Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 15, 2001
A deeper look at sin
Sin needs not punishment but penance
Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvationby Barbara Brown Taylor, Cowley Publications: Boston, Mass., 2000, 105 pages.
Review by WAYNE HOLST
Special to the WCR
An Inuit hunter went to the local missionary who had been preaching in his village. The hunter asked: "If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?"
"No," the missionary said. "Not if you did not know."
The hunter responded: "Then why did you tell me?"
In these postmodern times many seem to be much like the Inuit hunter. "Why tell us about sin and hell?" they ask. "It would be better if we'd not known of such things in the first place."
Old societal ways of thinking about reality have let us down and there is disillusionment with once-revered authorities. Many people distrust the Church's word on things and they quest for other truths.
They don't want to hear about sin and repentance. They want to hear about grace and forgiveness. When they feel the guilt coming on they are inclined to leave the room. Many are tired of being judged and threatened by Christians who speak of love but end up promoting fear.
No small number of pastors and teachers has abandoned words like "sin" and "salvation" because their meanings are currently difficult and uncertain. In their sincere desire to respond to peoples' needs, religious mentors are inclined to "go straight for (the language of) grace."
Barbara Brown Taylor, author of Speaking of Sin, is not ready to scrap classic theological words like "sin" and "salvation." The realities they point to are much with us, she says, and we need to know their names.
Taylor believes that abandoning the language of sin will not make sin go away. Letting go of the language may help us deny its presence in our lives, but it will also weaken the language of grace; and the full impact of the transforming power of grace will be lost.
This is a creative work in progress. Its three main chapters were originally lectures, transcribed to book form. In addition to speaking of the lost language of sin and salvation, Taylor explores authentic human experience underlying the word "sin."
Her conclusion is that, far from being detrimental, sin is a hopeful, helpful word. Her final chapter deals with the significance of repentance and penance, which she believes are healing, life enriching benefits which only the Church can offer.
Theology, the traditional language of the Church, has in more recent times been profoundly influenced by medicine and law. Medicine has helped to redefine sin as a sickness needing diagnosis and healing, rather than judgment. Law views sin as a crime, requiring justice.
Taylor is concerned that neither the language of law nor of medicine is an adequate substitute for the language of classical theology. In the theological model, the basic human problem is not sickness or lawlessness but sin.
Theologically speaking, sin describes a way of life that needs to be exposed and changed. The proper response to sin is not punishment, but penance. People whose sin has been exposed need to confess, be forgiven, do penance and experience restoration. The resulting transformation provides new health for both individuals and their communities.
Ironically, sin is our only hope because the recognition that something is wrong is the first step toward setting it right again. It is the fire alarm that wakes us up to the possibility of true repentance.
We don't need sympathy or punishment. We need upholding in the hard process of working through transformation. If individual sinners are called to account, it is never for the purpose of harming or humiliating them. It is for the purpose of restoring them to new life.
There is considerable debate and struggle in the church today over the use of words. Since religious language, like any living language, is in a constant state of evolution, many old words no longer work. They fail to describe what is real for people.
People stop going to church when they feel the language they hear about God neither matches the reality of their lives nor feeds the hunger of their hearts. No question, words are important.
In this provocative book, Taylor offers a substantive argument that some of the great words of our religious tradition cannot be replaced. There are no substitutes for them, and when we try to talk around them, we find our speech diminished.
Rather than ignoring or sanitizing such words we need to go diving for the core experiences these words describe. When we do that, we may just discover that an unpopular term like "sin" may turn out to be the very one we need to reclaim.
(Rev. Dr. Wayne Holst is a writer and instructor in religion and culture at the University of Calgary.)