Sin: Ripping the Fabric of Creation
David R. Weiss – November 26, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #50 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com
My last post (GIT #49) left us entangled. But if we’re so thoroughly caught in systems that pit us against each other, our fellow creatures, and even our planet, what hope do we have? We’ll get there (to hope), but the first step toward that hope is realizing how not right things are.
I used the word sin to describe our entanglement—the not-rightness of our current situation—but that’s hardly an uncomplicated word choice. “Sin” feels too religious for folks not connected to a faith community and too oppressively moralistic for many who are in faith communities. I could pick a different word, but I think sin is our word for a couple of reasons.
First, for better or for worse, sin is the word used in the Christian tradition to name the not-rightness that afflicts human experience. And if we’re going to leverage the wisdom of the Christian tradition to address the not-rightness evident in the climate crisis, we should at least ask whether we’re dealing with sin, since that’s the not-rightness that Christianity aims to address.
Second, sin is also the word misused in the Christian tradition to narrow down that not-rightness to matters of personal morality, sexual shame, rule-based obedience, and othering (disvaluing those who are simply different). While there are legitimate expressions of personal morality and times for rule-based obedience, overall in its misused form sin has largely reinforced power relationships without ever asking about the not-rightness of the relationships themselves. In this manner sin has actually distracted us from recognizing the not-rightness that really matters. Because of this, it seems wiser to reclaim sin than simply coin a new term and allow “sin” to simmer away in the background—pointing fingers, sowing shame, and otherwise making noise that doesn’t help us address the crisis in front of us.
Third, I’m convinced that a reclaimed understanding of sin can help us understand what we’re up against and help us see how our tradition can guide us in this kairos moment (GIT #46). That is, only by being clear on what sin is, can we begin to draw on Christianity as a faith with the power to transform us both inwardly and outwardly: this is the work of Transition.
Let me be clear: the Transition Movement does NOT require a background in any faith tradition. And I’m certain faith traditions other than Christianity can benefit from engaging with Transition. My assertion is more modest but important: for Christianity to engage Transition in a meaningful and constructive way we need to recognize the “touch points”—places where Transition and Christianity come together. And what Transition sees as the not-rightness of the current moment—the crises of peak oil, climate chaos, and a misshapen economy—are the result of what Christians name as sin. We have much to learn from Transition, and we begin with remembering what we know about sin.
A mini-theology. Reality is relational. Nothing is on its own. (Perhaps not even God; that seems to be one core intuition in the doctrine of the Trinity: even God is intrinsically intimate before anything else at all is.) This begs the question of ultimates: who/what is God? I’m not going there. I’ll say this much. “God” is absolutely beyond our words. The very best we can do is seek words that capture shadows of the divine—God’s “backside” so to speak (Exodus 33:19-23).
I regard “God” as the name given across multiple faith traditions to the energy that pervades all that is: the “pulse” of the cosmos, the “spark” behind the big bang, the “impulse” to evolve, the “webbedness” that characterizes the very nature of reality. Our minds tend to personalize and anthropomorphize this energy. I’ll admit I’m agnostic-skeptical toward this. I doubt “God” is personal, but I’m inclined to affirm a purposiveness that comes right to the edge of sentience, and I’m adamant that I don’t really know. But, even if you prefer a fully personal God, my assertion stills stands: whoever/whatever God is, God’s creation—the cosmos—is relational through and through. This is, I believe, both a theological truth and an empirical fact; a happy place where religion and science simply concur.
This claim is the canvas for any serious religious cosmology. Cosmology (more/less in both its religious and scientific form, though I’m speaking religiously here) means the big picture of how/why things came to be as they are, where WE fit, and how WE ought to act in light of this big picture. In this sense, cosmologies are inescapably “self-centered” in that that they orient US—the ones who fashion them, toward the world around us. But they need not be destructively self-centered. It is possible (I’d say critical-essential!) for a cosmology grounded in a big picture of cosmic relationality to be self-centered in a humble, searching posture that places us within—interwoven with—a web of relationships rather than atop a pyramid. At its best, that’s what Christianity might offer.
In this cosmology, every facet of the cosmos from birth to death (both individually and as a whole) is naturally in ebb and flow with everything else. Life and death, renewal and rebirth, are the respiration of the universe. This is a far more modest picture than Christianity has often proclaimed, but it’s more consonant with what we know scientifically. “Paradise” may be a useful myth-metaphor, but there’s never been a time when any corner of the universe, least of all “Eden,” has been without the tumult that is nature. That tumult—which includes predator-prey relationships and lots of death—isn’t a moral problem. It simply is the way this universe works.
But at some point, on this particular planet, life evolved to the point that self-consciousness dawned. And with the notion of a self came the notion of an ended self—the anticipation of death; then anxiety over this finitude and then all manner of methods of trying to avoid death, many of which come at the expense others. As the Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (d. 1971) said, contrary to the “fall narrative” in the Bible, we don’t die because we sin; we sin because we die. Our failure to respond maturely to the challenges posed by finitude (and they can be mighty!) is the primal trigger for sin.
But it’s critical to note, this isn’t sin in the form of disobeying God. It’s sin in the form of acting against the cosmic relatedness in which we “suddenly” found ourselves, a cosmic relatedness in which our personal-communal finitude posed extreme anxiety. It isn’t surprising, perhaps, that self-consciousness caught us off guard in that primal past. But each choice to act or live against the relatedness of the entire cosmos threatened to rip us as a human species—as a human culture—further and further from the host of (finite!) connectedness that is our home.
The present crises of peak oil, climate chaos, and a misshapen economy are all distant but distinct echoes of that primal refusal to knowingly embrace our place in the (finite) web of life. By now that chosen refusal has been clothed so well in culture, myth (in fact, religion in its worse expressions), and systemic-corporate structures that we can barely imagine it as a dysfunctional choice. It passes so easily for normal. But it will kill us. All of us, if we don’t stem that anxious impulse.
Religion—at its best—has served since ancient times to help us navigate finitude with grace. And that’s an essential double entendre: “grace” as with humble poise and “grace” as with a sense of the sheer giftedness of life itself. From the earliest Goddess religions and aboriginal/indigenous traditions, on through the Taoist, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions, and up through the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions, religion in its wisest moments has offered us patterns for embracing this life as sacred in the midst of finitude. That’s the wisdom we need to plumb for today.
PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith
* * *
The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing our climate crisis, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly essays consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional,” I aim to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week! Contact me at: drw59mn(at)gmail.com.
 People write entire books on sin; I have just a couple paragraphs. I’m most indebted to Sallie McFague (The Body of God: An Ecological Theology, Fortress Press, 1993, esp. pp. 112-129) and Carter Heyward (Saving Jesus From Those Who Are Right, Fortress Press, 1999, esp. pp. 82-88) for helping me articulate my own intuitions more clearly.