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America’s Biggest Problem

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Health care reform is an urgent issue. Millions of Americans are uninsured or underinsured. While there are differences about what role government ought to play in health care, there is nearly universal agreement about the need for reform. Yet health care reform is not our biggest problem.

The financial crisis that resulted from the collapse of the housing bubble has led to a worldwide recession. In the United States, unemployment has risen into double digits, and many people have stopped receiving unemployment benefits because they have been so long without a job. Home foreclosures continue at an alarming rate, and occupations once considered secure, still face further cuts. Yet the economic crisis is not our biggest problem.

Since the fall of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, we have fought to contain and eventually eliminate terrorism. Our efforts have certainly curtailed terrorist activities, yet we still face massive military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. In exchange for security we have given up personal freedoms we once held dear. Yet neither terrorism nor the loss of our freedoms is our biggest problem.

Our biggest problem is the oldest in history. It has been with us since the founding of our nation and will continue until history itself comes to an end. America’s biggest problem is sin.

Some people when they hear “sin” think immediately of sexual immorality. This sort of sin has been so long derided by our media that hardly anyone thinks of it as sin any more. As destructive as sexual immorality is to our health and to our future, it is not what I mean by “sin.”

Other people think of the long and varied list of things good Christians are not supposed to do: drinking, dancing, smoking, gambling, and using recreational drugs. Those who assiduously avoid such things certainly appear to have some form of godliness or holiness, but it’s a form our media have mocked until the very concept of godliness seems quaint, like the plain-style furnishings you can buy from Amish retailers. Neither is this what I mean by “sin”

I think of sin the way Heidegger thought of being thrown: it pervades our human condition. By the time we become aware of it, we are already guilty. If we look at the archetypal sin, the first one committed in the Garden (Genesis 3), there is nothing inherently immoral about it. Adam and Eve did not break any law that we would recognize as universal today. They didn’t steal of kill or lie or destroy. All they did was eat what God had forbidden, and they did so under provocation from a tempter who filled their heads with visions of God-like grandeur. What was so damnable about that?

In fact, the sin I mean is what we Americans regard as our greatest virtue. It is our independence from God. Throughout our history, we have been torn between our near idolization of independence and our acknowledgment of God (even the feeble, antiseptic acknowledgment permitted by our modern understanding of religious freedom under the Constitution). Our independence of God is our biggest problem.

Our prophets, instead of calling for national repentance, are too busy casting stones at their political enemies. Since we are evidently reaping the harvest of our greed, why are there so few Christian leaders calling for repentance and urging the church to serve those most injured by it? Why so few warnings about future judgment? Do we really think we can indefinitely postpone the payment for our sins? That the bill for the billions we are borrowing now to stave off depression will not come due at a most inopportune time?

Let us repent. The problems we have are of our own making. We have tried to do good on our own without God’s wisdom and guidance. Now we are trying to correct our mistakes without admitting our guilt or asking for help. Let us repent as a nation. Let those of us who believe in God turn to him on behalf of those who do not. Let us stop castigating our political opponents and acknowledge that we ourselves have been guilty of independence from God. Let us plead for his mercy and grace. Let us serve the poor and share with those in need. Let us practice true religion (James 1:27). A humble, penitent, obedient church might once again display the power of God to a watching world.

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Myth vs. Fact

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I’d like to recover myth.

Some regard the first few chapters of the Bible as history. Others regard it as myth. Those in the history camp fear that those in the myth camp are denigrating the truth of the Bible. They think the only way for those chapters to be true is for them to be historically accurate. Those who claim that the stories are myth mean to claim something far greater than historical accuracy. They claim that these origin stories tell us enduring truths about the nature of man and the nature of God, the nature of sin and the nature of innocence.

One of the tragedies of our modern era is that we no longer believe in myths. Instead we believe in scientific verities, cold and soulless facts. Myth has two features that facts lack: Myth encapsulates truth in story, and it addresses our hearts not just our heads. We need myth to help us understand the mysteries of the world we live in.

I love science. Anyone who has followed my blog knows that I am a fan of science and of scientific thinking. But science cannot capture everything. Even if it were able to do so, it’s voluminous collections of facts would still fail to move me the way a good story does. Science gives us control or—more properly—the illusion of control. We can make engines do our bidding. We can make computers do massive calculations on our behalf. We can dig great holes, launch great ships, capture the light of galaxies too far away for our minds to grasp the immensity of the distance. We can travel to other planets and shrink our senses down to the perception of individual atoms and molecules. Science gives us the ability to do all these things.

Wonderful as science is, though, it cannot give us control over ourselves—or if it does, we find the cure worse than the disease. We still have widespread conflict over paltry differences like skin color. We still have envy, greed, lust, pride, sloth, wrath, and gluttony. We can no more change our fallen nature than we can change our DNA or the color of our blood. We need truth that goes beyond the facts that science can teach us.

We need the delicate power and transformative whisperings of myth, of story. Look at how much of the Bible is couched in narrative. Feel the way it insinuates its way into your thinking and understanding, so that you become not just a consumer of a fiction but a partaker of truth, an imbiber of intoxicating revelation. This happens even without any appeal to the Spirit, whose mysterious instrumentality is to take the words of this myth and sow them like seeds into your heart, water and nurture them until they grow into a changed life.

We need myth because it is truer than history and more comprehensive than scientific fact. Myth helps recreate us. It instructs us in the ways of a universe otherwise impossibly strange, unaccountable to us, and indifferent to our sufferings. Myth is true, and the truer a story is, the more mythical it becomes, until it becomes a part of the great Story that God has been telling from ages past, a Story of Love and Death, of Pride and Sacrifice, of Grace and Judgment. True myth always illuminates the Story of God.

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Values Clarification

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I’ve been through half a dozen values clarification sessions in my life. I never liked them. For one thing, I never thought they helped clarify anyone’s values. Typically, the group is presented with a hypothetical scenario requiring the sacrifice of one or more members to guarantee survival of those that remain. Because the scenarios are always hypothetical, they always lack the real detail of a genuine situation. They force you to make decisions based on stereotypes when a real situation would require a much more complete and nuanced understanding. In addition, since no one really dies, the entire process is overlaid with a sense of academic curiosity that I find repugnant. We sit in our group calmly rationalizing the relative value of this or that human being based on gender, race, age, occupation, general knowledge, or usefulness to the group all the while knowing full well that the value of each one is incalculable. The values that become clarified are the values of those who devise the experiments.

God seldom asks or answers hypothetical questions. He has a way of asking very pointed and practical questions: Where are you? Did you eat the fruit I told you not to eat? Where is your brother? What do you see? Is the maker of the eye unable to see? Do you want to be well? What do you want?

One of the classic questions aimed like an arrow at Christians is this: What about those who have never heard of Christ? Are they condemned because of their ignorance? Behind such questions is a silent accusation of injustice. If God requires faith in Jesus Christ for salvation, then those who have no opportunity to hear of Jesus certainly cannot believe in him and must be condemned. This certainly seems unfair. Why would a just God condemn those who have not heard along with those who have willfully rejected Jesus?

The Apostle Paul tackles these question in the book of Romans. He makes clear that there is no such thing as simple ignorance. Instead, Paul says that people “suppress the truth by their wickedness.” He claims that “God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” The visible and tangible world testifies to the invisible God. Of course, there are many today who claim that nothing can be known of God—not even whether he exists—based on examination of the natural world. But such claims are based on an incomplete epistemology, one that tends to emphasize method and ignore the knowing subject. Besides, Paul says of those who persist in godlessness that “their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” They become unable to know God through his handiwork.

Nevertheless, Paul tells us that we will be judged according to what we have done, not according to what propositions we have given mental assent to. Those born under the Law—Jews—will be judged by the Law. Those who do not have the Law will be judged without the Law. Paul’s position is that everyone—with or without the Law—has done things they know they should not have done. They have acted from selfishness, meanness, cowardice, or malice. Those without the Law will be judged by their own guilt and by their hypocrisy, since they have condemned in others what they themselves have done. This fact, that none of us lives up to our own standards to say nothing of the standards of others, is an important clue about our human nature. Something in us demands perfection, and we are not up to it. What is this something, and where does it come from?

So there are no innocents undeserving of condemnation. Yes, there are some who are ignorant of Christ, but their ignorance is culpable, and they will be judged according to what they know, not according what they do not know. But what of you, O Accuser? If you are really concerned about those who do not yet know Christ, are you spending yourself as Paul did to bring the knowledge of the gospel to them? Or do you seek to divert God’s attention from your own sin by accusing him of injustice? There are some who have not heard Christ, but you have heard. What will you do with what you have heard?

Clarify this.

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