Sin is one of those theological words that I wonder about sometimes. That is, should we relegate to the literary graveyard where words that have outlived their usefulness go to die? I mean, this is the 21st century. Some of my progressive Christian friends believe that all faith language is a barrier to inclusion. Newcomers checking out church shouldn’t have to deal with the “night” language of faith. “Trinity”, “eschatology”, “Pentecost”, “God”, “Christ”, are nothing more than secret code for insiders that outsiders shouldn’t have to learn before feeling like they belong.
But my own sense is that people actually expect to enter a culture different than the one they live in six days a week, and along with this comes new language. There are ways to present our metaphors and symbols that suggest a realm of Mystery with which the modern world is largely unacquainted and hungers for.
That said, the word and the concept of “sin” may be so loaded with negative associations that it’s beyond “redemption”. “Sin” is a translation of the Greek word “hamartia”, which means “missing the mark”. Now that’s a pretty rich metaphor that any preacher worth her salt could sink her teeth into without alienating most listeners. There’s another word, “alienation”, that is useful when it comes to understanding sin: sin is the state of alienation from Reality, self, neighbour, and Earth. Sin is not, in the first place, a list of discrete acts of wrongdoing that I confess on Sunday morning. Still, even with all this word smithing, the jury is out on the usefulness of “sin” as a theological concept.
The problem arises from our historical, pre-scientific, attempts to understand the source of our alienation. Traditionally, sin has been understood as a fall from grace. The primal couple once existed in a state of perfect harmony and bliss. Then they disobeyed God, and were kicked out of Eden, to toil in, and till, the hard soil of life. Death itself was imagined to be a result of their primal disobedience.
Even after we started to understand this in a mythological, non-literal sense, a thought-meme remained lodged in our consciousness of a state of original perfection from which we’ve fallen. We romantically located this state of perfect union with the divine in infants, who came into this world “trailing clouds of glory”, fresh from God, and then as the years past became increasingly separated from an original union. (This is actually correct in the limited sense that we all emerged from a non-dual womb of infinite potential, but once we are actually embryonic we start the evolutionary march from scratch — from undifferentiated union with mother to an individuated soul capable of consciously realizing our unity with all.) We are, as Wilber puts it, “moving up from Eden”,
Believe it or not, I still get parents (typically, Roman Catholic background) who want to baptize their children because they are harbouring an ancient fear that, God forbid, if something should happen to their baby s/he would be with God. The baptism is a magical ritual that removes sin, and makes their baby a child of God who happily receives only baptized souls. Yes, it’s superstitious, and the parents know it, but just in case…
My friends Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow, itinerant evangelists of evolution, are doing humanity a great service in pointing out the biological explanation of “sin”. We have four brains stacked on top of each other, the evolutionary gift of reptiles, mammals, and homo sapiens sapiens. Our reptilian brain is hard wired for safety, sex, and sustenance. That’s all it cares about. Our mammalian brain is wired for kinship, reciprocity, status, and our neo-mammalian/early human brain helps us to interpret, predict, and comprehend. Our prefrontal lobes are what distinguishes humans from other mammals and are associated with feelings of unity and spirituality.
When Paul wrote that he was a man undone because the good things he wanted to do he didn’t do, and the evil things he would refrain from doing he does, he had no understanding of the human brain or biochemistry (Romans 6: 12-14). The war he thought that was going on between his “members” was actually going on between his ears. We want sex. We want fat, sugar, and salt. We want status. And before our rational mind can kick in, we’re downloading porn, gawking at a beautiful woman, pumping up our status by telling little white lies, or finishing off another bag of potato chips.
Are we “sinners”?
No, we’ve been hijacked by ancient instincts and impulses without which we wouldn’t be here. So we can learn to be grateful for these instincts, rather than compulsively denigrating ourselves. Evolutionarily speaking, these impulses are within us, and they ain’t going away. They are part of the reality that is us, and we need to learn to go beyond simply accepting them, to actually being grateful for them.
That doesn’t mean that we’re not responsible for managing them. We are in control. The devil never made anybody do anything and neither do our instincts, hormones, or our early brains. Through psychological awareness and spiritual practice we develop a witnessing relationship to our drive for sex, food, status, and security. We have these impulses, but we are not these impulses.
Interesting isn’t it, that these are precisely what Jesus is portrayed as dealing with in the wilderness when he was tempted by Satan? Ok, so the Bible story omits the sexual temptation, but contemporary interpretations of the life of Jesus were astute enough to have Satan show up in a short skirt and stiletto heals. Jesus was flesh and blood, an evolutionary creature, and therefore had to deal with what the early church desert fathers thought of as “demons”. When Paul was riffing on sin (Romans 4), he also imagined sin to be an external power that mysteriously possessed him. For him, Christ was the solution to expunging this foreign power. But now we know that “sin” is not an external force. It’s an inside job.
By bringing his ancient instincts and impulses into conscious awareness (the story-tellers personify sin as Satan – again an external force), Jesus developed a witnessing relationship with them, and in doing so was able to transcend them. But these never actually disappear do they? Paul discovered this to be true in the early church communities. Notice how he’s always telling them to stop acting like they are under the power of sin. These impulses, as mentioned, aren’t going anywhere and we wouldn’t want them to. They are an evolutionary gift and we will need them throughout our life.
So, we’re not sinners and we don’t exist in a state of sin. We are creatures constructed over vast amounts of time from our geological, biological, and human ancestors, both inside and out. To be “in Christ” is to know oneself to be one with All That Is (including our instincts). The illusion of separateness dissolves and we discover ourselves to be intimately related to the whole shebang. In fact, we discover ourselves to be the part that presences the Whole.
This gnosis (firsthand knowing) is the strategy for dealing with “sin”. It enables us to integrate our earlier adaptive mechanisms and processes in a conscious way, and even use them in the service of Spirit. For example the instinct to procreate is “sanctified” by gnosis and is expressed as the spiritual impulse to co-create. (Thanks Barbara Marx Hubbard). Our security needs become grounded, not in the mad scramble for more stuff or the perfect and ever-elusive partner, but rather in the sacred, evolutionary power that brought forth a universe. Even our thought processes, usually harnessed to justify the defence system of our small self, are now liberated by Higher, Intuitive Mind. Christ does set us free, not by expunging our “lower” or earlier nature, but by a love that allures us into our Big, Cosmic identity.