Defining Heresies

There is a theology that seems to be marketed largely to White suburban America—that the created image of God is vibrant and whole in humanity and that sin is more of an ugly rumor designed to make you feel bad about yourself.

It’s heresy.

Despite assurances that you may have heard to the contrary, evil is real. Evil—human-created, human perpetuated—is a genuine force in our existence. The evidence is, well, self-evident. Whenever nations and armed groups commit and enable the atrocities of Aleppo, whenever children are raped, whenever the acquisition of money for the few overrides the lives, health, and bodies of the fragile, evil declares its presence to the world. There are strategies that are used and that we use to shield or hide ourselves from it.

That makes it no less real.

Not only that, getting ourselves in the habit of ignoring evil “out there” is part and parcel—a twisted feedback loop—of ignoring evil “in here.”

Understanding and getting in touch with the reality of our own personal sin is an important part of grappling with evil in its many forms.

Already I imagine some readers are turning away in disgust at the notion that they participate anything like “real” sin; adult forums and Lenten talks that M and I have given that speak about sin, confession, and repentance are regularly met with, “I’m not a bad person; this doesn’t apply to me. I don’t have anything to repent for.” (No kidding: that’s an actual quote.)

But here’s the thing: the Gospel is the tool to fight back against evil. The truth of God’s love is the only weapon that doesn’t beget more violence, more hatred—more evil. And if we say nice words about applying it in the world, we must begin by applying it to our own hearts and our own homes. We must recognize our own need for repentance and for grace. (And I use “we” here deliberately because I’m just as enmeshed in this as anyone else… I’m not perfect and have never claimed to be!!)

Spirituality, religion, faith, whatever we want to call it and however we want to define it has got to fundamentally be about truth, recognizing truth and confronting our own shallow constructs with it.  Evelyn Underhill nails it when she writes:

Mysticism is the art of union with Reality. The mystic is a person who has attained that union in greater or less degree; or who aims at and believes in such attainment. (Practical Mysticism: A Little Book for Normal People, 3.)

We are not telling the truth as revealed in the Gospel if we pretend that evil is not real.

I do believe in the image of God indelibly imprinted on the human soul. But I also believe in the sin and evil that obscure it, and that it must be cleansed frequently, its blurred lines touched up, and be colored in with the virtues (a nice image from Didymus the Blind riffing on Athanasius…).

But that cleansing work, performed by God, invited and cooperated with by us, has got to happen. We must recognize our own personal, secret, hidden complicities in the broader evils of our age. Yes, megacorps are bad; but our own personal sin has a role in sustaining and growing them… No, it’s not enough to decry them or use a general confession that mentions them obliquely. If you can’t begin to name your complicities, then you don’t really mean it.

The fall of Aleppo thrusts the face of evil into our eyes once again.

Reinhold Niebuhr is credited with saying that the only objectively verifiable Christian doctrine is Original Sin. This morning, scrolling through my news feeds, I’m feeling that. And yet there’s a cottage industry of ignoring and downplaying that such a thing even exists. Unfortunately for it, to twist a phrase, reality has a well-known Augustinian bias.

Ah, well—back to the book.

Happy Advent!

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5 Responses to Defining Heresies

  1. Debbie McClellan says:

    Thank you for saying something that is begging to be said!

  2. David Allen says:

    “Reinhold Niebuhr is credited with saying that the only objectively verifiable Christian doctrine is Original Sin.”

    How about ancestral sin instead?

  3. Thanks Derek, this is exactly right. Have you read the writings of William Stringfellow about the Principalities and Powers? Not only is evil real and a consequence of sin, but sometimes the consequences of that sin become powers in and of themselves which can’t easily be tagged as belonging to, or as being the responsibility of any individual or identifiable group. Stringfellow discusses these as demonic powers (though far more serious than anything with horns and a tail)

  4. Derek Olsen says:

    I haven’t read Stringfellow, but I keep hearing that I should! It sounds like we’re certainly thinking along similar lines here.

  5. Dale Matson says:

    My understanding of what you said is that we are circumcised but not circumcised of heart. And that is the heart of the matter.

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