Saturday, January 17, 2009

So, what's your take on sin? Institutional sin?

A cheery topic for a Saturday, right?

Don't know why it's on my mind today.

As a kid, my parents were pretty firm on the point that sins weren't a list of specific acts, though certain acts were almost always going to end up that way. They always said that a sin was "that which distances you from God."*

(e.g. If you pull the plug on your aging grandmother to relieve her suffering, then that might not well be a sin. But if you cheat on your taxes and that guilt makes you focus on yourself and making up justifications for your greed and convincing yourself that everyone is as greedy as you are, then your tax cheating becomes a sin and you've probably talked yourself into doing it on a greater scale next year.)

I think you have to be a certain kind of thoughtful person for my folks' view to really work, but I confess I haven't found a better one. They were pretty light on the "sin" point anyway. I think of them as "functional Universalists"** as for them hell sort of existed but was a very empty place.

I had a long talking to from my Great Aunt at one point when I was a kid, and she quite literally "put the fear of God in me," so for awhile I ran around trying to figure out the relative goodness vs. evil of my actions to make sure my soul would balance out OK if I were hit by a truck.

I wonder sometimes if "sin" is even a useful term. I has such gravitas that I find it hard to give up, but like most theological terms, it has vastly different meanings to different people.

For example, though philosophies vary on the rightness of treating corporations as functional humans under the law, I think most of agree that corporations can sin through a sort of collective selfishness and distancing from that which is good and right.*** Indeed, I'd say that any human institution is as capable of sin as any human. Is there any UU that can't rattle off a list of sins they percieve in the UUA? Is there anyone who can't come up with a list of bad things their company does. Not as extreme as the example in my footnote, I'll grant you. But very much there.

For another example, I really hate it when Virginia executes people as (even putting justice concerns, and I do have them, aside) I fundamentally believe it is immoral to cut off someone's chance to find personal redemption. What is Virginia but an organized amalgamation of Virginians? I'm a Virginian. When Virginia kills someone, isn't there a bit of blood on my hands?

In a sense, my post-Aunt-Bert evaluating-and-balancing approach wasn't such a bad thing. Judging the sins of other people really isn't my business, or really doesn't become my business until "sins" become "crimes" or "actionable" and then we have a mechanism for that which removed my opinion from the picture anyway unless I am serving a specialized role in the process. But we all have to evaluate the relative sins of the institutions we're a part of much as we would consider any other bad quality of them.

The UUA and Virginia all do enough good that I can view what sins they commit as something to work on rather than an ender, though I try to keep in mind that my personal affection for an organization does not mean I should give them a pass on the things they do that I think are suboptimal for the world. (Easy to do in the case of the UUA as I don't have much personal affection for that institution. Not so easy for Virginia, a state that I have great personal affection for despite it's many drawbacks that I can totally see.)

Anyway, sorry for the somewhat rambling nature of this post. I'm still thinking a lot of this stuff through and when something makes me think, I get long winded about it.


*I consider this pretty interchangeable with "that which distances us from Good," FWIW.

**"Mom, is there a hell?"
"Oh, I suppose"
"Do bad people go there?"
"Very bad people"
"Like the kid who calls me names at recess?"
"Oh no, more like Hitler or maybe Jack the Ripper. But you have to be very, very bad. No one you know"
-A conversation CC recalls having with her mother when CC was something like seven

*** For an extreme example "Sure, this chemical has been found to cause cancer and is illegal in America, but we have all this stock on hand and it's not illegal in South America yet..."


ms. kitty said...

Well said, CC. Thought-provoking. Think I'll go write something down. Thanks for the prod.

phoebat said...

A sin for a non-believer: i.e. anything that distances one from the self.

plaidshoes said...

I have always thought of sin as knowing what you should do, but choosing not to - going against your internal compass of what is "right".

Ms. Theologian said...

I definitely believe in sin, especially sin in the workplace. But, you're right, sometimes it's not as useful a term as it could be because it's so loaded with meaning.

I'm thinking about that study that found that as long as someone in authority told us to do something, most of us would be willing to inflict great pain on others. I think that general principle plays out all over the place at work.

patrickmurfin said...

My functional definition of sin has always been the intentional infliction of harm or pain. Not very deep maybe, but mighty useful on the fly.

LinguistFriend said...

The context in which I have wondered about such things is that
of defining the framework within which such things are specified as being a sin. Some things are sins as psychological realities, even if we do not accept the framework in which they were classically defined as sins. Are we then just gullibly conditioned to them by the norms of our society, even if not brought up within or committed to the religion which classically framed them as sins, or its successors (as Christianity is a successor to Judaism or a Jewish heresy)? Then we may want to find some alternative generalized framework in terms of which they are equally seen as sins, without the particular religious assumptions which we reject; we hope that this procedure is not purely ad hoc. A contrasting point of view is that drawn out of antinomianism; some early Christians drew the conclusion from Paul's discussions of being released from Jewish law that they could engage with impunity in activities forbidden under that law. The term "antinomianism", by the way, is much later, and comes from a related argument of Luther against Johann Agricola.

Robin Edgar said...

I fundamentally believe it is immoral to cut off someone's chance to find justice, equity and compassion in human relations, especially when the UUA and U*U congregations "covenant" i.e. solemnly promise to affirm and promote these values. . . U*Us know where to find my take on the institutional sin of the UUA, the Unitarian Church of Montreal and other U*U "religious institutions". For the record I have yet to hear one single peep from the UUA in response to the following "less than diplomatic" "electronic communication" that I sent to UUA leaders a few days ago now. Not even an acknowledgment of receipt from one single person of the dozen or more people it was sent to.