One who begins his Christian anthropology (study of man in relation to God) with the obvious fact of human failure (sin) does not go all the way back to the origin of man. Sin is a human fact of life. A man walks into a movie theater in Colorado to shoot dozens of people. Someone sets off bombs at the finish line of a race for maximum impact. We call these things sin, which implies human Will to do wrong and someone against whom to do it. Sin is a human fact of life if, and only if, man exercises personal choice to do hurtful wrong in the full knowledge of the difference between right and wrong. Man knows somethings are right and others are wrong. Man even senses there is someone who sets these standards in place.
Notice I say the human agent must know he is doing wrong. His act may be legal according to the legalities of his age or the customs of his time but he still knows his act is wrong American slave owners, like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Henry Clay hated slavery, while they owned slaves and benefited from their sweated labor. Their acts were legal but not right. The atrocities committed against some American Civil Rights workers were all legal, even if laws had to be enacted at night to outlaw the workers actions during a specific day. Everything was legal; nothing was good.
Man is sinful. Face it.
Yet, the divine-human relationship does not begin in sin. The origin of man in the intention of God is not sinfulness. God creates humankind in the Genesis story as a vital part of a gigantic reality. God keeps company with man. God shows immense love and graciousness to humankind, even when man is in his most primitive form.
God’s intention is fellowship, kinship, companionship. In short, God intends to love man. In the Hebrew Scripture, from which the Origin story is taken, God is intensely personal. God walks with man in the cool of the day, that most reflective of times in a hot day. Man tends the garden and names the animals; God praises his works lavishly. God worries about man and his loneliness. God seems to feel immediate, personal pain when man chooses something other than God.
That is, in the Hebrew Bible, God feels. God feels the satisfaction of accomplishment, pride in mentorship, pleasure in companionship. God feels hurt, pain, rejection and righteous anger. God is real and very personal.
In a pre-scientific, pre-historic, pre-psychological age, it was acceptable to worship a personal God who could feel. In fact, it was necessary to have such a God because all the little gods around you could feel, bless and curse, according to your actions and those of your culture as a whole. We have the same “institutional memory” of God working today. Two television preachers take to the airways after 9/11 to blame the attack on homosexuals. A tiny family sect in Kansas goes around the nation laughing at the deaths of American war veterans. We still believe that our actions glorify or deprecate the nation. That is, we believe God is real. We believe God feels.
Sadly, man most often seems to think God feels like us. Whatever we like, God likes. Whatever we fear, God punishes. We become god rather than follow God. This is a recurrent problem, the essence of durable sin.
The emergence of man the historian made humanity reflective. The arrival of science made man almost giddy in his optimism. The development of psychology colored human reflection in somber tones and tempered his optimism. Guilt blew out in Nietzche (at least for the genius) and returned in a whirlwind with Freud and Jung.
Philosophers and theologians tried to depersonalize God during the advent of secular humanism. No one could say which God mattered, then no one could satisfactorily say if God mattered and, finally, no one could actually say if God existed. Theologians did not help. They began to call God “the Greater,” or the “Prime Mover,” and then settled for “the other.” No one could say which God was real, so no one could say which religion was right. In the absence of a personal, present God, religion became ethics and righteousness became morality. Each could change from age to age, culture to culture.
Where did we lose touch? The prophets of the Old Testament saw God less than Adam. They saw God less than Moses. By the time of the prophets we hardly see God at all. Yet, God continues to speak to man, about the things that offend God and the continued hopes God has for man.
In Holy Writ, God seems most offended when man thinks he (man) is God and does not know he is man. The Tower of Babel offends God. Idolatry offends God. Human sacrifice offends God. In fact, as time goes on, anything that causes pain or degradation to man seems to offend God.
That is, God always limits man, insisting man do only those things that please God. Man can do anything he wants in the garden, naked with his perfect, gender appropriate mate. The only thing he cannot do is eat of that tree over there, the one with a snake under it. Some take the description of the tree to mean God limits human achievement. You still hear people say, “If God had meant man to (fill in the blank), man would have been born with three (fill in the blank again). God, however, seems often to delight in human achievement and repeatedly announces His own intention to evolve in the ways He deals with humanity.
We should not pull at the bit when God sets the reins to direct us. Even the dribs and drabs of ethics and morality man invents apart from God set limits on man. You cannot murder. You cannot strike a defenseless person. You cannot kill a child. You must answer truthfully. Man sets limits on man, so we should not wonder when God limits us.
In an egalitarian age it will seem odd to say that God limits us in order to keep us in our place. We are human, not divine. Most of us would not want our best friend to suddenly be God. We would certainly not endow those powers on our worst enemy, no matter how mild our feelings. No, we are human. We will not be God. We experience enough difficulty when we try to discern the person of God and follow after the presence of God.
The Bible story shows a God who limits man, but mostly in relation to human intention, not to human achievement. God does indeed see the thoughts and intents of a man. God, then, settles on our motivations, not just our immediate actions. With Jesus, God takes the actual sin of murder (durable, because it is so common) and argues against the thought of the heart that would lead to murderous anger. If murder, as the Jews teach, destroys the victim and all the descendant the victim might produce, murderous anger can be said to destroy the object of the hate, as well as the heart of the hater. God would limit murder not by gun control but by thought control.
Yes, God limits man, in order to bless man the better. Men hate this and scheme to frustrate God. This is sin and it is durable.
God won’t let man shrug. Theology once ruled the sciences and explained existence itself. God was loving, present, personal, powerful. Then man stopped seeing God and began to shrug elaborately when asked to explain, or even describe, what he had never seen.
Reinhold Niebuhr, the most pragmatic of theologians told a group of Yale divinity students that “Jesus was a revelation of the mystery of self and of the ultimate mystery of existence.” He might just as well have called Jesus Casper, the Friendly Ghost. One thinks religion, stripped of its superiority by science, just tries now to snow the audience with technical language no one wants. The Gnostics could not have done a better job of depersonalizing Jesus and so demeaning God.
God will not let us just shrug. God interrupts all our best works and our worst thoughts. God will not be ignored. Man tries to overlook God. This is sin and it is durable.
A little boy got into some things his parents forbade him to touch. He was being watched by his grandfather. He noticed the close scrutiny of his elder.
“Papa,” he said over his shoulder, “Can you not watch me for a minute?”
He did not want grandfather to leave. He just wanted a time alone.
He didn’t get it.
God will not leave us alone. God interrupts every age. Man whines when God interrupts him and whines louder when God will not interrupt others. God will not just let us shrug.
God does not shrug against sin. If God can be said to war against anything, it is evil. The army of God comes against evil in waves. God takes sin personally. Sin offends God.
Yet, sin, durable sin, real evil, perseveres. Men do evil to men and call it God’s will. Is this not the most hateful thing about sin to God, that God should shoulder the blame?
God resists sin. God resists evil.
Some people resist sin like Ulysses with the Sirens. Ulysses plugs up the ears of his men with wax and lashes himself to the mast of his ship. He white knuckles his way through the Siren’s song. Orpheus, faced with the same Sirens, plays his own harp so beautifully the seductive Sirens seem unappealing by comparison. We can plug up our ears and hold to the mast while others sing seductively or we can play our own music so well others want to stop and listen.
I do not mean God’s people should just sing the same song of seduction as the Sirens. God’s people sing different lyrics. God teaches a new song, which God is always singing. God does not live in contrast to evil but in opposition to it.
God does not shrug at sin.