Friday, January 9, 2015

Saved from Sin (and hurt)

Several years ago (already) I taught a graduate course on the topic of original sin. In the course, we covered a fairly wide swath of material from biblical understandings of sin (there are several distinct aspects of sin present in various biblical books), the thought of several key historical figures - notably Augustine - and contemporary theological perspectives on sin.

One of the characteristics of contemporary theology (at least in some quarters) is the attempt to separate out the dynamics of salvation from that of sin. That is: salvation is thought to pertain to human brokenness or something like human frailty. What such an association establishes is not quite clear. At least, it is not clear in comparison to the historical tradition which laid the blame for our condition solely on our propensity to sin. Our fallenness dictated the terms of our woe and not the other way around. And from that Augustinian perspective, all manner of soteriological accounts of Christ's work on the cross flowed. Think Anselm especially, but also Luther, Calvin etc.

Many contemporary theologians have tried to orient salvation around the problem of human limitation rather than sin. Phrases that become associated with this way of presupposing salvation's object include "the human condition", "human finitude" and a host of other equivalents.

However, while some theologians intentionally propose linking salvation to such general categories for the express purpose of leaving out an account of human sinfulness (this is how one might read, for instance, Philip Hefner), it is not necessary to suppose that salvation is a concept that pertains to only one or the other. It is perfectly valid to think of salvation as God's offer of reconciliation in response to the human condition and its limitations, the latter of which is understood in the light of sin.

Now, this is merely a conceptual discussion, and  there is much more to say about how and why it pertains to a host of issues in theological method, doctrine, biblical exegesis, ethics and so on. It was raised for me recently by reading this blog entry from Ben Myers, one of the internet's more colourful and insightful theological bloggers and who kindly provided a blurb for my Theological Method book.

The reason it resonated with me was specifically because of a fall I took at the beginning of this past week on some very thick and unforgiving sidewalk ice. (Montreal experienced a wicked ice storm and flash freeze Sunday night.) So, as someone who thinks of himself (proudly, it should be admitted) as spry and uncommonly healthy, this tumble was a bit of a wake up call. To my own finitude, and thence to the gift of life and my limits in shaping and controlling it.

Something Ben writes near the end of his report on his bike accident was especially interesting I thought. He writes:
Then slowly, as if waking after long sleep, my life’s deep hurts came creeping back into my mind. Memory laid its bitterness upon my heart, so that when I waked I cried to sleep again.

These words (besides evoking Augustine on at least two counts... at first I thought it was a direct quote...maybe it is...) seem somehow to establish the link between our physical, 'existential' finitude and "hurt", the emotional (non-physical) kind that takes hold of us and keeps us enchained to our past, to our mistakes, to our false needs, to vice and much else. Hurt, after all, is an effect of sin.

In short, experiences of finitude demonstrate a tangible link to sin, even if that link is indirect or prompted only on the heels of our reflection upon finitude. In other words, our hope for salvation is not predicated on either sin (exclusively) or finitude (exclusively) but on both of these things, which tend to come as a package in human living. Phyical or emotional pain/suffering seem to be particularly poignant occasions for thinking about salvation, its scope and power.

Indeed, Ben continues - immediately after speaking of his bitter regrets - to quote Augustine on memory. So, analogously, when we lose ourselves, we find God (or the transcendent shards of God's promises alluded to in American fiction and Bob Dylan) - according to Ben. I think that's what he is saying. It's comforting for those who lose their sense of themselves and their purpose in life. It is also a reminder that the best theology emerges from amidst great pain and inner turmoil as all the great spiritual writings attest.   

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