Speaking of Sin

Speaking of Sin
David R. Weiss – November 30, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #51 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

I don’t harp on how entangled (GIT #49) we are in sin (GIT #50) to make us feel bad. I suppose at one level I do it to make us feel at all. Day in and day out our lives are profoundly out of sync with nature. Some of this is on account of the choices we make; much more is due to the myriad choices made for us by the way our society is structured. In either case, that out-of-sync-ness, that not-rightness, that SIN, is killing the very ground of our being. But we barely notice; it passes so easily for normal: for “the way life works.” And we won’t address the not-rightness of our lives until we feel it. So I harp.

By the way, “ground of being” is used sometimes in theology to name God: as that sacred presence that is the very foundation upholding us in all that we are. True enough. But at the mundane level of our flesh and blood bodies, it is Earth—its elements, ecosystems, and interconnected life forms—that physically-chemically-biologically upholds us as the ground of our being. And our current way of life (even if in ways mostly unseen, unknown, and hidden from us) is ripping asunder this web that upholds us. I won’t go so far as to say we’re killing God by our actions, but we ARE assaulting the wisdom of God woven into the fabric of nature … and doing so on a scale that threatens to render the planet unable to support us any longer, unable to ground our being. And still, we barely notice. So I harp.

Sunday, on the eve of the 25th United Nations Climate Change Conference, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres acknowledged that global efforts to address the climate crisis have thus far been “utterly inadequate.” He warned, “The point of no return is no longer over the horizon. It is in sight and hurtling toward us.”[1] In fact, some scientists warn that we may have already crossed that ominous threshold on several fronts. That is, we may have passed the first tipping points that would set in motion unstoppable and cascading changes leading to climate catastrophe.

Writing in the journal Nature (Nov. 27, 2019), they said we are on the precipice of “an existential threat to civilisation.” Earlier studies had suggested that these irreversible and interconnected “tipping points” (melting ice, rising seas, thawing permafrost, burning forest, drought, coral reef die off, ocean circulation, etc.) were only at play in a worst-case scenario—if temperature rise reached 5C. However, subsequent and more accurate studies now indicate we could pass these tipping points even before we reach 2C. We’ve already warmed the planet by 1C over the past century, and we’re currently on track to heat it by total of 3-4C within the next hundred years. One British climate researcher soberly commented on the piece in Nature, “The prognosis by Tim Lenton and colleagues is, unfortunately, fully plausible: that we might have already lost control of the Earth’s climate.”[2]

However, if you’ve watched the news as its offers “glowing” reports of record holiday buying-and-flying over the Thanksgiving weekend, you’d be excused for not realizing those very same records are driving us toward a glowing planet that will extinguish—or at least wreck—organized human society during the lifetimes of today’s children. I personally think that’s newsworthy, but somehow it never makes the cut for our ten o’clock news. That’s why I harp on sin.

But, again, the point isn’t to make us feel bad. It’s to wake us up so that we feel. Period. Walter Brueggemann, in discussing the Hebrew prophets described them as poets ransacking their language for words and images to evoke a spiritual-emotional response from a people who’d largely surrendered their capacity to feel.[3] Similarly, I’m not interested in using sin language to leave us wracked by guilt. We need, rather, to be wakened to perceive (viscerally!) the truth of our situation.

The Transition Movement is comprised almost entirely of persons who have already (largely) awakened to this truth. Churches, however, are comprised mostly of persons who have not. We might think we’re “well-informed,” but if we’re not ready to all-out weep, rage, and act over climate, we’re not yet awake. But as we awaken (and we WILL awaken—either quickly now or frantically in an over-heated future), sin language of the right sort, will help us link the not-rightness of the present moment to the tradition from which we get our wisdom and healing.

The right sort. Which is to say, sin language that is NOT focused on the risk of going to hell or the fear of pissing off God or even the need for personal salvation. Rather, sin language that is more directly descriptive of the earth-bound consequences of human action (and inaction). Sin language that speaks from the sacred-cosmic truth of absolute-relatedness and planetary-finitude. And sin language that declares simply, unmistakably, and (at least initially) without judgment, that we’ve stepped out of place with respect to the sturdy-delicate web of relations that is our home.

Perhaps there are good psychological-historical reasons for why we long ago hitched “sin” to otherworldly hopes or anxiety over divine anger. (Although I’d argue we should have also long ago grown past these linkages and refined our thinking. Instead, those holding power found ways to use those primal, but immature impulses to control others … But I digress.) Yet in this kairos moment, on this finite planet, sin is the welcome recognition that we’ve “missed the mark.”[4]

Welcome, because when we recognize Earth as our home, and as we become “literate” in the language of sin, we can use it to name “negative feedback loops”[5] that help us re-true our attitudes and behaviors (ultimately, our cultures and societies) so they “fit” our finite context. Well-declared, sin calls out the places in our lives that need attention—that need “repentance”: literally “turning back from”—so that our lives actually support the web of worldly relations and pursue meaning, joy, and justice in ways that strengthen the whole fabric of creation. That’s the original purpose of sin language. And, as Christians, we either reclaim it in this sense or we let it distract us (perhaps with deadly results) from doing the work to which God calls us: the healing of ourselves and the world.

To employ sin language in its proper role means that in our churches and in our daily fellowship with others we’ll actually ask together the welcome question of what constitutes sin today. And we’ll avoid the cultural press to indulge in holiday flying-and-buying—because that behavior is deadly to others. We’ll ask honest and restless questions about how much we drive, how we heat our homes, how we shape our diets, etc.—because those behaviors are directly related to a reeling climate. And, as faithful citizens, we’ll ask about plans for new pipelines, gas fracking, nuclear plants, etc.—because those societal-corporate behaviors drive the planet toward a dangerous future.

This isn’t about finger-pointing (in any case, most of the fingers would point back toward us). And it isn’t about making blanket claims (e.g. “Eat vegan or else”); it will require seasoned ethical nuance. It’s about recognizing that our future is in peril and we are wiser to ask about our behaviors with authentic earnestness now, rather than find our conversation driven by frenzied panic after a decade of sinful procrastination. Speaking of sin is essential as we seek to navigate finitude with grace.

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

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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.

[1] www.apnews.com/7d85d6d7b05c4436b6f4d162f6c06566

[2] www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/nov/27/climate-emergency-world-may-have-crossed-tipping-points

[3] See Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, Fortress Press, 1978, especially pp. 44-61.

[4] The biblical words for sin in both Hebrew and Greek mean “to miss the mark.” I might suggest, “to act off balance.” Another Hebrew word carries the stronger connotation of “rebellion,” as though to deliberately “miss the mark” … out of spite, vengeance, even desire for profit.

[5] See, for instance, Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, Active Hope (New World Library, 2012), pp. 66-68.

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