Saturday, 19 August 2017

On Sin and the Liberal Quaker

Sin isn't something you hear liberal Quakers talking about very much. I suppose that is largely our modern tendency towards non-judgementalism, as well as the increasing tendency to avoid religious language. As most people think of it, talking about “sin” is talking about things that you are religiously forbidden to do, and we don't tend to do that any more.
However, there have been several conceptions of sin, even just among Christian scholarship. The various major branches of the Christian church have their own formal, theoretical conceptions, and practices stemming from these, while theologians have expounded their own views at different points in history.
Thomas Aquinas held sin to be contrary to virtue; referencing Augustine of Hippo, his Summa Theologiae describes it as being “word, deed or desire contrary to the eternal law”, seeing this as superior to competing definitions of it as contrary to reason, or as an offence against God. I must admit, with limited background in Christian theology, I find many of distinctions made in this analysis baffling, but an important distinguishing point seems to be that sins are defined and differentiated by the “end and object”, or motive, for the sin. Adultery is differentiated from murder not by the difference in the acts, but in the difference in why they are committed, in what the sinner seeks to get, obtain or induce by committing the sin. However, it does not require that the sinner conceives their act as sinful, and that sin may come from a misplaced desire to do good. Really, the whole text is a work of philosophical logic applied to theology, as much theological writing is, and I wonder if this might be part of the source of the objection to rational approaches to faith among Quakers, now and historically. It is certainly cold to me, and seems vastly inferior to drawing our understanding of the Divine, and of right action, from lived experience. Reason has its place, but cannot supplant that experience. However, I digress…
Catholic teaching draws much from Aquinas, with its own arcane distinctions, system of outward penance, and characteristic approach to confession. Original sin is central, as it is in most Christian denominations – whether they consider it in terms of inherited sin from Adamic descent, or inherent in man’s nature, as in the protestant emphasis on total depravity, though Orthodox churches view us today as only inheriting the consequences of that sin – principally death – rather than the actual guilt of it. Even when I do try to consider things from a Christian perspective, I find original sin a particularly unhelpful concept. That raises the question of whether I consider sin a helpful concept, but we'll get to that in due course.
In Judaism, any violation of the 613 commandments, or mitzvot, is considered by a concept analogous to sin – translation being a bit tricky. Terms translated as “sin” in the Jewish scripture can be more specifically translated as, variously, “transgression”, “trespass”, “iniquity”, or “go astray”. Jewish teaching divides sin into sin against God, or sin against fellow man, with the latter being more serious; while God can and will forgive sin against God, sin against another person requires making up for that sin as best you can, and ideally obtaining their forgiveness. This is reflected in the traditions around Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, where the day in question is about atoning to God, and receiving mercy thereof, but the day before involves asking forgiveness of other people, undertaking charitable acts, and otherwise atoning for your sins towards other people. Atonement and rights acts to counter the sin are necessary in order to escape the effects of that sin, and one may face consequences in this life to bring about atonement. Original sin is also an alien concept in Jewish tradition; people are born morally neutral, and all possess both yetzer harov and yetzer hara, both good and bad inclination. However, these are not identified purely with good and evil, but with selflessness and selfishness, and without the yetzer hara, many good things would not happen.
In the Old Testament of the Bible, the book of Isaiah, which is also part of Jewish scripture, we find the following:
Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear.
But your iniquities have separated you from your God;
your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.
For your hands are stained with blood, your fingers with guilt.” (Isaiah 59:1-3, New International Version UK)
This gives the clear idea that sin is an obstruction between a person and God, a barrier. That the difficulty in a relationship between a person and God, stemming from sin, is not a punishment from God, not vengeance or pique, but rather the sin creates a barrier, a separation. This is an interesting idea.
In both Hinduism and Buddhism, ideas related to sin are tied up in the idea of karma; actions that lead to negative karma could be seen as equivalent to sins. Natural law sets up a chain of causation between the “sinful” act and later occurrences in the life of the “sinner” – including occurrences after death. No deity is, nor need be, involved, it is a simple question of cause and effect. Indeed, in Buddhism, the “gods” (deva) are subject to karma, and are undergoing samsara, just as people are. The result of negative karma is not only negative consequences in this life or a future life, but a prolonging of samsara, keeping you further from nirvana.
And I could go on, through different faiths, exploring the different meanings from different denominations and different schools of thought within those faiths. This whistle-stop tour, however, shows us two things that seem to be common elements of sin, or of related concepts:
  1. Sin is “committed” by doing something “wrong” – breaking some law, commandment, or principle.
  2. Sin has consequences, be it in this life or the next life.
So, where to go from that, for a liberal Quaker? Particularly for a non-theist such as myself, not believing in any holy writ telling us how to act, but only the guidance of the Inner Light, which may guide each of us differently? We do not have 613 mitzvot, and even Jewish and Christian Friends, who may believe, inevitably to varying extents, in scriptural commandments, will not generally hold to them as inflexibly as some followers of those faiths outside the Quaker sphere.
Perhaps surprisingly, I'm going to go back to Isaiah. Isaiah suggests that sin hides God from us, so that he cannot hear us – or rather, that we cannot make ourselves heard. What if we take that concept, and turn it around, and see the consequence of sin as impairing our ability to “hear God”, or in my preferred terms, the consequence being an impairment of our ability to perceive the Divine? My feeling is that, as Quakers, one of our spiritual goals is to enhance our contact with the Divine; to be able to live in that light more of the time, and more consciously. Meeting for Worship, among its many purposes, serves as practice for that. Through developing that contact with the divine, we will feel the guidance of the Spirit more often in our daily lives, and feel that sense of peace and love pervading our lives – or at least, we aspire to do so. Many factors will promote or inhibit that development, enhance or impede that contact; perhaps sin is one of them. As we have no creed or commandments to readily apply, but we can judge, roughly, that consequence, we shall not produce a list of sins, but rather say that sin is recognised by the fact that it impairs that awareness.
Now, it cannot be fair to say that anything that impairs our awareness of the Divine; for example, mental illness can get in the way, I know from experience, as can stress, and the actions of others that we cannot be held responsible for. Differences in environment change our awareness. So this is only a way of recognising the effect of sin, not a definition of it. I wish I could find a form of words that would properly illustrate this, but I struggle to do so. Sin is, in this formulation, an action that results in the impairment of our consciousness of the divine, but not all actions that have that result can possibly be sin. However, those actions we choose for ourself, be they outward or inward, are the place to look. I know that giving in to hate, being cruel (perhaps for the sake of amusement), and being prideful certainly seem to make the Divine harder for me to perceive.
Yet what of guilt? Feelings of guilt can certainly impede our contact with the divine, yet many of us feel guilt at times others would consider inappropriate. You turn down a request for help from another person, you declare yourself unable or unwilling to serve when approached by Nominations. You are sure, especially after consulting other people, that you made the right choice – that agreeing would have done more harm than good. Yet it is hard to shake the sense of guilt. You may even feel some disapproval, maybe even reprobation from our community for that choice. Is this guilt a sign that we have transgressed by refusing, however certain we are that it was the right choice? I have no pat answer, but I do know that guilt is a difficult emotion. I have known times that attempting to commune with the Divine has helped me shed inappropriate guilt, or to realise that what I am feeling is not really guilt, but regret – I regret that I was unable to help. But if we refuse too readily, do not attempt to figure out what we can do to help, even if it is not what was requested, perhaps we have truly sinned.
If we start from this idea, that sin is that which impairs out contact with the Divine, can we get a clearer idea of Quaker sin? Can it, perhaps, help us better judge right action without requiring clear leadings for each action? Will we find that the “end and object” of actions affects the degree of sin, determined by this benchmark? Are we in a state of “original sin”, inability to make contact with the divine until we are redeemed in some way? Can we differentiate between difficulty perceiving the divine due to the state of the person, versus the attitude of their community towards them and their actions? I think it bears some examination and experimentation.
Disclaimer: the summaries of different views of sin in this post are a result of my own reading, and I do not hold myself out as an expert in any of the faiths covered. It is not only possible, but likely, that I have missed subtle points — and perfectly possible that I have gotten something fundamentally wrong. Please feel free to correct me or point me at some helpful reading, but please do so without being aggressive or confrontational. I hope that any errors I have made do not fundamentally affect the premise presented in this piece.
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