It is now Lent. My wife and I went to our church’s Ash Wednesday service last Wednesday. Starting then, I have actually given up something foodwise for Lent–something I have not done for a long time, if ever.
This year, these liturgical and disciplinary actions arise from a more self-consciously rooted inward journey, guided primarily by my reading of Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2015). Rutledge is a much-lauded preacher in the Episcopal Church who is concerned that Christian preaching now, and Christian practice now, has managed to drift too far from what she understands as the center of Christian faith: the irreligious, humiliating death of Jesus Christ on the cross. Her main inspirations in her book thus far are Paul, Raymond E. Brown, Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker, William Stringfellow, J. Louis Martyn, Luke Timothy Johnson, John Calvin, Martin Luther, J.S. Bach, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Anselm, Jurgen Moltmann, John Stott, Martin Hengel, C.S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor–and many more which emerge with each page and its footnotes.
The book is massive: 669 pp. I am only through Part I, which ends on p. 204. Nonetheless, given Lent and more immediately Ash Wednesday, and also mindful of at least some of the national zeitgeist since Jan. 20th, some of Rutledge’s points about sin, especially from her 4th chapter, move me to offer them here as part of my own engagement with them.
The Latin quote from Anselm is from his Cur Deus Homo? (Why did God become Human?). It is Rutledge’s main point in her chapter on sin. We Christians, and we Americans, she argues, do not adequately apprehend, let alone comprehend, the gravity of sin.
As a generalization, that seems true, for me personally as well as for the society I find myself within, both locally and beyond. My/our righteous deeds, let alone the unrighteous ones, are “like a polluted garment” (Isa. 64:6). It is not what comes from outside that defiles me/us, but rather, as Jesus said, it is what is already inside and “comes out of the mouth, this defiles a person” (Matt. 15:11). For Paul, sin is less particular things that I/we commit but instead a Power which enslaves me/us and fuels sinning, ultimately with impunity. Sin is, in other words, a Power:
Sin, theologically understood, is analogous to the unconscious impulses and drives that shape our personalities in harmful ways, making us perfectionists, procrastinators, deceivers, abusers, addicts, schemers, bullies, fanatics, adulterers, and all the other manifestations that afflict the human species from sources beyond our control (p. 195).
Further, Sin-as-a-Power-that-enslaves is something that we tend to deny or downplay, individually and culturally. We Americans especially seem prone to assuming our individual and collective innocence:
This is a strange thing about us. The more cynical and unshockable our culture becomes in a superficial sense, the more sentimentality it seems to pour forth; the more raw the sex and violence on TV and in film, the greater the demand, it seems, for nostalgic kitsch encouraging the pretense that we can escape to a Norman Rockwell world that never was (p. 196).
And then there is the political realm:
[O]ur politics continue to exhibit a self-righteousness that partners well with religious self-righteousness on both the right and the left. There is little of the tragic sense that Abraham Lincoln brought to his office and embodied so well in his leadership (p. 197).
It is into such hopelessness that grace breaks in. “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (Rom. 11:32). Jesus’s death on the cross helps us apprehend and comprehend Sin in us and the world. The crucifixion is for atonement and for “the apocalyptic invasion and conquest of the Powers” (p. 34). Not just one or the other, but both. Thus, “for Paul the sequence is not sin-repentance-grace-forgiveness, but grace-sin-deliverance-repentance-grace. Grace drives the sequence from first to last” (p. 192).
Back to Anselm: understanding the gravity of sin is literally crucial. “The crucifixion of Jesus is of such magnitude that it must call forth a concept of sin that is large enough to match it” (p. 200).
Faith seeking understanding (fides quaerens intellectum; yes, this also is Anselm). I believe Lord; help my unbelief.