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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

What I’m reading today: Romans 3

One of the most controversial things we spiritual leaders in progressive communities can do is talk about sin. This is true for many reasons – one of which is because spiritual leaders who were more orthodox went to such lengths in talking about the absolute depravity of human beings that there position seemed out of touch. “What about all of the altruistic acts of goodness that human beings regularly perform?” progressives would ask. “Don’t those acts prove that sin doesn’t define us?” So the pendulum swung in the opposite direction – and we have spent a few hundred years contemplating the perfectibility of humanity.

All the while those of us comfortable with the notion of sin have sat somewhere in the middle and watched the pendulum swing by us in each direction – from total depravity to perfectibility and back again.

“So how can someone who calls him/herself ‘progressive’ be okay with sin?” you might wonder.

Well, here’s where the work of Karl Barth was helpful for me in seminary. Instead of using over moralistic language to talk about sin, Barth distinguished between two levels of reality. The first level is the Infinite; the second, the finite. God, by definition, represents the Infinite aspect of creation. All other creation is finite by nature – since it inherently has some degree of limitation. Sin, Barth suggested, is when the finite (the limited) confuses itself with the Infinite (the limitless). That way of thinking about sin is helpful.

Let me give you an example of where I see evidence of sin (human attempts to deny our limitedness): the debate about healthcare reform. Over the past several months, I have watched as we American have considered our options. Some would say the thing that has limited our ability to significantly expand health coverage is the insurance industry and its desire to preserve the status quo (and all of the profits it generates from the status quo). I don’t think that’s what’s really hindered the process. What’s hindered significant progress in my mind is the fear of those who currently have health insurance – a fear that their coverage would be limited or that their premiums would increase. Many of those currently covered would prefer that some in our land receive no access to health care than risk giving up the coverage that they’ve grown accustomed to. This fear is predicated on the principle of scarcity (there is only so many benefits to go around – so I have to fight against the rights of others to maintain my share). The principle of scarcity is rooted in a sense of limitedness – a byproduct of our finite nature. So we elect individuals to sit around tables, craft legislation that will solve the problem for us (i.e. assume the role of Infinite), and then look the other way when millions continue to be denied health care. How sad.

I’ve talked a bit about where I see evidences of this sin – this confusion of the finite with the Infinite – that Paul mentioned in today’s passage from Hebrews. Where do you see evidence of this?

Til next time…

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