dialog 38:4 (Fall 1999) 297f.
THE BABY WITH THE BATHWATER?
Gary Pence proposes "an alternative definition of 'sin'" in order to be free of "the absurdity and the damaging effect of common understandings of sin." Pence is right in spotting a problem, but I fear his proposed solution throws out the baby with the bathwater.
Pence accurately observes that common understandings of sin have done‐and still do‐a lot of damage. He draws on his own boyhood struggles to come to terms with the understanding of sin embedded in at least some familiar Lutheran liturgical confessions. I am sure his experience is not an exception‐his recollections spoke movingly to my own experience as well.
For Pence, our misguided understanding of sin rests on a misguided notion of God: specifically, the notion "that God expects perfection of finite, imperfect, unfinished humans and damns them for failing to achieve it." Here again, Pence is correct that this perfectionist theology causes much misplaced guilt and often paralyzes rather than inspires to action. He accordingly proposes that we scale back our "irrationally inflated expectations." In fact, Pence sees these inflated expectations as the heart of what sin really is: "the difficulty we all seem to share accepting ourselves and one another. realistically and happily with our limitations and flaws."
Pence proposes that we regard sin "as a tragic human dilemma rather than as a vile human act." A dilemma is a situation in which each of the alternative actions has a negative aspect. But the situation is one thing; action in the face of the situation is something else. At least one of the key characteristics of admirable moral role models is how they act in thorny ethical dilemmas. Admittedly, Pence does recognize that human beings perpetrate "violent, destructive acts," but he attributes most of them to "extremely wounded, sociopathic adults." Yet in this century alone tens of millions of human beings have been butchered in wars, and continue to be cut down in genocides today. A "dilemma" did not kill them. The actions of other human beings took their lives. And unless one extends the definition of a "sociopath" to the point of meaninglessness, it is impossible to describe the majority of those who do violent acts as sociopathic.
There is a second line of Pence's argument that is more realistic. This line of the argument could readily talk about "vile human acts," attributing them to irrational perfectionist demands that we place upon ourselves, others, and the world. It strikes me as reductionist to characterize such perfectionism as the cause of violence and destruction, but it is at least one significant cause. Pence's critique of perfection should find ready hearing among Lutherans. Martin Luther once famously counseled his friend and ca-worker Philip Melanchthon to recognize that there are ethical problems that have no perfect solution. In the given situation, there is something wrong with every possible course of action. Luther ascribed this reality to sin, and admonished Melanchthon not to be paralyzed into inactivity seeking a perfect solution, but rather to "sin boldly, but believe and rejoice more boldly in Christ."
I suspect, though, that Pence would not be content simply to equate his critique of "irrationally inflated expectations" with Luther's counsel to Melanchthon. Pence would have us pray God to "help us to accept ourselves, one another, and this good world without resentment, reservations, or irrationally inflated expectations, and [to] release us from all annoyance and anxiety to enjoy the company of one another and to create compassionate community." The phrase "release us from all annoyance" is ambiguous. It could be a petition that God make our annoyance not an enslaving force in our lives, but a liberating energy. Or it could be a request that God help us not to be annoyed at things that happen in the world. Pence's article does not fully dispel the ambiguity, but it certainly makes the second reading the more likely one. Whenever Pence uses the words "anger" or "rage," he connects them with the destructive notion of sin that he advocates abandoning. He thinks that we should not "berate ourselves, criticize others, and carp and complain about the world's injustices."
Without anger and rage at the world's injustices, and without criticism of those who perpetrate and those who comply with injustice, the Bible would be a much less powerful‐and much shorter‐book. Such anger and criticism are essential to the prophetic tradition, including Jesus himself. More recently, Martin Luther King called for "divine dissatisfaction" as the motivating power to transform society: "Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice."1 Should we, for instance, accept without "annoyance" the fact that the average annual contribution to the World Hunger Appeal in the ELCA is about the cost of a Big Mac?
Because I occupy a position of privilege in the affluent nation which the Germans call "the land of unbounded possibilities," it is easy for me to affirm Pence's evocation of "a world of extravagant beauty and endless possibility." But I doubt those words would seem as directly plausible to Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchú Tum, whose family protested the grinding poverty and systematic discrimination to which their people were subjected, with the result that the Guatemalan military incinerated her father and tortured to death both her mother and her younger brother.
Pence acknowledges that his proposed alternative of dispassionate rationality in the face of human failing "may seem naive, elitist, perhaps even callous." He seeks to dispel this appearance by showing that his approach has roots in the Stoic philosophy of Epictetus, who was a Roman slave. Epictetus's philosophy strives to overcome the vulnerability of embodied human existence. This position is incompatible with the centrality of incarnation in Christianity. Epictetus could advocate a dispassionate response to bodily suffering, both of oneself and of others, because the body is something "foreign."2 By contrast, the parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25 makes our response to the bodily suffering of others a primary means of communion with Christ. Or consider the detachment that Epictetus proposes in the following advice: "When you kiss your own child or wife, remember to say that you are kissing a human being; for when they die you will not be distraught." This might be good advice for living a life of minimal vulnerability, but it hardly makes Epictetus a good witness for the defense against the charge of being "callous."
1Martin Luther King, Jr., "Where Do We Go from Here?," in James M. Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986) 251.
2Epictetus, Enchiridion 1, in Epictetus, The Discourses as Reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments, trans. W. A. Oldfather, vol. 2, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1959).
3Epictetus, Enchiridion 3.
John Hoffmeyer is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.