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Sin Isn't the Problem with the World, Theology Is

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Pat Robertson has been under fire by Christians and non-Christians alike after his divisive comment over the reasons why the destructive earthquake hit the helpless country of Haiti. The televangelist asserted that the death toll is due to a historical pact that the Haitians made with the Devil and that the pact has cursed the island and all who live on it. His message of doom and gloom represents Christianity as an enemy of the world. His kind of Christianity is the kind that most want nothing to do with.

Robertson was dealing with an issue that Christians have gotten wrong for centuries: our need to oppress others with the labels and words we use. A lot of the language within churches tends to be exclusive and pervasive, like the word "sinner," a word used to differentiate those who will not be saved from those who will. But what if that word doesn't mean what we think it means?

We need reasons why things happen. If we don't find them, we feel like that event or moment has no value or purpose. If someone close to us dies in a car accident, we think we need to blame someone to justify our pain; we want a reason why we have to grieve. If our six-year-old son wins an award at school, we want to know why, so that we can celebrate. Our experience of life seems to be a series of explanations, and if there are moments for which we have no explanation, our tendency is to forget them or find creative means with which to explain them away. We're not really good with mystery. We say we are, but we really just want to know how mystery works and how to make it work for us.

Mystery can be painful. Not knowing why your husband died on the operating table could ruin you for life. Or why a tornado hit your house and not the one next door, or why war parades itself across our television screens. Not knowing leaves us helpless, confused, and weak. Well, that's what we're taught to believe. We begin to look inward at our frailty and ask the question "Why?" We start with, "Why did this happen? Where did this come from?" Then comes the "Why me?" You see this process occurring with Job, a popular character in an ancient story in the Jewish Tanakh and Christian scriptures.

Job essentially loses everything he could -- his house, cattle, health, marriage, children, and respect from his friends. And he begins to ask "Why?" which then leads to "Why me?" Why? seems to always lead to the Why me? Then, according to the author of the story, the divine responds to Job's inquiries by pointing to creation and the origin of that creation. Now, if you just read this story without a background in Christianity, or if you've been inundated with Christian theology all your life, you might assume that Job is being reprimanded by God. What we don't get is the tone in God's voice or the Hebrew language that is used. When the divine responds to the laments of a depressed Job, God begins by asking, "Where were you when I?" Most would read that as a frustrated retort to Job's line of questioning. Yet, when translated directly from the Hebrew, it sounds more like this: "I was there when ... "

The first rendering seems almost accusatory, while the second seems laced with drips of compassion. The author was trying to make sense of why humanity is frail and couldn't come up with a viable answer. So, to better understand our condition, this author had to give it a name and an origin. The Hebrews were storytellers, and the story always says something more than what seems obvious. Consider the traditional and popularized version of the story of the Garden of Eden, which was created to explain the origins of pain, ageing, and why we are so frail.

Freud posited that the Adam and Eve experience was more about maturity and learning, and that all decisions have a direct cause-and-effect clause invisibly attached. And so, what we have is a story of two teenagers who are learning what it is to make beneficial decisions, even ones that might hurt. And the fruit is the metaphor for the process of making and learning self-sacrificing decisions. Freud goes on to say: "The process of maturation occurring in the incidents around the tree describes, in an abstract way, the splitting of the human consciousness into the limited context of conscious thought and the underlying all-aware unconscious."

There are some within the New Age movement who would say that the story is about enlightenment, but also about an introduction into dualistic thinking. And so the story about the Fall of Man becomes about how we lost the awareness that we were always connected with the divine. And so then, in that instance, sin becomes about accepting dualism as reality and about how we are somehow permanently disconnected from God. But, what if that wasn't even what the story was about?

I think Christians may have to accept that sin isn't the reason why we're frail. That frailty isn't even an enemy. That frailty is simply on the journey with us. To teach us, hold us, cry with us. And to transform us into whom we are meant to be. This last point is important to understand because "sin" isn't pathological. The Hebrew word for sin is chait, which, when modernized, suggests not making it to one's destination. The word directly refers to personal potential. And so sin isn't what's inherently wrong with us; it's the process whereby we learn to live out who we are meant to be. It is about how we can grow rather than how we are impeded. It's about who we are becoming rather than who we once were.

This is an invitation to those who, with the word "sin," would unintentionally but aggressively cheapen our experience of life and the divine within it: maybe we can agree that we might have got it wrong. And that we might have got it wrong for thousands of years. And that's okay, because life is about maturing and moving on and learning to make self-sacrificing decisions. Maybe the best such decision we can make now is to let go of what we have been taught to hold onto so tightly. Maybe we need a clean-cut divorce from some of our theological standpoints. Maybe we need something new -- a figurative death and resurrection. Because, honestly, the word "sin" in its orthodox context just isn't working anymore and isn't helpful at all.

In its correct context, sin is about who we are becoming. So maybe we need a new word. Maybe something like our "unrealized potential," or our "energetic momentum," or even our "embryonic future." Any of these might be a better offering in light of these new discoveries.

Whomever you might believe in that exists beyond the clouds above, that being wants the best for each of us, doesn't desire poverty, desires that humanity work together, and desires peace and for us to live life as a process of discovery of whom we are meant to be. The more we focus on that and less on what sin is or might be, the more we discover what it is to be human.

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