Friday, September 20, 2013

Checkmate For Hell - Part 18: Sin and Evil

This is part of an ongoing series of blog posts, meant to be read in order.  In the first post, I introduced the concept of Universalism, and introduced the concept that I would be defending my position through a series of "chess moves".  I mentioned that I believe I have checkmate in 2 moves, but because a lot of questions would be left, I would use a series of further moves to keep the king in checkmate while I systematically removed the rest of the pieces from the board.  I would highly suggest you read the previous parts of this series before reading this one:

Part 1: Moves 1-3
Part 2: Moves 4-5
Part 3: Moves 6-7
Part 4: Move 8
Part 5: Moves 9-10
Part 6: Move 11
Part 7: Move 12
Part 8: The Six Line Narrative
Part 9: Two False Gospels, and a Man in a Pit
Part 10: Creation/Fall and Spirit/Soul/Body
Part 11: The True Gospel
Part 12: Deconstructing Our Ideas of Heaven
Part 13: Resurrection and "Spiritual" Bodies
Part 14: A New Diagram
Part 15: Creation/Heaven Fruits
Part 16: Hell Fruits
Part 17: What Is Hell?/The Narrow Gate

Embracing Universalism Changes Our Attitudes About Sin and Evil
I believe that one of the positive fruits of Universalism is that it can give us clarity in our understanding of what exactly “sin” is.  I think that most Christians have a very “flat” view of what sin is: if it says it’s bad somewhere in the Bible, then it’s sin, but if it says it’s ok, then it’s not.  But we’ve seen problems in the past with this kind of literalism (slavery, witch hunts, inquisitions, crusades), and I believe we’re working through one of the problems with this definition of sin currently as the debate over the proper Christian attitude towards sexuality rages.  Many people who believe in Hell won’t even dare risk thinking about the possibility that homosexuality might not be a sin, even though many scholars have offered up alternative interpretations to passages used to condemn homosexuality (side note: check out this excellent post on the topic of the Bible and homosexuality for a good summary, and just one of many examples of an alternate take).

But before I get into defining what exactly “sin” is, I would like to make a proposal about how Hell changes our attitudes towards sin. I propose that pushing the consequences of sin out into eternity – a concept that isn’t really conceivable by our finite minds – might seem like it would encourage people to live right, but it actually seems to have the opposite effect: when you preach eternal conscious torment to non-believers, they find it offensive and silly.  Meanwhile, believers have stopped placing any importance on the consequences of their actions in this life, as they believe they have their “get out of Hell free card” because they said a magical incantation and dropped “in Jesus’ name” at the end.  So, with Hell being the consequences of sin, unbelievers stop taking believers seriously and believers stop taking sin seriously.  But if we can rationally discuss sin and point to its natural consequences in this life, appealing to compassion for our fellow man when the sin being discussed does not “directly” harm the sinner, we can start to change the world in a way that I believe would be pleasing to God.

Now, as I said, I believe that many Christians have a “flat” view of what sin is – they simply point to things that seem to be condemned in the Bible, and they condemn those same things without ever thinking about why they are bad (or considering the possibility that they were never really sin to begin with, but were simply part of the way ancient cultures thought).  But a couple books I have read (and a few conversations I have been in with well-studied individuals) have helped me to conceptualize what sin is at a metaphysical level.

To get to a proper understanding of what “sin” is, I think we need to start with its origin story – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis 2.  I think there's so much misunderstanding of that metaphor, and what people often turn it into is this sort of "just don't do what God says not to do" (which is really more along the lines of "don't do what my literalistic interpretation of this Biblical passage says not to do"), or an even stranger "you shouldn't seek wisdom" type of interpretation.  But what's curious about that passage is the fact that the tree represents the knowledge of both good and evil.  Now, if you’ve been following the creation story carefully, you should have noted that everything God created, He said was…what?  Good!  So theoretically, Adam and Eve should have already had a knowledge of good – they were surrounded by it!  So why wasn't this tree simply called the "tree of the knowledge of evil"?  But I think that's a major clue to our understanding of what sin, at a metaphysical level, is!  And a second clue comes in what happens immediately after Adam and Eve eat the fruit - they start pointing fingers at each other and the snake and even God and playing "the blame game" – Adam says “the woman you put here with me”, blaming both God and Eve in the same sentence, and then Eve points at the snake and blames him.  So when you think about "good and evil", how do we usually play the game of categorizing things into those two artificial categories?  Well, almost always, "we" (or rather "me and my tribe") are "good" and "they" (the unfamiliar, or people outside of our tribe) are "evil".  But there was no such separation into these artificial categories before they ate the fruit!  There was only one tribe – those created by God!  And there is still only one tribe, in reality – we’re all created by God, and are all related to each other in reality!  Tribes are artificial categorizations our fallen minds come up with!  So when you think of it this way, you realize that evil is not a "something" but rather it is an illusion!  Because if everything God created is good, then there is no "us" and "them" - we are all loved by God!  This fits in very nicely with metaphorical imagery in the Bible of light and dark, such as when the devil is described as the "prince of darkness" or the "father of lies", and Jesus is described in John 1:5 as a light shining in darkness - darkness is not a "something" but rather an absence of something!  And thus we find that evil is a lie, and the way to combat it is with the truth - once the truth is injected, that illusion is gone and "evil" ceases to be!

But to take this even one step further – “sin” in the original Greek meant “missing the mark”, and in Aramaic, the word for evil is also used to mean “unripe”.  So the original language for the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” was actually more along the lines of “knowledge of ripe and unripe”, as the Aramaic word for “good” was the same word for “ripe”.  With this insight into the Greek and Aramaic translations, we learn that there is a whole different dynamic to the understanding of “good” and “evil”, both subjectively (it's me who sees your actions as missing the mark) and objectively (your actions came from a place within you that was unloving or unready).  But if the Hebrew for "good" is "ripe" and for "evil" is "unripe", then there is no judgment involved – it’s merely an essence of time.  God declared us "ripe" but didn't necessarily declare us "ready" for the wisdom that would be necessary to hold good/evil and ripe/unripe in the paradox which arises in all Unity.  We "sinned" or "missed the mark" when we took on the trait of distinguishing good from evil on the basis of judgment/valuation rather than seeing them as wholly present within the sacred.  So perhaps the only true sin is when we live in black and white, and judge every other human being according to our own standards, rather than loving every creature God has made and seeking their wellbeing.

The dual meanings of "ripe" and "unripe" present considerable difficulty to those who do not believe in eventual universal redemption, but fit rather nicely within Universalism.  For a Universalist who recognizes that God loves all, and has declared all to be good, sin is a transgression against the Universal good.  Sin is that which separates.  So how do we deal with sin?  More separation?  Cast the sinner out into infinite torment?  No!  This would be madness!  Separation does not solve separation!  Unconditional, infinite love, which cleaves to the transgressor no matter the response is the only solution!

In his masterful book “The Idolatry of God: Breaking Our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction”, Peter Rollins describes sin as an unholy trinity: Original Sin, the Law, and the Idol are its three parts.  He describes the concept of Original Sin through a psychological concept of First Separation, where we feel that we cannot be whole without attaining something (the Idol) outside of ourselves.  When we do this, we put the whole of our worth upon this object or person or goal (the Idol), and the very possibility of joy in this life is conditional upon the Idol – as Rollins puts it:

An Idol is not an idol because of some property and object has; it is an idol because we project absolute value onto it.

Now, what the Law does is to provide a barrier between us and the Idol.  But what often happens is that this only produces one of three effects:

  1. If we seek to live a life in obedience to the Law, we still secretly feel in our hearts that our joy and satisfaction is “out there” in the Idol which we cannot ever have.  And because of this secret thought, we feel intense anger and jealousy towards those who are not living a life in obedience to the Law – those who possess our Idol.
  2. If the Law is successful in keeping us from our Idol, even though it is not by our own choice, we live under this illusion of hope that says that if we could only overcome the Law, we could finally have joy and satisfaction.
  3. If we do not choose to live by the Law, and we are able to attain our Idol, we find that it does not in actuality bring us joy and satisfaction.  So we either end up enraged towards those we feel have lied to us (telling us that this idol is valuable), or we seek more.  If our idol was money, then once we find that one million dollars did not bring us joy and satisfaction, we seek ten million – and so we end up in an endless cycle of seeking fulfillment that never ends.

Rollins then goes on to point out that many forms of Christianity are simply another form of the sin of Idolatry – they merely seek to fill the gap we believe is there because of Original Sin with another idol:

What we are seeing in the church today is the reduction of God to an idol, that is, to a thing that will satisfy us and fulfill the gap in our heart. In thinking of God In this way, the church ends up mimicking every other industry by claiming that they can take away the sense of loss that marks our life…they turn the good news of Christianity into the bad news of idol worship.

What Rollins suggests is that the God that Jesus reveals to us does not merely validate our need for satisfaction by being the ultimate idol, but rather, Jesus shows us through the cross that the whole system is in question.  The very framework of thinking that results in idolatry is being overturned through Jesus, in the way that he modeled servanthood and love to the outcasts, and in the way he gave of himself even unto death.  The climax of Rollins’ book is in this passage:

In contrast to the Idol that we experience as existing, as sublime, and as meaningful, the God revealed in Christ, as present in the work of love, resists each of these characteristics. While the Idol is a fiction that we experience as existing, we may say that the God of Christ is a reality that we experience as not existing.

Instead, this God is present as the source that calls everything into existence. The word “exist” literally means “to stand out.” The main characteristic of something that exists is that we are able to treat it as an object of some sort. We are able to hold it, contemplate it, smell it, touch it, or hear it. The God hinted at in Christianity is that which calls everything into existence, all the while defying objectification.

To understand what this means, think about walking along a busy street and coming upon someone you love. While walking you are passing hundreds of people, and yet you do not really “see” any of them. You perhaps register them as objects to avoid, but they do not stand out for you. However, when you see someone you love, she stands forth from the background. She arises from the formless mass of others as distinct. With this in mind we may say that God is the name we give to that experience where things are called into existence for us. In this way, it can be said that God is not seen but is testified to in a particular way of seeing. Previously we saw how the Idol is experienced as existing, until we grasp it and discover that it doesn’t. Here God is felt not to exist, and yet by this act of calling everything into existence it seems that the moment we stop trying to grasp God the existence of God is indirectly testified to in the existence of everything we encounter.

This brings us to the second aspect of God that is distinct from the Idol. The Idol is experienced as that which is utterly beautiful, that which is so radiant everything else pales into insignificance. But when we read that God is love, we are reminded that love cannot be directly approached as beautiful and sublime but as that humble reality that renders the world beautiful and sublime. Love does not say, “Look at me,” but invites us to look at another. Unlike the Idol that tries to capture our gaze, the God testified to in love avoids our direct gaze and invites us to be taken up by the beauty that surrounds us. The Idol is seen as beautiful only until it is grasped and we discover the beauty was a fiction. In contrast, it would seem that as we stop trying to grasp God as beautiful we discover that the source of all beauty is indirectly discovered as beautiful in the beauty of all things.

Finally, the God revealed in the Christian scriptures differs from the Idol in that this God is not meaningful. The Idol we desire is not only meaningful to us, it is so singularly meaningful that everything else effectively becomes meaningless. In contrast, the God found in love is not meaningful but is that reality that renders the world meaningful.

When someone is in love he cannot help but experience the world as meaningful, even if he doesn’t believe it is. While the one who does not love cannot help but experience the world as meaningless even if he believes that the world is meaningful. Love then infuses the world with meaning regardless of what one believes about it. By revealing God as love, the Christian tradition rejects the idea that God is a meaningful being in favor of the idea that God is that which lights up our world, rendering it meaningful to us. This means that unlike the Idol, which seems meaningful until grasped, the moment we lay down the idea of God as meaningful and find the world infused with meaning, we bear witness to the meaningfulness of the divine.

The point here is that we should avoid making the mistake of affirming the polar opposite of the proverb that states, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” (Psalm 14:1) For Christianity does not assert that we can directly know God any more than it says there is no God. In Christ we are confronted with a different understanding altogether, one in which God is not directly known (either as a being “out there” or as found in all things), but is the source that renders everything known.

To make the claim that you know God is actually to proclaim a no-God. It is to proclaim an Idol, masked as God. The categories of existence and non-existence begin to break apart when speaking of God. The Idol is a fiction that we think exists, a meaningless object that we bestow with all meaning and a mundane object that we believe is sublime. In contrast, we let go of existence, meaning, and the sublime as categories to describe the object “God.” Instead these become ways in which we engage with the world. Yet, as we affirm the world in love, we indirectly sense that in letting go of God we have, in fact, found ourselves at the very threshold of God.

I believe that the way of thinking that Rollins is hinting at is utterly impossible for anyone who is stuck within the Heaven/Hell paradigm.  As long as there is a possibility that some will go away into eternal conscious torment, we will always look at people and things that we believe put us “at risk” as being evil, and we will take the same attitude as our false god towards them: wanting to cast them out forever.

But what's interesting about the passages that people use to protect their views of "eternal punishment" is the choice of words in those passages.  The word that is used is the same word that is used to describe the process of pruning a tree for the purpose of causing it to grow.  This is a stark difference

In his book “New Seeds of Contemplation”, Thomas Merton writes:

Detachment from things does not mean setting up a contradiction between "things" and "God" as if God were another "thing" and as if His creatures were His rivals. We do not detach ourselves from things in order to attach ourselves to God, but rather we become detached from ourselves in order to see and use all things in and for God. This is an entirely new perspective which many sincerely moral and ascetic minds fail utterly to see. There is no evil in anything created by God, nor can anything of His become an obstacle to our union with Him. The obstacle is in our "self", that is to say in the tenacious need to maintain our separate, external, egotistic will. It is when we refer all things to this outward and false "self" that we alienate ourselves from reality and from God. It is then the false self that is our god, and we love everything for the sake of this self. We use all things, so to speak, for the worship of this idol which is our imaginary self. In so doing we pervert and corrupt things, or rather we turn our relationship to them into a corrupt and sinful relationship. We do not thereby make them evil, but we use them to increase our attachment to our illusory self.

What we learn from this view of sin and evil is that we cannot fight our separation by judging some things as evil and some things as good – this only causes further separation and isolation, and only increases the hurt in the world.  The only thing that can combat the separation we feel is by breaking free of the paradigm that seeks to serve ourselves through the use of outside idols, and instead seeking to bring the love of God to all beings, and serving them even to the point of emptying ourselves.  This is known in the New Testament as “taking up our cross”, and is modeled perfectly in this immortal passage:

Philippians 2:6-8
6 Who [speaking of Christ Jesus], being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
    even death on a cross!

By properly framing the idea of taking up our cross within the framework of giving up “our way” which leads to separation and isolation, and instead seeking a life that serves others, we can also learn the meaning behind the rich Biblical metaphor of the refiner’s fire.  When a gold refiner puts unrefined gold into the fire, the impurities rise to the surface.  He then skims them off of the gold with a tool, leaving the metal behind.  This process is repeated until the refiner is able to see his reflection in the gold – this is how the refiner knows the process is done.  In I Cor. 3:10-15, Paul explains that everything we’ve done in this life will be put through a fire, and that wood, hay and straw will be burned away.  Understanding this passage can help us to properly frame Hell – Hell is not an end unto itself.  God does not punish for the sake of punishment – His punishment is not retributive.  God’s purpose is to refine and redeem.  And often, as we watch those things we deemed precious burn away in the refiner’s fire, this feels like Hell to us.  But as God skims away the impurities, we begin to shine.

This view of God's punishment as a means to an end, rather than and end in and of itself, fits in nicely with the choice of language Jesus used to speak of punishment.  In the passages people use to try to protect their views of eternal damnation, the word Jesus uses for punishment is the same word used to speak of pruning a tree.  Pruning a tree is not an end of itself - it has a purpose!  To cause the tree to grow!  Pruning removes the unneeded excess that is holding the tree back so that it can continue to grow!  And so we seek to remove the excess from our lives - the stuff we "love" so dearly that doesn't really add any value to our lives, if we're honest.

Now it is time for another break.  When we continue, I will explore what I believe to be a proper understanding of the Golden Rule and the Holy Spirit.

Next: The Golden Rule and the Holy Spirit

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