Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Sin and evil in a liberal world

Words like sin and evil don’t always play well in a liberal world. In a world of tolerance, we like to assume the best of another. In a strength based paradigm, we like to focus on the positives of appreciative inquiry, as in this wonderful video.

I remember a class, in which I was told in no uncertain terms by a minsterial candidate that they didn’t believe in sin. It was an old-fashioned invention of the church, designed to encourage guilt in religion. It is a conversation that has continued to sit with me. What is the place of sin and evil in a contemporary, liberal world?

So interesting today to stumble across a thought piece in the Guardian by social media columnist, Paul Mason, reflecting on recent trends in social media. He is reflecting on some particular nasty occurrences on twitter. And writes:

Evil may be a medieval theological concept, but when it invades your interface with the rest of humanity – and confronts your unwilling mind with imagery designed to provoke disgust, fear and self-loathing – it is all too modern.

It reminded me of the conclusion by Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. He argues for a God of justice.

To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a warzone. Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward nonviolence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you will discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind. (Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, p.304).

There is much, much, more to Volf. But it is a reminder that theology needs to take sin and evil seriously. A worthy topic for my Introduction to Theology class tomorrow perhaps.

Posted by steve at 12:41 PM


  1. Thanks Steve, I have been reading N T Wright’s Evil and the Justice of God. I think he has some good insights on this topic. He quotes Volf as well, and so you and Wright have sparked my interest in that book.

    Comment by Nathan Whillas — August 20, 2013 @ 1:06 pm

  2. How can the liberal myth of people being ‘basically’ nice survive? What does it have going for it that it flourishes in a world in which the ‘top’ few entries on almost every news site falsify it daily?

    This is a real question, I am genuinely flummoxed…

    Comment by Tim Bulkeley — August 20, 2013 @ 2:52 pm

  3. Tim,

    Does the Volf quote hold any insight Tim – “the quiet of a suburban home” – ie a context innoculated from global realities?


    Comment by steve — August 20, 2013 @ 3:40 pm

  4. Yes to what you have said Steve. It is impossible to understand that people can deny evil and sin. One look at the news on any day should surely open their eyes. Scott Pecks ‘People of the Lie’ is a very relevant book. Definitely worth a read.

    Comment by Sandy Webb — August 21, 2013 @ 8:03 am

  5. Perhaps there are now very good reasons why people do not use the archaic word sin any more. But of course radical evil is very much alive and “well” (sic).
    But are human beings intrinsically sinful? Or is it because of a dreadfully dark lie that we have all been propagandized into naively accepting by our now archaic essentially barbaric bronze-age tribalistic religions? Even to the degree that we find it almost impossible to lift even a finger to do anything about it!
    Please find some related references.
    The Good News
    The bad news – or the origins of the now universal insanity/psychosis!
    http://www.beezone.com/AdiDa/jesusandme.html on the inability to lift a finger
    http://www.adidamla.org/newsletters/newsletter-aprilmay2006.pdf humankind reduced to rubble
    http://global.adidam.org/truth-book/true-spiritual-practice-4.html also part 3

    Comment by John — August 21, 2013 @ 12:02 pm

  6. And yet, the historical Jesus who lived active nonviolence and taught forgiveness in the face of evil, grew up in a place about as far from quiet suburbia as it’s possible to imagine. An occupied kingdom in the Middle East, torn by official repression backed by torture and insurgent fundamentalist religion. He grew up, in other words, somewhere much like modern Palestine or Syria. And even then, came to the conclusion not that humans are “nice” or that sin doesn’t exist, but that God is love and that sin won’t ultimately triumph.

    It seems to me that while Jesus may not be a middle-class white suburban 21st century liberal, neither his nor our views on God and human nature are determined in the end by materialist social and economic forces. That was Karl Marx’s conclusion, but Jesus isn’t Marx.

    Comment by Nate — August 21, 2013 @ 12:26 pm

  7. Great comment John. If humans are not intrinsically sinful, it still leaves unanswered the question of where evil comes from.

    Or are you saying that the lie that has been propogated is the reason for current random acts of evil?


    Comment by steve — August 21, 2013 @ 12:31 pm

  8. Steve – please read the references I posted.
    Meanwhile more from the same source.

    Sin, or the non-Realization of Truth is the worst cancer in the universe. It is the worst sickness. It is the most horrific disease. Its implications cover the entirety of everyone’s life. The world is filled with its symptoms and reeks with torments and potentials, coming from all directions, most of which people cannot even see.

    Sin or the fiction of separateness – and the denial of the universal characteristic of Prior Unity – is a mind-based illusion, a lie, a terribly deluding force, and a profoundly and darkly negative act.

    The individual and collective denial, and active refusal, of the Universal Condition and Intrinsic Law of Prior Unity is the root and substance of a perpetual (and egoically “self”-perpetuating) universal crime against humanity, performed by every one and all of humankind itself.


    Sin is the active presumption of separation from the Living Divine Reality. The ego or separate self, is both the very presumption of separation and the always dramatized action of separation.

    There is no Real existence until sin is transcended. All actions and all states of presumed knowledge and experience are empty, painful, problematic, and sinful until the presumption of separation from the Living Divine Reality is utterly transcended.

    There is no truly human life without Divine Communion, or the submission/surrender of the entire conscious and functional being to the Absolute Divine Reality within which it appears, on which it depends completely, even for the next breath.
    Without such Divine Communion, there is no true humanity, no real responsibility, no true freedom. Without Divine Communion the individual is simply a functional entity living a fear-based, unconscious pre-patterned, adventure of functional relations. There is no Sacred or Divine plane to his or her awareness.

    Comment by John — August 21, 2013 @ 2:07 pm

  9. I suspect this topic suffers from some communication problems. As a “modern liberal” who will readily admit to feeling (not necessarily rationally) skeptical whenever the words “sin” and “evil” are raised, it is less those concepts directly but rather a number that often come with it that are the target of my skepticism.

    Off the top of my head (ie not comprehensive nor necessarily well-considered) getting to the bottom of this would probably benefit from discussing things like:
    – whether sin necessarily distances us from God
    – whether sin and evil are ascribed to extrinsic sources (eg the devil or Satan)
    – whether it even makes sense to think of sin as having a source (which in no way denies its existence)
    – to what extent identifying individual acts as “sinful” is more or less useful than accepting the fact of acknowledging a fundamental imperfection in all that we do and how we deal with that

    Which brings me to the debate over whether people are “basically” good or sinful. I am more than comfortable with the idea that there is a fundamental imperfection in all that we do, and corresponding theology of the Fall. Yet I would more happily describe people as “basically good”. Part of this is language. But it is also about where one thinks we find God. If we are to be faithful that good and love will win out, and we see God as residing in all things, then how can people be fundamentally anything but good?

    When it comes down to it, I see no reason we can’t describe people as both fundamentally sinful and fundamentally good. But as far as I’m concerned, by leading with the idea that people are basically good, we’re leading with faith.

    Comment by IainM — August 23, 2013 @ 5:24 pm

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