January 7, 2012 / The Church & Postmodern Culture
This Christmas season I had the privilege of attending a memorial service, a vigil in …
July 8, 2010
I. Short Version
1. Say that sin is “the compulsion to repeat.” Or, perhaps better, the necessity of repetition experienced as a compulsion.
2. Conversely, then, salvation involves freedom from this compulsion to repeat.
3. Salvation depends on being free from the compulsion to repeat, but it doesn’t mean being free from the necessity of repetition.
Or, salvation depends on coming to relate non-compulsively to the necessity of the repetition that nonetheless and unavoidably constitutes the stuff of life.
4. A common misunderstanding of salvation from sin: that freedom from the compulsion to repeat = freedom from repetition itself (i.e., novelty).
II. Long Version
With this definition of sin as “compulsive repetition,” I’m after something more basic than the characterization of any particular sin. Rather, I’m interested in what it means to be “in sin.” I’m interested in the “disposition” that is sinful-ness, a disposition that is rooted in a mis-relation to the compulsive and repetitive character of experience itself.
Two general aspects of human experience are important for me here:
1. The unavoidable dimension of passivity involved in every experience.
2. The unavoidable inadequacy of every experience.
Every experience involves my being affected, impinged on, perturbed, irritated, or pressed upon by things (sensations, thoughts, objects, feelings) that are both impermanent and impersonal, things that are both passing and, in some respect, “not me.” In this sense, every experience always involves an unavoidable dimension of passivity. In short, every experience – no matter how “active” I may be – unconditionally involves my being passively conditioned.
This is what it means to be a human being: to be in open relation with the world such that – good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, willful or submissive – we suffer it.
The passivity involved in every experience (a passivity that constitutes it as an ex-perience, even if it is just an ex-perience of “myself”) is unavoidable because we are neither self-sufficient nor autonomous. In “open” relation with the world, we are conditioned by and dependent upon it. This interdependence is unavoidable and ongoing.
Sensation, thought, respiration, digestion, affection, etc. (i.e., Life) all depend on constant and never-ending processes of exchange. Every experience (every sensation, every thought, every meal, every breath), no matter how satisfactory or sublime or perfect or morally impeccable, will pass. And another sensation, another thought, another meal, another breath, will arise. None of them will be “adequate” in such a way that, in general form, it will not be necessary to repeat them.
All experience, then, is in general defined by compulsive repetition.
1. Compulsion: the unavoidable passivity involved in every experience.
2. Repetition: the unavoidable inadequacy of every experience.
As a disposition, sinfulness is a rejection of our passivity and inadequacy. It is a rebellion against the compulsion of experience and a disavowal of its repetition.
Classically, this is why sin is defined as wanting to be God. Classically, God is the one who is never passive, never compelled, never inadequate, always complete, and thus never in need of repetition.
Or we could say: sin is a rejection of our vulnerability. Vulnerability in what sense? Vulnerability to stuff we can’t control and vulnerability to our ongoing dependence on stuff outside of ourselves. That is say, vulnerability to compulsion and repetition.
Or, again: sin is a kind of “self-assertion.” As self-assertion, sin is exactly the kind of rejection of or rebellion against our passivity, inadequacy, and interdependence that I’m interested in articulating.
If the flavor of righteousness is a willingness to lose ourselves in (never-ending and ongoing) service to others – and I think it is – then it will require us to surrender wholeheartedly to the imposition of their claims on us and it will require us to perpetually confess that our response is insufficient to their need and, thus, in need of repetition. Such humble service will also require that we perpetually confess our own need for the care and response of others.
Salvation, contra sin, depends on affirming the (compulsory) necessity of such endlessly (repeated) service such that, in my affirmation of it, I now welcome the very thing I once loathed as the milk and marrow of life itself.
In this affirmation, what-cannot-be-avoided liberates me from the disaster of my trying to avoid it.