Sin — A Series on Sin and Spirit-led Earthcare Witness
March 6, 2013 § 9 Comments
Introduction to the series
In the early 1980s, I was active in the bioregional movement, a movement that sought to make deep ecology the foundation of all human systems, believing that you should design, manage, and live as though the place you lived in mattered, and that bioregions* had no right to exceed their carrying capacities or to colonize other bioregions to sustain themselves.
The spiritual godfather of the movement was Thomas Berry, creator of the New Cosmology, and he lived in New York where I was active. One evening, a bunch of us in the New York City group were having dinner together after going to a lecture and I happened to be sitting next to Thomas. For some reason I said that I didn’t see what the idea of sin had to offer to our work as environmentalists and bioregionalists and he responded quite strongly that no, sin was really important, sin was at the very heart of what we were doing.
This took me by surprise. Berry was a Catholic Passionist priest, so he knew a lot about sin, but he hadn’t mentioned sin even once that I could remember in all the monographs I had read that eventually became his landmark book The Dream of the Earth. (The Church had prohibited him from publishing his ideas and he was still abiding by the silencing at that time, so his graduate students at Fordham had published his essays themselves in the kind of bindings that dissertations often have. There’s no entry for “sin” in the index of The Dream of the Earth.) So I was surprised that he felt so fervently about sin when he hadn’t mentioned it in his writings. I wanted to get into it with him but someone else joined the conversation at that point and it moved off in another direction. I have been thinking about what Thomas Berry said ever since.
In this and future posts, I want to pursue these thoughts. I want to explore the idea of sin in general, but also specifically as regards our earthcare witness.
I still am not comfortable with the idea of sin. Not that I don’t believe in sin. Certainly people sin. And certainly harming creation is a sin. What I have been rejecting is the value of the whole religious ideology for which sin is the linchpin. I call this ideology the sin-salvation paradigm, the belief that sin is the basic human problem (certainly the basic religious problem), that sin incurs divine judgment, and that Christ’s atonement is the (only) salvation from that judgment.
This has been the basic message of the Christian tradition for a couple of millennia and today it still informs the political ideology of powerful people who either don’t see how their religious beliefs should turn them toward earthcare, or it actually turns them against earthcare.
Now, as in the early ’80s, I still resist the idea that sin and the sin-salvation paradigm are useful ideas in the struggle to reverse our ecological downspiral, or that they can help humans, or at least Western society, turn towards ways of thinking and living that foster and embody Spirit-led earthcare. More negatively, I find I often want to struggle against this gospel message as one of our ideological enemies in our attempts to cure Western society of its ecological insanity.
And yet my respect—my love—for Thomas Berry runs so deep that I feel I cannot ignore his perspective. I feel I must be missing something. So I want to explore my resistance and my counter-arguments with my readers, to see what kind of way might open. I know that for many of my readers—and many of my f/Friends—sin and salvation are at the heart of their religious lives and I trust that they will join the conversation. Together let us see what love and truth can do.
So this post has been a brief introduction to a series of posts in which I plan to explore sin and its possible role in Spirit-led earthcare. In the next post, I want to talk about how
the sin-salvation paradigm misses the basic reality of our ecological crises with its focus on individual sin and the individual sinner, rather than on collective sin and collective actors like corporations and communities and societies and the ecological sins that these collective entities commit.
* Bioregions are geographical regions defined by their physical and ecological features, often by the boundaries of watersheds, and also by culture, to the degree that a culture is defined by, or related to, or has impact on, its bioregion. New York City, for instance, has always been defined physically and culturally to a degree by the bays it has turned into harbors and by its relation to the Hudson River. The lower Hudson River valley (some would say all the way up to the falls in Troy, New York, since the Hudson is a tidal river to that point) could be considered a bioregion. Richmond, Indiana, lies in the watershed of the White River—a much smaller bioregion, perhaps too small to be useful in thinking about the human systems it supports. But it would be interesting to break out the maps and take a look.