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Chasing after the Wind

[This is a guest post by Michael Fletcher. Michael is a Th.M.  student at Western Seminary  and is participating in this semester’s seminar on Augustine. He also blogs at the3inone.]

While reading Augustine’s work Of True Religion, I was reminded once again of how vain I can be at times and how my vanity dulls my vision of true beauty. “If you take away vain persons who pursue that which is last as if it were first, matter will not be vanity but will show its own beauty in its own way, a low type of beauty, of course, but not deceptive.”

So often I pursue that which is last as if it were first. How many times have I decided to go mountain biking or grab a coffee or watch a manly movie without first considering God and asking him what his will is? These things are so trivial, yet I pursue the like with such fervor. “It is very easy to execrate the flesh, but very difficult not to be carnally minded.” Or as St. Paul says, “I don’t do that which I want to do, but I do the very thing which I hate.” It is such a difficult thing living as a Christian in the world. There are so many temptations, Lord I pray that you delivery me from these and every other unseemly thing.

“Life which delights in material joys and neglects God tends to nothingness…” Do I really believe this? Of course I do! The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics states that in a closed system order always leads to disorder unless energy is added. When I pursue material joys I am not allowing the energy of the Spirit to enter my life, and when no energy is added, I tend toward disorder and ultimately nothingness. (Yes, I just used physics to defend a theological position…I am a geek.)

Back to the original quote, Augustine was also hinting at something else: beauty. He was saying that created matter is beautiful. He is continually urging us to understand that creation is not evil in and of itself. By our idolatry we create a dualistic belief. We call matter evil, even if not blatantly. We say don’t eat this, don’t drink that, don’t have sex, et al. These things are not bad or evil, if we pursue them as though they are first it has disrupted the beauty and goodness but only because of our vanity. Why do we chase after the wind? We have promoted an idea that the material world is evil and this has caused us to not recognize the beautiful. The beautiful is all around us and all beauty points towards the ultimate beauty, the One Beauty, the 3 in One – glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Now comes the question of True Religion: how do we recognize and enjoy the beauty yet not chase after the wind in vain?

Eccentric Existence 11 (Sin)

[We’re continuing our series on David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology.]

For Kelsey, living faithfully before God in the quotidian is “dying life.” As finite beings, we are constantly poised on the edge of death, constantly dependent upon God, the source of life. As we respond faithfully to God in our context, we flourish. But, if we respond unfaithfully before God, “dying life” turns into “living death” (402).

The Nature of Evil

Kelsey makes a very helpful distinction here between “sin” and “evil.” For Kelsey, evil is anything that violates the integrity of God’s creatures:

Evil may be understood as a violation of creatures….It is a violation of what the violated ones are, either as instances of some natural kind or as individuals in their particularity. (403)

It is, therefore, anything that hinders the “well being” of God’s creatures and prevents them from being and doing everything that God created them to be and do. But, it’s important for Kelsey that evil does cause creatures to become any less creaturely. That is, we are still God’s creatures, possessing dignity and (potentially) serving to manifest his glory in the world. Thus, he critiques the Augustinian notion that sin should be understood as a “privation of being” because he thinks it suggests a diminution of our creaturehood. Instead, he argues that we should see evil as distortion rather than privation. (I’m not entirely certain that this is as different from the Augustinian notion as he suggests, but the distinction is still helpful.) And, since we remain God’s creatures, we retain our dignity and purpose despite the ravages of evil:

evil may be said to damage their well-being but not to damage their flourishing as God’s glory….Consequently, violation of their creaturely integrities in no way undercuts human cretures’ dignity and their inherent claim on their neighbors for unconditional respect. On the other hand, the fact that who they are and how they are able to be is also the glory of God becomes very ambiguous and obscure when they are violated by evil. (407)

And, Kelsey rightly points out that when our existence has been distorted by evil (either our own or others’) it often takes on a life of its own, resisting efforts at amelioration and spreading to those around us. So, the violated becomes violator and the death spiral continues.

The Nature of Sin

Sin, on the other hand, is best defined as “living foolishly in distorted faith” (408). Thus, “Sin is folly – that is, an inappropriate response to the triune God relating to us creatively” (408). Unlike evil, then, which primarily has to do with the impact that we have on our fellow creatures, sin is theocentric; it refers exclusively to our faith response to God.

In one of my favorite sections, Kelsey addresses the origin of sin in the world. He adopts the Kierkegaardian notion that “sin posits itself” and argues that we cannot “explain” why sin entered the world.

Every theological explanation of how sin entered creation either turns out to be circular, presupposing the very thing it sets out to explain, or explains it away by reclassifying it as another type of evil. (410)

Thus, the origin of sin is a “mystery.”

Sin is a type of negative mystery. It is not mystery in the sense of something in principle explicable but about which we present have insufficient information for an explanation. Nor is it mystery in the sense of something too richly complex for our finite minds to be able to grasp its rationale. Rather it is mystery in the sense of something undeniable real but a-rational, without cause or reason. (411)

The Origin of Sin

Although the entrance of sin into the world is a mystery, Kelsey affirms that human existence as we now have it is sinful. He agrees that we all act in sinfully distorted ways that renders us guilty before God. But, he goes further and affirms that there is a deeper sense in which we are all sinful before God. And, Kelsey rejects any suggestion that our sinfulness comes through some kind of genetic connection to Adam and Eve. Instead, he seems to argue that we are born into a sinful state because we are born into quotidian relationships that are already sinfully distorted. Thus, our own existential “how” is distorted from the very beginning.

every personal body is born into an everyday world that is already constituted by exchanges of giving and receiving among personal bodies whose existential hows and personal identities are sinful. (435)

So, we enter the world sinful because we are always already in sinfully distorted relationships. But, Kelsey argues that this doesn’t necessarily mean that we are “guilty” (i.e. morally culpable) from the beginning. Instead, he argues that impurity and shame are much better descriptions of our sinful state at birth:

However, I suggest, the objective status one enters by violating relationship with God by responding inappropriately to God’s creative relating might better be designated by impurity before God than by guilt before God. Subjective awareness of this status might better be described as feeling shame rather than feeling (subjective) guilt. (436)

Thus, we have the status of being “sinful” at birth and are always-already subject to the dynamics of a sinful world, but we don’t become morally culpable until we begin to express our own existential hows in sinfully distorted ways.

Sins vs. Sin

That gets us to Kelsey’s explanation of the difference between “sins” and “sin.” For Kelsey, sin in the plural refers to the “distortions of faith’s existential hows” (412). In the previous post, we discussed the ways in which we are to respond faithfully to God in our everyday context (existential hows). Now, Kelsey argues that “sins” are the myriad (infinite?) ways in which those faith responses can be distorted. So, practices of delight become sentimental practices; practices of wonder become exploitative practices; and practices of perseverance become practices of self-abegnation. For each, Kelsey offers insightful discussions of the ways in which sinful practices actually mirror faithful practices.

Sin in the singular, on the other hand, is “best understood as a living human body’s personal identity distorted in an inappropriate trusting response to God relating to her creatively” (422). Thus, for Kelsey, sin (in the singular) is more about one’s identity than one’s practices (though the two are ultimately inseparable).

When their quotidian personal identities are defined by acknowledgement of some aspect of their quotidian proximate contexts as the basis of their reality and value, their personal identities are distorted in a bondage of limitless dependence on that by which they consider their identities to be defined, whatever it may be. (424)

The key here is that when we allow our identities to be fundamentally grounded in creaturely realities, as opposed to the Creator, we get involved in relationships of “limitless dependence” (427). Since neither party is capable of fully meeting the needs of the other, the relationship lapses into a never-ending spiral of dependency, ultimately undermining the true existence of both.  Thus, instead of being eccentric beings, fully and fundamentally defined by our relationship to the Creator, we become “deficiently eccentric” (426), locked into our finite and sinfully distorted relationships.

Stephen King and the exponential depravity of human nature

Okay, Stephen King would never talk about the “exponential depravity of human nature.” But I thought that was a good summary for the dominant theme running through his book Under the Dome. This is one of the books that I took with me on vacation, and I really enjoyed it. Like most of King’s books, it gets more graphic than I would prefer in places. But he always tells an interesting story. And this one is no different.

The dominant motif in Under the Dome is mob behavior – the way that people do things they would not normally do when they come under the influence of mob psychology. And, King explains this to some degree by showing that we are all flawed beings, and that these flaws tend to multiply exponentially when they begin to feed off of each other in the mob. We normally control this process through a variety of constraints, but in unusual circumstances where the constraints are lost or temporarily ignored, watch out.

King doesn’t directly engage the question of sin – he rarely does – but it fits his narrative very well. In this story you don’t just see a bunch of fallen people doing sinful things; you see a mob, an exponential increase of sin feeding on sin. Even his best characters come across as flawed beings capable of succumbing to the pressure of mob behavior.

And sadly, the novel really ends on that note. There is no transcendent reality to offer any hope that there might be something beyond our fallenness. There is only an affirmation that we must wear our little lives like an ugly brown sweater that covers the nakedness and shame beneath. Under the Dome calls on us to face the evil that we are capable of, even the evil that we often enjoy, find some way of forgiving ourselves, and then just move on. It’s a powerful story, but one that demonstrates the despair inherent in a narrative with nowhere to go – no beyond, no hope, no gospel, no God.