dialog 38:4 (Fall 1999) 301f.
BINARY THINKING AND GROWTH IN GRACE
Gary Pence's essay on sin unfolds a binary fugue of bifurcated, dichotomous themes of either/or, of extreme pain or acceptance. Pence's childhood experiences of public Lutheran confessions of sin and his theoretical and clinical work in psychology and psychotherapy provide the context for his assumptions and conclusions. He offers a hopeful reading of human nature as "limited and unfinished" works in process; e.g., "Be patient: God isn't finished with me, yet!" Pence assumes that our options are either (1) his understanding of anthropological depravity, especially from the Reformation tradition; or (2) totally happy, realistic acceptance of one's limitations.
Pence's recognition that many liturgical confessions of sin coerce children and others to give assent to the untruth of personal, individual depravity, based on Augustinian and folkloric "original sin" interpretations, is powerful. Though some Christians are trapped and guilt-laden, many life-long Christians deal with sin without being crippled by evil and without a self-destructive pathological sense of sin.
Instead of Pence's binary constructs, I suggest exploring sin as a continuum in dialogue with trinitarian faith and grace combined with the salvific traditions of Eastern Christianity, and the Great Commandments; as well as Pence's observations about human nature and parenting, Pence's source of applied theology. Pence wants to ignite a healthy empathetic spirit, but he resorts to that which he finds objectionable, sub nomen "narcissism": a lamentable victim, a "poor me."
Pence contrasts the dogmatic Augsburg Confession God with his own biblical God of unconditional acceptance, and rightly notes that many humans, including Pence, project their own neuroses on God. The God of tradition and biblical faith is much broader than either the Augsburg Confession or Pence's narcissism. In trinitarian faith, God is Parent/Creator, revealed love, is Jesus the Christ, and is the Paraclete/Holy Spirit/Wisdom which empowers and comforts. Many who have been taught about sin and human depravity experience Jesus as friend and confidant, and are not imbued with a sense of individual depravity, especially the oppressed (racism, sexism, classism) in the United States.
The danger of Pence's alternative is that one may overlook other and communal responsibility for sin. Experiencing the baptism of the Holy Spirit allows a spiritual attitude adjustment. Life ceases to be them against me, and God my enemy or warden. A baptized or born-again Christian may experience God as a loving parent, friend, comforter who does care, but who sometimes judges, works slower than humans desire, and sometimes appears distant, with an estrangement projected by us.
In the Eastern tradition, salvation aims at becoming more God-like, which is not masochistic or impossible, but a process. Often those of the western tradition get so enamored with Pauline Christianity rooted in the cross that suffering or doom rather than satisfaction becomes the norm. Even Paul celebrates the gifts of faith, hope, and love. The Great Commandments (wherein Jesus compacts 613 Jewish laws into two Christian precepts: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and Love your neighbor as you love yourself) and Genesis 1 (where God created everyone and everything as good, and everyone is created of God) convey the message that God and goodness is within everyone. To love God is to love the neighbor and vice versa. Thus as a sinner one is God's lost child, the Prodigal Son, whom God loves and desires in an ultimate intimate relationship. Consequently, using Pence's argument, the question is not just a matter of accepting who we are, but of realizing that with acceptance comes growth and choices
Many dysfunctional families deny choice and create symphonic dances around fear. Such families are not new, remembering King David's and Lot's sagas. Conversely, many dysfunctional families do not create "seriously flawed" children. Many parents make mistakes because they parent the way they were parented, unless they make a conscientious decision to change. Conversely and contrary to Pence, many people who "do great injury to others" know they have injured another, and survive and thrive by making others miserable. We cannot simplify parenting under Pence's either/or headings of depraved or good enough.
Pence offers only a binary model for being, the option to berate, criticize others, and complain about the world's injustices, or unchanging acceptance of the world and ourselves. We can complain in the tradition of the psalmists who complained to God with a certainty that a hearing, knowing God was working out the solution to their problems. We need to accept ourselves, but need not sell ourselves short and be content in not celebrating our gifts and graces in a way that glorifies God and humanity. To replace a concept of sin with the psychoanalytic construct of narcissism without exploring Augustine's notion of perfection prior to the fall also leaves his analysis incomplete.
I commend Pence for his passionate argument and observation that there are healthier ways to talk about sin than relying on the Augsburg Confession. I strongly urge him not to oversimplify the matrix of sin, to explore other ways Christian traditions and theologies‐particularly womanist, feminist, mujerista, and liberationist‐name, analyze, and live with sin. Recognizing sin, that which breaks relationship with others and thus God, can be an opportunity for transformation. Context, culture, gender, socio-economics or class, family and early environmental realities, along with the individual persona, all shape how one experiences individual sin and the sins of others. And psychoanalysis cannot be uncritically offered as a worthwhile alternative to the Augustinian "original sin" conjecture (e.g., one learns more about psychoanalysis from a single movie of Woody Allen, a thirty-year therapy client, than from reading learned psychoanalytical journals, particularly those still imbued with Freud's faulty conjectures and assumptions.) Recent scientific studies also show that while parenting is important, we are all born with much of our behavioral DNA intact, which is why some who experience a bad childhood become well-adjusted adults, while some who have total privilege end up being sociopaths such as Loeb and Leopold. Pence's beginning is thought-provoking, but contains too many generalizations, assumptions, and post hoc propter hoc logic.
Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan, Ph.D., is the Executive Director of the Center for Women and Religion, on the faculty at the Graduate Theological Union, and is an ordained minister in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.