Poking at sin and grace with a real long stick

One of the interesting conversations I didn’t prioritize last week was over at when love comes to town – a series of RJ’s reflections on the theology of sin and grace. This is chewy material for me. RJ is a UCC pastor and a theologically orthodox, socially liberal Christian (and RJ, if you’ve wandered by, I hope this is a fair characterization!). I’m a UU pre-seminarian with a real hard push-and-pull relationship to Christian orthodoxy in even its gentlest manifestations. RJ leads me to think about difficult things; that’s why I keep reading. Christian theology is an angel I will likely wrestle with for a long time.

I am far from the only person of faith (or something resembling the same) who slams hard into the ghost of bad theology left over from a toxic church. I imagine the opinionated visitors to his church a couple of Sundays ago might be laden with similar baggage. That would explain their concerns, at least, if not their rudeness.

“Sin” is three letters worth of difficult, almost as difficult as “God” – because, though I am learning to see the possibility of this language pointing toward spiritual places that are wholesome ground, that possibility is wrenched hard from what RJ described thusly a few days later:

More often than not simple-minded and shame-based spirituality preaches that if you just take your problems to Jesus they will all be solved. And if they aren’t, then you aren’t being serious or honest enough. Such mean-spirited and stupid religion only deepens our sense of shame and inadequacy when what we actually need is community, hope, humility and a way to trust that God is sufficient.

I’m consciously trying to strip that three-letter word of the weight of guilt and fear and self-loathing that is burned into it, hoping there will maybe be some small core of the thing left that I can use as a pointer for “that spiritual gulf between the finite, limited human condition and the Infinite Mystery for which it yearns (and fruitlessly reaches).” I have to make these mental substitutions whenever I read material written in the language of the Christian tradition. It does not always work. The old patterns are still painfully strong, a quarter century later.

Your average lay person is not going to do this much work to get past language with toxic associations. And that is part of the basis for expressing these ideas in other ways, even if modern language has not yet stood the test of time. Peanut butter is tasty and nourishing, but not if one’s allergic to it.

Oh, there is so much more to be said about this, but it’s past midnight and I don’t expect to have quiet internet writing time until some time this weekend, maybe. I really need to get done with my job, for my own sanity, but for my financial stability I need to work as far into the first term as I can manage, and that means figuring out a way to concentrate and read and write while Spouse is awake, puttering around the house, and talking to me at random intervals…

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2 Responses to Poking at sin and grace with a real long stick

  1. lklinger2013 says:

    Your post reminds me of how I have often wished I could believe in a God like the one Madeleine L’Engle hints at in _A Wrinkle in Time_ , _A Wind in the Door_, and other books. The God in which I was taught to believe would (in theory) love you unconditionally… as long as you were extroverted, smiley, straight, normatively gendered, willing and able to believe that 2+2=5, etc, etc. L’Engle’s God was bigger than the universe and a million times stranger and more beautiful. L’Engle’s God spoke Science, Math, Art, Music, and Poetry. She had such an expansive notion of who was “on the side of the angels”, including many people who were not religious at all. I much prefer God-as-mystery to God-as-Bigger-and-Meaner-Version-of-Us. Trouble is, I still flinch at even the possibility of letting God in, lest the Mystery turn out to be the same sadistic asshole I’ve spent the last 20-odd years trying to exorcise.

    • C. says:

      Part of the reason that I was flat-out refusing to have anything to do with church by the time that you met me (20+ years ago!?) was that I had learned quite well the difference between what I believed God ought to be like and what the Church People were telling me. Not that I have ever been stubborn or anything, but when there is a difference between what I observe to be true, and what I am told to believe, well. Have I ever been one to suffer fools gladly?

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