Recently I wrote a post on why I go to church and asked you to reflect on the same. I said, in sum, that I go because the good news of God's abundant and abiding love of all of us is difficult to hold on to and believe in the face of a difficult and challenging life for more than about seven days in a row. I said, in short, that by week's end I am desperate for another chance to hear the almost-too- good -to-be-true news of God's love and grace. And then I referenced a video of portions of a sermon from Pope Francis in which he talks about a similar sense of desperation, but from the point of view of the sinner's need to receive forgiveness.
Even as I made that segue, I felt a slight discomfort, as in my reflection I wasn't zeroing in on sin, per se, but rather on grace. But I referenced it anyway, thinking that it got at much the same point. Then, in the comments to that post, a wonderful thing happened. One reader, Craig, took my discomfort (though I don't suspect he knew of it) and raised to the tenth degree by asking whether it may be, in fact, the church's single-minded focus on us as sinners that has alienated so many from the church. I'll quote his eloquent comment briefly here to share what I thought was the heart of his point:
It seems the church wants only to see us and receive us as "sinners." I believe I am so much more than that. I have hopes and dreams, fears and anxiety, I feel lonely and trapped, I need to be touched and loved, I have needs and gifts, I am creative and I fail, I hurt! My relationships struggle. And more.
Craig, thank you. I agree. We are so much more than sinners and have often focused too much on that to the exclusion of the rest of our humanity and (I would argue, the biblical witness). Several other readers invited us to imagine that when we use the word "sinner" we are actually trying to catch more of what Craig said, and I think that's a fair response, one I've also used. But while I agree with that tack, I'm also no longer sure it's adequate. Indeed, I think it's time we think carefully and fully about reframing some of our primary theological categories and language. While I can't explain all of that in this space - truthfully, I haven't worked it out yet myself! - let me touch on three things that came to mind when reading the discussion around yesterday's post.
1) The Pope was responding to a particular question: why should I go to church when the people who go continue to be sinners. In that light, I don't want to take his statements out of context or to imagine this is all he has to say about the human condition, let alone God's grace.
2) "Sin" for me is a big word, covering not only the "things we do wrong" - which I suspect is the typical use of the word - but also larger issues of pain and want and dislocation and disease that are part and parcel of the human condition. It strikes me as interesting that when Paul talks about sin, it's almost always in the singular. That is, Paul doesn't talk about our "sins" but rather about "Sin," and I capitalize the "S" because in Paul's writing it feels like Sin a force that is directed against us, a power that seeks to rob the children of God of life abundant in Christ. Hence, poverty, illness, inequality, brokenness - all of this and more reflects "Sin" as I understand it. (Which, I believe, is what some of the folks who commented yesterday were saying.) But we don't always use the word that expansively. Indeed, we usually narrow it down to moral infractions (most often defined by the religious elite du jour).
3) "Sinner." Yes, I am a sinner, one who "falls short of the glory of God," to again borrow from Paul (Rom. 3:23). But is that the whole of our being and, further, the best descriptor of our condition? I wonder.
I heard Rob Bell once say that Christians too often start their story at Genesis 3 - the fall - rather than at Genesis 1 - where God not only creates but calls all creation good. So here's the question. Can the fall and "original sin" (a term not found in the Bible, by the way) wipe out God's original blessing?
I sometimes think we've fallen into a theology of lack and inadequacy when we are called to a theology of abundance and empowerment. In a theology of inadequacy, sin becomes merely a catalogue of things we've done wrong rather than take seriously all the things that keep us from God's good will and desire for all of us and the whole creation. And grace, too is reduced, as too often grace is shrunken to mean only forgiveness and forgiveness itself no longer implies a restoration of relationship but rather is God overlooking our offenses. From this point of view, the whole enterprise of the Christian life can be reduced to having to face St. Peter at the pearly gates with his long ledger, each sin recorded and then erased by forgiveness understood as divine "white-out."
And that's not all. In a theology of inadequacy, the cross seems to function as a device or instrument that makes it possible for an angry and outraged God to forgive us, whereas I see the cross as a visible and poignant expression of God's love for us already and of God's victory over all that would separate us from God and each other, including death.
In all these ways, I find much of our typical way of formulating things, well, inadequate. So I am working on articulating what a theology of abundance and empowerment would look like. A theology, that is, that take seriously that Jesus didn't actually speak of sin all that often, at least no more than he talked about abundance and healing and the day of release, and more.
In this theology of abundance, are we still sinners? Yes, although I'd suggest that that is no longer our primary designation. Rather, we are God's beloved children whose lives are still colored by sin but who also know themselves to be redeemed and set free to live with purpose.
This is just a start, of course, and hastily written down at that. But I appreciated so much the discussion that got started that I wanted to take some time and space to keep it going. Thanks for reading, all, and for responding as you have time.