What about sin?

current reading 2It is hard for non-believers to understand just why Christians are always so concerned with the idea of sin. Simeon Zahl, in an essay reprinted in Mockingbird (“Hiding in Plain Sight: The Lost Doctrine of Sin”) explains why, and why this is significant.

small quotes blueWhen I try to explain [to my students] that Christians have traditionally believed that human beings are deeply flawed from birth, and furthermore that God is profoundly unhappy about these flaws, I watch my students’ eyes grow skeptical. I watch their postures shift the way students always do when they disagree with what you are telling them. . . .

*    *    *

My point is this: in the edifice of Christian belief, the doctrine of sin is a major load-bearing structure. It is not theologically optional. To lose it, or to downplay it, or to reframe it in terms that are less offensive to our sense of self-worth, is in the long run to render Christianity unintelligible to people.

This reminds me of C.S. Lewis, who made much the same point in his essay “God in the Dock”:

small quotes blueThe greatest barrier I have met is the almost total absence from the minds of my audience of any sense of sin . . . . We have to convince our hearers of the unwelcome diagnosis before we can expect them to welcome the news of the remedy.

God in the Dock, 243–4 (1970).

Zahl goes on to offer some ways of thinking about sin which may communicate the truth about sin to modern people (like each of us) who have been trained to think in very different terms. He ends by saying:

small quotes blueIt is only in our sickness that we recognize the Physician. It is our sin that makes Christ intelligible to us.

Worth the time.

Un-shading the Truth

Unshadingthetruth

A Pattern of Prayer, part 2: A Pattern of Contrition
February 21, 2016 | Psalm 51
(David’s repentant prayer)

Sometimes people who have done wrong attempt to shade the truth. They tell the story in a way that shifts blame a little bit: “And then, the gun went off”; or “She got hit in the fight.” instead of “I shot him,” or “I hit her.” It is very hard to tell the complete truth. “Mistakes were made,” is the preferred non-apology of politicians.

We recently read in the news that Volkswagen had systematically evaded emissions standards for its diesel engines. To explain why he resigned, Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn said he was resigning “in the interests of the company even though I am not aware of any wrongdoing on my part.”

Here’s what happened. Modern internal combustion engines are highly computerized. If you had a science class in which your teacher taught you how an internal combustion engine works, that’s still the same —

fuel + air + compression + heat = combustion

— but now the way that process is controlled has a lot to do with the precise way a computer tells the engine to act. The computer controls the various factors to provide a proper balance between performance which is acceptable to the driver and emissions which are acceptable to the regulators.

What seems to have happened is that some Volkswagen programmers, with or without the knowledge of their bosses, programmed the engines so that the engines could tell whether they were being tested. If they were being tested for emissions, they hardly produced any nitrogen oxides (NOx) at all. But once the test was over, the engines just spewed out NOx — something like 40x the allowable amount.

Apparently, the road to cheating was just a step-by-step process, as first engineers tried to write software that would meet the standards, then software that would be particularly careful to pass the tests (and generally meet the standards), and finally software that would pass all the tests without paying any attention at all to the standards.

Sociologists and engineers call this the “normalization of deviance” — the slow adjustment of standards so that what was once considered unacceptable behavior gradually becomes acceptable. And that turns out to be relevant to our examination of the prayers of the Bible . . . .

Stop, stop, stop.

I know that some of you are distracted by the fact that my illustration does not fully cover the engineering, political and programming aspects of the Volkswagen scandal. I want you to set that aside for now. After church, for those of you interested in the automotive engineering, please see John Freeman or Nate Potratz; for those of you interested in the political aspects of emissions laws, please see Mack Crenshaw or Isaac Brohinsky; for those of you interested in the programming issues confronted by the software engineers, please see Jonathan Johnston or Russ Clarke.

Back to the current point.

“Normalization of Deviance.” Little-by-little, step-by-step, calmly and incrementally, there is a cultural shift in what is considered “okay.” We get used to increasingly deviant behavior.

As we turn this concept over in our minds, we begin to see that it helps us understand how people find themselves in the position of straying far from what they had believed to be acceptable.

Today we are going to look at a very famous series of events in the Hebrew Scriptures, which leads to King David’s recognition that little-by-little, step-by-step, he had moved very far from behavior which God considered acceptable.

Let’s pray.

Continue reading Un-shading the Truth