Here’s what I wrote when handed this exam question: How does ‘sin’ fit into your own theological anthropology? What are some helpful and/or detrimental aspects of how sin is understood within the Christian tradition?
My understanding of sin is strongly linked with my understanding of the doctrine of imago Dei. If each human carries a unique image of God and is called to gift the world from such an identity, then sin is defined as anything that is not living out of that identity. It is working for acceptance and approval and love rather than from a the belief and knowledge that one is accepted and loved. It is the ways in which desires and passions become distorted and misdirected. It is the ways we inhibit others from knowing and living out their own identity and agency.
Sin, then, is highly unique. As feminist theologians such as Saiving Goldstein have pointed out, sin may be pride but can just as easily be the opposite: a lack of organizing center, a dependence on others for one’s own self-definition. What is detrimental in the discussion of sin is blanket statements, as there are very few actions that can be deemed sinful for absolutely everyone. Oftentimes we focus on behaviors when what is really at stake is a question of character, an issue of identity and agency. The focus on behavior is a narrow lens and does not address the complexity of a human life: for just a few examples I’ll point to the debates around homosexuality; masturbation; plastic surgery and viagra; alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana use. I’m not saying these categories are unimportant. They are real areas of concern for many Christians, but they are symptomatic of deeper issues, and when we focus on fixing the symptom we are refusing to handle the complexity of that individual’s identity and the image of God he or she holds.
Most importantly, as James Alison reminds, sin is “that which can be forgiven.” Indeed, that which already has been forgiven: there is no room for shame nor condemnation in the gospel, and it is here that some understandings of sin have been most detrimental. By attempting to shame others into “repentance” rather than informing others that they are already loved and no longer need to live in sinful ways in order to gain love, the gospel message is not only distorted, it is inverted.