Thursday, December 3, 2009

On Sin and Grace: Dissonance

Of course, one might also say that Calvinist thought as a whole sounds as though it would in fact inhibit human agency. While one cannot disagree that “sin is pervasive in scope, debilitating in force, and stubbornly persistent,” one must surely become perplexed by a system of rhetorical theology which sees each and every human being as simply complacent or despairing.

One might also be, presumably, ignorant, frustrated, or provisionally optimistic. Recognizing that mankind is split along more than the saint and sinner axis is the requirement of a sin-talk that would do justice to the dynamic and multifaceted natures of both sin and grace. Jones starts down this corridor in places but fails to walk far down along it, presumably because of the dualistic thinking inherent in her tradition. To put it another way, Calvin might limit Jones’s agency even as Jones abdicates that agency herself, which is as close as I could come to comprehending the metaphysical somersaults concerning Calvinist original sin and our odd responsibility for it.

It must surely be difficult to comprehend that of which we can simultaneously say “sin is an imputed judgment that we are responsible for imposing upon our otherwise good natures. We impute it to ourselves” and “it is it a judgment we cannot escape, for each passing generation imposes this judgment upon the next.” So who, in original sin, is the responsible agent? Small wonder that Calvin resorted to high rhetoric and powerful metaphor if such was indeed his (theo)logical claim.

And small wonder if Jones’s feminist remapping of original and conscious sin would fail to conjure equally vivid metaphors to embrace the gracious life of faith against current patriarchal oppression. She simply seems not to have the ammunition. “Of what does faith consist,” she asks, “if not the gifts of sanctification and justification?” One would hope that faith would also consist of trust of, obedience to, and love for the One who bestowed those gifts to start with.

And one would also hope that a feminist remapping of sin would also lead to a Christian remapping of patriarchy but this indeed seems not to be the case, as talking about oppression as sin for her simply means “invoking a powerful sense of hope.” This is, to be sure, a good thing, but it is no more than the more fervent secular feminists would inspire. And while God certainly does will the flourishing of all persons, Jones does not describe why patriarchy prohibits this beyond the narrow examples of her Tuesday-night women.

She offers no definition of sin on her own but simply equates sin and oppression as such without ever saying precisely why. Perhaps this occurs in other chapters, but here it fails to offer a powerfully Christian alternative to secular feminist claims. She reminds us both that “these systems will be transformed in the years ahead” and that “emerging modes of social relations will carry marks of the past within them and harbor novel forms of oppression and domination, and that eradicating all forms of social sin is impossible.”

What, then, is the transformation? And who will do it: God, us, God through us or us through God? And how? Will there be particularly Christian solutions to entrenched social problems or will Christian rhetoric simply aim to baptize the solutions seen by the secular world? Yes, the Christian needs a “sheath, a skin to hold her together, to author her new becoming,” but what does this skin look like? Is it more women’s groups such as the one Jones participates in? It is the body of Christ compromised by the expectations of modernity? Is it the roles for women advocated by secular third-generation feminism?

And how do we get from a position of agency within society where “we are continuously invited to start over again…authoring the theological space of our becoming” to “a theological landscape where women flourish, difference abounds, power is shared, and justice is enacted as we are held together, fluid and multiple, in the envelope of God’s grace.”

It seems to me that we cannot do so without a less polar approach to thinking about sin and grace, and without a vision of human agency where grace becomes the fluidity that allows us to meet the constant adaptations of sin.

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