Original Sin in the New York Times

I point out in my book How to Be a Sinner that “the public square” — as testified in social media and OpEd pages — is liable to surprise us with what we might find there, when it comes to the themes we’re talking about here. Over the past five years we can find an increasing number of articles, opinion pieces, and reflections on subjects like humility, shame, and awareness of sin/fault, and what’s even more remarkable is that these are getting good press. We are being invited to consider the benefits, to ourselves and to society, of recognizing our fallenness.

The most recent example I’ve seen, in yesterday’s New York Times, is a stunner. In an essay called “What’s So Good about Original Sin” the philosophy professor Crispin Sartwell points out how, perhaps counter-intuitively, an awareness of our own sinfulness can produce a heightened compassion and a liberating humility.

My first thought is, I have to send this guy my book, because we’re thinking along some very similar lines. There are of course differences too. One of these is that “original sin” is a sticky wicket; there are different ways to conceive that concept, and some of them are wrong and even harmful. The idea that we are born guilty of sin, for example, or totally depraved, is quite incorrect and misleading—not that Sartwell subscribes to these. In fact, he is promoting a “secularized” concept of original sin. And there I would say, I’ll happily affirm whatever it takes to bring people to the next step, realizing our brokenness, our need for forgiveness and for forgiving each other, and perhaps down the line, realizing the mercy of the loving God. But one step at a time.

I’ll leave you with the closing lines from his essay, and urge you to read the whole thing.

The doctrine of original sin — in religious or secular versions — is an expression of humility, an expression of a resolution to face our own imperfections. In undertaking any such act there is risk. To allow the self-scrutiny required in this act to turn to self-loathing would be debilitating. But a secularized doctrine of original sin, a chastened self-regard, doesn’t entail consigning ourselves to the flames. There is much to affirm in our damaged selves and in our damaged lives, even a sort of dignity and beauty we share in our imperfect awareness of our own imperfection, and our halting attempts to face it, and ourselves.

The Cross: Limitless Love for the Sinner

Today many of us celebrate our “Good Friday” — our “Great and Holy Friday.” It is a day for silent reverence of Christ who died on the cross. All input, and output—except the scripture we hear and the hymns we sing during many hours in the church—are today brought to a minimum. So it’s strange that someone like me, who is so slow at social media (and at updating this blog) finds himself posting on this day.

But this day is the embodiment of one of our main themes here, at “How to Be a Sinner:” the limitless compassion of God. “As far as the East is from the West, …as far as the Heavens are from the Earth,” we are told (in Ps 103), so far he distances us from our failings. Thinking of the spans of Heaven-Earth, East-West—we have drawn the greatest cross imaginable.

The one who creates the heavens and the earth, the east and the west, is crucified among them, standing between us—his beloved—and everything that distorts our true being.


As if this cosmic dimension of the cross isn’t enough, the point — that God is merciful and loving — is driven home today by how Christ insists on saving the very people who insist on killing him.

It is true that, in its outrage at how the Temple priests plotted Christ’s death, some of our Holy Week hymnography vilifies “the Jews.” It is entirely appropriate, in our day and age, to be alarmed at this antisemitic phrasing, and to consider how to redress it. Yet in another mode of hymnographic wisdom, we sing about the exact opposite: about how Christ begs God to forgive those who seek his death. That, after all, is what the gospels record him as doing.

In one beautiful Holy Friday hymn we take note how Christ actively prohibits the condemnation of those who sent him to his death:

When You ascended the Cross, Lord,
fear and trembling fell upon creation.
Yet You forbade the earth to swallow up those who crucified You,
and You commanded hell to send up its captives
for the regeneration of mortals.
Judge of the living and the dead,
You have come to grant life, not death.
O Lover of mankind, glory to You!

This is what Christ is about, and therefore what God is about: not condemnation but forgiveness, not death but life. And this is because he is about love, not hate. And he proves this with the ultimate sacrifice: submitting himself to death at the hands of his cherished, beloved human beings. And loving them into heaven.

These are good things to remember, when we ourselves feel that we are beyond forgiveness. We most emphatically are not, given who God is, as he shows us today with his arms stretched out in the widest embrace imaginable.

“I sure don’t need any help being a sinner!”

More and more people are learning about my new book, How to Be a Sinner. One reaction I get a lot when people learn the title is, “Well, I sure don’t need help with that!” Usually this is said with an eye roll. “Heh-heh, yes, I sure am a sinner already! That’s one thing I’ve got down pat!” And I hope that’s not as far    as they get with my book.

How did I come up with that title anyway?

First, there was my internal process of understanding myself as a sinner. I describe that process in the book. Since I was a child, of course I’d always known I had faults (as well as a lot of frustrations with other people’s!). I had gone to confession regularly ever since I’d come of age, reporting this or that lie, vengeful feeling, anger at being snubbed, whatever. I knew I wasn’t perfect, but I was always somewhat put off with calling myself a “sinner.” Especially when that language really got going, “When I think of the many evil things I have done, wretch that I am” – this prayer, sung solemnly during the Lenten period, would actually make me and my sister giggle. It felt so over-the-top. Not to mention the superlative: “I am the worst sinner in the world.” What is up with that? How can I actually be the worst?

Over a period of a couple of years, marked by many transitions and travels, I came to inhabit the “sinner identity” in ways that made increasing sense to me. I’m sure that this is a process everyone goes through differently, if at all. But even as I continue on that journey, I’ve never lost sight of the inherent strangeness of naming myself “sinner.” In fact, I’ve really benefited from doing what we academics call “problematizing” the concept – digging into it, exposing the potential conflicts or inner tensions in an idea. Sometimes, raking an idea over the coals gives you the chance to come out stronger on the affirmative end. That’s what I’ve been finding, with the “sinner” concept.

One quick example of “problematizing”: Given the power that names have over us, don’t we usually want to name ourselves more affirmatively? If I call someone, “Joseph the liar,” I am enshrining that into his behavior. If I associate a tendency with someone and name it—“Jenny-who-is-bad-at-math”—I’m leaving them no escape from it. So If I call myself “sinner,” am I sealing myself with that reality, with no way out of it? Does “sinner” speak to the totality of what/who I am? Well, I address these and other questions head-on in the book.

The point is, I’m interesting in “thickening,” or deepening, this dynamic for myself within the Church. Because the Church evidently sees it as a healthy, saving thing: calling ourselves sinners, in the face of a loving merciful God who came to us with the explicit purpose of saving sinners. It is a liberating, cleansing thing. Together with compunction, it brings peace of soul.

I kept thinking that maybe there is something to be gained by a series of reflections on, well, how to do this thing better. I know that I needed such reflections. (And that’s always the book you’re going to write: the book you need to read. Right?)

So, maybe four years ago, I was sitting up in bed reading one evening and got the idea of writing this book, and at that very same moment, the title came to me: How to Be a Sinner. I knew it was  a risky title, so apt to be misunderstood. It’s something of a winking title. My wife liked it instantly. We went over other options, like Sinning for Dummies, and other, sillier ones, and decided on the original one. Anyway, my hope is that—rather than either turning people off, or getting them to dismiss the book because of their supposed expertise on sin—it invites people to explore it. Even better if it turns out to be helpful in some way.

So, what do you think of the title?

Clean Week: the distance from woundedness to joy

Some of us have just spent the past several evenings in the company of an 8th-century monk who composed a long and beautiful hymn of repentance. Several Orthodox churches, especially of the Slavic tradition, devote the first four evenings of Lent to the singing of The Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete.

It’s all in the first-person singular. It’s about me, my sinfulness, and my lack of repentance. It opens with what sounds like a rhetorical question from someone entirely overwhelmed: “where do I even begin…”:

How shall I begin to mourn the deeds of my wretched life?
What can I offer as first-fruits of repentance?

And then, we do in fact begin. Starting with Adam and Eve, the Canon proceeds to take us through the entire Bible, Old and New Testaments, with examples of sinners I have imitated, and saints whose example I’ve failed to follow:

My transgressions rival those of first-created Adam,
and because of my sins
I find myself naked of God and of His everlasting Kingdom.

… I have reminded you, my soul, from the books of Moses,
how the world was created,
and from accounts throughout the Old Testament
have shown examples of both the righteous and the unrighteous.
But of these you have imitated the latter rather than the former and thereby have sinned against your God.

We unite our voices to the author’s serial self-condemnations, at services in dark, candle-lit churches, every evening during what we call “Clean Week.”

And here’s the puzzling thing: for a great number of people, of a wide variety of ages and dispositions, these are some of the most cherished services of the whole church year. People love them. Here are just a couple of reasons why it might be that people are attracted to these deeply penitential events.

1) They hold nothing back. They are occasions for complete surrender. These aren’t times where we have to devise some kind of clever excuse for why we had this or that bitter thought, why we yielded to this or that temptation. We just admit it all. And this is ultimately easier, cleaner, and more cathartic.

2) They are communal. Each of us says “I have sinned.” That makes a community of “I’s” who together bring ourselves before God. We are a community being saved.

3) They remind us that God is merciful. If God were strict to judge, we would deserve condemnation. And our only hope lies in God’s mercy, which he shows us in the very same Scriptures that condemn us. And it is a sure hope.

4)  They remind us that we were created in beauty and dignity, which means that—by God’s grace and through our repentance—we may be restored to our true glory, in God’s own image.

But ultimately, there’s something more fundamental at play, that makes these services so beautiful and so beloved. And that was expressed by a friend who made the following comment on my Facebook wall a couple of years ago:

Somehow the distance from woundedness to joy is shorter than the distance from happiness to joy.

I find that to be pretty profound, and worthy of meditation. It’s one more way of making that observation that the journey towards a searching confession of wrongdoing and genuine compunction is accompanied by consolation, relief, and strangely enough, joy.