Wednesday, July 05, 2006


My intention here is to celebrate one conection that I have made after reading John Zizioulas’ Being is Communion. That work has become one of the four or five books that have had the most influence on my thinking. I intend to keep this short and, thus, cryptic -- Jim, I hope it's not too long. But things do have a habit of flowing forth!

Zizioulas has sharpened my sense of “sin” as a state of disrupted relationship. We live in sin as much as we “sin” (or so I draw from my reading). The individual “sins” that we commit – and certainly ought to confess – are themselves manifestations (or “instantiations,” as the philosophers like to say) of that wider problem of “sin” as a condition that insinuates itself into the very depths of the human heart. But the Lutheran “general” (liturgical) confession (per the Lutheran Book of Worship) is dead on: “We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” Sin is more than peccadillos or discreet misdeeds; it is a state of general disruption and alienation between and among human beings as a result of the disruption and alienation that has resulted from humanity's trying to set an agenda for itself separate from the commands and intentions of God.

What wonderful sense that makes of the story of the “Fall” in Genesis. I (along, I suspect with many others) have long struggled to resist reading an anti-sex theme from that story: Eve eats the fruit and Adam eats the fruit – and voila! They realize they are naked and they are shamed. Suddenly sex rears its ugly head (its surprising how many people don't think about Adam and Eve's sex life pre-Fall – and it’s very bad.

But this story isn’t anti-sex or even about sex per se. Instead, it is a portrait of what has happened to human life – including sex – since humanity (in the “persons” of Adam and Eve) first tried to live outside the intentions and commandments of God. Whereas the First Parents began in total harmony with each other (bone of bone and flesh of flesh, and yet distinct) and with God, the instant they leave God’s world for one of their own making (eating of the forbidden fruit was the original act of the Enlightenment, in which they set themselves up as their own gods) their relationship with each other is disrupted, just as is their relationship with God. Their now-instinctive reaction is to hide – behind fig leaves from one another, and out of sight from Him. The discovery of nakedness telegraphs that what was once a source of joy and harmony – their nudity and presumably uninhibited sex life (check Song of Songs for confirmation of this inference) – has now become, for them, a source of potential exploitation, hurt, and abuse.

Whereas once their differentness had been the cause of joy, it has now become a source of shame – something that can only be experienced before another person and that carries with it the knowledge of antagonistic difference. God created male and female different from one another so that they might love: One needs an “other” in order to love. (That is part of the meaning of the Trinity: God exists in relationship among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.) When creation was very good, this differentness was an unspoiled complementarity. But with the disruption of the relationship with God, occasioned by willful disobedience of his command, came differentness, otherness as a sign of worry, threat, blame, and all the rest.

And it was all downhill from there: First, there was the lying to God and trying to shift the blame: “The devil made me do it.” Then there was fratricide, and then the founding – horror of horrors! – of cities. And the story went on to Babel and beyond.

The Orthodox, it seems to me, have a better vision of the breadth of a doctrine of sin than have we Western Christians. It provides a context within which to take seriously the varieties of sin – even a priority of sinfulness, which a reasonable theology ought to have, it seems to me. (I mean: Does anyone REALLY believe that the odd four-letter word is every bit as offensive to God as the decisions made by Adolph Eichmann? If so, we need to talk.) That makes meaningful a serious discussion of sanctificiation.

And such a vision of sin begins to do justice to a proclamation of the Gospel, the news of salvation. The meaning of the Incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection does not devolve merely to the guarantee that I may be free from eternal fire – though that is a part of it. It is finally a grand statement about the unavoidability and unevadability of the power and authority of God – whether that power and authority focuses on a seductive apple tree (cultural license, here) or the machines of global capitalism. The re-ordering of the universe to unmake the effects of sin, the ultimate conquest by God of systems of oppression, the end even of death as a great divider of people one from the other: This is something worth Easter. And the assurance that we can grow into that new life even now, by virtue of God’s own re-creative activity in the Person of the Holy Spirit, is a message not heard often enough.

It is because of the truth of that message that we are enabled even now to overcome – in an admittedly incomplete way – the condition of sin into which we were plunged by our First Parents: We are again able to see each other, not as threat, but as promise and present joy. We are free to be faithful to each other -- a fidelity in which sex and sexual differentiation are genuine gifts of God, a fidelity free of seeking or worrying that the other seeks advantage or exploitation.

Lutherans need to hear about sin. And as the former post and comments suggest, it needs to be substantive talk. Sin is real. And a more seriously relational understanding of sin might well enhance that preaching.


Jim said...

Exactly the right length!

Now consider this: suppose that God, in setting off whate'er it was that became Creation, decided to limit God's power. Suppose God decided that the creatures were created to be capable of loving God or rejecting God.

Suddenly we have a God who is not all-powerful, but a partner in the Creation, with the creatures. We have a God who desires not sacrifices, but hearts; a God who does not look for separation as an opportunity to punish, but as a distance to be re-crossed, in reconciliation.

We would then have a God who is not angry at the co-creators, but hurt by their negligence. We would have a God who wants that reconciliation above all other things. Maybe wants it enough to come and live among us to show us how to do it right.

Sin is, as you say so eloquently, in the natural order of the creatures who can recognize right from wrong.

What does a God who has chosen to limit God's power think about sin, in that context?

Dwight said...

Jim, I can buy your imagery. And to answer your question, I look to Hosea (the Minor Prophets have so much to teach us; it's a pity they're not more attended to): Hosea has been jilted by Gomer. He's p-- well, really mad and hurt. Still, in the resolution he says, "I will allure her." In other words, Hosea will lure her into the desert where he will win her back with steady, carefully modulated, self-sacrificing expressions of love.

And so will God, eh?