Learning to Sin

As strange as it sounds – human beings have to “learn to sin.” Not that we need any help doing the things that sinners do – all of that comes quite easily to us. But we have to learn that we are sinners – and this does not come easily to us.

Oddly, I first heard this when listening to one of Stanley Hauerwas’ lectures at Duke. “You have to teach someone to be a sinner,” was his statement. What he meant by that is that the Christian understanding of sin is not something we are born with. We have to be taught to understand the human predicament and the precise character of the situation in which we find ourselves.

Depending on how you define the problem, the answer will come out differently. Another way of saying this would be: sin is the question to which Jesus’ death and resurrection is the answer. To a great extent, it is likely that the disciples did not understand the teachings of Christ because they did not see death and resurrection as an answer to any of their problems. Indeed, though death is seen as problematic on occasion in the Old Testament, it is not always seen as the over-arching issue. If someone could live to a ripe old age and “be gathered to his fathers,” then it doesn’t sound like the writer saw this as an existential crisis.

Christ not only reveals Himself as the answer to our problem, but defines the problem as well.

In our modern world, the success of preaching the gospel may often depend upon whether anyone thinks he needs such a gospel. In a “culture of death,” is a resurrected Messiah such good news?

From the Church’s perspective, the very fact that our culture has become a “culture of death, ” a place where death can be seen as friendly, a welcome end to otherwise meaningless suffering, is tragic indeed. Some of the “Extreme” character of things today (sports, etc.) has a way of taunting death and mocking it as though it were not a problem. I can recall conversations of my teen years (not particularly great moments in my life) when no one in the room seemed to think living past 30 was such a great idea. The death of contemporaries such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, et al., were seen as tragic only in the sense that there would be no new albums coming from those sources.

Strangely, it was reading history that first taught me to “sin.” I finished high school and announced that I was not going to college (what was the use?). Long story short, I wound up living in a commune (actually a Christian commune) which included among its members a number of young college intellectuals (if you can say that without laughing too hard). But they were the first people I had ever met who actually read history and had a thought or two on the subject.

It was reading the stretch of Western Civilization and realizing that it was, in fact, headed for destruction, that first awakened the despair of sin within my consciousness. If that sounds too intellectual, forgive me. It wasn’t that “heady” an issue. It was simply waking up and realizing that the things around me were the bits and pieces left over from a train wreck and not the “modern world,” that overwhelmed me. It was not so much my own personal death that awakened this sense of loss, but the fact that in the midst of the death of a culture, a single life could have so little meaning and purpose.

That “the wages of sin is death,” made sense – but not the sense that “if you do something wrong you’ll die.” Rather something much larger. I can recall reading Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming,” as if I’d never heard the ideas before:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert.

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

By this time the poem has almost passed into cliche. But it remains prescient. Forty years later the center holds less and less and the shape of the beast that slouches seems far more clear – on many levels. For myself, I feel ever more profoundly the sinner, dwelling in the midst of sinners, and the beast threatens to swallow us all.

Thus it is that I love the Savior who enters the belly of that beast and brings us all safe again to some paradisiacle shore. It is not the footsteps of something slouching I hear, but the approaching sound of victory, trampling down death by death.

Doubtless there are many other ways to present the gospel – Christ is the Savior and the Savior of us all – and not just a gloomy historian. But to know He saves is also to know, at least in part, from what it is we are saved.

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22 Responses to “Learning to Sin”

  1. steelcitymom Says:

    So, what is it ? Do you believe that THE Christ is coming back or not….? You are a priest in the Orthodox Church – what do you believe? Do you believe that He is coming back?

  2. Anna Says:

    Father, bless!

    You write: “a number of young college intellectuals (if you can say that without laughing too hard).” I was amused by this because I teach, but I was amused even more because not (too) long ago I was one of them.

    The reference to Yeates is subtle–which is good, unless it is too subtle and flies over the head of some people. But on the other hand, Fr. Seraphim Rose’s “It is later than we think” has a way of turning people off.

    I have been reading you blog on and off for about five years now, and I deeply appreciate your writing.

  3. paula hughes Says:

    A very interesting book is ‘A Secular Age ‘ by Charles Taylor. It is a detailed exploration of how we in the West , travelled from a culture in which nearly everyone believed in God to one where nearly no one does.

    Part of the Catholic mass the priests recite’ From generation to generation, You call a people unto Yourself.’ I always find that a comfort,as an Orthodox exile in Catholic churches! And as an exiled believer on earth.

  4. Margaret Says:

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen! This is an encouragement to my heart as I prepare my “agnostic” daughter to finish high school and enter college this fall. She wants to major in History and Education. Your remarks feed my hope that the faith she was baptized and chrismated into, she indeed will return to. God bless you!!! (And your words here are so encouraging to my faith as well!)

  5. fatherstephen Says:

    Steelcitymom,
    Of course I believe THE Christ is coming back – sorry if something in my writing made that unclear. The quote from Yeats is an interesting meditation on the slow corruption of our culture – certainly foretold in Scripture. I absolutely believe that Christ Jesus, my Savior and my God, “will come again in power to judge the living and the dead.”

    The “rough beast” of Yeats poem is an anti-Christ, a deceiver of the nations. People who look for something other than Christ are being deluded and accept such a “rough beast” and think it will save them. Salvation is in Christ alone.

  6. Wednesday Highlights | Pseudo-Polymath Says:

    […] Some of us are better at learning how to do that than others. […]

  7. Stones Cry Out - If they keep silent… » Things Heard: e205v2n3 Says:

    […] Some of us are better at learning how to do that than others. […]

  8. Karen Says:

    Thank you, Father, for this meditation. The following is something I hadn’t thought about quite in those terms before (underscoring your point), but struck me as profound and something I will be pondering for some time:

    “Depending on how you define the problem, the answer will come out differently. Another way of saying this would be: sin is the question to which Jesus’ death and resurrection is the answer. To a great extent, it is likely that the disciples did not understand the teachings of Christ because they did not see death and resurrection as an answer to any of their problems. Indeed, though death is seen as problematic on occasion in the Old Testament, it is not always seen as the over-arching issue. If someone could live to a ripe old age and “be gathered to his fathers,” then it doesn’t sound like the writer saw this as an existential crisis.

    “Christ not only reveals Himself as the answer to our problem, but defines the problem as well.”

  9. Karen Says:

    Steelcitymom, if you haven’t already done so, you might enjoy attending a few Orthodox services to get a better picture of what we Orthodox believe. Our theology is expounded in the prayers and hymnody of the Church, and its broad outlines summarized in the historic Nicene-Constantinoplian Creed, where in one part it states:

    “And He [Jesus Christ] shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, Whose Kingdom shall have no end.”

    I thought Fr. Stephen was quite clear where he said:

    “Thus it is that I love the Savior who enters the belly of that beast and brings us all safe again to some paradisiacle shore. It is not the footsteps of something slouching I hear, but the approaching sound of victory, trampling down death by death.”

    But, then again, in my experience a lot of good poetry by nature often requires some work (and usually some guidance) to decode accurately. I also have the benefit of being an Orthodox Christian and so understanding something of the full context from which Fr. Stephen writes. I hope you will keep reading his blog. Blessings!

  10. Drewster2000 Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for that exposure to Yeats. Makes me want to write poetry again. It also reminds me of Nietzche’s Parable of the Madman. I heard a speaker explain that Nietzche never actually believed in God; it wasn’t about that. But in 1900 he realized that our belief in God was beginning to die – and the horrible implications that came with this as our world begins to fall apart. “What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun?”

    What a wonder! A man who was so confused about reality could still see the true collapse coming all the same. And now with the advent of the Postmodernist we see his predictions coming true.

    But it is wisdom what you say about having to learn to sin. It is as though we come into the world in some ways unprepared for it, expecting the Garden of Eden. We weren’t created to be wrestling with sin and death; it isn’t natural. It is the way of things. We are in a war. Our world is in a state of decay.

    I suppose this is what makes dying to that natural self born into the world all the more crucial and timely. Learn to give up that life which expected all things to be good, both out in the world and inside our own souls. Abandon the sinking ship in order to join that one Christ formed through His death and resurrection.

    But of course….before anyone will see this as more than just the ravings of a lunatic, they have to actually see the desperate situation they’re in. They have to “learn how to sin”.

    Thanks once again for your words.

  11. steelcitymom Says:

    Thank you, Father Stephen, I needed to hear that from YOU, and not from others.

  12. steelcitymom Says:

    This had nothing to do with the poem. Thanks again!

  13. steelcitymom Says:

    Know-it-all,

    Too funny! And I really will light a candle, for everyone on this board! HAHA!

  14. fatherstephen Says:

    Steelcity,
    I am somewhat confused by the response that your question of me was not about the poem. Nothing in the article (other than the title of the poem) made any reference to the second coming of Christ. It was not the topic. What then was the occasion of your question.
    I have never posted on the topic of the second coming because most non-Orthodox Christians in America hold erroneous beliefs with regard to this, and they hold them passionately and irrationally (thus making discussion of no use).

  15. Darlene Says:

    Ah, Father Stephen. You and I have something in common. I, too, once lived in a Christian commune. Those were the days my friend.

    May our Lord Jesus grant you many more blog entries until the Parousia!

  16. fatherstephen Says:

    Knowitall

    There has been no century with a better track record than our own sad times. Every century of the Church’s life has been marked by sin and wasteful controversy. But the Church abides. Apparently God is able to sustain us despite our best efforts to destroy ourselves. And so I rejoice.

  17. Simeon Says:

    Just as Adam named the animals, we also have name the beast.

  18. Darlene Says:

    Kowitall: Why do you have such an edge to you? Have you been hurt or offended by the Orthodox? I have also taken on an edge in my person, so to speak, at times. The frustrations arise partly out of my inability to abolish the pettiness and hypocrisy within the Church. The problem is, I often find I have to work on my own defects and insufficiencies first. Such a quandary can lead to despondency.

    You see, when I engage in the spiritual struggle that requires a commitment to resisting the passions, it takes up so much strength and energy that I have barely enough left over to muster up an assault against anything else. I grant that there are some who are called to do such things, but such a calling requires preparation and a holy anointing of the Spirit. Often times we Christians clothe ourselves with the outer costume, yet are not clothed inwardly with the virtues that are necessary to engage the conflicts within the Church.

    So I find myself this day having to resist my enemies, one of them being my inflated ego and propensity to self-delusion. Lord have mercy!

  19. Darlene Says:

    “Let’s just say there are some who call themselves “Orthodox” and whom I’ve learned to avoid.”

    I understand. This is true for me as well. Except perhaps I wouldn’t use the word “avoid” – rather I would say I’ve become more aloof, thereby becoming less vulnerable. However, I have experienced this plight among the non-Orthodox as well. It seems that where the body is, there the eagles will be gathered together.

  20. horvathliviu Says:

    An interesting approach. Even in the Epistle to Romans are written about ”inventors of evil”(efeuretas kakon).

  21. About Says:

    About…

    […]Learning to Sin « Glory to God for All Things[…]…

  22. Around the blogosphere… | Elizabeth Esther Says:

    […] Learning to Sin: an Orthodox priest explains sin within the context of our “culture of death.” Fascinating. […]

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