Wednesday, December 9, 2009

On the Nature of Sin: Dissonance

'I believe you find life such a problem because you think there are the good people and the bad people,' said the man. 'You are wrong, of course. There are, always and only, the bad people, but some of them are on opposite sides.' — Terry Pratchett, Guards! Guards!

“But what is sin? Is it a substance? An energy? Or is it just that pall of darkness I see hanging around all the girls?” – a joke I once told

Talk about sin for long enough, and sooner or later people will begin to think you aren’t talking about anything at all. While it is fairly easy to come to some consensus that the world is indeed somewhat and even massively wrong, even essentially and inherently corrupt, it is quite some distance to go from that to talking about why you believe that unbaptised baby will be sent to torment in hell for all eternity.

If you start talking about sin-stuff as opposed to grace-stuff and no one can see or touch or find any of it, it’s hard to get people to take you seriously that way. And rightly so. By its own account, all the talk about sin must be at least as corrupt as sin itself. These are only humans speaking and writing it, after all. Take, for example, the discussion of Adamic vs. tragic sin in this reading: Adamic? What happened to Eve, Evenic sin?

You mean she can be the lure that causes men to sin but cannot even structurally participate in the transmission of sin itself? Do you mean that we have to frame the discussion of sin as though all the transactions concerning the image of God were simply between Adam and Jesus and men really do get to play both sides? No wonder some feel that Christianity is all a man’s game. Theology certainly sometimes seems to be. The true miracle might be that women feel involved at all. But this is not to go on some proto-feminist rant.

This is to go down the road that asks why discussions of sin and grace always end up becoming discussions about power. It was not for nothing that I called Satan “she” the last time, which never seems to happen anymore, though I understand it was more a medieval thing. People think that as women gain more power that they’ll actually make better lives. There is even the notion that everyone’s lives might actually get better. And that might be – there are certainly indications concerning women’s education.

But that also might not be. The movement of women into the structures of worldly power might also be the movement of women into the systems that make it so that men are Christ and Satan alike, metaphorically speaking. For example, do you have a work enemy? I don’t, never have. Few men do. But ask any woman in America who she hates at work and she’ll tell you for the next three hours. And it never lets up. New job, new enemy. Sin. I’m not saying they’re not welcome to it.

But I think some of that torrent of sin-talk Sponheim spouts means that Christian men and women alike should be realistic going forward. Sin and power, or powerlessness. That’s the conversation. Leave Traducianism to the ages. I want to know, as the postcolonial writer Jamaica Kinkaid wants to know, why the powerless think the powerful are sinful and themselves sinless, the powerful think precisely the opposite way, and everyone fails to see the way they sin against God and against each other the whole damned time.

I want to know why people think that goodness wins because it is more powerful – Jesus with a flaming sword – while Jesus came much closer to burning on the sword of the cross and said that only God is good. I want to know why goodness cannot “win” simply because it is goodness, and why sin cannot “lose” precisely because it is not good. I don’t know if that’s original. But I do know that it’s sin.

And no, I don’t actually see a pall of darkness hanging around all the girls. More of a shimmering, golden effect, like an ever-present backlighting. But that’s another story.

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