Is Sin Phenomenal or Existential?

In Matthew 5:28, in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.'”

That’s a tough statement, especially given the following advice that if a body part is causing us to sin we ought to cut it off.

But let’s take a step back and think about this on a level deeper than the surface–and the shock that goes along with it. I’m a firm believer that many times when Jesus says something that seems very condemning, what he’s doing is simply laying out for us how the world works and what the natural consequences of a thing are. For instance, when Jesus tells us that, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” in Matthew 19:24, he’s not saying “God condemns rich people for being rich and no one should be.” Rather, I think, he’s saying, “The money and power that go along with wealth–and the accompanying desire to hold onto that money and power–make it very difficult to focus on what is good and true and righteous, because the love of power is seductive and addictive. Be wary that such things do not make you see the world in the wrong way, but keep focused on the way that I have told you to see the world.”

Likewise, in Matthew 5:28, while Jesus does say something that, if we’re being honest with ourselves, reminds us all of our sins, I think that his purpose is less about shaming us and more about telling us about the very nature of sin.

And that’s why this post is titled, “Is sin phenomonal or existential?” If you’ve read many of my other posts, you already know where I fall on this issue, but I’d like to develop the idea a bit more specifically.

When I ask if sin is phenomenal, what I mean to ask is whether sin is a matter of discrete and observable actions, specific behaviors violative of what is righteous. When I ask if sin is existential, I’m asking if, rather than being a matter of specific and easily-identifiable behaviors, sin is a condition or state of being.

The real answer, of course, is that it’s both of these things at once. What the question(s) really seek to answer is whether it is particular actions that lead to a particular state of sin or whether particular actions are the result of a state of being. Again, the best argument is likely that there’s a dialectic between these two things–bad acts make it easier to choose bad acts in the future, deepening a state of sinfulness, but without some existentially sinful condition, there would never be any sinful action, so the influence of one on the other must be mutually reinforcing. So, what should we focus on as primary when dealing with and discussing sin–actions or a state of being.

In Matthew 5:28, Jesus appears to be arguing against the legalism of the Old Testament law (here making specific allusion to the Ten Commandments) and instead showing us that sinfulness is a matter of mindset, perspective (compared to the objective, I mean to intimate no relativistic thought here), paradigm.

There are two quotations I prefer (and have used on the blog before) to encapsulate this idea, which is central and fundamental to existential thought. Having been a professional student and scholar of the Renaissance and early modern periods, both quotations are derived from that most elevated and rarified literary era.

First, some John Milton, from Book I of Paradise Lost: “The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

Second, Shakespeare: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2.

Following existential thought in general, and Paul Tillich (my favorite theologian) in particular, we argue that humans, as a matter of course and necessity, make meaning in the world. We do this by relating things to one another in their existential aspects and phenomena, creating those relationships through storytelling. The “secular” existentialists see this as the fundamental cause of “existential angst”–we fail to detect any inherent and objective meaning in the things which we observe and with which we interact. But the Christian existentialist takes this farther, first positing that there is ultimate and objective meaning that comes from God, though we may detect such only through divine revelation; and, second, marvelling at the great opportunity, pleasure, power and responsibility we have been given in co-creating with God by establishing meaning through our own narratives, big and small. This process, as a fundamental aspect of man’s existence, is clear from the beginning of Creation–is not Adam creating meaning and relationships by naming the creatures of the Earth?

Upon recognition of this divinely-granted human power, we must immediately recognize the source of sin–the creation of meanings and relationships that are not in line with God’s plan and intentions. Put bluntly, seeing and thinking about the world in the wrong way.

And this is what Jesus warns about in Matthew 5:28–it’s not sin only when you take action to commit adultery; if you have created a mental concept of existence that sees women merely as objects of your lust, that permits infidelity and betrayal for the most fleeting of passions, you’re doing it wrong and you’re already in a state of sinfulness. It’s not enough to refrain from the comission of the action; you must change the way you think about and see the world and how all the things in it relate to one another.

When we compare this concept to other moral teachings of Jesus, we find great support for it. Jesus usually seems to be less concerned about specific actions and more concerned with the ideologies, social structures, theologies and existential states that lead to those actions: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” When we think about sin existentially, sin becomes about relationships, results and intents, not arbitrary restrictions. This comports perfectly with the Greatest Commandments.

Just as the plain language of Jesus’s words make clear, this is a higher standard of morality than avoiding the consummation of unrighteous intents; it is war on unrighteous intent itself. And it makes perfect sense; if you fall into the trap of lusting after people in your mind, that objectification likely affects more than just the questions of adultery and fidelity. In many ways, such thought is about a reduction of the humanity of a person into a personification of of desire and temptation, an indulgence of the self by the self that only needs the other person as a tool of that self-indulgence. Once we’ve stripped such a person of their humanity, however small a slice we may cut away at a time, we will treat them differently, and not in a better way, though the injury to the person may be so subtle as to go generally unnoticed without deep introspection or close observation.

But to focus on just how fallen the idea that sin is existential and caused by our own ordering of our idea of Creation makes us is to miss the point. The strong implication, as Milton shows us, is that just as unrighteous narrative and mental/idealist/idealogical relationships make us sinful, righteous ones bring us closer to God. Every time we shift our conception of the world closer to God’s intention for those relationships as demonstrated in Jesus, we are both personally participating in the Kingdom of God and, as we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer, working to bring the Kingdom of God to Earth.

In simpler terms, Jesus is implicating here that we create our own reality. Again, not in some relativistic way, because God’s intention for Creation establishes objective truth, but in the way we personally interact with the world and believe it to be. We have been given an astounding power of sub-creation inherent to our free will, but we are also called to use that power to seek righteousness, to become, as Jesus later calls us to become in the Sermon on the Mount: Perfect, as our Father in Heaven is perfect.

The scope of the Sermon on the Mount is not a collection of warnings and prohibitions; it is a call to participate in the infinite joy of existence as a child of God by seeking to create the kinds of narratives and mental conceptions that God would have us create.

Sci-Fi Christianity, Part III: (Re-)Making Ourselves

For the preceding post in this series, click here.

I’m a fan of the cyberpunk genre. I grew up playing the Shadowrun tabletop roleplaying game, which probably is what started my love for the genre–it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I started reading the progenitors and great writers of this brand of sci-fi (Stephenson, Gibson and Morgan, for instance).

One of the key aspects of the genre is cyberware (and/or bioware and/or nanotech)–the ability for humans to replace or supplement their physical bodies to achieve superhuman abilities through technology.

Unless you haven’t been paying attention, you know that we’re there in real life–or very close to. Les Baugh, Neil Harbisson and the number of patients with installed brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) are proof of this. On the biological side, CRISPR may allow us to undo some of the infelicities of genetic processes, essentially eliminating some genetic disorders or diseases.

So far, these technologies are concerned with restoring lost faculties, but is perfectly conceivable that there will be some willing to lose their meatbody (to use the cyberpunk nomenclature) arm to replace it with one that can perform at a much higher level than the one with which nature provided our subject–and without the constant need to prevent muscle atrophy.

To be clear, these technologies are in their infancy, and we really don’t know yet how far we’ll be able to go in synching man and machine–without sufficient neurological feedback, a cybernetic arm is as much a liability as an asset. Imagine not being able to gauge how hard you’re gripping something when you want to hold that ceramic coffee mug.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the technology described in cyberpunk fiction becomes available. Since we’re in a realm of speculation here, let’s assume that such technology becomes available at a price point that a majority of people can afford it if they want to. Can you imagine the person who treats body modification in the same way he might have treated souping up a street racer or a mudding truck? If the technology is there, it seems rather inevitable to me.

From a Christian perspective, how do we address this potential? How can our theology and desire to follow Christ inform our response?

Well, that depends on the theology, I suppose. The easiest argument, one I expect to be made by many, is that voluntary body modification is an abomination; a rejection of being made “in the image of God” and a rejection of the principle that “our body is a temple.”

But let’s think about those ideas, starting with the latter. Paul’s exhortation that we should view our bodies as the temples of the Lord (in 1 Corinthians 6:18-20) is used as an argument for sexual purity. Leaving the specific context aside for a moment, let’s think about the metaphysical and theological meaning of the statement itself. When we incorporate the sweep of the Gospels, Christ’s reference to his own body as the Temple and his death and resurrection in John 2:21-22, and the promise of the Holy Spirit, the major thrust of such a metaphor is that God enters into us through the Holy Spirit. One valid interpretation of this, yes, is to say that we ought to keep God’s new Temple beautiful and pure just as the Jews did for the Temple in Jerusalem. But isn’t it more important that the statement reminds us that God is always with us, always seeking relationship with us, and is not in some distant place to which we must walk though valleys and over broken hills to commune with? At the end of the day, these interpretations should probably be considered “both/and” rather than “either/or,” but this still leaves us with the necessity of determining the details of how our individual temples to God ought to be kept.

That Genesis tells us that we are made “in the image of God” might provide some interpretative assistance, but we must unlock the secret of this enigma as well. How are we in the image of God? First, we must accept that we are in the image of God in some form, but certainly not in degree. With this understanding, it seems foolish to believe that our being in God’s image is somehow related to our physical form–are we saying that the infinite, sovereign God is shaped like us but moreso? Or bigger?

No, we must look to something more existential to properly understand this question. Is it that we are able to think on a higher level than the rest of Creation? That we may philosophize and theologize? Perhaps, but we must approach such a conclusion with some trepidation, for those abilities ultimately remind us of our finitude and God’s infinitude.

As Paul Tilich writes, “Our power of being is limited. We are a mixture of being and nonbeing. This is precisely what is meant when we say that we are finite. It is man in his finitude who asks the question of being. He who is infinite does not ask the question of being for, as infinite, he has the complete power of being. He is identical with it; he is God” Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality, pp. 11-12.

So what must it be, then? It is our power to create, I would argue. We, like God, make meaning in Creation, particularly through the creation of narratives that define us and our world. Unlike God, we do not do so ex nihilo, but by recombining the things that are in new and unforeseen ways. That is a difference in degree but not kind.

This minor power of creation, coupled with freedom of the will, forms the basis of the need for God’s action in us through Jesus Christ–so that we might be both free and independent and good. But that is a discussion for another time.

We already spend most of our time creating identify for ourselves: every time you tell a story about something that happened to you, you are using that story to create some idea about who you are for others to absorb. If you don’t believe that, think about the last story you told a friend about something that happened to you and honestly count the number of ways you might have “massaged” the truth a little to get across a certain point.

We already use much of our technology in the quest to find or make meaning and identity. What are Facebook, Instagram and Twitter but media for the construction of identity.

“Look at what I had for lunch today, and what that says about me.”

“Look at what I tweet about.”

“Look at what I like.”

“Look at me.”

That being the case, isn’t control over our bodies simply another form of self-creation? How we choose (or choose not) to modify our bodies with the technology we have available to us is not, I think, an issue of categorical morality.

That does not relieve us of moral responsibility. The questions of intent and consequence, common to all moral questions in Christianity, remain to confront us in relation to any particular choice about body modification. Just as there are good and bad reasons to get a tattoo, or to have elective surgery, or to wear makeup, the morality of a choice to augment human capabilities through advanced technology is a highly contextual calculus.

We must walk a fine line here. Jesus came to us as a human, so we must see that embodiment and incarnation constitute important aspects of God’s Creation. At the same time, we must not distort such an idea into the belief that there is only one right way to be an embodied human being–that there is only one type of body that is good.

The theology (at least in very simplified form as argued above) of human enhancement reminds us that morality–that sin–is not composed of easy categories, of boxes into which a particular action does or does not fit. We ought, then, to look at sin as a state of being, of disassociation from the right relationships with our neighbors, with ourselves, with God, with Creation. We enter into sin not because we have crossed some clear demarcation but because we have stopped considering our intentions towards ourselves and all other beings and have avoided concern about the consequences on Creation (and all that is within it) of our actions. Yes, the state of sin leads to hurtful actions and destructive or antisocial behavior, but let’s look past the symptoms to the disease.

Pilgrimage, Day 2: Arrival

For the previous entry, click here.

This evening, at least by Israeli time, I write to you from the Gloria Hotel just inside the Old Jerusalem city walls near the Jaffa gate.

We arrived at about 4:20 p.m. local time after a mostly sleepless night on the plane. An hour-and-a-half or so to get through passport control and baggage claim, an hour from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by bus, a fifteen minute walk up to the Jaffa Gate and the hotel, fifteen minutes to get room keys and take baggage up to the hotel room, and finally dinner at 7:30. After dinner, an intrepid companion and I decided on an evening stroll through the Old City.

It was breathtaking in a number of ways. The beauty of the old stone (the city wall dates from the 16th Century and is a fascinating combination of medieval design approaches. The Old City itself is a tangled ball of streets, sidestreets, alleys, closes and stone stairs, the historical equivalent of the steel canyons of a modern downtown, with stone buildings overhanging on both sides of each street.

My intent was simply to wander and wonder, to soak in all they I could of the environment without being to focused about it, to let it wash over me. This the city did without holding back. We wandered into the Muslim Quarter, where shopkeeps and their children were closing up for the evening. From the instant we encountered the Damascus Gate (we had exited the Old City through the New Gate and followed the outer wall to the Damascus Gate to re-enter), it was clear that things were different there. Four IDF soldiers with M4s stood watch over the entrance, cordoned off by steel traffic barriers like they occupied a make-believe guard tower.

Further into the Quarter, we encountered a squad of eight IDF soldiers in full tactical gear patting down a single young Palestinian man in soccer shorts and a jersey. He cooperated (who wouldn’t with that many assault rifles around) and the whole thing seemed rather low-key, quotidian. Perhaps that’s what bothered me most about the seen, the faces on both sides that resignedly said, “This is just the way things are.”

In an instant, that experience shook me from the reverie of this trip. I came for history. I came for spiritual reflection and introspection. I came for friends and theology. And I forgot that there’s a very real and ongoing struggle here, one with victims and perpetrators and perpetuators on both sides–and dozens of those who have become used to this way of life for each one who wants to do something about it.

To be clear, I have no solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I have too little real or meaningful experience from either perspective to do anything but naively say, “Why can’t we all just find a way to peacefully and respectfully co-exist?” I have sympathy for both Israelis and Palestinians and a belief that both sides have fault to claim and both sides will have to learn to forgive for their to be any hope.

And while the particulars of Israeli-Palestinian relations trouble me (to the meager extent that I understand them), what I really took away from the scenes I witnessed in the Muslim culture is a reminder. We cannot separate the past from the present just as we cannot separate the present from the past; they are inextricably bound together for eternity. The study of this trip has little meaning if it does not relate the present needs of the world. And I, of course, firmly believe that the message and redemptive work of the Incarnation, the Passion and the Resurrection are every bit as important now as they’ve ever been. As we start our serious work tomorrow, I’ll be going in with eyes open to the need to find something with modern applicability in every past location, person and event we discover.

For the next entry, click here.

An Alternative Reading of the Fall

Here’s how, in my own semi-irreverent way, I would summarize the traditional, mainstream story of Adam and Eve’s Fall in the Garden of Eden:

“So you’ve got the first man, Adam, and the first woman, Eve[1], and they live together in paradise, and everything’s cool. God gives them one command. One! ‘Do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.’ And God tells them, ‘don’t do it or you’ll die.’ And then comes along a serpent-thing. Maybe it’s a lizard, I don’t know; it’s kind of snake-like but it has legs. Either way, the serpent’s really the devil in disguise. The serpent tells Eve that it’s just fine if she eats the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and she won’t die. It tells her that, if she eats, she’ll be like God because she’ll know good from evil. So she eats some and gives some to Adam. And now they’ve disobeyed God, and that’s the first sin, and everything kind of sucks after that because they messed up. And so, we need Jesus.”

There are a few logical problems with this interpretation, common though it is.

First, while Adam and Eve do disobey a command from God, they cannot be held responsible for this. For the story to make any sense whatsoever, Adam and Eve must be without the knowledge of good and evil before they eat the fruit—otherwise, what’s the point in the first place? But, if they do not understand good and evil when they disobey God, they don’t understand that what they’re doing is wrong. No credible system of justice holds people culpable when they did not understand that what they were doing was wrong and intended to do wrong.

So, if eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was the sin that caused the Fall, God has acted arbitrarily in declaring mankind to have fallen. I don’t believe that our God does anything arbitrarily. This by itself breaks the traditional interpretation.

It is undeniably true that Adam and Eve intentionally disobeyed God. I am not disputing that. But if they did not understand that disobeying God was wrong, we need to derive a different meaning from the story.

There is a second problem. If God is omnipotent and omniscient, and God did not want Adam and Eve to have knowledge of good and evil, why put the freaking tree in the Garden? I think that we have to assume that God is purposeful in God’s actions and that the tree is there for a reason.

It would not be sufficient of me to criticize the traditional reading of the Fall so significantly without offering an alternative explanation. I suggest that we read the story of Adam and Eve a little more mythologically[2]—as expressing a fundamental truth about the nature of existence in a way that shows rather than tells. In other words, let’s get metaphysical.

The scriptural passages make clear that Adam and Eve have free will—they have the ability to choose their actions without determinism from God. Otherwise, there is no need for God to give them a command and warning about the tree. While they cannot be held accountable for their actions prior to eating from the tree, it is nevertheless their intentional choice to disobey God.

It is safe to say, then, that the existence of Adam and Eve’s free will leads to their disobedience of and separation from God as an inevitable consequence—without having to bring moral judgment into the interpretation. That’s a profound assertion—free will is a fundamental aspect of God’s creation of humanity, but one that brings a set of problems with it.

If God’s goal for humanity is relationship, as I believe that it is, God must (at least under the laws of reality as we understand them; one can’t ever really say must of God in any truly absolute meaning) give humans free will, because a meaningful relationship requires that both parties to the relationship willingly agree to be in relationship with one another. But with free will, there’s a possibility that one party will choose not to enter into relationship. On the same lines, this means that humans may choose not to be righteous and obedient to God.

How can the lack of righteousness created by the gift of free will be resolved? This, I think, is one of the fundamental problem Christianity answers—through the grace, salvation and guidance of Jesus Christ, humanity may be both free and good.

Under this reading, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is not a catalyst, it is a symbol. If God’s command and Adam and Eve’s subsequent disobedience is indicative of the “problem” caused by free will, then the eating of the fruit is symbolic of the fact that man and woman have a knowledge of good and evil and thus are responsible for the use of their will. In order to be able to choose to be good, they must have this knowledge; now they need a guide in the ways of righteousness. Having this knowledge also means that they are now culpable for their evil; now they need a savior to forgive their trespasses as they struggle to learn to be righteous. Both of these needs are fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ, and this reading of the Fall sets us up to look for our savior almost from the moment of creation.

The writer of the Gospel of John tells us that Jesus is the Word, and the Word was with God at the creation and was God. When we look back to the Fall with that knowledge in mind, now we see a long-term plan from God to create beings that are free and independent of God (and thus capable of meaningful relationship with God) and giving them a path to also be righteous of their own volition.

Along with this reading—to bring things into Wesleyan perspective—we might call the fundamental problem caused by the existence of free will “original sin,” that condition in which we will inevitably separate ourselves from God and creation in an effort to satisfy only ourselves. Having young children in my home, it does occur to me that, upon discovery of the existence of the will, that seems to be the path that naturally follows. “Prevenient grace,” then, would be that grace of God that goes before us and allows us to see beyond our own selfish desires enough to do good and to seek after God.

My favorite theologians, Paul Tillich among them, advise that we ought not to define sin as particular acts, but instead of the condition of separation from God, self and others that occurs because of certain acts. I think that my alternative reading of the Fall lends itself to that definition, which also fits well with what I called in a previous post the “positive morality” of Jesus—sin is what results when we fall short of the Great Commandment. This means that we must look to both intent and result of any act to determine whether it is sinful or not—we cannot simply categorize sin without context.

As I’m sure I’ll discuss in future posts, I think that the reading of the Fall that I’ve provided gives us more logical and more useful understanding of our place in the universe and the nature of sin than the traditional view. What do you think?

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[1] I said mainstream. I’m aware of all the Lilith legendry about her being the first wife of Adam, etc. While a fascinating story, it was probably generated by early attempts to syncretize the two accounts of humanity’s creation (Gen 1:26-27 and Gen 2:7, 18-25). I’m willing to chalk up the two accounts to sloppy editing, but I can’t deny the possibility that some theological insight is meant by the existence of the two differing accounts.

[2] The “curses” given by God either fit into a “traditional” mythological role—a pre-scientific attempt to explain why certain things are the way they are (why snakes have no legs, why we have to work for our food, why childbirth hurts so damn much, etc.), or a theological role—childbirth is a symbol that real creation sometimes requires pain and sacrifice, the requirement to work the land tests our choices when we exist in a world of limited resources, etc.