Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Total Depravity is Totally Depraved: Exploring a Jewish Understanding of Sin

Tony Jones is continuing an interesting series of blog posts on "original sin" that has now included the topic of "total depravity." The theory of "total depravity" means that humanity has a sick-and-twisted condition. In other words, we are evil and sinful at core. This is where I need to draw a theological boundary. Enough is enough. Anyone who has held a new-born infant in their arms knows that baby is sacred - not "totally depraved." So we must choose another way forward. There is a way to acknowledge the reality of sin while also acknowledging our core goodness as creatures made in God's image. Jews have been doing this for thousands of years.

According to the folks who wrote Genesis: there was no "fall" that affected all people or "original sin" that is passed on to all humanity. Thus, humanity doesn't suffer from any kind of "total depravity" brought on by Adam and Eve's so-called "original sin." Christian theologians, however, read that theology back into Genesis via the work of Augustine, Calvin, and (perhaps) Paul. But it's important to note that "the fall," "original sin," and "total depravity" simply aren't original to the original text. They are new theologies. Perhaps an exploration of Judaism's understanding of sin might be helpful in this conversation.

Sin in Judaism is understood in terms of actions instead of in terms of human condition. There is no doctrine of original sin nor is there a theology that suggests humans are basically sinners. Instead human nature is conceptualized by two different inclinations: the good inclination (yetser hatov) and the bad inclination (yetser hara). Humanity has the "free will" to choose either of these inclinations. This theology of choice is grounded in the Torah. For example, in the Garden of Eden, primordial humanity was described as being given the choice between the Tree of Knowledge (i.e. way of death) and the Tree of Life (i.e. way of life) (Genesis 2:9, 15-15). Similarly, in the desert, God is portrayed as giving Moses and the people the choice between life and death - and inviting them to choose life (Deuteronomy 30:11, 15-20). God's invitation to humanity is the same today as it was in Scriptural times: "Choose life so that you and your descendants may live" (Deuteronomy 30:19). Therefore, humanity is given a blank slate with the freedom to choose their actions, not infused with evilness that cannot be overcome. Nor is there an evil being like a "devil" that competes with God's sovereignty and/or interferes with humanity's freedom.

Choice always remains for God's people. Choosing the good inclination (yetser hatov) helps humanity to live up to their full potential as good creations made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Conversely, choosing the bad inclination (yetser hara) causes humanity to fall short of their potential. Acts of falling short are named as sins and are described in two basic ways: chait and aveyrah.

Chait, the most common word translated as sin, is best described as "missing the mark" or "making a mistake" in the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Judges 20:16). In short, chait is missing the target. Since the goal of humanity is to aim at Torah, God's call, and living according to our full potential, the stray attempts are what are understood as sins. Since life is an ongoing process of change and development, human life is characterized by a continuous activity of shooting arrows as well as the ability to improve one's "shot." In other words, it's within humanity's ability and responsibility to improve. In this perspective, humanity is not a sinful, depraved being that has no hope of betterment. Instead, humanity is in a perennial state of freedom with the responsibility to improve our aim.

Aveyrah is the Hebrew term, often translated as sin, which means "walking off the path." Like chait, this term means that humanity's actions are sinful but not their essence. Humans have the freedom to choice their path as well as the responsibility to walk on the best path(s). The Halachah, the collection of Jewish law including the written and oral Torah, offers a map and guide to the right path(s) to follow in life. As humanity travels, God supports humanity on our way so we can be led to the best paths. Moreover, like the term above, it is ultimately humanity's responsibility to get on the right path(s). Such a theology of betterment is commended in Genesis 4:3-7: "Surely, if you improve yourself, you will be forgiven. But if you do not improve yourself, sin rests at the door. Its desire is toward you, yet you can conquer it." Humanity can choose and follow better paths.

Sins, understood as chait or aveyrah, are atoned for in two different ways in Judaism. First, sins against people are atoned for when one reconciles with them with his/her words and deeds. Second, sins against God are atoned for when one reconciles to God in prayer.

Perhaps it's time for Christians to learn from our ancestors in faith. We're not just evil, sinful people who only do evil, sinful things. We're good people that sometimes choose bad actions. At core, we're made in the sacred image of God. Our faith in God helps that sacred image to shine through in our words and deeds. This theology gives us the responsibility to change our lives. It also gives us the hope that our lives can change through the empowerment and guidence of God.

Celtic Christians are one example of Christians who follow this more traditional, hopeful understanding of humanity. May we all be a little more Celtic and Jewish in our Christianity!

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