Sunday, October 30, 2005

The Nature of Sin

Well, daylight savings time just ended, which means . . . I suddenly have an extra hour to blog!

The idea of sin has been dancing around and around my head. I recently escaped from a truly horrible relationship. As I was leaving it, I found myself, time and again, doing things which I couldn't stand myself for. Not only that, but I was doing things which didn't seem to be like me, in the slightest. As soon as I was clear enough of this relationship, I looked back and realized that for the whole two and a half years of it, I had been doing this. I had been losing myself. It was only when I was partially free enough to realize it that I saw what I was doing, and was convicted of it.

Now this got me thinking on the nature of sin. Thomas Merton talks a lot about the self, and identity in God. One of his essays is called "Things In Their Identity." He says that (for example) an oak tree is always an oak tree. It is exactly what God intended it to be. It is fully itself, and can never be anything else. In the Islamic tradition, this is called an 'involuntary Muslim'. Muslim means 'submission' (which I find incredibly beautiful, by the way). A tree can not choose, therefore it is an 'involuntary Muslim'. Therefore its existence glorifies God.

Humans, on the other hand, can choose either to be themselves, or not. When we are not ourselves truly, we are not following God. At the same time (and CS Lewis talked about this as well, in the one chapter of Mere Christianity that I LIKED as opposed to the ones that made me want to hurl the book across the room), it is only in God that one can actually find or be oneself. It all ties together. Sin as turning away from God and our true selves.

At the same time, I was thinking on the nature of children, and the particular joy I feel in the last few minutes of meeting as they come in. This week in meeting I felt called to speak, and I mentioned the above, about being an involuntary Muslim . . . or not. And I also realized, and mentioned, that we are called to be child-like in our faith. And the reason for this, I believe, is that children are the best or perhaps the only human example of sinlessness. They cannot yet choose to be other than they are. This is why the children inspire me so, and why we are called to their perfection.

Speaking of being called to perfection, is it not that we are also called to a Christ-like perfection?

I know I am not an orthodox Christian by any means, and when I think of Christ I don't think of Jesus the man, I think of a state of being. We are called to become ourselves in Christ. Perhaps Jesus was the only adult man who walked on earth who ever attained this state of perfection, of being wholly himself. Trees do it and children do it, because they are incapable of not doing it. To be fully ourselves as an adult human . . . this is the nature of the child-like, Christ-like perfection we are called to. And it's not easy.

So this is what I got out of my relationship. I don't think it was specifically my 'fornication' (for instance) that was my sin. It was my turning away from God, in not being fully myself. It was in how the boundaries and deliminations of that relationship turned me into Other than what I should be.

Now, I was brought up Catholic. Being brought up Catholic, one is inclined to think about sin in terms of specific rules that one can infract. You break the rule (sex, for instance), it's a spot on your soul, it needs to be wiped away.

Interestingly, the Eastern Orthodox (and Jewish) tradition doesn't see sin like this. Sin's not about the specific rules at all, although they exist. It's any behavior which 'misses the mark,' meaning: draws the person in question farther away from God ('missing the mark' is how the word 'sin' is translated in the original Greek). It's not then that one needs to wipe the sin away. God already does that, unconditionally, because God loves us when we cannot love or forgive ourselves. It is that one needs to find the path again. Back to one's true self, and back to God.

As a brief coda to this post, these thoughts also led me to thoughts about forgiveness.

There have been few people in my life that I have been truly furious with, and needed to forgive (and by forgive I don't mean 'let the matter slide.' I mean the utter forgiveness in which one lets go of any need for apology or repayment). One of these was a person who brutally hurt my closest friend. I simply could not forgive her, for quite some time. I carried this grudge in my heart and could not let it go. It was only when I came to the full realization of my own sin and my own failing that I was capable of forgiving her. And this made me think that perhaps this realization of our sin is the core of humility, and that humility is entirely necessary for the act of forgiveness, or forgiveness becomes merely self-righteousness. I freely admit that pride is by far my greatest failing. I have so much pride. It is good for me to be reminded in this way to let go of my pride, and forgive.

Now if only I could forgive myself . . .

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Why I Am Not A Christian?

I don't call myself a Christian. In casual conversation, I tell people I am a Quaker, because this at least is true. If pressed, I will say that I am a pluralistic but still Christocentric Hicksite Quaker, and if that's not specific enough we have a long talk coming.

But I'm not sure where the truth in all this lies, or whether I have the right of it. My dearest friend is a Christian, in the Jesus Saves sort of way. I don't mean that badly at all: he lives out his faith with more love than I have ever witnessed before. We have long discussions about faith, and one of the points that it often comes down to is this: he doesn't believe that I am Christian.

Here is what I say about myself: I attempt to center my life around my faith. I don't believe in an all-knowing, all-powerful, Creator-God, but I believe in Something. I believe in a very certain Something. I believe that there are many ways to get at Something (I'm getting a little tired of the 'many roads to the top of the mountain' metaphor, but it gets the point across), but I also believe that spiritual dabbling will not work for me, or just about anyone, likely. I am going to choose one path and stick to it with all my heart.

I was raised Catholic, in that altar-server, I-want-to-be-a-nun sort of way. I've more or less always believed in a God of some sort or another. The metaphors and teachings of Christianity resonate very powerfully with me. I don't believe that they're universally true. I don't believe my atheist friends are going to hell. I don't believe that Jesus the man was the literal son of God. I do believe in Christ. I believe in Christ as the light that illuminates every man's soul. Christ as a state of being. Christ as a metaphor. I read the letters of Paul and am powerfully moved by his exhortations to us to become more, companions in Christ, to circumcise our hearts. I am constantly struggling to circumcise my heart. I am struggling to let go of my own will and be subsumed by God's (unfortunately, I get in the way far too often). If it wasn't so bloody creepy to say, "Christ is the center of my life!" I might do it.

But is this Christian?

My friend argues otherwise. He points out that a Christian is a follower of Christ, and that description does not fit me. I ignore plenty of things that Jesus said, like the bits about no man coming to the Father except through him, and the bits about Scripture being the word of God, and the bits about listen to the people I send (I like Paul's letters, but I throw his misogyny out the window). And I most assuredly do not subscribe to the 'Jesus is my personal Savior' bit. I don't even believe in Jesus as God. Christ, not Jesus. He says this is like kind of obeying the speed limit, or mostly not going over the double yellow lines in the road, or being a little pregnant. Either you are, or you aren't. Only 100% obedience counts.

On the other hand, isn't making oneself a living oblation 100% obedience? And why should it have to be 100% to begin with? And who came up with these rules? And why do I get so upset over it all? I don't even call myself a Christian.

And that brings me to the third hand. Even if the shoe fits, how could I bear to put it on? I want nothing less than to be associated with the sort of bigotry that seems to predominate among public Christians in this country, and maybe everywhere. I more than enthusiastically support the queer community in their struggle for equality. I subscribe to the Hilary Clinton school of thought when it comes to abortion- let's keep it safe, legal, and rare. I am an evolutionary biologist. I think school-sanctioned prayer in public schools is wrong. I am firmly in favor of the separation of church and state. Perhaps, though, this is exactly why I should embrace the label. Religion should be co-opted no more. (Did anyone else read the August Harper's?)

Then again . . . I have nothing but respect for the sort of Christian who practices what they preach. I know a number of rather fundamentalist Christians, and if I called them at two in the morning because my car was broken down fifty miles away, they would come pick me up in a heartbeart. And they have told me very firmly that it is offensive to the Real Christians (capitals mine) for someone like me, a poser, if you will, to call themselves such. And I wish to respect this.

How many hands are we on now? Five? Then again, I don't think they have a handle on the truth.

I've run this track around in my mind too many times to count. What it tends to come down to is this: I know what I believe. I am quite clear about these basic outlines, though the details are constantly being shifted and changed by the Light. Is the name so important? Perhaps I shall let my friends and companions argue over why I am or am not a Christian, and go my quiet way in peace.

I hope that's not a cop-out. I wish the way was clear.