Sin and Responsibility

Add yet another false dichotomy and violation of Occam’s Razor to the popular religious discourse. In the article Why Americans Dismiss Sin, Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie decries the idea that sin is largely absent from  the public dialogue.  He lists a number of reasons why he thinks this is the case, concluding that “Our culture pushes us to cast aside responsibility and to find others to blame.” He is pretty firm on this, concluding his article thus:

“Absent sin, we are not responsible. Absent sin, there is no moral precision. Absent sin, there is no moral judgment. Absent sin, there can be no forgiveness.”

It would be a good idea to define the thing we’re really talking about here, and Yoffie does give us his definition. “Sin is what results when a human being chooses evil rather than good. It is the consequence of violating transcendent values.” He also notes that, “Jews and Christians, to be sure, do not understand sin in precisely the same way, but both see it as a foundational theological category.”

So here are the problems.  First, it is not necessary to invoke the language of religion to have a discussion about or to practice personal responsibility, moral precision, forgiveness, or acknowledging our weaknesses.  There have always been people who willingly violate social norms, customs and laws, and there always will be.  His list of cultural explanations is only the latest set of excuses, or rather the same ol’ set dressed in modern clothes.

It is not an either/or choice between personal responsibility or sin unless one wants to actually define sin as the avoidance of personal responsibility, making it sin by definition, but Yoffie does not do that.  He clearly says that it is the violation of transcendent values, an idea for which there is zero evidence and infinite disagreement.  If Jews and Christians “do not understand sin in precisely the same way” then whose transcendent values shall we use, and what of other faith systems’ transcendent values?  Perhaps Yoffie does not care about these differences as long as we acknowledge and deal with sin for what it is.  Is it not enough to be aware of and acknowledge our avoidance of personal responsibility and to purpose to do better without invoking “sin” the way Yoffie defines it? In seeking forgiveness, is it not enough to feel remorse for harming others or not acting from a place of love, acting from a place where the flourishing of human beings and our relationships is not paramount?

I am not suggesting that there is no wrong-doing, but that the standard for judging wrong-doing should not be someone’s idea of a transcendent value system for which there is neither any evidence or societal consensus.  I fail to live up to my own standards all the time, but I appeal to the well-being of human beings, informed by our understanding of the world, informed by science and my conscience, codified however imperfectly in our laws as the standard, not to theology.  Where a theological transcendent value system also results in the thriving of human beings I have no conflict, at least as far as the results go. But neither is there any Jewish or Christian value that supports the well-being of humans that originated with and is unique to the theology.  It always has its roots somewhere else. Whence transcendence?

On the other hand, theological value systems often do not support the flourishing of human beings as we see today for example, in the discourse on same sex marriage and gay rights, as Yoffie rightly points out.  The only reason the religious give for their opposition is that it is based on revelation, a transcendent value for which the religious need no further justification.

Sin also comes to us with a good deal of baggage.  It is not possible to have a discussion of sin without also invoking hell and divine eternal judgment. Perhaps there are enough of the theologically liberal who do not believe in a literal hell to move past those ideas (or in the case of many Jews, never had a hell story or afterlife integrated into their theology).  It does seem awkward to dispense with the idea of hell and eternal divine judgement but still speak in terms of sin, at least for Christians.  This is a country where more than 40% of the population believe the universe is less than 10,000 years old and was created in six days and presumably also believe in a literal hell, so dispensing with the whole language of “sin,” and its fiery brimstone partners is not only appropriate but necessary, at least for clarity.

The false dichotomy lies in asserting two sides of a coin or a continuum for which acceptance of personal responsibility is on one end and “sin” on the other.  The other end of the the continuum is not sin but simply not accepting personal responsibility.  The standard for whether that has negative consequences or not is the well-being of sentient beings, not observance of a transcendent value system (and it is clear that there are situations where assuming responsibility for acts is actually the wrong thing to do). Injecting the dynamics of a transcendent value system unnecessarily multiplies variables and complicates the human experience and processes of self-examination and reflection, remorse, humility, diligence, forgiveness, and love.  The lack of motivation to love or to assume more responsibility for one’s actions is not helped by bringing the idea of sin back into the vernacular.

Yoffie begins his article by asserting that “To talk of religion without reference to sin is absurd,” and it may well be, at least for the Abrahamic religions. I would submit though, that to talk of personal responsibility without reference to religion is preferable. Not only does it simplify the dialogue, it is based on reason rather than revelation, I believe it is more effective and, if you will forgive me, it covers a multitude of sins, or if not a multitude at least the false dichotomy and the violation of Occam’s Razor.

7 thoughts on “Sin and Responsibility

  1. OJO: I am so sorry you were so hurt by so many people who said they followed Christ that you began to doubt and then renounce your beliefs. I have been hurt by so many believers I have lost count. As I continue you need to know I have met you several times at CORNERSTONE and love all the UNDERCOVER tunes to this day, as I am 64.

    So the deep question I have is why have I not gone looking to validate thoughts I have had about how can this Jesus be true and real when the people who say they follow Him lack LOVE! It really tears me apart. In spending countless hours in contemplative disciplines I have found the answer (you will say the answer FOR ME I ‘m sure).

    I have had (drug free) visions and encounters with the living Christ so many times and His Word has leaped off the pages and into my heart and mind into a living active force of truth. I follow HIm not a RELIGION. I have pity on the majority of folks who claim His name and live a life full of duplicitous behavior manifested mostly by a lack of FAITH HOPE and LOVE. Whose faith is more an insurance policy than a way of life. These folks ran you off!

    I am curious in regard to something. During the 70’s and 80’s and 90’s did you ever have an experiences that reinforced in your heart and mind the reality of a TRINITARIAN PRESENCE in your life? I need to stop here and let you answer this before I go on.

    LOVE you OJO!

    George Ackron

    • George, thank you for the note and love. I have not had an experience in the way many of friends have; an ecstatic vision similar to Paul on the road to Damascus or anything like that. Of course I have been moved many, many times for a number of reasons, and my experiences with all the people I’ve met in Undercover over many years has been phenomenal and amazing! But no, nothing ecstatic, which for me would seem to take things out of the realm of faith and into experience. After all, how does one have faith when faith is by definition the “evidence of things unseen?”

      Somewhat confusing to me though is why you would suggest at all that I have been hurt by so many people, and that somehow that would be the result of my doubt? I have never considered myself victimized at all by anyone and in fact most of my dear and lifelong friends are Christians. So no, that’s not the case at all. My doubts are simply the result of long-held beliefs not holding up to scrutiny. I am done with any belief system that would have me suspend the only faculties I know I have been provided with to blindly accept by faith things we don’t know, or even worse, know cannot be true. Thank you for your concern and comment. ~J

  2. This article got me to thinking about something that has always been on my mind. If the jewish people dont believe that Jesus was Messiah then how do they recieve attonement for their sins? The only jew I knew was a lady who didnt practice it. When I asked her this she told me women werent allowed to read or study the torah.. Didnt really know if that was the case but I didnt know anyone else to even ask. If Jews dont believe that Jesus was the messiah nor the new testament, then would they not be practicing the old testament? Wasnt atonement for sins through sacrifical or burnt offerings in the old testament? I am sure I am missing something and not trying to be negative its just something that has always been on my mind. I have never been to a temple service so this stuff might be going on for all I know.

    • I just found the quote I was looking for Benny. here it is:

      ‎”The rabbinate has never considered the Torah as a way of Salvation to God. We Jews regard Salvation as God’s exclusive prerogative. so we Jews are advocates of ‘pure grace.'” – Pinchas LaPide (Jewish Scholar)

  3. Benny, It is impossible to address in depth your question but to suffice it to say: God has always wanted a change of heart. (Repentance). The Old Testament is filled with passages about grace, and forgiveness. Jews that I know and well known Rabbi’s always say that Salvation and forgiveness come by the grace of God. Not ritual keeping of Torah. Torah is a like a school teacher, it points out our failures and provides us ways of becoming right with God again. Sure there are some who profess legalism in Torah, but there are the same amount of folks who do so in Christianity. What Paul was saying You are saved by Grace was not a new thing in the first century. It is deeply rooted in Judaism. For those who say Old Testament Law, New Testament Grace, need to go back and re-read the Old Testament. They have missed the biggest part of it. As to the sacrifices, that is a method to show a change of heart, much like being baptised or doing a fast etc. Atonement was never through sacrifice. It was only accepted as a sacrifice after atonement/forgiveness had been given.

    Thanks for posting your comments Ojo. It is nice to hear your heart and know more about your journeys. Thank you also for the wonderful music while with Undercover, and solo… Thanks for your friendship.

  4. George, your comments remind me of a similar conversation with a family friend. He assumed that my “loss of faith” had to do with the actions of other Believers, the implication was that I was scarred, and sulked away. Truth is, it wasn’t so much an experience or philisophical argument that caused my change of heart — both being largely subjective. I learned that the details of the Jesus story mimic the tales of Mithra, Osiris, and other pre-Christian Savior Gods. These are objective facts.
    Ojo, thanks for the insights. The world will progress much more quickly when we can discuss our social responsibilities without religious labels. It certainly doesn’t take a Revelation for someone to want to make the world a better place.

    • Will, “Futility” was written in 1898. The Titanic sank 14 years later. The stories bear some remarkable similarities, but it would illogical to conclude that the Titanic disaster could not have happened because a similar story was written prior to it.

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