Monday, June 24, 2013

Sin and Stuff

Guest Post by Brian Mattson

In my last post I briefly explored why we are so suspicious of the “ordinary.” The ordinary means the normal, and the normal means—inescapably—privilege, and privilege has come to mean something very bad. Or so postmodernists insist.

I mentioned some historical examples like the ancient Gnostics, Marx and Engels, and contemporary anti-urbanites. And the list could go on. Eastern religions like Hinduism or Buddhism provide excellent examples, as well. What all these have in common is a confusion of sin and stuff. The cause of our miseries is always associated not with ideas like obedience or disobedience, faith or unbelief, but rather with the world itself. “It’s this woman you made,” said Adam. “It’s this serpent you made,” said Eve. Nature is bad, for it is an existence of space, time, change, power, tooth and claw. This world needs to be transcended through contemplation, enlightenment, or a revolution resulting in an egalitarian utopia. On this view it follows that culture, meaning the uses of the natural world by humanity, are equally bad because it operates with damaged goods from the start.

We need to ask a simple, but deeply profound question: is nature (“stuff”), in and of itself, bad? Given the Christian doctrine of sin and fall, you might think so, but this would be a terrible, fatal mistake. The first article of the Christian creed says otherwise: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” Heaven and earth—a Hebraism meaning, everything. God created it. He saw that it was “very good.” This declaration means, or should mean, something very simple for us: evil is not intrinsic to the stuff. Nature is not basically evil, as the Gnostics and modern-day Darwinists would tell us. Yes, we are told that it is under a curse (Genesis 3; Romans 8), and now fruitfulness will be mixed with thorns and thistles. But, we must note, by God’s grace fruitfulness is still possible.

Christians often conflate sin and stuff, from alcohol in the drink to the electricity in the guitar. This confusion stretches even to cultural institutions: politics, economics, law, arts and entertainment are viewed as inherently morally suspect. The thing itself is viewed as the problem, not the abuse of the thing itself.

St. Augustine spent a lot of time thinking about sin, and he said some mystifying things. Like, for example, that sin does not exist. Sounds very strange, doesn’t it? Um, look around, Gus! What are you talking about!? What Augustine meant is that sin does not have a “substance” of its own, for it is not something God created. Sin mysteriously attaches—virus like—to the good, mimics it, parodies it, and twists it to evil ends. Sin is not a substance over against the good, it is a privation of the good.

And this means something profound: we cannot, or should not, confuse the sin and the “stuff.” God made the “stuff.” And he also made human beings and commanded them to use the “stuff.” In other words, create culture.

This is one major reason I am suspicious and skeptical of calls for “radical” Christianity. They always seem to attach sin to some “thing” or some social structure as though it, in and of itself, is bad. The “missional” types want me to think that suburbs are dehumanizing and bad. The agrarians want me to think that cities are dehumanizing and bad. Each side views the other as what “normal,” ordinary people do.  It is not “radical” enough to live a rural life, and it isn’t “radical” enough to be a city-dweller. They logically cannot both be right!

But they can both be wrong.

Neither is true. God is the giver of all kinds of gifts. Each arrangement has its own blessings and challenges. And our response should always be thankfulness for every good gift.

That leads us to ask a question about these cultural “gifts.” Why does God give them? We’ll look at that next.

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