DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Questions

Two contributors present brief essays in response to some perennial questions. Each writes independently of the other. One comes from a person closely linked to a Christian denomination. The other comes from a person at the fringes of the traditional Church.

Do people really sin?
In the Judeo-Christian tradition the Fall in the Garden of Eden by Adam and Eve is cited as the beginning of sin. I am not sure the author intended the metaphorical story to mean that.  I have a different take. 

The Eden story to me signifies humankind�s attainment of consciousness. �Then the eyes of both (Adam and Eve) were opened, and they knew they were naked� (Genesis 3.7). Before that moment in evolutionary history, the forerunners of modern Homo Sapiens were incapable if sin because they had no self-awareness of their thoughts and actions. 

The definition of sin is often elusive and controversial. To simplify, I define it as uncharitable or destructive thought and behavior toward fellow human beings and thus toward God. Awareness or consciousness of such behavior (conscience) evokes a sense of personal responsibility (guilt). In turn this should result in redress or search for atonement. 

To ask the question again: Do people really sin? Need I recount the many ways in which we humans demonstrate uncharitable and destructive behavior? It is self-evident. Sin is a pervasive reality. Because we are conscious we cannot help it. The crux of the matter lies in our conscious natures. Were we not conscious, like non-sentient animals, the question would be moot. 

Our bodies are equipped with so-called proprioceptive nervous systems that survey our environment for potential sources of damage and to maintain body integrity. For example, a joint deprived of pain perception (as may occur in diabetes) may sustain severe damage because trauma, normally avoided by pain, is allowed to continue.

Similarly, our psyches, minds or souls (whatever you want to call it) need proprioception to avoid similar damage. Proprioception of this kind is provided by conscience, a derivative of consciousness.

We cannot escape the crowning feature of our nature, our consciousness. We cannot, therefore, escape our capacity to sin. At the same time our consciousness can be the vehicle of redress and atonement.

�If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us� (1 John 1.8). Our consciousness of the meaning of the life and death of Jesus Christ provides a way to understand and mend our sin.
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If anything is fundamental to traditional Christianity it is that human beings are inherently sinful. If this were not the case, Jesus would have had no eternal purpose. Sin, according to Augustine of Hippo, is �Any word, deed, or thought against the eternal law� - and breaking the law, as we all know, demands prosecution and punishment if peace and good order are to be maintained.

The only way of avoiding punishment is, according to the Church, to have faith that Jesus of Nazareth paid the penalty for us by dying on the cross. Because he did this, God treats us as though we are sinless. We are prosecuted but not punished - even though we don�t deserve to be let off. Unbelievers may be eternally punished for their sins, but faith-full Christians aren�t.

If I were to speak in such terms (however much elaborated) to a thinking Westerner I might be greeted with incomprehension. This is because, however well-domiciled traditional teaching about sin may be, modern understanding has moved to a new address in another country.

There are now three basic assumptions:

  1. We humans have evolved over millions of years into our present form. Genetic inheritance may predispose us to various weaknesses. But because they are not our doing, we cannot be held accountable for them.

  2. Our personalities are derived from our parents. We are socialised by them and others. The basic �Who I am� is decided well before I can be held fully accountable for my actions.

  3. Much of what was once termed sinful behaviour is now known to be mental illness.

Unfortunately, this understanding has been heretical since Pelagius in the late fourth century. He thought that we are born sinless and that we sin only if we do so deliberately. That is, unless we have to will to do right we can�t have the will to do wrong. Pelagius was condemned and excommunicated.

The upshot of modern perceptions is that it is much harder now to lay sin upon ourselves than it once was. Did Jones deliberately steal from the poor - or was he driven by complex psychological and social forces beyond his control? Was Adolf Hitler sane or mad? Did Stalin slaughter 20 million people because he was paranoid? Did Mao Tse-tung, the greatest ever mass murderer, sin even though he never gave God a thought?

Who is to know?

And yet it is a rare person who can convincingly maintain that he or she is sinless. For regardless of our genes and upbringing, each of us knows at least one occasion when we chose to do something wrong - if only �wrong� as we define wrongness for ourselves.

The problem arises not so much in knowing that I have sinned, but in knowing that another�s actions are sinful. Which is perhaps why Jesus cautioned about judging others.

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