Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Whatever Happened to Sin, next iteration

In the 1970s, Karl Menniger published "Whatever Happened to Sin?" The book pointed out the ways in which culture had abandoned the notion of "sin" as an important category for thinking about what's wrong and why things go wrong, and replaced it with terms derived from the realm of psychotherapy.

I wonder if we're not in a similar cultural moment, one in which our conception of the "location" of "evil" is shifting. In classical Protestant terms, sin/evil is located in each and every one of our rebellious hearts; we need a Savior. The therapeutic revolution moves the locus of evil to maladjustment, bad parenting, low self-esteem, etc.; we need a therapist. Various other social movements will locate or "explain" evil in terms of large corporations, centralized authority structures, or authoritarian ideologies; we need a raised, revolutionary "new consciousness."

Information technologies offer a fresh "take" on the human dilemma. Sin/evil is caused by twinned lacks: of connectedness and of information. More than a few voices in the emerging church movement are calling into question our "standard" categories of sin/sinner, being "lost," and formulations of judgment and the possibility of eternal punishment. Several are advocating wholesale denial of the doctrine of "penal substitution," the idea that Christ bore the punishment for our sin; this, at least in a few quarters, is seen as "cosmic child abuse." A modified universalism--while no one is saved apart from Christ's sacrificial death, many (all?) are saved without knowing that their salvation has come through Christ--is gaining a fresh hearing. The idea of drawing lines that separate those "inside" from those "outside," the understanding that people who "don't know Jesus" are "lost," are being viewed as outmoded, unhelpful and possibly even evil.

So: do we have an opportunity to rethink and reformulate our understanding of sin, what it means to be a sinner, and what it means that Jesus is Savior? How might we respond to the cyber-optimistic contention that people are inherently good and desire to make a positive contribution to a community (the ideology behind craigslist or eBay or Wikipedia)? What are our emergent brethren onto that we (those of us who might not be sure that the emergent label looks good on us) ought to pay attention to in regards to sin and salvation?

14 comments:

Brian Emmet said...

Yes, I am guilty of overgenralizing and oversimplifying...but my post was overlong as it is! So have mercy on my suspect propositions and focus on the Big Ideas.

josenmiami said...

hi Brian,

before we start, I would like to hear from you an overview of what you have been reading or following in the emerging movement. I have tried to stay up with it, and I have read a few books ... but I am far from an expert on 'emerging' theology ...

you said, "Several are advocating wholesale denial of the doctrine of "penal substitution," the idea that Christ bore the punishment for our sin; this, at least in a few quarters, is seen as "cosmic child abuse."

I have come across some comments by some that have been critical of a rigid concept of "judicial atonement" (if I am remembering the correct phrasing) as -- and this important -- not wrong, but simply one-diminsional, failing to do justice to the fullness and richness of salvation by reducing it to a modern-rational formulation in juridical terms ... (we just lost the young guys, if we had not already :-( )

I would love for you to cite some of the sources who are "advocating wholesale denial of ... the idea that Christ bore the punishment for our sin" because I have not come across anything like that in any of the emerging literature that I have read.

Having been on the receiving end of a lot of negative spin and misunderstanding a few years ago of what we were really trying to say with 'shepherding' and 'discipleship' ... I want to be VERY careful not to do the same thing to a new movement.

one further thought ... in this discussion, it might be helpful if everyone will list the books they have read either from the emerging perspective, or about the EC movement.

I'll start... I have read three or four books by Brian ....hmmm... I just went blank ... its an Irish name..

- "A New Kind of Christian" and the two sequels,
- "A Generous Orthodoxy"
- "Jesus' Secret Message" (which I thought was excellent by-the-way).

I read a book by Dan Kimbel ... I think it was called "The Emerging Church"

Two books by Miller (altough I don't know if he is considered EC) "Blue like Jazz" and "Searching for God knows what"

I read "The Jesus Creed" by Scot McKnight, who is considered to be on the edges of the Emerging Movement ...but is thoroughly orthodox in his beliefs and would not even come close to endorsing the quote from you that I repeated above...

I have also been trying to keep up with 3 or 4 of the main EC web sites ... and have read some of their posts and position papers ... but I confess that since this school year began I have fallen way behind...

I have more I would like to add ... but this is getting too long so I will stop here and contribute more later....

Brian Emmet said...

I've read most all of Brian McLaren's work, although am probably behing on his last 2 or 3 books... Grenz's "Renewing the Center"... Grenz and Francke's "Beyond Foundationalism" (not that I understood a lot of it!) several critiques/assessments (+ and -) of the emerging church... a lot of NT Wright... RF Capon, who in some important ways anticipates the emerging church... Blue Like Jazz... several of Rodnet Clapp's books...some Leonard Sweet... when I get to my office, I'll fill in my bibliography further.

I believe--and please correct me if I'm in error--that Doug Pagitt has referred to penal substitution as cosmic child abuse.

I agree about the necessity of not attacking straw men, engaging in full and honest dialogue, etc. I may have gotten us off course in my comments about the emerging church, since I was interested in a wider conversation, and not one focusing primarily on emergence. I agree that much of what the EMC proposes is a rebalancing of emphases, not a wholesale abandonment of the doctrrine of the atonement.

Nevertheless, I maintain that we are witnessing a fairly broad and deep restructuring of how we--whether church, culture, EMC, whatever--think about sin and evil. I'm not bemoaning the fact, I'm observing it (if it is, in fact, a fact--and I'm happy to be called to account for that position if you think it erroneous) and asking for help in thinking it through and responding to it. I'm not even saying it's a bad thing (if it's even true), but I do think (if it's true) that it is a highly significant thing.

josenmiami said...

no, I am not saying it is erroneous... I had just never read anything like what you were saying ... I have not read Doug Pagitt.

I forgot to add that I have read Leonard Sweet.

I thought you were wanting to talk about the emerging church movement... perhaps I misunderstood? I'll go back and read the intro again.

My point is if we are going to refer to things that are being said by others, like you comment about something Doug Pagitt said ... it is helpful to name authors and books so that we can check it out.

I agree that there is a major change in the works... there probably needs to be a such a change... although, as with all change.. there will be good and bad, growth and error. And unintended consequences. I think this is a good thing for us to talk about.

j

John M. said...

I saw a quote recently that said something like "All of us are simultaneously seekers, saints and sinners." I found myself resonating with that idea.

Brian in answer to the current ideas about the "locus" of sin that you mention, I think they all have an element of truth: personal/ heart reality/responsibility, psychological dysfunction resulting from life circumstances, and social/corporate/institutional sin. They are all realities and all need to be addressed by the truth of the Gospel and the atoning work of Christ.

Of course humanity carries inherent and committed sin, but each human being also carries the image and likeness of his or her Creator -- which, in my opinion is not obliterated by either inherent nor committed sin. It may be terribly marred, and buried, but can still be found. Does the individual still need Christ's redemption? Of course. The image/likeness needs to be uncovered, renewed, restored all at once. And, let's face it, in our temporal state, it will never be perfectly reflected until we see Him face to face and become like him.

Brian Emmet said...

CORRECTION: it appears that Steve Chalke and Alan Mann (Brits, I think) in their book "The Lost Message of Jesus," coined the phrase "cosmic child abuse" to refer to understanding the atonement solely in terms of a narrow definition of penal substitution. Google "cosmic child abuse" to see some of the discussions...

I wasn't really wanting to focus on the emerging church in this conversation about how we understand sin, and thereby salvation, and thereby the person and work of Jesus. I think a wider discussion would better serve...

Michael said...

Brian,
Your comments made me think of George MacDonald as he struggled with some of the tenets of Calvinism in his day. Below is a summary of his thinking that I copied from http://www.george-macdonald.com/theology.htm. I have read many of his pastoral novels and I believe this is a fair representation of this thoughts.


He followed Plato in thinking that evil was, to a large extent, a result of deprivation and not depravation. Human beings sinned because they did not see the truth clearly, and to have a clear vision of God would mean that they would be so overwhelmed by his love, that all wrongdoing would be immediately set aside. Seeing right was the beginning of acting right, and Christ was the clearest picture of God given to humankind.

He rejected totally the doctrine of penal substitution as put forward by Calvin which argues that Christ has taken the place of sinners and is punished in their place recognisingthat in turn it raised serious questions about the character and nature of God. Instead he argued that Christ had come to save people from their sins, and not from the punishment of their sins. The problem was not the need to appease a wrathful God but the disease of sin itself.

Salvation is a process of evolution toward Christ-likeness. We are marred by the Self. Sin is choosing not to obey and conform to the will of the Father in response to which God must send his consuming fire to burn the evil out of us.

John M. said...

Thanks Michael. I love George McDonald's novels. In a post on an earlier thread, Robert made some comments on this subject (depravity, original sin) that I think fits well in this discussion and relative to your summary of McDonald. Robert could you reprise that comment or summarize it for is in light of this discussion. For me it was (sometimes still is) a revelation that their are other perspectives about sin and redemption that are still within the bounds of orthodoxy, but are different that I've been taught and taught as "absolute" truth most of my life. After all Augustine and Calvin aren't infallible are they?

Brian Emmet said...

Michael and John, do you know how MacD would have described/explained what happened on the cross? I understand that the cross is beyound "explaining"--it isn't a geometry problem to be solved--but the NT does give us several ways of approaching the meaning of Calvary. Do you think that MacD ended up fitting Plato into a Biblical framework, or the other way round?

josenmiami said...

while we wait for their response to your question, Brian, let me mention that I like Bob Mumford's approach to this issue. I probably cannot do it justice, but basically he focused on which direction are we headed? Are we turning inward upon ourselves, or outward toward God and others?

The cross, in my understanding, took care of Adam's sin and gave all of us a "get out of jail" pass in terms of original sin... now we have the option of appropriating it practically.

In my experience, those who call themselves 'Christians' sin almost as much as those who do not, but just more discreetly...and in more socially acceptable ways (glutonny and gosip rather than fornication for example -- although fornication is probably on the rise among Christians lately -- judgment is also another biggie among Christians).

So the issue for me is not so much the mechanics of how the atonement works on the cross...but whether we are moving toward God or away from him...

Brian Emmet said...

Thanks, Joseph...let's see if anyone else wants to weigh in...

Michael said...

Brian,
I have read MacD understanding of the cross and to be honest with you I have a hard time following his thought process.
As for fitting Plato into the Bible or vice-vers, all I can say is that MacD loved the bible. But he never saw as an end, but as a means to end, that is to know Christ and in knowing him see the Father. I remember him making this comment: There is only one thing in this life that can harm us and that is a wrong/poor view of who the Father is.
By the way I finally have a mug shot to go with the blog. I have upgraded!

Brian Emmet said...

Apparently the longer my post the shorter the conversation! A new and different topic invites your comment.

John M. said...

Brian, I have only read MacDonald's fiction, although, I was aware that he did not fit into the traditional Calvinist mold of his upbringing. Wikipedia has a good summary of his theology, along with several links to pursue. C.S. Lewis was heavily influenced by MacDonald's theology. What I understand is that MacD saw Jesus'death as conquering sin and evil, rather than appeasing God's wrath.