Naïve About Sin
I was just reading the newspaper. I was not looking for any ideas for this inspirational reflection. I turned to the editorial section to read the piece by David Brooks. I like the way Brooks thinks, although I don’t share all of his political perspectives. I find that he is quite thoughtful, very articulate and makes me challenge my own assumptions. It is normal to be pushed to think more clearly and deeply, if we engage someone different than we are.
Brooks was addressing a new publication and labels the group, “The New Right.” I enjoy knowing about politics, but I am not interested enough to come to grips with all the nuances. In fact, I an old-fashioned enough to think I and all of us have a civic duty to be politically informed and active in governing ourselves. I guess I am still an old-time believer in democracy. Like so many today, I mourn what seems like the loss of civic intelligence and commitment.
So I was reading to be politically informed more than anything else. And then I hit a sentence that jolted my awareness. Brooks was speaking appreciatively of what this “New Right” was affirming. And then, he quipped, “conservatives should not be naïve about sin.” I almost laughed out loud. I did not laugh because it was funny or hilarious. But I was tempted to laugh because I thought it was so true and because I was surprised to find it in the middle of this kind of political editorial.
Brooks had an appropriate warning to this newer group called “The New Right.” What he did not say, but I suspect he would say, is the same thing about political liberals and all the other political categories we might cite or invent. I was intrigued by his use of the old-fashioned, theological word, “sin.” I would love to know for sure why he did it, what he intended by using the word, but actually that is not important for how he prompted me to beginning reflecting on his sentence.
I would simply take out the word, “conservatives,” and plug in the word, “humans.” As emended, the sentence reads, “humans should not be naïve about sin.” More thoughts began their run through my reflection, which by now had left the political realm and became spiritual.
I am confident that sin is not a political issue per se. It is a human issue. And because humans operate politically, it thereby becomes a political issue. I agree with Brooks when I hear him saying, in effect, don’t be naïve; sin is a human issue and should be taken seriously. This does not make him pessimistic nor does it make me pessimistic. To recognize the reality of human potential for sin is to be realistic.
I don’t need a complex definition of sin. For me sin is basically fracturing relationships. Those relationships can be with God, with others, with ourselves and with our world. So I can sin against God, against you, against myself and against my world. It does not mean I am destined to sin, but it does mean from time to time, I probably will sin. And actually, I assume the same about you and about every human being. It is not the way we were made, but it is the way we have become.
I don’t find this situation to be hopeless. But I also should not be naïve. Hence Brooks’ point. It means we should be willing to help each other be as good as we can be. It is an argument for community. It certainly makes a place for things like grace and forgiveness. And again, since sin is a human term and not just a religious or political idea, we have double reason not to be naïve.
It is easy to ignore sin because it is not in the cultural vocabulary any more. And I certainly am not arguing for everyone to begin using the word again. However, I am also clear that just because we don’t use the word, “sin,” any more, does not mean the reality is not there. Think about all the words we use today instead of the word, “sin.” We say, “oops;” Many people use swear words to articulate the reality of sin.
Sin is a human reality; what word we use to articulate it is a matter of choice. Certainly, there are levels of sin. There are little sins and there are the nearly unforgiveable ones. A mistake is diametrically at the other end from murder. But both can be sins. The language of sin is a shortcut way of talking about humans being a little less than perfect.
You don’t have to be religious to qualify as sinner. You simply have to be human. And because you might be religious does not by definition make you any less a sinner. The laudable human goal should be go grow, develop and mature in a way that makes sin less and less likely to appear in life.
The vision of many religious traditions and the best of humanistic tradition is a vision of people and societies that are just, loving and self-giving. Those have been called the Kingdom, Paradise and others. Clearly, we are not there. I am still not perfect. All this suggests that we should not be naïve about sin.