History:
And I pray thee, loving Jesus, that as Thou hast graciously given me to drink in with delight the words of Thy knowledge, so Thou wouldst mercifully grant me to attain one day to Thee, the fountain of all wisdom and to appear forever before Thy face.
If man has a mission in this life, surely it is to learn as much as can be known and act upon that knowledge to the best of his abilities. All this childish nonsense about Sin and Error is easily disposed of in the light of the Long Walk. Yes, we sin. But if we knew the consequences of our sin, we would quickly avoid it before we fell into error. Monty Python has a great bit about all this maundering and weeping over sin:
GOD: Arthur! Arthur, King of the Britons! Oh, don’t grovel! If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s people grovelling.
GOD: And don’t apologize. Every time I try to talk to someone it’s “sorry this” and “forgive me that” and “I’m not worthy”. What are you doing now!?
ARTHUR: I’m averting my eyes, oh Lord.
GOD: Well, don’t. It’s like those miserable Psalms– they’re so depressing. Now knock it off!
ARTHUR: Yes, Lord.
There is so much more to the Long Walk than this mother’s milk of Sin and Salvation. There is also Enlightenment. Whether or not you buy into the notion of God, what a useless and pointless deity he would be if all he cared about was Sin and Error and Judgement and Damnation. Personally, I couldn’t buy into such a God.
What about a God who wanted us to improve and evolve and suchlike? He doesn’t just speak to us through some mouldy old collection of holy books, you know. God might also speak to us also through mathematics and physics and philosophy and literature and art and music. Now there’s a God for the rest of us, a vast improvement in every way.
Yes, I believe in Jesus Christ — but for goodness’ sake, the Jesus of the Gospels doesn’t look a thing like that tortured wreck writhing on the Cross, scaring little kids into infinite loops of guilt and sadness. What about a God who loves us and triumphed over Death, that we might triumph over Sin and Error? Couldn’t the phrase “born again” involve some sort of transformation where we might at last stand upright and be what we should and could be? Evolved beings?
Even if God doesn’t exist, there’s no reason to live in the filth and squalor of guilt. So you screwed up, you can stop screwing up. You can start the Long Walk toward Enlightenment at any moment.
“God might also speak to us also through mathematics and physics and philosophy and literature and art and music.”
Yes. I happen to have posted a poem by Welsh poet, R.S. Thomas on Facebook just
this morning that makes that very point.