The Minimizing of Sin, the Maximizing of the Autonomous Self

J.C.L. Faltot

Recently, I was listening to an interview with one of my favorite Christian apologists, Ravi Zacharias. He was discussing morality, apologetics, and the objective claims of Christianity. During the interview, Ravi expressed how the idea of God has become a difficult thing to agree upon, specifically in the highest courts of America. The notion of an intangible, all-powerful God is not as well understood as it once was. And though this may sound bleak for believers like myself, I don’t find this information to be completely disheartening, even unexpected.

The argument for an omnipresent, omniscient being; one who not only created, but actively governs the material universe, is a debate as old as humanity itself. So that part doesn’t bother me. What did bother me, though, was Ravi’s allusion to the complex nature of belief in general. How once we’ve eliminated the idea of God, we’ve opened the door to many other things. Namely, a deconstruction of the idea that mankind is broken and we are in need of personal transformation.

By distancing ourselves from the very notion of God, we further distance ourselves from a dirty, cliche’ and otherwise archaic word. A word that’s relegated to Hollywood movies and commercials about selling chocolate. That word, if you haven’t guessed it already, is sin.

What Is Sin To Any Man Or Any Woman?

What comes to your mind when you think of sin? Famous theologian and writer A.W. Tozer once said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” When I think about God, I think of a multitude of things. I consider the Biblical narrative, my place in it, the current dealings of the Church at large, how my wife and I are doing, etc (I’ve all but stricken the bearded man seated in the clouds from my mind, for the record). Rarely do my thoughts drift upon the idea of sin. And honestly, why should they? Sin is bad. God is good. I ought to fix my thoughts on good things, not the bad, correct? (Philippians 4:8)

This posture sounds like the right one. So long as I am fixed on good things, then I am effectively fixing myself on God, right? Or at the very least some version of the divine. However, this quickly becomes a slippery slope. For anything that makes me feel good; anything that pings my natural inclinations could be justified as “good” by default. Thus, my posture — though appearing to be a good and righteous one — is not in proper standing. I haven’t considered how I am in great and dire need of being refined, that I am a work-in-progress. The concept of “sin” has taken a backseat. Sin morphs from a deeply embedded problem into something I might do if I flip someone off in traffic.

This realization is troublesome for me. As it should be for any person who claims Christ. If I minimize God, then I am maximizing Myself. And if I maximize the Self, then I am minimizing my understanding of Sin. And if I’m maximizing my disillusionment with Sin, then I’m minimizing other People.

Now, you might say, how are these last two connected? How do I make the jump from misunderstanding Sin to being apathetic towards People? It’s because in doing so, I have lost the knowledge that all people are a work-in-progress, including me. I am furthering the gap between myself and others, which will make it harder for me to love others as well. How can anyone love another when there is a wall or a divide between them? I’ll save you the trouble — it doesn’t really work.

At first glance, one would think the inverse to be true. If I am to prescribe to the idea that I am full of sin, then I have a reason to justify bad behavior. Or worse, I’ll beat myself down with guilt and self-convicting negativity. Neither of those sound very appealing, I’ll admit. A different posture must be attained instead.

So what happens when we run firmly in the other direction? What happens when we appeal to the idea that we, on our own, are capable of doing all things good, autonomously?

Back to Ravi’s point — when we say we don’t agree on God, we are effectively saying we don’t agree on an objective authority. We are saying we don’t agree on a standard that sits above all others. Rooted in Ravi’s observation is the quest for autonomy and self-reliance. It’s a desire to reject that which is above us so we can push whatever we want, beneath us — including people.

Again, this might sound counter to the mainstream understanding of sin. Especially to anyone who might be of the agnostic or otherwise, naturalist persuasion. Sin is something we do, not something we are.

Before We Get To Sin, We Start With God

Isn’t the belief in ‘God’ a narrow road? A road that does not permit the intermingling of foreign or new ideas? What if a previously unknown philosophy could be beneficial to humanity? This thinking, though optimistic initially, has the incorrect starting point. For it presumes that human beings — left to their own internal workings — can come up with something on their own that is holy and good; something that has never been conceived before; something outside of the maker of the universe.

Conversely, what would happen should God choose to intermingle with us? What would that look like?

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is known for its heroic tale of good conquering evil. Its trilogy and its predecessor, The Hobbit, are well-known, but the catalyst behind Middle Earth’s struggle is not, I’d argue. That part of the story can be found in Tolkien’s The Silmariillon. In this narrative, Tolkien explains the origins of his fictional universe where Eru, aka ‘God’, creates a heavenly choir from his own thoughts. These beings of Eru’s creation are shown music and melody from the mind of Eru himself and for a time, they make beautiful songs. But then the most knowledgeable and wisest of all, Melkor, diverts from the original song and creates his own melody apart from Eru. His desire to be autonomous gets him kicked out of the band, if you will, and he loses his status among Eru’s orchestra. A few others “fall from grace” along with Melkor, and as you can surmise, become “fallen beings” themselves.

The songs of these “fallen ones” place them in the company of only themselves. Their music may be different, but is it right? And an even more intriguing question — is it even good?

Tolkien’s world is fictional, of course, but the metaphor explores the relationship of sin and creator. To quote Ravi Zacharias again, “Sin is a vertical issue, not merely a horizontal one.” (paraphrase). In layman’s terms, sin is the result of a severing with the One who made you, and is not merely a bad action taken against a fellow human being. For the sake of this discussion, I can say I have sinned against another, and yes, that would be accurate too. Because it implies I have severed the connection — an otherwise good or proper connection — with another intrinsically valuable human being. I have violated the natural order of things. I have taken it upon myself, be it for personal gain or some other motive, to do what I desire at the expense of another.

This is the plight I see as most damaging for Western Christianity. Though one could easily pick from a variety of issues, my contention is a lack of understanding sin. Basic as it sounds; simple as it sounds — sin bleeds into everything we do. If people become less reliant on communing with God, they become more reliant upon themselves; upon autonomous goal-setting. If I am capable of paying my mortgage, keeping a steady job, making semi-good decisions, then I am more than capable of handling whatever else comes my way. As one can see, each of these examples inherently puts the individual at the center and forefront of the life equation.

This is an easy trap to fall into. As technology advances, it’s not hard to look at humanity and believe we alone are responsible for generating good and great things. After all, who else is putting their hands to the grindstone and making intangible ideas into tangible resources? Without sounding too obvious, that answer would be…well, us.

But herein lies another false presumption. By looking solely at what human hands can make, we are capable of achieving temporal satisfaction, but eternal satisfaction remains unresolved. We want comfort, so we create a nice sofa. We want to travel faster, so we make planes. We want to stop certain viruses from spreading, so we make medications to curb this issue. These innovations, on the list of human accomplishments, are not bad. Yet what has triggered their inceptions? They are all made for the sake of expediting our immediate needs. And as clever and valuable as these inventions have been, we are still left without a solution for the long-term needs of our souls. For that, we cannot look completely inward. We cannot craft what we want out of gold or bronze or steel. We have to look elsewhere. So we plunge into relationships, into jobs, into money, into material things — anything to satisfy the Autonomous Self…indefinitely.

The Post-Modern Soup And What’s Next

One of the latest inventions to spring from the well of autonomy was postmodernism. In this ideology, long-standing philosophies or cultural norms are defined as constructs of old or outdated systems. Basic moral understandings must be reconfigured and reassessed. Male-to- female relationships must be brought into new alignments, even the idea of gender itself must be questioned, as well as whether reality and truth are simply relative concepts. Truth becomes subjective — what’s true for you, may not be true for me and so on.

This attempt, though seemingly revolutionary and “good” for humanity’s sake, brings the goal of the Autonomous Self into full view. If we can place ourselves on the altar of all-knowingness; if we can make truth what we want it to be; if we can manufacturer our own personal universe, then we give ourselves the identity of God. We can deal with the issue of sin by proclaiming that we have none. We are no longer capable of the actions associated with sin because we are complete. And the only sins we see as being committed, are the ones committed against us.

To consider ourselves a monolith, we can go further and remove all unwanted advances of foreign thought. We don’t need to indulge a dissenting opinion because we are the authority on what is dissension. On what is upstanding. In this way, we become the narrow road we may have feared at the beginning.

For who can claim to know all things while he is alive?

So what happens when we fashion ourselves on the narrow road? The answer is simple: we find ourselves all alone. The quest for self-autonomy ends in loneliness. There is no universal space where humans suddenly become aware of one another in the quest for autonomy. Those spaces are as varied as the people who occupy them. The chasm between us is a place many Christians may find themselves currently. And that chasm is wider than ever because we have forced out Sin’s brutal reality. Perhaps if we were not so interested in being alone, we might see a people unified. Not because they have been made to feel overly guilty or because they think mightily of themselves, but because they agree upon a basic understanding. The understanding of who God is, and who we are not.

J.C.L. Faltot

Written by

Writer, host of The Writer’s Lens podcast

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