Sin: The ‘laundry list’ approach
For most of my life, I have approached sin as primarily behavioral. Sin was breaking the commandments. I felt I could enumerate my sins (and indeed, I thought it was my duty to do so at the end of each day). The scriptures were basically compilations of rules that I needed to take care not to break. I went to church so that I could learn the many and various ways in which I might be breaking said rules, and there I could also learn the ‘Rs’ of Repentance.
I don’t think that approach worked for me very well.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression, I feel grateful for the scores of teachers that worked hard (for the most part) to train me up in the way I should go. And perhaps it is even helpful for a child and young adult to have the kinds of strictures that I lived my life under.
Sin as Symptom
I am told that the Hebrew and Greek words that were translated into ‘repentance’ in the KJV and other English translations of the bible might be more appropriately rendered as “turning away” or “reorienting.”
This seems to suggest a much more holistic approach. It isn’t enough to identify an individual behavior that is ‘out of harmony with the teachings of Jesus.’ What we need is a fundamental reorienting of our lives.
From this perspective, it seems more appropriate to think of individual ‘sinful behaviors’ as symptomatic of some deeper problem. Repentance that focuses on the changing individual behaviors is like putting a bandaid over a runny nose. The symptom might disappear temporarily, but if we don’t do anything to address the underlying problem, our efforts will be in vain.
Where the theory meets the road
A few weeks ago, I put up a post where I briefly covered some of the different theories of the atonement. When we think about sin and repentance, our working theory of the atonement becomes important. For example if we believe that the atonement was Christ’s way of paying the price for each of our sins individually (as in the ‘penal substitution’ models of the atonement), we are implicitly saying that individual behaviors carry with them some quantifiable punishment price tag. Some eternal scales of justice need to be weighed out and brought back into alignment. This is reflected in a popular song in Mormon circles which contains the line “How many drops of blood were shed for me?”
This is a powerful sentiment, but I don’t think I can fully subscribe to what it is trying to say about the atonement. It seems to point us toward the unhelpful view of sin that I began the post with. If my sinful act causes (caused?) Christ some incremental measure of suffering that (for some reason) the universe requires payment… it seems absurd.
Repentance as changing course
One of the most powerful metaphors in Mormon thought is Lehi’s dream. Lehi’s dream imagines us separated from God’s love by physical space which needs to be traversed. In the journey toward the tree that represent’s God’s love, many lose their way and are lost in ‘strange paths’ and ‘mists of darkness.’ This spatial metaphor is helpful for me.
As I said earlier, sin is symptomatic of a deviation from the correct path. Repentance is the word we use for the reorienting that points us in the right direction. Of course we will never be headed on a perfectly straight course, and we should be continually getting our bearings and adjusting direction as we travel.
A while back, I read Phillip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. The novella retells the story of Jesus by replacing him with two characters — twins — named Jesus and Christ. Jesus, the radical and powerful preacher, goes about ancient Judea gathering followers and spreading a message of brotherly love and forgiveness. Christ, on the other hand, is conflicted and jealous of his brother. Ultimately, he is persuaded to record his brother’s life and teachings. In his recording, he is encouraged to emphasize the fantastic and the miraculous — even to invent it and insert it into the narrative — to serve the higher cause of Truth. He is assured that if he will do this the teachings of Jesus would continue to live through an institutionalized church. By the end of the story, Jesus is killed and Christ steps in to fulfill the miracle of the resurrection.
Pullman’s tale is a little too tidy, but it raises some interesting questions. When I talked about the Gospels, I made the point that our ‘primary’ sources are built from “copies of copies of memories and reflections from a handful of poor fishermen that lived 2,000 years ago.” Our institutions, as valuable as they are in preserving these stories and memories, have the unintended side-effect of calcifying assumptions around them.
Take for example, the idea of the virgin birth.
I didn’t realize until just a few years ago that when Catholics talk about the “Immaculate Conception” they are referring to the birth of Mary rather than the birth of Jesus. According to the (il)logic of the original sin doctrine, Mary had to be born without sin as well so she wouldn’t pass on the guilt (associated with sexual union I am guessing?) to Jesus. In my mind, this is theology at its worst — bad assumptions built on top of one another.
Lest any Mormons get smug about silly Catholic teachings, let me remind the reader of some unfortunate Mormon speculation on the matter. One does not have to dig too deeply to find scandalous quotes from Brigham Young, Orson Pratt, or Bruce McConkie on the logistics of Jesus’ conception.
What can we know?
I don’t want to go too far down the post-modernist ‘there-is-no-such-thing-as-truth’ rabbit-hole, but we should remember that we are dealing with pre-modern authors here. They weren’t so concerned with factual accuracy in their stories. The gospels and other writings that make up the New Testament had an agenda (and it certainly wasn’t to put down Jesus’ biography).
Two of the four gospels don’t even discuss the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. Mark and John both basically begin with Jesus’ baptism (John tacks on that bit about the Beginning and the Word). Paul’s silence on the subject of Christ’s birth seems suggestive to me that it wasn’t that important to him whether or not Jesus was born miraculously.
The biblical authors who were more concerned about Christ’s earthly origins don’t themselves agree on his family history (see this article for some discussion of the discrepancies between Matthew and Luke).
We might expect the details of Jesus’ birth to be a little hazy, but even events that were presumably better documented than the Nativity are problematic. The LDS Bible Dictionary includes a Gospel Harmony that attempts to correlate the different accounts of the same events in Jesus’ ministry (you can find a more extensive Harmony here). Of the 160 events listed in the linked Gospel Harmony, only 11 (less than 7%) were mentioned by all four Gospel writers. Nearly half (76 out of 160) of the events discussed in the Gospels were only mentioned by one of the four authors.
It gets even worse. The gospels are not four independent accounts of Jesus’ life. Scholars believe that the gospels of Matthew and Luke draw heavily from Mark’s (older) account, so some of the correspondence we see in the Gospels results from the fact that they are drawing from the same second- or third-hand source material. There is also likely some selection bias in the Gospels that were ultimately canonized. I would guess that the Church Fathers who were responsible for canonizing the gospels were inclined to make their choices — at least in part — based on the consistency of the accounts.
The devil is in the details
For centuries, Christians have been trying to piece together the details of Jesus’ life. The incomparable Alan Watts described the problems with focusing too much on the particulars (emphasis added):
the Church, still bound to the image of God as the King of kings, couldn’t accept this Gospel. It adopted a religion about Jesus instead of the religion of Jesus. It kicked him upstairs and put him in the privileged and unique position of being the Boss’s son, so that, having this unique advantage, his life and example became useless to everyone else. The individual Christian must not know that his own “I am” is the one that existed before Abraham. In this way, the Church institutionalized and made a virtue of feeling chronic guilt for not being as good as Jesus. It only widened the alienation, the colossal difference, that monotheism put between man and God. (from this site)
Separated as we are by 2,000 years of history, we should be a little more cautious in what we claim to ‘know’ about Jesus.
It ain’t necessarily so…
For me, it was a huge step to acknowledge that the stories in the bible might not be literal accounts of actual events. Thinking about my own relationship with scripture reminds me of a This American Life story I heard a few months back (Act I of this broadcast). The story’s narrator (Alex Blumberg) begins by saying, “Most of the common childhood myths, like that babies come from storks, get corrected sooner or later. They’re not obscure enough to sneak into adulthood unscrutinized. But occasionally, even a very popular childhood myth can make it through, like unicorns.” His interview with Kristy Kruger (punctuated by narrative asides) continues,
Kristy Kruger: In my head, a unicorn wasn’t really any different than a zebra. … I mean, in terms of believability, I think the unicorn is really ahead of the dinosaur.
AB: What do you mean?
KK: Well, I mean, when you think about a dinosaur from a kid’s perspective, a dinosaur is these really large, monstrous animals roaming the Earth. And then you have a unicorn, which is basically just a horse with a horn.
AB <narrative aside>: As Kristy Kruger grew up, she says that if she ever thought about unicorns, they were on a grassy plane somewhere in Africa, drinking from a watering hole with the wildebeest and the impala. And then one night, she found herself in a conversation at a party.
KK: It was about a group of five to seven people, kind of standing around the keg, just talking. And somehow a discussion of endangered species came up, in which I posed the question, is the unicorn endangered or extinct? And basically, there was a big gap of silence.
AB <narrative aside>: As you might be gathering, at some point in all these stories, you come to a big gap of silence.
KK: And then everybody laughed. And then that laughter was followed by more silence when they realized I wasn’t laughing. And I was like, yeah, oh God, unicorns aren’t real? Oh no.
When I think that I ever believed in a literal reading of Noah’s ark or the Garden of Eden… my mind slides into one of those “big gaps of silence” — awestruck by the magnitude of my own credulity. The biblical myths lived “on a grassy plane” somewhere in my mind totally removed from my normal understanding of the world. In my defense, I was surrounded by people who believed — or at least claimed to believe — the same stories. Perhaps I had been trained well to not prod too hard at the tenuous logic that connected them all together.
I’m going to focus on the story of Noah’s ark, but what I write applies equally well to huge swaths of the ancient books of the Bible.
In preparing for this post, I went back and looked at the LDS Institute manual for the “Old Testament” (a term for the Hebrew canon that I’m actually less and less comfortable with… but that might be a post for another day). I was thinking that surely the highest level of church instruction would add some degree of nuance to the story. Boy… was I ever wrong. Here are a few gems:
From Mark E. Petersen:
Noah, who built the ark, was one of God’s greatest servants, chosen before he was born as were others of the prophets. He was no eccentric, as many have supposed. Neither was he a mythical figure created only in legend. Noah was real.
A long one from John Taylor:
I would like to know by what known law the immersion of the globe could be accomplished. It is explained here in a few words: ‘The windows of heaven were opened’ that is, the waters that exist throughout the space surrounding the earth from whence come these clouds from which the rain descends. That was one cause. Another cause was ‘the fountains of the great deep were broken up’—that is something beyond the oceans, something outside of the seas, some reservoirs of which we have no knowledge, were made to contribute to this event, and the waters were let loose by the hand and by the power of God; for God said He would bring a flood upon the earth and He brought it, but He had to let loose the fountains of the great deep, and pour out the waters from there, and when the flood commenced to subside, we are told ‘that the fountains also of the deep and the windows of heaven were stopped, and the rain from heaven was restrained, and the waters returned from off the earth.’ Where did they go to? From whence they came. Now, I will show you something else on the back of that. Some people talk very philosophically about tidal waves coming along. But the question is—How could you get a tidal wave out of the Pacific ocean, say, to cover the Sierra Nevadas? But the Bible does not tell us it was a tidal wave. It simply tells that ‘all the high hills that were under the whole heaven were covered. Fifteen cubits upwards did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered.’ That is, the earth was immersed. It was a period of baptism.
And from Joseph Fielding Smith:
We read that it was in the seventeenth day of the second month when the great deep was broken up, and the rain was forty days. The Ark landed at Ararat on the seventeenth day of the seventh month, therefore there were five full months of travel when the Lord drove the Ark to its final destiny. Without any question a considerable distance separated the point where the Ark commenced the journey and where it landed. There can be no question to contradict the fact that during the flood great changes were made on the face of the earth. The land surface was in the process of division into continents. The rivers mentioned in Genesis were rivers that existed in the garden of Eden long before the land was divided into continents and islands.
The things that you’re li’ble to read in the Bible…
On its surface, the story of Noah’s ark is one of those rather innocuous biblical myths. It is fun to think of all the animals, and the forty days on the boat, the doves, the rainbow, etc. On closer inspection, the story loses its innocence altogether.
Without even considering the looming logical inconsistencies that immediately confront even the most casual reader of this story (which are so absurd on their face that I won’t spend any time knocking them down), the idea of a global flood is a staggeringly terrifying from a moral point of view. The authors of the manual cited above try to cast the flood in terms of the earth’s “baptism,” and they make the claim that the flood was really an “act of love.”
Another gem from John Taylor:
But, says the caviller, is it right that a just God should sweep off so many people? Is that in accordance with mercy? Yes, it was just to those spirits that had not received their bodies, and it was just and merciful too to those people guilty of the iniquity. Why? Because by taking away their earthly existence he prevented them from entailing their sins upon their posterity and degenerating them, and also prevented them from committing further acts of wickedness.
Let’s not dwell too much on the implications of this grim theology…
A faint silver lining?
As I’ve said before, I think there is some value that comes from engaging seriously with the scriptural texts. If nothing else, it forces the reader into a kind of mental discipline. Deep meditation on almost any text can lead us toward something higher than the words on the page. We can torture a moral message out of most any story if we try hard enough and squint long enough.
As the quotes above make clear, one approach to theology assumes the truth and goodness of the texts from the beginning and works backward toward a moral. Using an irrefutable syllogistic logic, we are taken from the ‘fact’ of God’s goodness, to the ‘fact’ that God sent a global flood, to the inevitable conclusion that the ‘flood’ was an act of mercy.
It can be helpful for us to be shocked out of our usual modes of thinking, and these kinds of stories — when we seriously engage them — might facilitate some kind of useful insight.
That all said, some texts are more helpful than others.
The function of the skeptic
Our hometeachers visited us this past Sunday and shared with us a message from a talk by Quintin Cook. In the talk, Cook says,
We also recognize that many individuals are not in tune with sacred things. Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks of England, speaking to Roman Catholic leaders last December at the Pontifical Gregorian University, noted how secular some parts of the world have become. He stated that one culprit is “an aggressive scientific atheism tone deaf to the music of faith.”
I’m not a big fan of the ‘new atheists’ — I think they end up doing some harm to the secular cause with their aggressive tone — but I do think they can serve as a useful check against the overly credulous tendency of the faithful. The curt dismissal of spiritual things by some in the secular community is mirrored by a total unwillingness to engage with problematic readings of scripture by the believing community.
Recently Dan Savage gave a talk to high school students where he said,
We can learn to ignore the bullshit in the Bible about gay people. The same way, the same way we have learned to ignore the bullshit in the Bible about shellfish, about slavery, about dinner, about farming, about menstruation, about virginity, about masturbation…
Predictably, his remarks were met with some criticism.
While I may have chosen different language, I think believers would be well served to take seriously the critiques of outsiders (just as I think that nonbelievers have a great deal to learn from believers). This is a two-way street.
I want to return to the idea of Zion as a ‘tent.’ As I’ve been thinking about that metaphor, I have been struck by the idea that a tent requires tension. The stakes are driven into the earth and connected to lines that are pulled taught. Without the tension, the whole thing collapses.