A Lenten Reflection by Natalie Weaver


Natalie editedA 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 includeMarriage 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.

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Categories: General, Lent, Spirituality

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9 replies

  1. Hi Natalie, Your post reminds me of a reaction I had when a positive reference to confession of sins came up in a feminist theologian’s work that up to then I was agreeing with almost completely. The way I cringed caused me to reflect that, while like you, I recognize the evil in the world and my own failures, I do not find the confession of my or our sins “salutary,” conducive to health. I concluded that for me an appeal to ever widen the scope of my love and care and concern “works better” as a motivation to action than confessing my or our flaws and failings ever does. And let me add that corporate confession of sins often seems too all-encompassing. You and I can always do more, but have we “closed our eyes to the injustices in our world,” for example? Does the person who wrote the prayer really think such a broad indictment applies to everyone who is being asked to repeat it, including him or herself?

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  2. Thanks, Natalie, As regards, “striving for the next step.” I have a wonderful friend, who teaches so beautifully, and she reminded me recently, saying — “Live the actual moment. Only this moment is life. And if you can stay in it, you will never experience anything other than wonder and joy…blessings!”

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  3. I love the following paragraph, Natalie.

    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.

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  4. Beautiful! Thank you!

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  5. Thanks Natalie. I have been re-discovering much about “sin” lately. As you wrote, “sin” is a moral judgement and I find that many of the things I used to confess were not moral decisions, but the evidence of my own immaturity and woundedness. It has led me to be more compassionate toward others who are also evolving toward whole-ness and to lend a helping hand as we find our next step rather than criticize mis-steps and falls.
    I’m also thinking about the story of our coming from the earth. Science tells us we are made of atoms. Of course the earth is too, as well as my parents. But “made of atoms” lifts me into a universe full of wonder while it includes my experience of creation and spurs me to fight for earth, water, etc.
    Writing a reflection for this Sunday’s readings, I found that the word “repent” is associated with freedom, freedom from crawling as we begin to walk more confidently in the Way Jesus taught and move toward a life of compassion, love, equality and peace.

    Let us walk together in joy and companionship!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for this inspiring meditation on being an “ongoing verb with…;” as well as being “creaturely” with courageous potential!

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  7. Hi Natalie —

    I love your post. Our inherent creaturely imperfection is a much better way to approach what many call “sin.” And seeing ourselves as evolving (as Leslie says, as an “ongoing verb”) makes our place in an evolving Earth and an evolving universe much clearer for me. Modern psychology also suggests that that positive reinforcement works better than negative feedback. So psychospiritually your “less audacious theology” workjs as well. Thanks.

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  8. I guess “sin” is in the eyes and mind of the beholder. Allowing children to starve in the land of plenty, denying healthcare to young and old alike, to demean others for their religion, color, and poverty are certainly defects in the human spirit, I think. Using the word “sin” sort of absolves humanity from all wrong doing.

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