"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, January 6, 2014

No More Sin?

The Church of England is changing its rite of baptism by removing references to the devil, and many religious conservatives are worried that this means the Church is now headed down a slippery slope which will end in secularism and a world without sin.

I sure had my fill of sin when I was a child – or rather hearing about sin every Sunday. If I took the priest’s sermons to heart, the world was a very sinful place.  All I ever heard about was avoiding sin.  Doing good was never mentioned.  Things were different down the road at the Presbyterian church where the pastor spoke of injustice, the obligation of the rich to help the poor, the plight of the starving millions in China, and the importance of moral probity and good works. According to my friends, there was no talk of sin and damnation, only salvation through right living.

Although Father Murphy would never admit it, his closest religious kin were Southern Baptist preachers who could match him sin for sin any Sunday. Both could describe of the fiery bowels of Hell in such a graphic way that children would quake at the descriptions of skin peeling, eyes melting, hair catching on fire and brains exploding.  “That is just the beginning”, Pastor Fredericks of the Mt. Cavalry Baptist Church in Eupora, Mississippi warned.   Once your flesh had been burned, and bone and sinew pulled away by ravenous demons, the real torture of Hell began. Your body might be burnt to a crisp, but for all Eternity you would hear the wails and screams of the newcomers as they were set alight and savaged by the inhuman demons of Hell.

                                           Albrecht Durer

“Sin”, Pastor Fredericks yelled as he raised his Bible high.  “Sin is what will send you to eternal perdition where you will be roasted on the Devil’s spit.  Sin will give the demons license to rip your tongue out, pull out your fingernails, and suck your intestines. Lechery will grease the path to Hell.  Gluttony will paves the way. Adultery will widens the road. And worshiping false idols will open the trap door to a fiery, never-ending torment.”

Father Murphy always started off his sermons quietly, warming himself and the congregation up.  “I know all of you are ready to enjoy your Sunday”, he would start. “Golf, the swimming pool, maybe a nice roast chicken for dinner, all that our great country can offer.” Some parishioners smiled at their neighbors, other just daydreamed about Ma’s mashed potatoes and gravy, and others gave their children a hug.

“But you don’t deserve God’s bounty”, Father Murphy went on, his voice rising.  “You are all sinners, fallen from grace.  You are despicable, treacherous traitors to Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  He weeps tears because of your sins. His wounds of Cavalry bleed again every time he sees you fornicate, cheat, and abandon your soul to the devil.”

Here Father Murphy would pause for effect.  He let the shock of betrayal settle in to the church’s fat, happy souls.  He would shake his head, despondent, discouraged, and disappointment at what he saw in the pews in front of him.  “Sinners, reprobates, self-abusers, and philanderers all”, he shouted. “Go ahead.  Eat your chicken dinner, play golf with your fallen, sinful friends.  Forget that you were ever in God’s house.”

“Why don’t you just get up and go now?”, he shouted, his voice dripping with sarcasm and scorn. “Go and sin, that’s all you’re good for.  Go!”

Again he paused, but then his voice became soft, soothing, and consoling. “Jesus died for your sins”, he intoned, gesturing to the bloody Christ on the cross behind him, “and he is the light, the way, and the truth.  Come back to Jesus”.

Unless things have really changed, the Church of England faithful don’t have to worry one bit that the idea of sin has disappeared.  To be sure churches on both sides of the Atlantic have lost members to secularism and indifference; but even ex-hippies of the do your own thing Sixties are rejecting relativism and coming back to certainty and hope. Unitarians, Universalists, and liberal members of the United Church of Christ may sniff at the fulminations of Southern Baptist preachers, and demur when the subject of sin comes up.  It is really only the absence of good as Augustine knew, they say in a rare but respectful nod to Catholicism. We prefer ‘evil’ to ‘sin’.  But they still believe.

This of course is nothing but the same old story of sin, punishment, divine retribution, and salvation dressed up with a prettier cover.  Religion is and always will be about sin, evil, doing wrong and not doing right.

Baptism and sin go hand in had.  Catholics believe that only after a child has been baptized can he have any hope of going to heaven.  He may lead the most exemplary, Christ-like life; join a monastery and live out his span in ascetic prayer, and still will never see God because no one baptized him.  That’s how important a ritual Catholics think it is.

While the more conservative Protestant denominations baptize early – you can be sure that the new and future king of England had a proper and early baptism in case he was carried off – the more charismatic ones wait until one is an adult.  Then there are real sins – not just Original Sin – to be washed away in the River Jordan.

Baptism is still important, writes Andrew Brown of The Guardian (1.6.14) if only for the ritual washing away of sin, let alone the supernatural cleansing that may or may not occur.  Yet the practice is fading.  Fewer and fewer Anglican babies are being dipped in the baptismal font.  Most parents object to being told that their newborn is in need of redemption; and adults who somehow missed the baptismal boat in infancy, dismiss the idea of the human stain out of hand.  So, what can be done to retain the ritual and its central idea of the importance of cleansing of sin without actually admitting there is such a thing as the devil’s work?

One way to keep people coning is to continue the ritual but de-emphasize the doctrine. People love rites, rituals, and ceremonies, and baptism – even if it no longer means very much – is still a means of annealing the ties between Church and Faithful.

The most radical solution is to try to rescue the meaning of sin so that it recovers some of its primal sense of wrongness. This is an almost novelistic endeavour, but Francis Spufford had a good go at it in Unapologetic.

If baptism has to stay, this option is probably the best, for it at least keeps the idea of sin in the picture.  Anglicans would no longer call anything a sin and would have to wander about in the secularist camp of moral relativism and ill-defined notions of ‘wrong’; but at least they wouldn’t have to scrap the whole affair.  After all baptism goes back to John the Baptist, so it would be a shame to get rid of it now.

Sin has had a good run and has kept many a preacher in business long past his prime.  It is under attack these days.  No one really believes in the Devil anymore – at least not the one with a red suit, horns, and a pitchfork – and there is so much sin in the world that it is hard to get worked up about it.  Everyone sins, apologizes, and sins some more; so it can’t be that bad. Although Catholics believe that you have to truly believe you have sinned against God and admit it in order to be forgiven, Confession has become an empty ritual. Boning Marie down in Accounting? Oops, I’ll have to try harder; but in the meantime, “I am heartily sorry that I have sinned”.

If you really want to hear some of the old time fire and brimstone, you will have to go down South.  White churches are better for giving good tongue-lashings.  Black preachers are far more tolerant of backsliding and human failings, and the service quickly evolves into musical rapture; but in white churches the pastors keep it up and bang on about sin from beginning to end.

Yet as Andrew Brown suggests, if we play our cards right and make some minor adjustments here and there, we can keep sin alive but fold it into the beliefs of our modern, more secular world.  It is the idea of sin, wrong, the absence of good that counts. If we got rid of baptism all together, who knows what hell would break loose?

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