20 When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. 22 But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 6:20-23, NRSV]
Sin, in the religious domain, is commonly understood as the breaking of a religious or moral law. But when people sit down to say what sin is, and to have it clearly defined, we get pretty different results. There is a manifest split, it seems, in Christianity today when it comes to understanding what constitutes sin.
From the more “conservative” and “traditional” corner, Christians define sin legalistically as disobedience to God’s rules. We read the Bible looking for rules to obey. Anselm of Canterbury is a classic representative from this corner, describing sin as a violation of God’s honour, so that “sin and punishment” constituted the legal “satisfaction”.
From the more “progressive” or “liberal” corner, Christians define sin in humanistic terms as that which dehumanizes individuals and societies. We read the Bible looking for a perfect model of humanity to emulate. Jesus’ teaching on the “first law” is the law of love and his life exemplifies the Christian calling to “love God and love neighbour” (Mt 22:36-40). Worship is not an end in itself, but must ensue in works of justice, so that two categories of sin are here recognized: idolatry which violates the love of God; and injustice which violates the love of neighbour.
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, sin is an offense against God’s love for us and turns our hearts away from it. Like the first sin, it is disobedience, a revolt against God through the will to become “like gods”, knowing and determining good and evil. Sin is thus “love of oneself even to the point of contempt of God” (CCC, 1850).
Pope Benedict treats the subject of sin from another angle. He describes sin as the denial of our nature as creatures of God, and our refusal to depend on God. It is a forgetfulness of creation as well as our creatureliness.
What then are the standards by which we judge sin? Pope Benedict sees a lack of emphasis on the reality of sin in society. There is, he laments, even a deliberate attempt to tone down the concept of guilt, coupled with a tendency to explain it away in sociological and psychological terms. As a result, “good and evil” get turned into statistics only. Then, statistics shift our societal perception of what is “normative” or “non-normative” behavior, so that what was formerly not the norm has become the norm. Whenever that happens in society, people reject objective moral standards as “threats to their freedom”.
Morality, Benedict insists, is inherent in the inner goodness of creation. And yet, this reality has been so heavily shrouded in society. Turning to the thoughts of Simone Weil (1909-1943), he wants to stress that sin is something people hardly recognize anymore, except when “other people” commit sin. Conversely, people recognize goodness only when they themselves do it. Sin is real, even when people suppress it. It manifests in people’s readiness to demean others, to hold them guilty, to accuse society, and to change the world by violence.
It takes the Holy Spirit to “convince the world of sin” (John 16:8). Genesis 3, the Pope points out, serves the task of the Holy Spirit, not to humiliate us, but to convict us of sins, to bring us back to health; to “save” us now and on the last day (both existential and eschatological).
A Penitential Scripture
In this area of reflection, the first three chapters of Genesis ought to be treated as one unit. When we read them right through without pause, there is an inescapable and stunning impression that the narrative moves very fast indeed. The first chapter recounts the first creation story in which God created the universe in six days and rested on the seventh. The second chapter turns to a second creation story, concluding on the gift of man and woman to each other in community, setting off on a new life on their own, away from their parents. Realising that it was not good for the man that He had created to be alone and so desperately in need of community, God created the woman. Notice the jubilation when the woman was brought to him, quite similar to “Alleluia, praise the Lord” kind of stuff. Thank you, thank you, thank you Lord. For “this at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” And then they dashed into the church and made their mindless promises to treasure each other and all that, till death them do part. The marriage certificate was signed, sealed, and delivered in no time. They jumped into bed and the two became one-flesh. And then we turn the page to get into the third chapter, and at once all hell broke loose. Things fell apart. The centre could not hold. The great Fall had set in. Before the ink on the marriage certificate was dry, the avowed couple of one-flesh was heading to the divorce court. The speed with which the fall followed jubilation was quite stunning.
We have come to appreciate the writings of the renowned French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur (1913 – 2005) as being most helpful for reading Genesis 3 in a way that stands in sharp contrast to the traditional reading that is stuck in “original sin” and “the Fall” slant. His analysis embodies a deep spirituality. He reads the story as essentially a piece of penitential writing. Through his interpretive lens, we now comprehend the story of the “sin and fall” of Adam and Eve as penitential in spirit. That story, told in symbolic language, was penned by the inspired author to say sorry to God for spoiling the order and beauty and the immense gifts and conditions of possibilities God gave us “in the beginning”. We acknowledge that what God gave us in the beginning was “very good”, but it is we the human creatures who have spoiled things, because of sins. We must see clearly that it is human sins that break the relationship with God, so we may comprehend the theological truth about sin being first an estrangement from God in vertical relationship before the breakup of the “one flesh” in horizontal relationship. Then, we may learn to stop blaming God for the woes in society and in our lives, and proceed on to assume responsibility for our own mistakes, to re-member again, what God has given us, and to try and do better.
On Human Freedom
Two stand-out images in Genesis 3 are the garden and the serpent.
The garden is the image of the world created by the will of God. It is our home. So long as we recognize the world as gift, we would not want to mindlessly exploit it, but to build it up according to the will and governance of the Creator. The world would by no means be seen as a threat but a gift and a sign of the saving and unifying goodness of God.
There is trouble lurking behind all this. The “serpent”, symbolizing the trouble-making, evil-creating reality in human existence, whispers to the human being. Evil seeks us out, persuading us to abandon fidelity to the distant God who has nothing to offer but impose unnecessary restrictions.
The kernel of the temptation Genesis 3 awakens us to is that it persuades us to take a plunge headlong into the crazed freedom and enjoy a life that supposedly knew no bounds, “beyond the limits set for it by God at creation” – per Westermann.
The serpent is the symbol of wisdom and attraction of the fertility cults raging in popularity at the time when the creation narrative was taking its final form. It is the symbol of attraction of other religions, in stark contrast to the mystery of the God of the covenant.
Notice how the serpent worked its scheme of temptation: it is from trust to distrust. Temptation does not begin with a denial of God and a fall into outright atheism. The serpent in Genesis 3 does not deny God but starts out with a seemingly reasonable request for information which is actually a trick to lure him or her from trust to distrust.
And so, Pope Benedict warns, the first thing is not a denial of God, but doubt about His covenant. Once that doubt gains a foothold, a host of things follow. This doubt leads people to build their own worlds, to be dependent on themselves, accepting no limitations to their existence, no limitations imposed by good and evil, but desiring and demanding freedom from limitations in all forms.
A case in point is the field of technology. The temptation is seen in humanity mindlessly retreating into the realm of what they are capable of producing with the help of technological tools. Creation with its good and evil, must always be present as their standard. They deceive themselves when they reject these standards. This resonates with a major point stressed in Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’.
This, Pope Benedict insists, is the first and most important thing we learn from the story of Adam, “and it has to do with the nature of human guilt and with our entire existence.” To be human is to accept our creatureliness. At the heart of sin lies human beings’ denial of creatureliness. That’s when human beings want to be God, resulting in a refusal to accept the standard and limitations implicit in creation.
On Original Sin
Genesis 3 is teaching us that sin begins with a broken relationship with God, and then followed by a broken relationship with each other. Reconciliation must start with a return to God.
According to Pope Benedict, that broken relationship precipitates from a forgetfulness and a denial of human creatureliness, which effectively abandons or puts in doubt the order of creation covenant.
A refusal to depend on God’s love results in human displeasure in seeing their work as slavery. All this, in Pope Benedict’s perspective, is the direct result of a denial about the truth of oneself – one’s creatureliness. Sin, for Pope Benedict, is precisely this renunciation of truth. So now, we can see the deeper meaning of Genesis 3:3, that is, when we deny our finitude, we die.
Notice carefully how Pope Benedict presents “original sin”.
- Created in imago Dei, we are relational beings. We relate with God, with ourselves and with the world.
- And yet, what we see in the world is extreme individualism!
- Sin is the damaging or the destruction of relationality. Sin is always an offense that affects others, that alters the world and damages it.
- This broken relationality stands at the beginning (“Adam and Eve” time) of human life on earth.
- Furthermore, from the moment a person is born, he or she is confronted by a sin-damaged world, in which relationality has been hurt.
- We can only be saved when we renounce the madness of autonomy and self-sufficiency.
How might we understand “original sin” in a more practical (existential) way?
Recall St Anselm’s analysis about the effect of sin as causing disturbances to the beauty and order of the universe. Even after one stops the sin, its consequences are left in society. The human environment is forever marked by the effects of sins. Hence, every human life is born into this sin-damaged world. This “darkened” reality stands at the origin, the beginning, of every human life – their coming into existence on earth.
Individualism [me, me, me] crowds out communal consciousness [concerns & solidarity for others’ sake]. Moreover, the individualistic mentality that stands at the origin of a sinful world further relativises the concept of “sin”. As objective norms are set aside, individual ‘conscience’ and subjective morality rule the day. We each make up our own rules along the way.
To counteract this, Pope Benedict in this book on creation theology and Pope Francis in his encyclical on ecology, Laudato Si’, offer the same lesson for spirituality – putting relationships first.
Furthermore, Pope Benedict sees the New Testament’s response to the Old Testament account of the Fall best summarized in the Christological hymn in Philippians 2:5-11 on the kenosis of Christ:
- instead of grabbing, letting go;
- instead of privilege, sacrifice;
- instead of ascent, descent;
- instead of pride, humility;
- instead of status, service…
He describes Christ as the new Adam. The Cross of Christ is second tree in the garden, the tree of life, now approachable, and the fruit of the tree is the Eucharist, now offered to all.
Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, October 2017. All rights reserved.
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