Some of you may have gritted your teeth a little at this post’s title, “What about sin?” That may be because we hear the question filtered through the doctrine of original sin or hear it as a prelude to finger-pointing and judgment.
In his book, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, contemporary guru Eckhart Tolle advises that if we turn off when we hear the term “sin,” we might substitute other terms, such as “unconsciousness” or “insanity,” because sin is all about losing awareness of our deeper selves, our deeper connection to all that is. Tolle defines the word “sin” as “the suffering you unconsciously inflict on yourself and others as long as [an] illusory sense of self governs what you think, say, and do.”
This illusory sense of self that Tolle asserts we feel called to defend reminds me of what Trappist monk Thomas Merton called the false or inauthentic self, that self that thinks of itself as autonomous, self-sufficient, unrelated to other human beings, unrelated to other creatures, and unrelated to the Creator. In his book, Contemplative Prayer, Merton calls true sin-awareness “a sense that one has somehow been untrue not so much to abstract moral or social norms but to one’s own inmost truth” and claims that “society itself, institutional life, organization, the ‘approved way,’ may in fact be encouraging us in falsity and illusion.”
In the fourth century, Pelagius and other Celtic Christians taught that sin was real, awaiting to tempt us from birth onward, but that it is not inborn and may easily be removed by an experience of grace, either in nature, by love, or through Christ. A contemporary of Pelagius, Augustine, got him declared a heretic in part because he opposed the doctrine of original sin which Augustine (and much later, Calvin) embraced. As Pelagius wrote, “You will realize that doctrines are inventions of the human mind, as it tries to penetrate the mystery of God.”
In his book Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation, contemporary writer Philip Newell explains that another Celtic Christian teacher, Eriugena, uses leprosy as a metaphor for sin. Just as leprosy can transform a human face into something scary, so sin can change the human soul into something monstrous. And just as leprosy causes numbness, so sin makes us insensitive “to what is deepest within us, and more and more we treat one another as if we were not made in the image of God.”
Celtic Christianity recognized the image of God in everything, including ourselves, so following Christ was not about becoming something other than we are but rather embracing who we are, beloved children of God. And everyone was a beloved child of God, Christian or not.
Imagine what a difference this attitude would make in how we reach out to others, whether among our neighbors or among the nations and religions of the world!