July 2014 Meeting Summary

Our response to the chapter in Tony Windross’s book, The Thoughtful Guide to Faith entitled: Thinking about Sin.

In training to be a reader in the Anglican church, one of our members said that she was forbidden to use the word, sin, in any sermon she gave. The group, as it struggled with the word, could easily see the reason why. We are all inadequate when faced with the enormity of suffering in the world and so we must all fall short of an ideal response to this which we can imagine for ourselves. Bishop Jenkins, said one, always started private prayer with the sentiment: “God, remember I am human.” A reference to an Aramaic version of the Lord’s Prayer suggested that “trespasses” could be more adequately translated as “unripeness” and an idea of “sin” meaning “missing the mark” as part of an archery metaphor was considered helpful.

However, Christianity has a bad record in being unable to extend this generosity of understanding to other people. One member mused over the expectation that non-church-goers seemed to expect Christians to have a holier than thou attitude about “ordinary” people’s failings and the use of concepts of “sinfulness” as a controlling device over the ages was mentioned. A cursory reading of the gospels condemns such censoriousness. One of the most striking examples is the “Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone…” challenge which must immediately negate any pretensions to taking the moral high ground.

It was suggested that physicalism of some modern science should lead its disciples to similar conclusions. One person may not have the same level of aggression in his random genetic make-up as another. Can the “other”, therefore, have reason to feel morally superior because he did not become a murderer as the other guy did? The oddity, however, is that neither individual behaviour nor the behaviour of our institutions - from the popular press to the highest courts of justice - have seemingly been remotely affected by the logic of the physicalist approach.

Jesus’ position on sin had perhaps a similar type of wisdom. His attitude seemed to be based on justice not being punitive but restorative, that is trying to mend relationships, to reconcile and help people move on, to enable them to live life more abundantly. The only “sin” is loss of contact with God. This simple message has been partly obscured by the mythology of both of the testaments of the Bible. Windross suggested that the “Fall” image was unhelpful. “The Ascent” might be regarded as more accurate. The extension of this myth into the concept of the atonement when crudely understood was also considered by many unhelpful.

But others were unwilling to dismiss these myths with the “arrogance” (one member’s word) that Windross does. Many people still find meaning in them especially as a way of coming to terms with their own failings in the sight of their God. All agreed, however, that we are captives of our own time and culture and also that rich myths are capable of reinterpretation as our times change. Modern psychology has clearly shown the damage persistent feelings of guilt can do to one’s mental well-being and Victorian attitudes found in many popular hymns now often repel rather than enlighten. Examples of Northern Ireland and South Africa highlight the beneficial effects of reconciliation contrasted with the corrosion of grudge-bearing. We are punished by our sins, not for our sins.

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