In coming to grips with the diverse theological views of many Quakers, and in part by the fascinating discussion on salvation, I have to ask what does the concept of sin look like from non-evangelical Friends? or does the concept apply to what you are taught, or experience with the Light?

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Thinking of the human race as God's mad child --

"Sin" would be the estrangement that locks us into trying to "win" this family argument by finding a effective way to manipulate the universe, treating God as an unconscious object rather than as the truly conscious Subject.

And "sins" would be the various side-effects of that way of looking at things, resulting more directly from fear, anger, from clinging to false sources of security.

Friend James:

 

Thanks for posting this.  I was thinking of posting something similar myself, so I appreciate that others are also interested in this topic.

 

On the thread about liberal-liberal Quakers, the incident which brought about the post centered on a disagreement over whether Quakers believe in sin.  One person said Quakers don't believe in sin.  The other person, taking a more historical approach, spoke from the traditional perspective that human beings are sinful.

 

It is my observation that the idea that human beings are inherently in some sense perfect, just as they are, is a very widespread view in our culture at this time.  From this perspective people are not essentially sinful.  Imperfections in human living are from this perspective seen as emerging from ignorance or misunderstanding.  This view is widely held among New Age people; I would say it is almost defining of the New Age movement.  It is also central to Indian spirituality in its various forms.  The idea is that in some sense we are really, essentially, underneath the layers of negative habits and inclinations, 'enlightened', or 'Buddhas', or 'perfect'. 

 

The monotheistic tradition has a different take on this.  From this tradition's perspective human beings are essentially sinful; that is to say the essence of being a human being is flawed, broken, and in desperate need of assistance.  From this perspective only an outside agent, God, can break through sin and redeem the life of human beings.  As an Orthodox Priest who is a friend of mine put it, "All you have to do to prove to yourself that human beings are sinful is observe your mind for just ten minutes."  What he was getting at is that the human mind leans towards anger, revenge, brutality, self-aggrandizement, etc.  Breaking through these tendencies is the work of grace and grace comes from God.  Human beings cannot do it by themselves; it must come from outside assistance. 

 

In my opinion, the Quaker tradition is securely in the tradition of western monotheism on this point.  This is one of the reasons why I think Universalism cannot, ultimately, work.  Because if you think that human beings are essentially divine, or perfect, or enlightened, that has implications for other aspects of our lives.  Things like repentance, confession, etc., become at best secondary, and in many cases unnecessary. 

 

In my admitedly limited reading of early Quakers my undersatnding is that one of the functions of the light within is to shine a glaring light on our sinful nature.  It is only by courageously coming to terms with this that we can then surrender to the guidance of that light; which comes from the ultimate otherness of God.  We surrender to this ultimate otherness, this presence of eternity, by becoming passive in its presence, stepping aside and allowing it to do its work (see Barclay's 'Apology').

 

But this viw of sin runs counter to powerful movements in our culture today.  It is likely that a newcomer to a Quaker meeting has been formed in the view that we are essentially perfect; hence the statement that Quakers don't believe in sin even though that statement runs counter to hundreds of years of tradition.  This view of essential perfection is pervasive in many areas, hence the misunderstanding.  Personally, I support the traditional view that human beings are essentially sinful and cannot reform by their own efforts.  Only by opening to the ultimate otherness of the light of God can human conduct be redeemed.

 

Thy Friend Jim

I don't think you'd find many people who'd seriously say "I'm perfect." If you asked the person who said "Quakers don't believe in sin" if they agreed with the saying "nobody's perfect" or "I'm only human" I think they'd say yes. It's probably the word "sin" that they find problematic, for its usual implications of moral absolutism and the strong value judgement (ie "that's a sin" sounds like "you're going to hell"). 

Growing up Catholic, sins were discrete actions that you could innumerate to a priest based on which of the Ten Commandments it violated. That's a different way of thinking about it than "sinful behaviour" being used to mean "behaviour that is not in line with the Golden Rule."

[responding to Jim Willson].'/p>

I'd say, rather: "Human beings cannot do this by themselves; it must come from inside assistance."

 

God in us is not so "other" as conventional theology would have it; certainly God is not our ego, is not at all limited to conventional human ways of thought -- but God is the actual life who lives our lives, not something entirely separate, not some tyrannical parent bullying a "bad self" into submission from outside. If this 'image of God' in us weren't our very life, wanting -- That is, if God weren't also our very selves wanting to embody good qualities rather than bad, we would truly be beyond hope.

 

Equally, all the things people wish were 'somebody else' are us; and I'm sure we agree that reforming ourselves by our own unaided will, to fit some ideal image we would like to possess, is typically useless. We become the "outside" force" and the bullied rebel, which fights back covertly but effectively. If we sit still and let God sort this out for us (what Fox was saying) -- regardless of how we may conceive of what's happening, and whether that's "inside", "outside", or simply not confined to a place -- then we don't have to kick ourselves or pat ourselves on the back, but things happen that are beyond us.

I have no idea what Quakers believe about sin.  I don't have any idea what Quakers believe.  I also don't think it makes a difference what Quakers believe.  There is truth and there is belief.  When we get something in our lives right, we know it.  When we don't, we know it.  Hopefully, Quakers are seekers of the truth, paying attention to the life they are living as they head towards that inevitable day when they have run the course available to them in this realm.

 

When I've had the sin discussion with other Quakers, I think we've all agreed that we are not perfect.  Those who didn't resonate with the concept of sin in that particular discussion saw human imperfections as mistakes, 'missing the mark', but said they believed that people always did the best they could.  My own experience of myself is that sometimes I know very well what I should do, and I don't do it; or, worse, I deliberately stop myself from knowing.  It's this deliberate wrongdoing that I might describe as sin. I need God's help with it. Also with my mistakes.

I experience both the will to truth and love and the will to distraction and division as existing both inside and outside myself.  I have a sense of God as both beyond and within.  And opening to God's presence does involve painful awareness of the wrong i do.

I once heard sin described beautifully by a friend as, "anything that doesn't value that of God in yourself or in others."  

This is the standard I use to judge my personal views of sin against.  It is personal and varies per individual what they feel devalues that of God in someone or themselves.  For me, intolerance, bigotry, narrow mindedness, etc. can be as much a sin as the traditional Christian "ten commandments."

As I'm sure you know, the origin of the Hebrew term comes from archery, literally: missing the target. In English the the etymology has to do with doing the wrong thing. It is founded on the idea that there is an expectation laid down by God and sinful behavior is that which violates God's law.


In the Christian tradition there are two meanings of "sin." One is behavior that breaks up the right relationship with God and other humans. The other is the state of sinfulness; the idea that the human soul is infused with a spiritual essence of sin passed on between humans because of the first breaking of God's law in Eden. I reject the idea of purely spiritual sin because the concept of humanity as a dualistic being made up of body infused with a separate spirit originates with the infusion of Greek philosophy from the Roman empire into early Christianity. For Jesus, a Hebrew, there is no dualism between body and spirit. When John was baptizing people to remove their sins, he was literally just washing them. The sins that kept people out of the temple in Jerusalem were literally diseases/afflictions like leprosy or blindness. I take a practical view of sin.

I believe that in general people act out of fear rather than love and that this has led us to the destructive culture(s) that exist today. I believe that the power of Friends' practice can bring all of us, like George Fox, up through the flaming sword and back into an Edenic state wherein we behave with love in our hearts because of the revealed Truth of God. For me this Truth is that Love is greater than Fear; that we are all loved and called to love.


I enjoy justifying my beliefs using the story of Eden in Genesis. I reject the interpretation that claims that because humans violated God's law we were cast out of Paradise and sentenced to a life of toil and pain that is brought on by the state of our souls, immersed in a purely spiritual sin that is overcome through the rituals of baptism, communion, and confession/repentance.

In the story when the people eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil their eyes are opened. What changes then? Does the world suddenly become a fallen place of evil and suffering? No. But our perception of the world is changed with our imperfect, finite ability to judge good and evil. The original sin comes when the people realize they are naked and judge this to be evil so they hide themselves. The judgement against humanity comes from the humans themselves as individuals, "ah! I'm evil!" The second judgement comes with each human judging the other as evil. The general behavior in humans to judge and justify themselves through their imperfect view of good and evil leads to the "fallen" state of humanity where we incarcerate one another, hoard resources, wage wars, etc. Through the Quaker practice of worship and communion our eyes can be closed and our hearts opened. We stop judging ourselves and others. We love ourselves and others and see the very good world that God created.

I grew up understanding that the original Hebrew and Aramaic words for sin literally meant "missing the mark". With that understanding, the word "sin" holds no disdain for me. It's just a word to describe a reality. I think, whether liberal Quakers like the word or not, they would agree with the truth that others have expressed here - that we all do things that are not of the Light, that are not Spirit-led, that are not Godly. The whole purpose of silent-waiting worship is to intensely experience God immediately acting upon and within us. The hope is that it indeed transforms us to "miss the mark" less often.

James, this is a good question you are asking, because I believe the more Friends enter into discussions with Friends from other Quaker branches, we will all soon realize that we may use different words, and even different traditions. But our transforming experience is the same.

It is wonderful that the experience of the Spirit is like water. It seeps into a willing vessel - not caring whether that vessel has well defined, traditional form, or a more free-form design. All the Spirit wants is a willing vessel. Once we open up to it, it will do the work in our hearts, using the language we are most comfortable with.

I took a college class on the New Testament - taught by a Jesuit - and found some food for thought in what he said "sin" meant to people of Jesus' times as understood by Hebrews in general. That it was a painful state of alienation from God, resulting from living in some wrong way --  rather than some bad things you do, or rules you break, that God keeps track of and will punish you for after you die. The emphasis was during life now, not after death.

As a Quaker my own personal definition of sin is anything that we knowingly do which is against 'that of God', within us.  Scripture helps to define this, but it is far more basic than that, even children have feelings like shame and regret, resulting from sin, long before they have any scriptural knowledge. If we go against that which we know to be right we have sinned, thus we are all sinners. Again a personal view , like Pelagius ~ the concept  of 'original sin' is entirely alien to me.

As  James C Schultz points out above it's anybodies guess what Quakers collectively think about this, or almost any other issue. I would expect the range of views to be encyclopaedic!

Mac speaks my mind:  Sin is behavior that breaks up the right relationship with God and other humans.

Other comments that speak to me:

--Ray wrote:

As a Quaker my own personal definition of sin is anything that we knowingly do which is against 'that of God', within us.

I would add "UNknowingly do."

--Chris wrote that sin is

"a painful state of alienation from God, resulting from living in some wrong way --  rather than some bad things you do, or rules you break."

Painful, indeed!

I write from the experience of having been "convicted" in meeting one time. God broke in to show me that through my behavior I had compounded a problem in a chaotic relationship. The behavior was a personal failing, one that estranged me from God. And I acted unknowingly. It came as a terrible shock--very painful--but also led me to finally understand all this Christian chatter about a "personal relationship" with God. It's now very real to me.

My behavior was (and still is) perfectly human, perfectly natural, but certainly "missing the mark," as Joanna and Howard write. (That's also the view of Aristotle.) Since I was shown the damage such behavior can cause, I am far more aware that our behavior can be an indulgence, something we know we are doing, but we may not really understand the ramifications until God whacks us upside the head. I have been lucky enough to have been shown the truth of my failings which has also given me an understanding of a life lived in obedience to the divine.

 

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