What is sin?

Is the problem within United Methodism at its root theological rather than ethical?

I was reading Robert Fuller’s book Spiritual but Not Religious for my evangelism class, when I was struck by how well it describes the tensions within our denomination. The book is a study of the ways throughout American history that large groups of people have adopted spiritual beliefs and practices outside the domain of church-based Christianity. Fuller argues that such spiritualities tend to reject notions of original sin and the fallen nature of humanity in favor of a belief in the goodness of human beings and the innate divinity within us.

Here is one version of that contrast:

A doctrine of divine immanence affirms that divine spirit is equally present in all creation … This new understanding of God’s relationship to the universe also helps to correct outmoded ideas of “sin.” The biblical view of sin is the act of breaking the commands of a male authority figure. A theology that stresses divine immanence recasts sin as our failure to recognize the presence of God within us and our fellow creatures.

This one quote does not capture everything to be said, but it gives the gist of the contrast. And it is reading about this contrast that has me wondering about United Methodism.

Is our internal conflict these days fundamentally about differing understandings of who God is and what it means to sin?


5 thoughts on “What is sin?

  1. Harold Bloom’s The American Religion argues for gnosticism. I think they’re both right, in some combination. As for original sin, I’ve read a whole lot of people writing recently they don’t accept it. Part of me thinks, “So Jesus was crucified and rose . . . why?” I do suppose it comes down to one’s conception of what constitutes original sin. Rejecting the notion out of hand, though? I don’t get it.

      1. Not having read it, I’ll accept that. And you have to admit there’s a lot of it across the board here in the US. Isn’t the American Dream – that if you work hard, play by the rules, one day you’ll be successful and accepted – a kind of secularized Gnosticism?

  2. Moderns love to euphemize rather than point out the dog returning to its vomit or the sow wallowing in the muck. We prefer careless words, the “elegant variation” (Ben Yagoda), rather than precise words. We seek to evade the charge against us.

  3. That is the fundamental theological difference! Modern folks reject the ides that we are flawed. We are all born selfish, self centered and self indulgent (watch any infant!). We cannot, as Jesus said, be intrinsically good.

    Human centered spirituality/theology forgets that we humans are self aware. Our behavior is not based on instinct or genetic programming period. It is our self awareness (free will) that separates us from the rest of creation. We know when we behave badly.

    We are part of creation physically. We are apart of it spiritually.

    Lon Hudson

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