Friday, June 10, 2016

Sin: Doing What Seems Good

People don’t talk or think much about sin anymore, it seems—except for the notable exception of many evangelical Christians. Even more than forty years ago the noted psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote a book titled Whatever Became of Sin? (1973). 
That is also the title of a subsection in my book The Limits of Liberalism (2010), just before a longer section on the widely misunderstood and misinterpreted doctrine of “original sin.” In “polite company” the word “sin” is seldom mentioned—and “original sin” is usually mentioned only in derision.  

What has been called the doctrine of original sin was based, of course, on the third chapter of Genesis. In that theological/mythical story, the serpent said the following to Eve about the forbidden fruit: “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Genesis 3:6 goes on to report, “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate.”
Note that Eve didn’t take the forbidden fruit because she thought it was bad or sinful or wrong to do so. She took and ate it because she thought it was good, delightful, desirable.

That is the way most sin is. We commit sin because at the time such actions seem desirable, delightful, and good—at least for us (and who else do we usually think about?).

I started thinking again about this matter after reading Thinking Friend Fred Heeren’s recent comment: “How could we be honorable in our war killing unless these people deserved to die? . . . We need to know these were ‘bad’ people and be ‘glad they were killed’ in order to justify our wars.”
Yes, in war “the enemy” always has to be demonized, for how else would soldiers be able to kill them? Probably few Americans realize, though, that to those the U.S. engages in war, Americans are the enemy. 
While it is easy, and probably correct, to label Hitler or Tojo as evil or extremely sinful, what about those who fought under their command? Most of them were conscripted into service—or volunteered in response to the propaganda (brainwashing) they were subjected to. 
Also, Japan and Germany were both under severe economic pressures during the 1930s. In addition, Germans were still chafing under harsh treaties from the end of WWI and many Japanese were greatly irritated by what they considered racial and/or cultural affronts. 
And what about the people of the South in the U.S. in the 1860s? Most of the whites there were simply trying to maintain their way of life and economic stability. In resisting the demands of the North, they were mostly doing what they thought was good, right, necessary. 
What most of us call the Civil War has long been called something different in the South. For example, in 2012, the year before he became president of the NRA, Jim Porter referred to the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression.`
In the book I introduced in my previous blog article, Bartoletti states that The Clansman (1905), a novel by Baptist minister Thomas Dixon, portrayed the Klan as noble white-robed knights who saved white civilization from racial violence in the South (p. 147).
Yes, all who are “sinners” do things that they think are good, right, and necessary. So maybe we should act with “malice toward none, with charity for all.”


  1. The closing words, of course, are those of President Lincoln in his second inaugural address--words which were quoted by President Obama in his remarks at Hiroshima last month.

  2. Just last night my remarkable grandson, Canon Lindgren, asked me whether I hold any unpopular opinions. I realized, reading your blog this morning, that I hold at least three. :-) The first is that my theology professor in seminary, following theological traditions outside Protestant conservatism ( I hope you hear echoes of liberalism as well as neoorthodoxy) taught that sin is more properly viewed as estrangement from God than as actions that we do. Such an understanding would, in my view, make better sense of the excellent point you make about what we're doing even when we think we're doing what's right.

    Secondly, if one reads the Genesis story of the fall closely, contrary to theological traditions that developed after the composition of Genesis, traditions upon which the apostle Paul apparently drew, in fact the serpent was telling the truth and the Lord God was prevaricating. Adam and Eve didn't die when they ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil; instead they received what it was meant to do give. And they weren't cast out of the garden because of sin but because the Lord God feared they would also eat of the Tree of Life and live forever.

    Regarding war: I fear for my life every time I point this out, but here goes: Anti-abortion people are condemnatory and fiercely hostile towards any elective abortion to maintain the lifestyle of a woman or her family, rather than preserve the woman's life. But when you think about it, the vast majority of wars, and certainly most of those fought by the U.S, have not been for self-preservation but to maintain national lifestyles, economic and/or political advantage, etc.--everything but self-preservation. In other words, we don't fight wars to preserve our lives; we fight them to protect our lifestyle.

    1. Sorry, in the first paragraph I meant conservative Protestantism; i.e., evangelicalism.

    2. Anton, thanks, as always, for your substantial comments. I fully agree with the first and third points you made.

      A proper theological view of sin, I believe, sees sin as primarily an incorrect attitude toward God and secondarily as actions springing from that incorrect attitude.

      Thus, there should be a distinction between sin and sins, the first being the a basic "fact" of human nature that is expressed in a wide variety of ways which we can properly call sins.

      Because of space limitations, I dealt only with the latter in the article, but your first point is an important one and I appreciate you writing about it.

      The third point expresses in different words the main point of my article.

      But your second point is problematical. While I have long ago heard of and thought about "the paradox of the fortunate fall," and while there are problems with the traditional Protestant emphasis on the Fall, I can't imagine the biblical writers thought that "the Lord God was prevaricating."

      The "death" mentioned in the story was obviously not immediate physical death. But there are other, and even more serious, kinds of death that physical.

      The sin (wrong attitude toward God) in the Genesis 3 story resulted in the death of a proper relationship with God and the death of the kind of life God intended for his created humans.

      When Jesus said "I came that they may have life" (according to John 10:10), I think he was talking about the kind of life "Adam and Eve" originally had and lost through sin.

    3. Regardless of whatever theological spin theologians -- from Paul to Augustine to Edwards to Bultmann -- put on the stories in Genesis, chapters 2 & 3, I'm just pointing out what the text displays. And I'd recommend a close reading of the text, through the eyes of someone reading a story without a prior theological frame to shape the interpretation.

    4. On further thought, I realize there is a theology in the early chapters of Genesis, running probably all the way through the Tower of Babel story; namely, that God is concerned that human beings, who've been created in God's image, will seek to become like gods themselves. And, in fact, they show themselves ready to do so. That might just be the original sin.

      Genesis 3:22-24: And the LORD God said, “Now that the man has become like one of us, knowing good and bad, what if he should stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever!” So the LORD God banished him from the garden of Eden, to till the soil from which he was taken. He drove the man out, and stationed east of the garden of Eden the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the tree of life.

      Genesis 11:6-7: And the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech.”

  3. I was listening to a Roman Catholic Priest on the radio today. He said that there are two questions Christians should be asked. How many people have you led to Christ? How many people have you led to evil? Good questions. It is easy to point out the faults of others who have done evil (even in the name of Christ - I could easily name several, who thought they were doing good). All but two or three of my grudges are against those who thought they were doing good, but it was evil.

    Seeing the evil which is in the world, there is still a place for "just" wars. Sad.

    But the questions remain focused at me as well. I prefer the first. But the last is valid.

    There is none righteous, no, not one.

    1. 1sojourner, because of your last sentence, it is hard to know if a "just war" is possible.

  4. There are way too many words (and evoked concepts) worthy of parsing in this discussion. I’ll take a superficial crack at four: food, delight, desired and (make one) wise. [NRSV] :-)

    Food: the produce of the tree was edible and thus a source of sustenance. This is a concrete image. [Some translations suggest the “tree” was “good to eat” (New Jerusalem Bible) or “good for eating” (The Tanakh). :-)

    Delight: Hebrew word here (a noun) usually means something desired or desirable. NRSV renders it ‘delight’ only here by my research. Again a fairly concrete image of a thing desired.

    Desired: Hebrew word here (a verb) is different than the word translated ‘delight’, but it usually means to want, to desire, to covet. It occurs in Gen 2:9 as ‘pleasant’ (to the sight); a passive participle meaning something like ‘being desirous’ (to the sight). Still it seems to me a fairly concrete image of having a feeling.

    Wise: Here’s the crunch/crux for me. The use to which the “desired tree” is put (by taking and eating its produce) is “to make one wise.” Now it seems to me the image is more abstract dealing with the purpose toward which the (feeling of) desire is directed. And the Hebrew word is rendered (more frequently than ‘wise’, I think) as prudent, thoughtful, insightful, sensible (having good sense), capable, successful, etc. I reduce it to the word ‘proficient’ for simplicity; being able to discern well and with good (desired?) result. Proficiency in discernment is one of the component skills of wisdom (‘chomah’), along with understanding, learning, etc.

    So I think I am with Anton that the produce of the tree was meant for the earthlings’ use after all. Thanks Leroy, for the opportunity to muddy the waters more.

    1. Thanks, Dick, for your erudite comments. I do not hesitate to acknowledge that you have better knowledge of the meaning of biblical language than I do.

      But I do not agree with you (or Anton as I mentioned above) about the meaning of the desire of "Eve" to become wise.

      The problem, I believe, is certainly not wisdom itself but the desire to become wise like God in order to be independent of God or on the same level as God rather than acknowledging the sovereignty of God and the necessity of dependence on God.

      I have recently seen people saying (perhaps on Facebook) how they wanted to be "free from God." Perhaps that is an expression of what Eve wanted.

      But wanting to be free from God is perhaps as erroneous, or as impossible, as wanting to be free from the sun.

    2. Thanks, Leroy, for the response. First I think I misrepresented Anton and my own thought about the produce of “the tree of the knowledge of good and bad.” I should have said that the produce of the tree was successful in what it was meant to produce: the knowledge of good and bad; the apparent use for which the tree was created.

      The woman saw the tree “to be desired as a means to (or: a source of) skill-in-discernment.” [RGW] To me, this seems closer to the use of the Hebrew ‘sakal’ than “to make one wise” which conjures up ‘chomah’ (wisdom) or ‘chakam’ (wise one). How the woman uses the ‘skill-in-discernment’ along with other wisdom skills is what “makes one wise.”

      That she does not immediately (or soon thereafter) die and that she becomes like gods, knowing (experiencing) good and bad is (in the story frame) ‘factually true’ as the serpent said. But is that ‘theological truth’? We do know/experience good and bad. Sometimes we even correctly discern good and bad.

      I do not think “the desire to become wise like God” (or gods) has to be “in order to be independent of God or on the same level as God rather than acknowledging the sovereignty of God and the necessity of dependence on God.” Of course, “wise like God” or not, many of us acknowledge the necessity of dependence on nature.

      It does seem to me that YHWH God was merciful in getting those pesky, curious earthlings out of the garden before they saddled themselves with the burden of God (or the gods); which is to know/experience good and bad “throughout the ages.” [Schocken Bible]

      And finally (aren’t we glad): For whom was “the tree of the knowledge of good and bad” created? The waters remain muddied.

  5. Original sin works as a powerful metaphor, but it fails as theology. Slavery is indeed America's original sin, but it was not Adam and Eve's original sin. To the extent that Adam and Eve have original sin, it is to the extent that they are themselves metaphors for the process of growing up, and discovering the complexities of adult life.

    In the first chapter of Genesis, God says "It is good" seven times, although wags have pointed out that He skipped Monday so he could say it twice on Saturday. In the second chapter God says "It is not good" before He makes Eve. To the extent that original sin makes any theological sense, it is as an acknowledgement of the profoundly emergent property of "not good" that confronts us as we grow up. In the same way that Adam and Eve stumble into an awakening of sexuality and an awareness of the need to work. However, that is foundational to being an adult, which hardly seems something to call "original sin." Indeed, people who never mature are pitied, not considered somehow superior.

    As a final thought, how many of those conservative evangelicals who worry about original sin have seriously worried about the original sin of America? Concern over slavery and its aftermath hardly seem a major preoccupation of white evangelicals. Indeed, preparing to write this I discovered Jim Wallis has a book out on the subject, "America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege and the Bridge to a New America." Properly defined, I guess I do believe in original sin!

    1. Craig, I also appreciate your frequent and thought-provoking comments on my various blog articles.

      But in response to your comments about original sin, I refer you to the comments I made above to Anton and Dick--as well as to the section on original sin in my book "The Limits of Liberalism."

      All day Friday I attended meetings of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, about which I will be writing in my next blog article.

      While they did not refer to it as original sin, several of the speakers did, in fact, talk about the problem of slavery--and about how they, not the Democrats, are the party of Lincoln who led the fight against slavery.

      I haven't seen the latest edition of Wallis's book, but it is an expansion of a smaller volume that was published many years ago and it is a good and powerful book. But I think it is a bit misleading to link his use of "original sin" with the doctrine of original sin based on Genesis 3.

      My good friend and former colleague, the late E. Luther Copeland, used the same terminology in his book "The Southern Baptist Convention and the Judgement of History: The Taint of an Original Sin" (revised edition, 2002).

  6. The concept of "original sin" seems to be a western Church issue, beginning with St. Augustine. The eastern Church (Orthodoxy) does not have the same understanding. But that death is linked to sin is not questioned by either branch. Protestant (including "evangelical") variations seem to be more of the "make it up as you go" method or interpretation which splits, splinters, and divides regularly.

  7. Seems my life is divided, so far, between taking in orthodoxy, then deconstructing it, and now trying to figure out what can be put back together. Still working on Genesis 3.

    But a couple of scientific experiments come to mind that might bear on what we call sin: The Stanford Prison experiment seems to show that all of us are capable of the evil we blame others for.

    And a Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology experiment concluded, and was titled, “Chimpanzees are vengeful but not spiteful.” The experimenters wrote that “Spite, incurring a cost to impose a cost on another individual, appears to be a human quality … one chimpanzee may exact revenge on another who steals his food, but will not retaliate against the other for benefiting at his expense.” The reason for the spite, the anthropologists think, has to do with human reasoning about the importance of cooperation and “what’s good” for society.