10 March 2009

Sin is Bad, Really, Really Bad

Some of my favorite lines from movies are the short, overly simple ones. The founder's statue in Animal House with the quote, "Knowledge is Good", or Spaceball's Dark Helmet's ominous (and false) statement just before he is defeated - "So now you see that evil will always triumph. . . because good is dumb." They are great line because they are so simplistic.

Here is one for today. Sin is bad, really, really bad. But it is true. Now, in general I dislike people banging on Postmodernism (because often people just look at the down side instead of how a Postmodern approach opens up avenues of discussion), but one thing we have seen according to the big religious survey is that less and less people claim to be Christian. I am going to lay this at the feet of popular Postmodernism.

Technically speaking, Postmodernism is really a skepticism of assumed truth - that just because a society or culture has said, "X is true" doesn't mean that it actually is true. What a culture believes could just be their perception. For an example - "criminals ought to go to prison" is not a universal truth, but a societal one. There are plenty examples throughout history where the typical punishment for crime in general had nothing to do with prison. Criminals going to prison isn't a universal truth, rather a "social construct" claiming to be truth. It is an idea our culture has. . . cultivated. Now, Vulgar postmodernism blows beyond this by assuming that ergo there is NO truth - classically speaking, Postmodernism itself just is skeptical and attempts to peel away the ways in which the understanding of truth has been culturally manipulated. Cultures and the people who shape them gain influence and control by manipulating social constructs (if interested, Foucualt's "Discipline and Punish" is an accessible place to start to look at scholarly postmodernism - but it still is a nasty hard book to read). This approach has impacted the way people perceive their religion.

It is true today, my generation and younger are more apt to be skeptic and simply assume that what their parents said is not true. They are more apt to claim no religion. Does this mean that there are suddenly less Christians now than there were say 20 years ago (what was it 88% to 75%?). I'll argue no - it just means that there are less hypocrites and works-righteous Pharisees who vainly try to live up to false standards. It means that there are less people who simply claim to be what their parents were because of cultural expectations.

I would contend that the actual problem has remained the same - be it now, be it 50 years ago when the religious elite were rubbing their hands together thinking about how to make Christianity relevant. It boils down to a simple truth that is Universal. Sin is bad, really, really bad.

Specifically, your sin. Your sin is harmful. And this provides our avenue of approach, I believe, in this era of skepticism. Truth claims about God and about what happened 2000 years ago can be brushed aside with ease today (just like they could in the Modern era, by the by) - and so can blanket statements of morality. Different cultures have different standards of morality - thus the claim that yours is right can easily be questioned. But what cannot be brushed aside (as easily, and not at the layman's level) by the Postmodernist is personal experience.

It's the second use of the Law. Show people their sin, and its negative consequences - not necessarily in terms of divine retribution or eternal damnation which they can't have experienced yet, but just in the sense that if you sin, it doesn't bring real pleasure. When you make that connection, when you can say, "On the basis of the long standing faith to which I hold, I can tell that ______ is actually empty and doesn't really satisfy you," and you are right, you have established a strong evidence of truth for the faith.

Sin is bad. No faith, no group in the world teaches the true impact of sin like Christianity, for not only is there the eternal aspect, not only is there the divine aspect, but with the examples of Scripture (especially of Genesis and the Old Testament) we clearly teach that when one sins one is never satisfied. The fruit always looks pleasing to the eye and sounds like a good idea, but it leaves you worse off than you were before.

Today, sin is downplayed - it becomes a matter of please yourself. We can show people why they are not pleased - and when they see their sin, then we can explain Christ the Living Water - then we can explain why we hold to this faith and the benefits we get from it. If part of what we teach is true in their life, directly and immediately true in their life, then they are prepared to hear.

Of course, this is nothing more than saying what we have been taught - you must preach the Law before the Gospel - but rather than being a stick that beats the person over the head, sometimes the preaching of the Law is finding the bruised and battered person and saying, "I can tell you why you are bruised and battered."

We as a culture don't understand, don't assume sin anymore - and we are lost as to why we are hurting. As Christians we know - and that will be our greatest avenue of approach to people - that will be what resonates. In a day when there are no truths and explanations, we know the Truth.

**Edit**

Pascal's Wager was a horrible thing. Why do we end up assuming that if we live according to God's Law here that we give up or lack anything? The gains of Christianity are not just a future matter - they are a present matter, and not in terms of "stuff" but in terms of peace and satisfaction. We gave ground we should not have given. Here my various strains of blood (including German, English, and Jewish) are in agreement - what good comes out of France?

4 comments:

Ezekiel said...

Of course, this is nothing more than saying what we have been taught - you must preach the Law before the Gospel - but rather than being a stick that beats the person over the head, sometimes the preaching of the Law is finding the bruised and battered person and saying, "I can tell you why you are bruised and battered."

This is an important point. In a culture without Law, lawlessness is not nearly so effective a paradigm for addressing sin. Doesn't mean the Law fails to impinge on us--only that it's perceived in different ways, like Luther pointing out how a rustling dead leaf can convict the pricked conscience.

In his book "Not the way it's supposed to be", Cornelius Plantinga addresses sin in terms of a "vandalism of shalom". From such a paradigm, we can reason with the postmodern person inductively, from the state of a broken world (and, by implication, a broken self) to its diagnosis--rather than deductively, from the diagnosis in the law to his state of sinfulness. Both methods are legitimate, but will be more or less effective on a culture by culture basis.

Vicar Tinetti

TruthQuestioner said...

"But what cannot be brushed aside (as easily, and not at the layman's level) by the Postmodernist is personal experience.
It's the second use of the Law. Show people their sin, and its negative consequences - not necessarily in terms of divine retribution or eternal damnation which they can't have experienced yet, but just in the sense that if you sin, it doesn't bring real pleasure. When you make that connection, when you can say, "On the basis of the long standing faith to which I hold, I can tell that ______ is actually empty and doesn't really satisfy you," and you are right, you have established a strong evidence of truth for the faith."


I'm not sure I understand exactly what is being stated here. So I'll try to explain my confusion in two questions.

Can we only establish truth for the Postmodern on the basis of Experience? Should we?

The issue of Personal Experience bugs me a tad, like a pesky mosquito that refuses to land...

The mosquito bites me in two places:
1st. Just because you have experienced it doesn't mean that your experience holds true for me. Your personal "societal culture" could be just as separate from my personal "societal culture" as an Arab's from a North American's. I'm so glad that you have found your way - maybe it'll work for me, maybe it won't. Truth based on personal experience doesn't create a common truth if the experience isn't the same for everybody. It creates a personal truth. Even if everyone found the same truth by experience, there is a huge difference between a collection of individually discovered truths that happen to be the same, and communal inhabitation of a single solid truth. It seems to me that while experience can serve well to support, illustrate, and convince of truth, it is a very weak basis on which to build a universal truth.

2nd. If we start explaining sin based on personal experience, would it be a big leap to begin explaining salvation based on personal experience? If I know sin is bad because bad things happened because of it, will I know that Jesus is good if good things come from Him? Good things do come from Jesus, but sometimes it takes awhile before one can recognize these good things. Also, a relationship to Jesus based on a "trying him out by experience" to see if He really is good does not seem to be faith. Is it? To be sure, we do "experience" Jesus, but what sort of experience and what is it's relationship to Law and Gospel? Salvation based on personal experience seems only as steady as one's experience remains steady. (Been there, done that, it wasn't fun.)

Perhaps my biggest question behind all this is, how can we safely go about employing Personal Experience to serve the defense of Truth without making it the basis of truth?

Thanks, and apologies for the length of the comment,

Sarah

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Sarah,

Excellent comments and questions! Let me explain myself this way.

I am not saying that experience should replace or trump objective truth. Rather this: we live in a day and age where people are skeptical of anyone claiming to speak "truth". It can be cast aside as not applying to a person, and simply saying, "This is what God says, and therefore it must apply to you" can easily be ignored or blown off by a person.

This deals with the first mosquito - when I talk to person X. . . I might want to consider what X has done and how it has impacted X - and more importantly, how X knows it has impacted X. People suffer - and when X is suffering consequences and pain of sin - a relationship that tanked, heartache and pain, whatever - when X has that personal, experiential suffering I can then use that X's own subjective truth to then move to the Objective Truth of God's Word. Of course, X, doing Y had a bad impact, and I can explain just why doing Y doesn't satisfy on the basis of God's Word.

It isn't that we rely on subjective truth, but rather when someone has a subjective experience, we can and ought tie their own experience to the Absolute Truth taught in God's Word. Then the Absolute Truth isn't just something I hold on to, but it also is shown to explain their own situation. The subjective experience is a gateway that allows the discussion to be moved to the Absolute, even in people who might otherwise just write off any absolute claim. Does that movement make sense?

This ends up dealing with the second mosquito - we don't start at experience and just remain there - but rather we move to the Word. If the Word is shown to be truthful regarding the Law, then it is also truthful concerning the Gospel. Or to think of it this way - the personal sting of the Law that is experienced is something we can use as an on-ramp to God's Word. . . but we move onto the Highway of God's Word - not simply remain on the experiential on-ramp.

But you are right, that if we push experience to far with experience, bad things result. But when a person is in pain, we can say, "I can explain to you why you are feeling that way - and it all comes from God's Word." That moves God's Word to a truth that is bigger than either of us - a Universal Truth.

TruthQuestioner said...

Thanks. That cleared things up quite nicely. :D