Wednesday, February 1, 2012

What about Sin?

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. 

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! 


  1. Centering Prayer, of course, also emphasizes the "false self" or "inauthentic self" concept relating to sin. Even more important to me, actually, is the discussion so thoroughly investigated in Thomas Keating's writings about the "Human Condition" rather than the peculiar Augustinian idea of "Original Sin". The explanation of the way the false self is developed as an inevitable result of each person's interactions with the environment and other people, and the need to open ourselves to a growing relationship with the Indwelling Divine in our own natures is far preferable to a futile sense of guilt about things we can't change.

    By the way, I heartily recommend a visit to the Jesus in Love blogspot today for a wonderful celebration of St. Brigid's Day.

  2. That makes two of us, Trudie! I also prefer that view, and I add the element of 'heredity' (whatever that is...) as I am a product of the chaining of genes and descending 'gifts' from my previous generations: parents, grandparents, great g-'s, and so forth. With heredity, it is easier - for me - to understand the concept of original a predisposition to ....(fill in the blank).The Eastern cultures bring in the concept of 'sanskaras' which have added further understanding of this complex subject matter.
    But as Chris brought out, the Celtic Christianity thinking, seeing God every where and this in very one, including I:me, and thus "not about becoming something other than we are but rather embracing who we are" (as Chris puts out), accepting, loving and honoring "that" I:me, (with all its warts and gifts), and thus "complete" as is - and worthy of love and belonging (Brené Brown). The alternate thinking of condemning humanity as of birth and the concomitant dependence on and to a 'body' (Church or church) for 'salvation' purposes, is a hard pill to swallow. It makes life a shaming purgatory where illusory 'perfection' is the drug of choice, with the consequences that brings.
    Thank you Chris, for such a timely and insightful, hope giving writing!

    1. Thanks to you both, Trudie and Jose, for your well-considered comments!

  3. Sin separating me from myself is sort of new idea to me. I have long thought of sin as that which separates me from God and others and everything. I guess if I am part of God and everyone and everything, then, yeah, if something separates me from others it is also separating me from that part of me (all of the real me?) that is part of God, you and everyone and everything.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful reply! I appreciate your logic!

  4. This book has given me my life back. I didn't expect much and it wasn't instant gratification. However after the first 15 minutes, I realized this was just what I needed. I'd also recommend the other book that I brought recently, "When God Stopped Keeping Score." This book will challenge everything that you thought you knew about forgiveness.

  5. Here are a few of my short thoughts :)