Tag Archives: christianity

Sin: A Dying of Theology

Why do people die?” It’s a question all must inevitably confront, and, if we are to live without paralyzing anxiety, a question all must paradoxically embrace and transcend. To pretend to know the answer to this question of why anything exists then ceases to exist is to perpetuate our enslavement to what Peter Enns calls ‘the sin of certainty.’ Obviously, we can never know why we die, only that we do in fact die. However, to ask this unanswerable question is crucial in learning to live beyond it. For all its virtue, the Christian Church has largely failed to accept this notion. Christianity has historically attempted to solve the mystery of our dying by conflating sin and death—just look at the theology of substitutionary atonement. This is largely rooted in particular Christologies that embrace the doctrine of original sin to a dehumanizing extreme. It’s crucial, then, that this outdated paradigm for understanding our finitude be deconstructed and provided with a more expansive alternative.

In confronting the absurdity of our questions we begin to wake up to better questions. To ask, “Why is there something instead of nothing?” is a sort of prerequisite to ask the more pressing question: “What do I do with this one life I’ve been given?” In the same way, to ask, “Was Jesus truly the Son of God, the Messiah that the ancient Jews eagerly awaited?” is to discover the deeper and more imminent question that Amma the Hugging Saint most profoundly posed: “The question is not if there is a God, but if there is suffering.” In learning to ask the latter, one can devote themselves to alleviate the sorrows of the world without needing to answer an impossible question about the divine nature of Jesus. As Chris Stedman, assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, writes, “The ability to act selflessly for others transcends religion.” What he points out is that activism is not contingent on belief. Sure, it informs the way we act in the world, but it doesn’t presuppose our ability to act. That notion is just used to trap non-theists in religious prejudice. Secular humanists arrive at this basic notion more naturally than even the most progressive Christians do. Faith is clearly learning to live without knowing, and until the Church embraces that, it will continue to perpetuate damaging theologies that attempt to provide firm answers to the fundamental mysteries and tragedies of life.

The question, “Why do people die?” is not a question of imminent significance—a better question might be, “We’re all going to die, so what do we do in light of this?” Unlike the former question, this is one that can be answered because it doesn’t hinge on objective truth. Here, we could explore the infinite responses to this simple question from the diverse perspectives of every world religion and nonreligious philosophy, and they would all be subjectively right for the sheer reason that there is no singular “right” answer. But for our purposes, we turn to the Christian perspective as a starting place.

Paul famously said, “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23 NRSV), but let’s ponder that for a moment. Is death actually related to human sin? If so, the implicit corollary is that sin is somehow related to deaths that are not clearly related to human sinfulness, e.g., the death of an infant or the assassination of Gandhi. What’s clear is that people need to have the ubiquity of human suffering acknowledged theologically, and perhaps this is in large part why the doctrine of original sin exists in the first place. But the Church would do well to tread carefully here because such sin-based Christianity is so concerned with explaining suffering through original sin that often it forces the justification of such suffering. Stanley Hauerwas thoroughly explains why this is problematic: “If we try to attribute these terrible results to God’s secret providence, that cannot help but make God at best a tyrant and at worst a cosmic torturer. What we must finally do in the face of… suffering…is to show the patience that does not try to discern any ‘purpose’ behind suffering, but without in any way caring less for [ourselves and others].” [3] Death is tragic, but it’s not a result of sin. That’s a crucial distinction. If this isn’t recognized, the Church is in real danger of disenfranchising those who suffer against their own will and lose the people they most dearly love. We will, in short, explicitly or covertly blame them for their adversities. It’s of incredible importance, then, that death is acknowledged as a phenomenon built into creation, but not synonymous with sin.

So what’s the alternative? How can Christianity inform the way we live in light of our death? What does Christianity have to offer us as finite creatures on a tiny rock of finite resources hurtling around an inhospitable void? It is, in its stark simplicity, Christ. Of course, for some, Christ has been so minimized that those seeking a more expansive worldview have rejected him entirely. Often one of the negative consequences of the doctrine of original sin is violent atonement theologies that are often used to say one’s suffering can be redemptive. This is dangerous and bad theology. Jesus’ act of redemption was a once-and-for-all act and none of us are called to replicate that in our suffering. The search for meaning-making out of suffering is an important one, but it is never appropriate from a third party perspective to impose upon another person a redemptive value to their suffering.

What the Church of the twenty first century needs is to move away an a priori reading of reality and reconceive of a cosmic Christ. Most of religion is ideological; it operates from a top-down model of God that is stuck in the pre-Copernican cosmology of a three-tiered universe. But what if Jesus came to enhance our humanity, to point us to a larger reality of God, and not as a one-time phenomenon, but as a manifestation of the divinity that has always been right there in front of us waiting to be seen? This would enable us to see God in the ordinary and to honor God in “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40 NRSV). Jesus could become, for us, the doorway to perceive everything as shot through with the glory of God, to see that every bush is burning and always has been. Teilhard de Chardin said, “Everything that rises must converge,”[4] meaning that greater consciousness and greater evolution is always a step towards greater unity. This Jesus transforms our psyche, expands our consciousness, and invites us to draw closer to one another, to be more deeply and fully human, not to atone for some unforgivable, inherited sinfulness. Until we conceive of this cosmic Christ, Christians will continue to conflate sin with death, sin with disability, sin with miscarriage, sin with chronic illness, and sin, quite frankly, with life, thereby perpetuating the disenfranchisement of those who so painfully endure suffering against their own volition. 

[1] This a phrase that Peter Enns’ coins in his book The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs (New York: HarperCollins, 2016). It’s used to describe the Christian tendency to retain theological certitude at all costs when the Spirit may be inviting us, through our questions and doubts, into a richer faith with greater spiritual depth. Insisting upon the order that we were fed in the earliest stages of our faith journeys makes us love order; it doesn’t make us love the crucified Christ. 
[2] Chris Stedman. Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious (Boston: Beacon Press, 2012), 109.
[3] Stanley Hauerwas. God, Medicine, and Suffering. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 89.
[4] From Teilhard’s essay “Omega Point” in which he lays out his theory of cosmogenesis, or evolution of the world. For Teilhard, the universe is in a state of progression in which human consciousness and evolution will ultimately converge, reaching its cosmic apex with the Omega Point, the Logos that was revealed through Christ. Some argue that his cosmogenesis errs dangerously close to transhumanism and the idea that prioritizing longevity of life through biotechnology is the real source of our salvation, but this is taking his theory to an extreme. Teilhard articulates a pantheistic reality in which Christ “comes again” whenever we are able to perceive the spiritual through the material world.

Same-Sex Marriage and Scripture’s Radically Inclusive Ethic

We live in a time where same-sex marriage is a heavily debated moral issue in the Church.  As Christians and as human beings in general, we all come to this issue with a deep set of presuppositions and convictions that cause us to lean one way or the other on the issue.  Sadly, this has caused a great deal of separation and division amongst the Church, which was never God’s intention.  I speak from experience, knowing a handful of same-sex couples that have been excluded from their church’s worshipping community.  This has always seemed problematic to me, seeing as we serve a God who is never pushing people away from salvation, but gathering people in as a manifestation of God’s promised future—something we call New Creation.  As believers, we can’t be oblivious to the fact that we have pushed homosexuals away from the community of God.  This comes from a deep-seated belief that homo-sex and same-sex marriage are inherently sinful.  These are realities that must be addressed theologically, in light of our scripture, since we can never know for sure what God thinks about an issue like same-sex marriage until the eschatological end where God reveals all as the narrator of our entire existence.  Of course, we should not be so excessively protestant that we attend only to Scripture for answers in regards to moral issues like same-sex marriage. However, it is important to know what Scripture has to say about moral issues such as this because this is our unifying text that we wrestle with as the global Church.

Let’s begin by making it very clear that the issue here isn’t over homosexuality.  That is a biological characteristic of someone, not a psychological error.  It is simply incorrect to say that homosexual individuals are confused, or to assume that they must have been sexually abused or parented poorly.  By asserting any of these things, we are removing ourselves from the conversation by our mere ignorance.  But, perhaps most important of all is that even if we ultimately decide that homosexuality is naturally sinful, meaning not part of God’s will, and that same-sex marriage should be illegal for this reason and otherwise, our end goal should be to love homosexuals as God’s beloved creation, not hate them.  But, just as we don’t say that someone’s very nature of being heterosexual is a sin, so we don’t claim that someone’s homosexual orientation is inherently sinful.

The presumption throughout Scripture is that God has a preferential option for heterosexual relationships, but at the core God values a certain aspect of relationship.  God urges against the disruption and damage of loyalty between people in relationship with one another.  The sexes involved in the relationship aren’t the issue; the values that are upheld in that relationship are what God is concerned with.  (Acts 4:32-5:11)  In Acts, the Holy Spirit breaks down previous barriers.  (Acts 10:14-15)  Peter says, “Lord, I’m kosher!  I’ve done the right thing!”  But the Spirit speaks to him and assures him that it’s okay to eat meat.  This was crazy because Jews were supposed to be Kosher.  It’s how they displayed their commitment to the Christian faith.  Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts those from every nation who fear him and do what is right” (Acts 10:34-35).  The Holy Spirit proclaims that nobody is born apart from God.  Nothing is impure.  What matters in a person is his or her faith and commitment to God.  There is no mention of the sort of sexuality that one must have.

Keeping with this unifying aspect of the Spirit as seen in Acts, Paul’s letter to Philemon emphasizes a similarly radical ethic that seeks to unite Christians regardless of their previous or present place in society.  Paul urges Philemon to accept Onesimus, his former slave, as a fellow brother in Christ.  This is synonymous with Paul’s vision for the church as a “koinonia of believers” (v. 6), which entails a partnership and unity amongst all believers.  Those who were once “far off” from the salvific qualities of God have now been reconciled and brought near through Christ into one household (Eph. 2:11-13).

What would Paul have thought about same-sex marriage?  We know that Paul is concerned with the qualities of the relationships within the Church.  His letter to the Ephesians emphasizes a social ethic and insists on the solidarity of the Church body being formed into the image of God.  (Eph. 4:1-6; 4:17-32; 5:1-5)  Essentially, he believes in reconciled relationships.  This has echoes of the Holy Spirit’s inclusive work in Acts 10 where it is revealed to Peter that God desires to save all people, and in fact nobody is apart from God.  Paul is in the process of continuing the Spirit’s work of breaking down barriers within the community of believers.  In his mind, the People of God are believers in the Lord Jesus Christ who lead holy lives.  It doesn’t matter what one’s ethnicity is, or where someone resides in the class structure of society, or what one’s sexual identity is.  What matters is one’s full commitment to God in all circumstances.

It remains true to Paul’s ethics not to condemn one’s sexual orientation.  Just like heterosexuality, homosexuality needs to be rightly ordered in order to abide by the holy values that God desires in relationships.  Sin does not reside in orientation, or even in the marriage per se, but in whether one’s life is rightly ordered.  They must think about other people in a way that reflects God’s grace, and mercy, and compassion.  All throughout Ephesians it’s evident that Paul has a deep conviction that one of the most important effects of Jesus’ dying and rising is a new humanity, a new sociology, where people that were once outsiders are now part of the community of God.  We are therefore called to reconcile relationships with one another and be an inclusive sort of people.  (Eph. 4:29-32)  A good marriage in God’s eyes upholds these values.  It brings together people that are dedicated to living out this way of life as a testament to the reality that God’s New Creation is starting now as a byproduct of God’s grace.

Jesus testifies to this in Matthew, and since Jesus Christ is God made flesh in the world, we need to pay most careful attention to his words.  We see that Jesus is clearly interested in the inward nature of people.  (Matt. 6:6)  The fact is that no single person has control over his or her sexuality, and so we should not be telling homosexuals to change the way they feel on a biological level.  This has caused so much pain for homosexuals.  I’ve heard firsthand accounts of this from close friends of mine that have been formed by churches for so long as people that regard the very nature of who they are as inherently sinful.  That’s quite an injustice.  We need to get far away from this idea that someone’s biology, the very thing that cannot be changed about a person, is what God wills us to change.  What we need to do is directly address the moral issue of same-sex marriage because, again, the issue isn’t homosexuality; the issue is the way in which gay people live, and the same is true for heterosexuals.

The qualities of a holy relationship, of a holy marriage, are the heart of the issue.  The beatitudes teach us how we are to be inwardly thinking about other people, and we can use this information to extract what constitutes a holy covenant relationship between two people.  Now we will take a look at Jesus’ moral vision for good relationships and holy thinking as made evident in this sermon, and begin to extract its relevancy for the issue of same-sex marriage.

Jesus quickly asserts his moral authority and gives a radical reinterpretation of the Ten Commandments of God given to Moses at Mt. Sinai.  Jesus makes it clear that he is interested in the inward nature of the people.  It is not just the act of following the Commandments that Jesus is concerned with.  In his mind, the very way in which people think about others is what God cares about.  For example, Jesus brings up the law that prohibits adultery and immediately says, “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28).  Jesus is presenting a sexuality of the heart.  He is proclaiming modesty rather than lust.  Jesus teaches us that what’s at stake in our sexuality is the way we regard other people.  (Matt. 5:27-28)  In his mind, the sin is in objectifying other people as merely sexual objects, and disregarding their feelings, their experience, their own wants and desires, and God’s profound love and intent for them as humans put on this earth for a reason.

Jesus even partners adultery with marital divorce.  “But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery” (Matt. 5:32).  What’s so interesting is that Jesus isn’t looking at marriage as a social institution.  He is viewing marriage as a relationship, and as a certain kind of relationship with holy qualities.  The people involved in the marriage are to remain faithful to one another.  They are to enjoy sex with one another only.  This is key to Jesus’ moral vision for a marriage, and a same-sex marriage should naturally abide by the same holy values.

Following in light of Jesus’ values on holy relationships, we now focus our attention on James—a believer who comes after Jesus and a biblical text of profound moral density that can speak both to the issue of same-sex marriage and to the issue of excluding same-sex couples from the Church.  James is particularly passionate about holy speech—a sort of taming of the tongue in order to bring about redemptive relationships and communities.  One of the key issues that James speaks to is false worship.  He says, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness” (James 3:9).  The issue is that often there is no evidence that our worship transforms us into people that resemble the God we worship.  James is asking us, “Where is the evidence that our worship moves us from where we are into a world of complete restoration, grace, and love?”

To use the language of James, “speaking up” about same-sex marriage is problematic when it actually excludes same sex couples from the Church because doing that covertly trains the entire congregation to hate homosexuals in their hearts.  Nowhere does Scripture encourage us to hate anyone.  In fact, Scripture is a profoundly uncomfortable text because of its grand message to seek complete unity with other people in the world, even to the extent that we love our enemies.  (Matt. 5:43-44)  Like James says, “When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal” (James 3:3).  If Scripture is about forming in us a holy conscience that is able to discern God’s will in any given situation, then the Church, as a liturgical institution that teaches Scripture as its main ethical resource, will be forming Christians that wholly believe that God doesn’t love homosexuals if it is choosing to exclude homosexuals from its community.  I have no reservations in saying that excluding same-sex couples from our Churches is a sin because it is doing absolutely nothing to seek the community of unity that God intends for us to live into as a microcosm of God’s kingdom.

The fact is that we don’t know what God’s will is for homosexuals; therefore we have no place in excluding them from the worshipping community of Jesus Christ.  James is communicating that too often we assume that we know what the will of God is for a moral issue, such as same-sex marriage, when the reality is that we’ll never know for sure, and thus we ought to focus primarily on how we love others in a way that harvests shalom even if they may be very different than us and believe very different things than us.

I find it fitting to end this biblical exploration into the moral issue of same-sex marriage with the ethics of Revelation—the final book of the Bible.  Like James (James 1:1-21), the Book of Revelation, written by an imprisoned believer named John, is written to Christians in trial and suffering for their faith.  There are lots of polarities in this book, lots of directly contrasting images—the self-indulgent city Babylon versus the pure city Zion; the Beasts who rule this world now versus the Lamb who will one day be crowned king (i.e. The faithful woman and her children versus the anti-God Dragon in Rev. 12 & 13).  What they do is force the readers to make a choice about which side they’ll take.  And it’s not merely a book with future implications, but one in which our very actions in the present are influenced by if we let them.  The overall message is that God will take all of the brokenness of our world and heal it, transforming and restoring our reality, as we know it now.  (Rev. 7:15-17; 8:15-17; 21:22-28; 22:1-5)  Therefore we are called to identify ourselves in that coming reality and live into that eschatological end as if our destiny is already our present condition.

It’s my contention that this speaks to how we are to treat homosexuals.  If we truly believe that God’s will and ultimate plan is to bring us all together and reconcile our relationships, then we cannot live any longer as a body of believers that pushes homosexuals away from God’s community.  Jesus’ description of the eschatological City of God (Rev. 22:7-16) is intentionally spoken with present tense.  We need to be the sort of people that recognize all people, regardless of their sexual orientation, as part of the family of God.

It’s probably obvious at this point that I have a deep conviction that regardless of whether we believe same-sex marriage is a sin or not, we should be welcoming same-sex couples into our Churches because, like James and the rest of Scripture teaches us, what’s really at stake in the Christian life is the qualities of our relationships and our inward thoughts towards other people, not our sexual orientations.  (James 3:13-17)  We can never say for sure how the Holy Spirit regards same-sex marriage or any other issue, for that matter.  But, how are we showing concern for the qualities of people’s relationships and are we being too quick to say, “You’re wrong and I know one hundred percent that God agrees with me, so I’m going to close the Church doors to you”?

The issue isn’t about the sexes involved in the marital relationship; the issues are the qualities of the relationship.  God’s will is that marital relationships are the basis for covenant-keeping—those in a martial relationship are to be obedient to the will of God.  They are to be the homogenous sort of people that pursue the kingdom of heaven (Matt 6:33).  They are to be truly repentant towards God’s ethics and kingdom (Matt. 6:19-21).  And like I said earlier, the presumption throughout Scripture is that God has a preferential option for heterosexual relationships, but at the core God values certain values of relationships.  God urges against the disruption and damage of loyalty between people in relationship with one another.  The sexes involved in the relationship aren’t the issue; the values that are upheld in that relationship are what God is concerned with. (Acts 4:32-5:11)

So, to close I will say that considering the array of scripture that I’ve focused on thus far, I believe that one’s sexuality ought to be consecrated through an exclusive, committed covenant, blessed by the Church because, from what we know from Scripture, this is what practicing resurrection, the complete unity of believers in the kingdom of God, looks like.  Deep down I am in support of same-sex marriage because I cannot fathom that God would create anything that is inherently sinful.  This would make absolutely no sense from what we know about the nature of God, even in the context of the first book of the Bible—Genesis and the story of creation.  God creates the world, animals, and humans and God proclaims it “very good” (Gen. 1:31).  God loves all creatures great and small, woman and man, homosexual and heterosexual.

Same-sex marriage is not an issue; the issue is whether or not people are living in a way that maintains their covenant with God as God’s servants to live out of the hope of God’s kingdom and to work for the holy ends of that reality.  And one of the most profound things that I’ve discovered from studying Scripture and listening to the stories of my gay friends is that the act of excluding anyone from one’s worshipping community profoundly contradicts the radically inclusive values of the Spirit evident throughout Scripture.  It seems clear to me that the theology of Jesus is to love the outsider.  In Jesus’ time these outsiders were the lepers, the blind, and the sick.  It was the Samaritan woman and the Canaanite woman.  It was every ignored and scorned outsider of society that Jesus welcomed into his community.

Our core belief as Christians is that God loves the whole world and that God desires to save the whole world from sin.  God isn’t the sort of god that drives people away from salvation.  These universalisms of our faith push us to include people in the community of God rather than drive them away.  But, whether you agree with me or not that same-sex marriage is holy, we both have the same mission as God’s people.  When we, as Christians, confront the reality that in our world there are homosexual people in love with one another, we must stand up and be the sort of people that embrace homosexuals as God’s beloved children, regardless of whether we believe same-sex marriage is a sin or not.  Who said the Church was ever supposed to be a community of clones that believe the exact same thing?  No, we are called to be the kind of community that wrestles with these issues as a community, placing the greatest emphasis on the qualities of our relationships, not the sexes involved.  And at the end of the day, may we worship under the same roof united in our hope that one day God will bring our differences to end and carry our similarities to life as equals in the kingdom of God.

“You look happy…”

There was a space inside of me when I first came to Seattle Pacific University—a gutter that was a means of transporting water.  It was done waiting patiently to be filled. I used to attempt to fill the void with other things, such as smoky garages, loud bands, computers, and water, but I think I was looking in all the wrong places. 

There was a time when I forgot why I was alive.  That was a time when I was new and green and knew nothing about anything, except perhaps how to awkwardly ruin a conversation, rattle off the Rolodex of northwest indie bands, and carry out the basic principles of fashion.  I took AP English my senior year.  I took my time reading the material (when I wanted to) and started wearing a beanie everyday.  I think there’s a dimension out there that’s easy to fall into and is extremely hard to climb out of.  If it exists, that’s where I was.  It’s like a muddy ditch or something.  I was bound by addiction and boredom.  I’m sure there was more to it than that.  Insomnia has a way of making one forget the good we’re all surrounded by because you’re only conscious to experience the dark.

I remember my solemn ideas resonating with the notions of Ralph Waldo Emerson. His idea that divinity pervades all nature and humanity was one in which I took literally.  I looked for warmth in all the wrong areas.  I wanted to fill the space within me by gazing at tall trees and laughing at foolish people (thus learning from their foolish ways).  I thought I could honestly feel whole by living in solitude within community, but I couldn’t.  I tried to free myself of passion because that’s what the Buddhists and Hindus tell you.  But, nothing, not even the rain filled me.  I couldn’t do a whole lot of anything with eyes wide open for forty-eight hours at a time.  It’s a lot like holding one’s breath, a lot like dying.

I covered the western canon reading the classics.  I thought I appreciated literature until then.  Or maybe, that’s all I could do, appreciate them because I didn’t care to read them.  My relationship to books was analogous to my affair with the Bible.  I appreciated it, but wasn’t one to go out and read it on my own, and that’s just what I felt, on my own.

To skip all the “deep” stuff, I had a second spiritual experience, and now nothing makes sense to me except for Jesus and every single thing He said.  I came back to the fact that Jesus Christ was a real man in history.  I read about him in my European history textbook my junior year.  One has to personally decide whether to believe that he was a complete lunatic and lied about everything, or that He was exactly who He said to be, the son of God, the First and the Last, the Alpha and the Omega, with the whole world in His hands, and more importantly at the time, with my life in His hands.  I loved the idea of a God who loves everyone unconditionally, and Jesus’ idea of forgiveness and salvation.  It’s one of those things you feel a deep conviction about. It’s what honestly fills that space that’s in everyone.  I know because it happened to me.  And, I wasn’t always this way.  I’m done staying out at night to try and feel more alive. I used to run all day never stopping to catch my breath.  But, even now, in my physical weakness and blurred vision, I have something eternal to live for, and I never had that before.

In class, no other religion resonated with me because they didn’t give me hope.  I believe in Jesus because I believe in truth.  I believe in the hope that there is more than this.  I believe in justice and peace, and the power of love.  I believe because I see.  I’ve seen enemies embrace, victims forgive, and oppressors repent.  I’ve seen a beautiful sunrise, shining stars in the sky, and humans brought into it all.  I believe because I experience the power of the Holy Spirit.  I feel the Truth of the Bible make the hairs on my neck stand.  I feel the peace of Christ overwhelm me in times of need and in times of want.  I believe in Jesus because I am broken and He desires a relationship with me, so much so that He died for me, only to rise again to a triumphal victory over my sin, offering a new, a good, way to live.  I believe because He is God.

I guess the real point I’m trying to make with this is that the reason why I’m a Christian is because the only thing that stepped up to the task and filled the empty space within me was Jesus.  Before, that void inside of me was done feeling, and now all it does is feel out of love.  It’s clear to me now that nothing in my life, thus far, has gone unnoted for the God of the universe has been guiding me to this very moment since before I was even born, and I cannot wait to serve Him tomorrow.