This morning I had a chance in a conversation to remember Stanley Hauerwas with whom I studied in my time at Duke in the late 80’s (and early 90’s). This article begins with a reflection from a Hauerwas contention: “that sin is something you have to learn.” It is typical of his thought – startling statements that beg a question – followed by a frequently new insight. The insight of this piece is not new (at least to my regular readers) but will, I hope, be worth the read.
As strange as it sounds – human beings have to “learn to sin.” Not that we need any help doing the things that sinners do – all of that comes quite easily to us. But we have to learn that we are sinners – and this does not come easily to us.
Oddly, I first heard this when listening to one of Stanley Hauerwas’ lectures at Duke. “You have to teach someone to be a sinner,” was his statement. What he meant by that is that the Christian understanding of sin is not something we are born with. We have to be taught to understand the human predicament and the precise character of the situation in which we find ourselves.
Depending on how you define the problem, the answer will come out differently. Another way of saying this would be: sin is the question to which Jesus’ death and resurrection is the answer. To a great extent, it is likely that the disciples did not understand the teachings of Christ because they did not see death and resurrection as an answer to any of their problems. Indeed, though death is seen as problematic on occasion in the Old Testament, it is not always seen as the over-arching issue. If someone could live to a ripe old age and “be gathered to his fathers,” then it doesn’t sound like the writer saw this as an existential crisis.
Christ not only reveals Himself as the answer to our problem, but defines the problem as well.
In our modern world, the success of preaching the gospel may often depend upon whether anyone thinks he needs such a gospel. In a “culture of death,” is a resurrected Messiah such good news?
From the Church’s perspective, the very fact that our culture has become a “culture of death, ” a place where death can be seen as friendly, a welcome end to otherwise meaningless suffering, is tragic indeed. Some of the “extreme” character of things today (sports, etc.) has a way of taunting death and mocking it as though it were not a problem. I can recall conversations of my teen years (not particularly great moments in my life) when no one in the room seemed to think living past 30 was such a great idea. The death of contemporaries such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, et al., were seen as tragic only in the sense that there would be no new albums coming from those sources.
Strangely, it was reading history that first taught me to “sin.” I finished high school and announced that I was not going to college (what was the use?). Long story short, I wound up living in a commune (actually a Christian commune) which included among its members a number of young college intellectuals (if you can say that without laughing too hard). But they were the first people I had ever met who actually read history and had a thought or two on the subject.
It was reading the stretch of Western Civilization and realizing that it was, in fact, headed for destruction, that first awakened the despair of sin within my consciousness. If that sounds too intellectual, forgive me. It wasn’t that “heady” an issue. It was simply waking up and realizing that the things around me were the bits and pieces left over from a train wreck and not the “modern world,” that overwhelmed me. It was not so much my own personal death that awakened this sense of loss, but the fact that in the midst of the death of a culture, a single life could have so little meaning and purpose.
That “the wages of sin is death,” made sense – but not the sense that “if you do something wrong you’ll die.” Rather something much larger. I can recall reading Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming,” as if I’d never heard the ideas before:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert.
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
By this time the poem has almost passed into cliche. But it remains prescient. Thirty some-odd years later the center holds less and less and the shape of the beast that slouches seems far more clear – on many levels. For myself, I feel ever more profoundly the sinner, dwelling in the midst of sinners, and the beast threatens to swallow us all.
Thus it is that I love the Savior who enters the belly of that beast and brings us all safe again to some paradisiacle shore. It is not the footsteps of something slouching I hear, but the approaching sound of victory, trampling down death by death.
Doubtless there are many other ways to present the gospel – Christ is the Savior and the Savior of us all – and not just a gloomy historian. But to know He saves is also to know, at least in part, from what it is we are saved.