Here follows a fabulous paper written by Anthony Woollard, editor of Signs of the Times, which was discussed at the meeting of the Modern Church Forum – a regular online meet-up of Modern Church Members and Affiliates. If you would like to participate and enjoy stimulating discussion based on interesting papers then please do explore how to join and email firstname.lastname@example.org
One of the pillars of the traditional Christian understanding of human nature is surely the idea that human beings are sinful – even “originally” sinful – and that redemption from this state is in some sense needed. But that concept seems to have become less and less meaningful, for a variety of reasons which this paper will explore. Not only is this so for unbelievers, but also for many Christians, at least those of us who would call ourselves liberal.
H Richard Niebuhr famously caricatured a certain sort of Christian liberalism of the interwar years as follows:
“A God without wrath brought men (sic) without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”
In short, Christian liberalism was seen to ignore “the dark side”, still riding on a wave of optimism and belief in progress which had begun in the Victorian era and its equivalent in the US and elsewhere. It is conventional to say that that belief was shattered by World War I, which in theological terms gave rise to Barthianism with its emphasis on the infinite difference between the Kingdom of God and human “progress”. As always, the picture is more complex, and it could be argued that important strands of “liberalism” redefined sin rather than ignoring it – as we shall see. Be that as it may, much of a pretty relentlessly upbeat kind was written, from theological treatises to hymns, before and after World War I, which ignored the dark side to the extent of giving this caricature some justification.
Has anything like the traditional Christian view of sin, then, still got an essential place in our understanding?
In order to consider this we must first look at what “sin” essentially is, and what it is not.
Some definitions of sin and its origins
Old and New Testaments contain many ideas about sin, not all of them, perhaps, wholly compatible.
One ancient and predominant idea is that of sin as an offence against the laws of an authoritarian and unquestionable God. The polytheism which surrounded Judaeo-Christian faith undoubtedly supported the idea of gods as making demands on humanity, sometimes capricious, which had to be obeyed, and any infractions of them required some kind of atonement. Perhaps that is still the popular understanding of “sin”. It certainly dominates the Torah and much else in the OT, and fits neatly with the rather transactional “merit” approach to sin and forgiveness which characterised much mediaeval theology and practice and which helped to spark the Reformation.
However, even in these “primitive” OT documents we see the emerging idea of a monotheism which is far from capricious and a God whose demands are far from exclusively negative. The Shema’ (“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart….and your neighbour as yourself”) implies something rather richer than anything likely to be found in pre-Judaeo-Christian religion. We are called to love, for God is a God of love, and sin is any offence against love. Laws and commandments are only justified insofar as they are a guide to what that might mean in practice. It is significant that a very common word for sin in the NT is hamartia – missing a target – which, whilst very challenging, sounds much less punitive than the largely offence-based OT approach.
Why, then, does love not come more naturally to us who are created (as we are told) in God’s image? The mainstream of Jewish thought does not focus, as so much Christian thought has from Paul and Augustine onwards, on some “original sin”, some primaeval breaking of a commandment, whose influence and whose guilt we all share. Whether or not there was, as in the Genesis account, a pair of “first human beings” who felt tempted to “be like God” and broke some commandment which seemed designed to keep them in their proper place – which all but the most conservative Christians would now regard as a fascinating myth – has never been of great interest in Judaism. The Pauline and subsequent emphasis on this seems to have sprung from a particular confrontation with holiness, in the person of Jesus, to which the only proper response was a new and radical recognition of “the exceeding sinfulness of sin”, together with Paul’s theological speculations on “the first Adam” and “the last Adam”.
But sin can be, and has been, summed up a great deal more simply: “Sin is selfishness”. And selfishness is real, and we become more aware of this the more we confront the Holy.
But where does selfishness come from? If God created all things, is there any sense in which God can be held responsible for our selfish tendencies? Some of the Rabbis thought so. Noting a rather odd “typo” in some manuscripts’ version of the Shema’ in which the word for “heart” (leb) is spelt with two Bs, they speculated that humans had been created with two hearts, or two “inclinations” – the “good” and the “evil”. The latter is, precisely, our tendency to self-seeking and self-preservation – which is actually, as they argued, needful to enable us to survive and to make the world go round (not much procreation without lust; not much enterprise without greed). Not very virtuous certainly, but having a place in the world as it is.
It is notable that such ideas leave no obvious place for Satan – a character who figures certainly in Scripture, as one who “puts us to the test” and worse, but is not the alternative principle of evil who appears in Manichaeism and elsewhere. If we want to see forces of evil, and of temptation, in our own lives, we can certainly find them. But the Rabbis were monotheists, and most of them would have no truck with the sort of dualism which appears in some quasi-Christian heresies and in some popular piety. It is worth remembering that Satan in all his dark glory does not appear in a truly developed form until the writing of Paradise Lost a millennium and a half later.
We can argue with the Rabbinical idea. We can say that it leaves too little place for the transformation of our inner desires. But there are two things that we cannot deny.
First, that it explains why such impulses are natural and even necessary in the world as it is – more healthy too, sometimes, that the individualistic moral idealism which Reinhold Niebuhr so cogently criticised in much of the religion of his time, which opened the floodgates to hypocrisy and unhealthy utopianism.
Second, that it gives to God’s own self a share in responsibility for what we call “sin”, as the 20th century hymn-writer Sydney Carter so clearly saw (“It’s God they ought to crucify, instead of you and me”).
But the old story of Adam and Eve does contain a theological insight as well as some psychological ones. Sin, ultimately, is putting ourselves in the place of God. We humans are not God: fact. We are described as “made in the image of God”, called upon to imitate and embody God’s creativity, even in what might be called moral matters, and I shall return to how a deeper discovery of that has contributed to the widespread rejection of the whole “sin” idea. But unless and until we face the fact that we are not God – that we are not our own idols, but finite and imperfect creatures – we will always get it wrong and manifest what Francis Spufford calls “the human propensity to f**k things up”.
Sin, guilt and blame: a digression on terminology
There are many words used in connection with sin which muddy the waters of understanding. Sin, we assume, implies guilt; and guilt justifies blame. But do these concepts – taken, like the mediaeval “merit”, from secular legalistic ideas of right behaviour and setting wrong things right – actually illuminate the debate from the point of view of the Christian Gospel?
In mid-November, Lorraine Cavanagh contributed significantly to the Modern Church blog in her theological and psychological attack on the “the blame game” as we see it in current society (and even in blog posts by others!) in the search for culpability for the climate crisis, for unjust and unhealthy economic systems, for racism and other forms of discrimination, and so on. In the world we live in, we frequently need to point the finger, and prophets from Amos to Greta Thunberg have felt obliged to do just that. But, as Reinhold Niebuhr so cogently argued, there is ultimately no-one who has a right to point the finger, for it is “moral man” (sic) who gives rise to “immoral society”. And the New Testament is clear that, however “inevitable” our individual and corporate selfishness might be, we remain collectively “responsible”. We have no right to judge or blame – even though we often have to do exactly that if society is to function. Ultimately, as the NT authors saw it, it is for God and God alone to judge, to apportion any guilt and blame. It may be unfortunate that such words have ever crept into Christian discussions of sin – even in such sublime statements of the Gospel as Herbert’s Love bade me welcome (“And know you not, said Love, who bore the blame?”), propping up the legalistic approach on which such highly dubious ideas as penal substitution are based. Lorraine recommends a turn from guilt and blame to responsibility, leading to reconciliation and atonement; and this is much to be desired, as retaining the seriousness of sin without all the guilt-tripping associated with preaching down the centuries.
The moribundity of “sin” as a conventional concept
The evolution of humankind, particularly in the past half-millennium and above all the past century, has had huge effects on our views about the possibility and desirability of “being like God”. We know things, and can do things, of which our ancestors could not have dreamt. We face moral issues and decisions beyond their wildest imaginations. The scientific revolution and the Enlightenment have opened up hitherto inconceivable possibilities. From the astronomer Laplace’s assertion that “we have no need of [the God] hypothesis” to Nietzsche’s vision of the Superman and Ayn Rand’s notorious defence of “the virtue of selfishness”, the idea that we can and must, as a human race, “be like God”, or indeed supplant God, has captured the imagination. And it has done so partly because there is some truth in it.
Bonhoeffer saw that particularly clearly. He knew all about “the dark side” at a time when few were fully aware of Hitler’s horrors. Yet he speaks of “man (sic) coming of age”, obliged to take a responsibility for the world which was indeed ultimately God-given but yet seemed to exclude any day-to-day necessity for God, who “allowed himself to be edged out of the world and onto a Cross”. We live with that, as we face the crises of our time.
Yet we are not God. And the dark side remains. Hence the Cross, where “only a suffering God can help”, not the omnipotent and omni-demanding God of yore.
Another factor, alongside the sense of a “death of God” in contemporary culture, is of course the influence of Freud and Jung. Those forces of evil and temptation which I mentioned earlier are today much mor likely to be seen in our individual and collective psyches, rather than in some metaphysical concept (a foundational sin and/or the influence of devils) such as the Church has historically preached. That does not mean that such forces are not real, transcending our little individual peccadillos. Indeed, such contemporary ideas might fit in somewhat with the Rabbis’ idea of an evil inclination.
A rehabilitation of sin – including original sin
Hence the concept of sin, and of our need for forgiveness and healing, remains. Our phenomenal capacities as human beings also include a phenomenal capacity to “f**k things up”, as the climate crisis has particularly demonstrated.
The doctrine of original sin is often seen is something primitive and brutal – and, in terms of the Genesis myth, it is, because it is based on the assumption of a God who appears to be characterised more by jealous holding on to power than by love. Trying to explain to the parents of a baptism candidate that their child was “conceived and born in sin”, as a rather conservative curate tried to do in my own parish (he got his comeuppance), is unlikely to be perceived as a manifestation of Love – and the striking fact is not that so few children are baptised these days but that, at least in some parishes, so many are. But in fact original sin is a merciful doctrine. It says that the various messes we are in, or get ourselves into, are not all down to us personally, but rooted in something infinitely far back in time – the rabbis’ “evil inclination”, or, if you prefer, the Irenaean (and Teilhardian) insight that we were created imperfect so that we might grow into perfection. And as Christians we can argue that in some mysterious way, beyond the scope of this paper, all that has been redeemed in Christ. Reminding people that we human beings are not God, and, even despite the responsibilities now laid upon our race, do not have to try to be God, but that we can live together in a community, a “story”, a “process” which leads to an unimaginable fulfilment, seems to me to be genuine Good News.
To be sure, such ideas can be seen and used as reducing the sense of individual responsibility for the betterment of the world. But the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-collector might remind us, just as Niebuhr has done, that too acute a sense of such responsibility can lead to the worst sin of all, the sin of pride, leading to a holier-than-thou attitude and a dismissal of others, and blindness to our own flaws.
I referred earlier in this paper to the fact that some, at least, of those who could be called “liberal” Christians may have redefined sin rather than defined it away. In addition to the afore-mentioned influence of Freud and Jung (most powerfully reflected for Christians, in the mid-20th century, by the work of H A Williams), I had in mind precisely the recognition that sin is a social matter as much as an individual one. That, in turn, reflects a recognition that sin is not all about sex – a popular misconception which at times the Church has done too much to encourage – and that systematic greed, prejudice and the like are at least as serious a manifestation of our human flaws. That is perhaps more recognised today than it was in the Niebuhr brothers’ time – partly in response to their own work. It may attract more recognition, in the times we live in, than the obsession with sex that has so often characterised discussions of sin. And it may also generate more commitment to world betterment, as it has done amongst many liberals. But, of course, all sin has both a communal and an individual dimension. If it is true that the human race as a whole, and the various institutions and groupings within it, are not God, it is equally true that you and I as individuals are not God – though all of us sometimes behave as if we are. So, as individuals and as communities, we still need forgiveness and healing.
And finally, returning to the tension between good and evil inclinations, a compassionate doctrine of sin (original and otherwise) helps us in coping with the problem of mixed motives. Much of the highest Christian teaching is about motivation, but, despite the exhortations to be pure in heart and single-minded, we all know that our motivations – like the wheat and the tares in the parable – are often, if not always, a total muddle, with the “good” and “evil” inclinations all confused. I do not think that I have ever heard a sermon that really focused on this mixture of motivations, yet coming to terms with it is central to our spiritual growth. Recognising that this is the way we are as human beings, and finding acceptance and forgiveness for it, is surely at the heart of any Gospel worth preaching, and a source of true liberation which may lead to greater purity of heart and ultimate healing and transformation.
We therefore need to talk about sin. But we need to find ways of differentiating the Christian view of it from the falsities of the past. Sydney Carter (and following him, John Robinson) famously wrote:
You can blame it onto Adam, you can blame it onto Eve;
You can blame it on the Devil – but that I can’t believe.
Neither can we. But we must beware of throwing out the baby with this singularly dirty bathwater.
The crucial question for discussion is precisely how we can and must talk about sin. I hope that this paper may have provided some clues.
 This perhaps also fits with Rene Girard’s vision of the human condition, with the importance of mimesis – imitative competitiveness in the struggle for survival – and the creation of tensions which are only resolved by a perfect Scapegoat. It is interesting that Girard’s approach not only assumes a “primal sin” but also an understanding of atonement which is in many ways more satisfying than some of the traditional Christian models. Girard may be an important reconciler between “orthodox” and “contemporary” views of sin and of the human condition more generally.
 Or even the total abolition of Self, a theme which appears from time to time in Christian ethics and spirituality, not only in Gospel sayings but in such phrases as Julian of Norwich’s “self-naughting”. It is hard to tell sometimes whether this idea is a typical Hebraic exaggeration of a fundamental challenge, like the advice to “hate one’s parents” and follow Jesus, or a form of crypto-Buddhism in which Self needs to be done away with literally and completely if salvation (nirvana) is to be found. Christianity is not Buddhism, however, and there seems to be within it a continuing affirmation of created selves. So “transformation” would appear to be the better word to express how these necessary drives need to be dealt with.
 Spufford’s book Unapologetic is another helpful source, alongside Girard, for understanding the human predicament today, and one which I would not be ashamed to give to a sceptical enquirer.
 Rand is a fascinating case study of modern secular moral philosophy (though out of line with the mainstream) if only because of her great influence on some right-wing politicians. She could be said to be arguing that the Rabbis’ “evil inclination” is what is good, and the “good inclination” (idealism and altruism, which she admits exists) is what is evil! Some might call this the ultimate immorality: “Evil, be thou my good”. And yet, could it not be held that Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Christian realism”, for example in Moral Man and Immoral Society, is also rather hard on (some manifestations of) the good inclination and a little soft on the evil?
 One might note here the notorious reference by another non-believer, Philip Larkin, in This be the Verse, to what your Mum and Dad do to you (and what was done to them in their turn). Perhaps that is evidence that, even in the most secular circles, some concept of original sin may be seen as relevant – and, maybe, merciful.
 There is not space here to analyse in detail how this misconception arose. It seems to be mainly the result of Hellenistic influence more than Judaic; the OT shows little sign of it. That said, Paul was not wrong in his observation that the sexual side of our life touches our very existence and identity particularly closely, and therefore any hamartia in that area – all the more, perhaps, in a patriarchal society – may have particular significance. As we move to a less patriarchal way of living, however, it becomes clearer just how much the historic imbalances of power between the genders can lead to the use of sex, and the condemnation of sexual sins as well as those sins themselves, as a means of control.