A friend recently asked me whether I believed in sin. It was a strange question for me to consider because the concept of “belief” as applied to “sin” already suggests that sin itself is not a self-evident or manifest reality. Considering the question, I had to answer that I didn’t actually believe in sin as an objective ontic something. Hurt, wounds, violence, injustice, suffering – these are objective realities that I have no trouble identifying. It was in naming the contrast or painful human experiences as sin with which I had the difficulty, since sin connotes moral, spiritual, intellectual, or volitional defect or evil. My intuition pushes back against this reading of the suffering the world reflects, at least in the microcosm, the imperfection of creatures, or perhaps better put, animals, and in a best case scenario, animals in process.
As I considered this question, I discerned that what is typically identified as sin is a byproduct of the natural limit of animal or creaturely life. This is to say, we are developmental, process-dependent, works of complex animal life. We are imperfect in the truest sense – that is, we are not completed beings but ongoing verbs with past tense helping verbs and “ing” endings. I have been trying; you have been growing; they have been seeking. In Christian language the term we use is “eschatological,” which connotes that the process has an end or a purpose. But, I am inclined to think this is just a more confident way of acknowledging the inevitable nature of worldly imperfection.
Today is Ash Wednesday, where people the world over are reminded that they are born of dust and destined to return to dust. In the meanwhile, we will fast and repent of all the wrongs wrought by our doings and omissions. And, while my own disposition sort of naturally enters into that almost masochistic self-reflection, another part of me feels the strong urge to resist that burden. This is not to say that I eschew moral agency or culpability. Rather, it is to resist an anthropology of sin and fall. I sooner would see an anthropology of effort and crawling towards walking. I sooner would embrace the idea that creaturely life is not perfected, especially while it is still in process, and that sin and error are actually manifestations of the imperfect but noble effort of the child trying to stand; the adult trying to be responsible; the elderly trying to give advice, and all as much as possible for as long as possible.
The great evils of this world are driven by desire for godlike domination and access. They demonstrate the craven lust to own land and bodies and resources and control. They are the unchecked will of the self striving to create the world, writ small or large, after one’s own image. But, isn’t there something of this grandiose self (construed as both individual and corporate, tribal, and national identities) also present in the narcissistic gaze inward, where I try to determine my imperfections and imagine myself without them as in some pre-fallen or post-fallen way, heavenly state? Does the obsession with sin not betray some deeper sort of god-complex?
I would like to suggest that we are better served by a less audacious theology. It is wise to be a creature, recognizing the scope and limit of one’s influence and place. We harm ourselves when we batter our souls with all that we should have done and all that we did not do. And, even such an exercise diligently undertaken will not change in a lasting corrective sense the inevitability that we’ll arrive at this same bend next year. The truth is, while we all search, we don’t know in an absolute sense for what we search; we hope for that which is beyond our imaginations. What can a creature, then, do?
As I contemplate my own Lenten spirituality, I would like to suggest this meditation.
In Matthew 26:46, Luke 22:46; and Mark 14:22, Jesus has completed the agony of his suffering in Gethsemane. At the conclusion of his prayers and his lonely seeking out companions to watch with him, he says, “Rise. Let’s go.” Of course, wherever he is going, there is most assuredly fear. The is certainly death. There is likely suffering. But, he gets up and goes. He asks his friends to come along too. Whatever it is, he’s turned over control over the outcome. Yet, he still has the strength in his legs to stand up, the courage to walk forward, and the dignity of a human being facing his life with clear eyes.
I am hoping this Lent to rise and go. For me, at least right now, this is enough of challenge. Being of dust and ash is a foregone conclusion, but I wish not to ponder the sorrow of it when I could instead rise, get up, and do something. Whatever I do will be better if I already admit from the outset that its not going to be perfect and it may well not turn out as I had imagined. That was certain the day I was born. But I can stand, and therefore I should stand. I can try again, choose again, hope again. I can sit in the space between the Crucifixion and Easter Sunday and accept it for its quiet uncertainty. And here, I can be neither “justus et peccator” but intelligent, complex, beautiful creature crawling and rising and striving for my next step.
Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie’s most recent book is Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin. Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology. Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan. For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.