“you have not yet considered the weight of sin”—Anselm, Cur Deus Homo?
Sin appears to be making something of a comeback*. Consider that over twenty five years ago, Alvin Plantinga could write, “The awareness of sin used to be our shadow…but the shadow has dimmed. Nowadays, the accusation you have sinned is often said with a grin, and with a tone that signals an inside joke”.** Most of us would agree that the heightened awareness of sin that Plantinga spells out seems to be returning, even if the places where that moral impulse is emanating from has shifted in perhaps surprising ways. The last two years, to say nothing of the last ten, have seen society rocked by public debates over race relations, the climate and public health. The language of justice, sacrifice and public wrongdoing have returned to our public vocabulary. Nevertheless, despite sharing a common language, we have fallen, even (or especially) in the church, into entrenched camps. Cultural conservatives have tended to deny the reality or existence of certain sins altogether. Cultural progressives have seen these sins everywhere and the hope for redemption nowhere.
All of this makes it easier, in a sense, for me to write a blogpost on the subject of sin. It is still a challenging task, however. For while sin is back as a topic that we discuss, there is no denying that it is also a topic that we greatly misunderstand.
This applies on a very personal level. I have multiple degrees in biblical studies and yet when it comes to defining (never mind tackling!) sin, I find myself in spiritual diapers.
I argued in my last post here, that Lent is about God’s mercy for human misery. The season leading up to Easter is not, or at least not centrally, about human miserableness or even ways of devising humans solutions to that misery. It is about what God has done in Christ to unite us to himself so that we, in our spiritual misery and poverty, might become new individuals and a new people. Lent is centrally about participation in Christ and only secondarily about imitation of Christ.
What does this mean practically for the way that we mark the Lenten season?
Lenten disciplines, at their best, draw us back to the basics. Not to our vague sense of miseria but to the specific miserere, the mercy of God, which fully and radically—to the roots—understands and deals with our miserable condition. Lent is about God’s pity for our pitiable condition. Lenten disciplines should remind us of this reality.
In the spirit of placing God, and not us, at the centre of Lent, allow me to suggest very briefly a few practices that we might recover over the Lenten period.
Miserere mei, Deus, secundum magnam misericordiam tuam (Have mercy on me, O God, according to your great mercies). Psalm 51:1
Misery: noun. Brit. pronunciation/ˈmɪz(ə)ri/, U.S. pronunciation/ˈmɪz(ə)ri/ classical Latin miseria wretched or pitiful condition. Anglo-Norman and Old French miserie: unhappy state.
a condition of external unhappiness, discomfort, or distress; wretchedness of outward circumstances; distress caused by privation or poverty.
colloquial. A gloomy, peevish, or self-pitying person, esp. someone who is constantly disgruntled or depressed; a killjoy. Frequently used as a term of (mock) abuse.
Old Misery Guts
I remember well the first Ash Wednesday service I attended. It was February 2015 and I had dragged myself along to a Cambridge College service. I was miserable and determinedly so. I was in my dark night of the soul. But instead of turning outwards and towards God with my doubts, I had turned inwards and into myself. I received the imposition of the ashes. Then the choir sang Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere. The voices echoed from one side of the chapel to the other, notes piercing the air, though not my soul. I wouldn’t let them.
The second definition of misery given in the Oxford English dictionary fitted me perfectly. A gloomy, peevish, or self-pitying person, esp. someone who is constantly disgruntled or depressed; a killjoy.In my pitiable condition, I had turned to self-pity. In my misery, I had become miserable. Old Misery Guts, you might say.
Lent is fundamentally about God dealing with the evil done by and to man in the Cross of Jesus Christ. It also a good season for considering our human response to this miracle of divine love, mercy and justice.
One of the ways of doing this is to contemplate the human capacity and propensity for wrong-doing, or sin. Fewer works in recent times have shed more light on the psychology of sin and temptation than CS Lewis’ Screwtape Letters.
In one illuminating letter (number 15), senior devil Screwtape instructs his nephew, Wormwood, on the temporal nature of sin. In short, all sin is future-oriented. The present is what God would have us focus on; if we are to think of the future, it is to the ends of contemplating our future union with, or separation from God (Letter 6 foreshadows this point). The devil and his minions would have us “hagridden by the future”, overcome with fear or hope, neglecting the present cross, present pleasure or present duty.
Images: by author, from ‘The Screwtape Letters’ in The CS Lewis Signature Classics (New York: Harper One, 2017), 227-229.
For Epiphany, I’m reading Richard Bauckham’s new-ish book, Who is God? Key Moments of Biblical Revelation. Chapter 2 offers an intriguing discussion of the divine name (YHWH or LORD) in the Burning Bush episode (Exodus 3) and then through the rest of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Bauckham makes a number of important points on the Exodus passage as well as Jesus’s modes of reference to the divine name and, finally, the application by NT authors of a substitute for the divine name (LORD, or kyrios in the Greek) to Jesus!
This week I became a father (so posts will be a bit sporadic for a while!). My experience as father of witnessing labour was incredibly intense and scary and, well, a bit surreal!
A friend reminded me of this wonderful passage from CS Lewis from The Screwtape Letters on the nature of the real. What struck me is how easy it is to focus on the blood and guts and gore (what is “real”) and thus dismiss the joy and emotion that comes with the gift of a new human life (“mere sentiment”). I was thankful for the reminder!
when first he sees human remains plastered on a wall, that this is “what the world is really like” and that all his religion has been a fantasy. You will notice that we have got them completely fogged about the meaning of the word “real”‘. They tell each other, of some great spiritual experience, “All that really happened was that you heard some music in a lighted building”; here “Real” means the bare physical facts, separated from the other elements in the experience they actually had. On the other hand, they will also say “It’s all very well discussing that high dive as you sit here in an armchair, but wait till you get up there and see what it’s really like”: here “real” is being used in the opposite sense to mean, not the physical facts (which they know already while discussing the matter in armchairs) but the emotional effect those facts will have on a human consciousness. Either application of the word could be defended; but our business is to keep the two going at once so that the emotional value of the word “real” can be placed now on one side of the account, now on the other, as it happens to suit us. The general rule which we have now pretty well established among them is that in all experiences which can make them happier or better only the physical facts are “Real” while the spiritual elements are “subjective”; in all experiences which can discourage or corrupt them the spiritual elements are the main reality and to ignore them is to be an escapist. Thus in birth the blood and pain are “real”, the rejoicing a mere subjective point of view…Your patient, properly handled, will have no difficulty in regarding his emotion at the sight of human entrails as a revelation of Reality and his emotion at the sight of happy children or fair weather as mere sentiment.
Happy Christmas to you and your loved ones from the Saeculum!
Tis’ the season for overconsumption! This obviously applies to food and drink at Christmas, but it can also be true of our media in-take as well. Whether it be films, radio programmes, music, periodicals or magazines, we are treated to a rich and overwhelming feast for the senses over the festive period.
This sense of overconsumption can also seep into the Christmas story itself—an endless array of characters and perspectives to consider, carols to sing and insights to glean.
Given all of this, I have felt the need to curate some of my reading this Christmas. In this piece, I offer a brief sample—a digest if you will—of Christmas reflections from across the internet. I have divided these into two sections: Christmas History, which deals with the history of the accounts of the first Christmas in the gospels and Christmas Meanings, which draws out the broader cultural significance of the season.
But the real highlight for me was the discussion of rest in the Hebrew and Christian traditions, including Dickson’s 5 Minute Jesus on rest in the Gospels and the Letter to the Hebrews, and his interview with Rabbi Elton. We appear to owe the concept of the weekend, in large part, to the Jewish Sabbath, which seems to represent the first attempt in human civilisation to offer a day of rest to everyone—including servants and animals—living within a given locale. Dickson and Elton also cover the relationship between rest and redemption, with the great prelude to the Sabbath command outlining the rationale for rest: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery”.
The observant reader of this blog will notice its strapline: “a realistic take on Christianity and politics”. It’s no doubt a tagline that I fail to live up to perfectly and it would be unrealistic to expect to be realistic one hundred percent of the time.
Nevertheless, what this strapline is getting at, is my desire to pursue the unvarnished truth of the Christian faith and the cultures in which it resides. Or to define the goal negatively, I wish to move away from idealistic and utopian—that is unrealistic or not-true-to-life—analyses of the Christian tradition and its engagement with cultural issues.
It’s why I tackle issues that are messy and complex—vaccines, war, sex, freedom, tribalism, the role of the state and so on. These are all issues that are in the headlines and which reverberate throughout the corridors of power.
What could be more real than that?
For Advent this year, I’ve been reading the Archbishop of York’s book for the season, The Music of Eternity: Meditations for Advent with Evelyn Underhill, edited by Robyn Wrigley-Carr. It features reflections appropriate for the season from Anglican mystic and spiritual writer, Evelyn Underhill. I first came across Underhill via Jane Williams who quoted her in an episode of Godpod: “God is the interesting thing about religion”. And I find myself turning to Underhill’s reflections each day for the same reason: her unrelenting attempt to get herself, and to get her reader, out of the way, and place God at the centre of human existence, of human reality.
Augustine, whom Underhill quotes, makes this point with maximal brevity: “God is the only Reality and we are only real insofar as we are in him and he in us”.
How do we relate the work of mystics like Evelyn Underhill to the cultural analysis of Christian Realists?
Over on GodPod, Jane Williams, Graham Tomlin and Michael Lloyd have begun a new series on the Nicene Creed. In the first episode in the series, they discuss the question, Why do we have the Creeds? It’s well worth a listen. Particular highlights, for me, included the following insights: