22 March 2007

Thoughts on innocence

In one of my dreams, I'm standing on a riverbank watching a small tourist riverboat float by. In front are the adults sitting in chairs, in back are children playing on the deck. The boat begins to sink; the adults' chairs begin sinking into the water. Apparently the deck is just a wire mesh, like a link fence. As the boat passes by, I see to my horror that the children are starting to slip under the water's surface. I shout as loudly as I can to alert the adults to the children in danger behind them, but my voice seems lost in the wind. Nobody responds.

Someone pointed out that a lot of my dreams are about innocence, its preservation and its loss. What's that all about?

Interestingly, that dream river is behind a motel--one that is used by lovers for their rendezvous. I'm in the lobby, but I'm not a guest there. When a motel staffer approaches me, I busy myself looking at the tourist brochures in order to look like I have a reason to be there. It's one of those brochures that tells me about the river behind the motel. Why was I at the motel in the first place?

Hidden agendas seem to me to be the opposite of innocence.

Robert Barclay's systematic Quaker theology, known as the Apology, tackled the subject of the human being's fallen nature. Barclay was explicitly concerned to take a middle path between what he saw as the error of believing we can overcome sin through our "natural" light, and the opposite error, that we are already damnable sinners at birth:
We come now to examine the state and condition of man as he stands in the fall: what his capacity and power is and how far he is able, as of himself, to advance in relation to the things of God. Of this we touched a little in the beginning of the second Proposition; but the full, right, and thorough understanding of it is of great use and service; because from the ignorance and altercations that have been about it, there have arisen great and dangerous errors, both on the one hand and the other. While some do so far exalt the light of nature, or the faculty of the natural man, as capable of himself, by virtue of the inward will, faculty, light, or power that pertains to his nature, to follow that which is good and make real progress towards heaven. And of these are the Pelagians and Semi-Pelagians of old, and of late the Socinians and divers others among the Papists. Others again will needs run into another extreme, to whom Augustine, among the ancients, first made way in his declining age, through the heat of his zeal against Pelagius, not only confessing men incapable of themselves to do good, and prone to evil; but that in his very mother's womb, and before he commits any actual transgression, he is contaminate with a real guilt whereby he deserves eternal death; in which respect they are not afraid to affirm that many poor infants are eternally damned and forever endure the torments of hell. Therefore the God of Truth, having now again revealed his Truth that good and even way, by his own Spirit, hath taught us to avoid both these extremes.

[The fourth proposition, at Quaker Heritage Press.]

After years of hearing modern and postmodern people argue against the doctrine that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," I am utterly persuaded that the doctrine is pretty much correct. Inside myself and inside others, even in the absence of dramatic and scandalous sins, I've seen over and over again our capacity to spin, to rationalize hidden agendas, to one-up our theological or ideological opponents, to objectify our enemies, to romanticize our addictions, to shift blame, to minimize ourselves or others.

At the most basic level, even "good" people are prone to the sin that Anthony Bloom calls "loss of contact with our deepest self--the place where we meet God."

Early Friends were not "liberal" in comparison with other theologies of the 17th century. They were in full agreement that we, by ourselves, cannot overcome our fatal propensity to sin. No false optimism there. But as pessimistic about humans as they were, they did not leave humans without hope. Though vulnerable without God, we are in fact born innocent. We lose that innocence when we make self-centered choices, but God invites us to put our trust in Divine power to make different choices. Living in that trust, putting our personal "territory" back in the Paradise of God, we are forgiven of all of those self-centered choices we made. Our task then: living in innocence when our eyes have been opened, and when we have tasted of the fruits of self-centered choices. The original innocence is no longer possible; we can't pretend not to know what we know. Now we see why Paul encouraged us to "pray without ceasing."

Accepting the doctrine that "all have sinned" does not permit us to use that doctrine in a shaming or controlling spirit. It is a refreshing realism that applies equally to the one doing the shaming, and the one being shamed. This biblical realism does not license any form of pseudo-Christian leadership cult that gets to sort out the blessed from the damned. Nor does it justify self-minimizing and self-flagellation. Again, Anthony Bloom, within a few pages of describing the sin of loss of contact with our deepest selves, also reminds us that God loved us into being in the first place. We can stand before God with the full status of being God's beloved. The "all have sinned" doctrine is diagnosis, not condemnation.

Mature innocence is not simple. We're aware of things pushing and pulling against us. Our earthly and earthy selves were made for legitimate pleasure, including the complicated pleasure of beauty. Our dynamic task is to keep our face towards God and to keep the channels of prayer open. We don't keep two sets of moral books or live in a naive denial of the forces that constantly try to distract us (some more than others, I'm sure) from our Godward orientation.

I don't equate innocence with sentimentality, but I do relate it to happiness. An innocent person is happy. A person who has been disobedent and sinful and is coming back into innocence with God's help, will experience a different kind of happiness. It is a happiness tinged with knowing--both the awareness of personal vulnerability and awareness of tragedy and evil, danger and death. But happiness is nevertheless part of God's plan. The contemporary tendency to outdo each other in overcommitment, drivenness, and anxiety, does not to me seem consistent with mature innocence. Maybe I'm wrong.

I do not want happiness at the expense of awareness of what the Principalities and Powers are doing to my brothers and sisters. On the other hand, nobody benefits from a self-important severity in my attitude toward world problems. And it's probably a pretty universal principle that these issues of balance (self-care and self-giving) are best worked out in dialogue, in community.

Speaking of happiness, I love these words from philosopher Paul Ricoeur during a visit to Taizé:
It seems that there are two levels: the best of Greek philosophy is a reflection on happiness, the Greek word eudaimon, for example in Plato and Aristotle, and on the other hand I am very much at home with the Bible. I think of the beginning of Psalm 4: “Ah, who will teach us happiness?” It’s a rhetorical question, but it finds its answer in the beatitudes. And the beatitudes are the horizon of happiness of an existence placed under the sign of kind-heartedness, because happiness is not simply what I do not have and what I hope to have, but also what I have tasted. [Full text here.]

Tears are part of my understanding of innocence. For me to allow tears to flow is to admit that I am not in control, that I'm not behind a facade, that I'm not insulating myself or others from reality. Tears of joy and tears of grief both wash away pretense.

Two links this week on the subject of Christian approaches to environmental concerns: NYT reporter Laurie Goodstein on Jim Ball, "Living Day to Day by a Gospel of Green."

In the "I want to like you ... but on my terms" department: Andy Crouch's Christianity Today review of Roger S. Gottlieb's A Greener Faith.

Can innocence remain intact in the presence of a wonderfully earthy Muddy Water song like "Can't Get No Grindin'"? Maybe it helps to have obscure lyrics. Judging by my Sitemeter stats, hardly anyone clicks on these blues clips anyway, so they're here mostly for my own pleasure. So at least there's no hidden agenda!


RichardM said...

First a comment on the dream. Our children are in danger and you are worried about it and see complacency among the adults who are also in danger. Doesn't that describe the world we are living in? Meanwhile you are right to note that in the dream you are acting in a guilty way. You see yourself as not doing what you ought to be doing. Sounds like there must be some leading you are not following and it concerns saving the children. If I'm right the leading will keep bugging you until you get it.

A second comment. I don't think it's the whole story to just mention that Barclay believes that our nature is fallen and we are saved through grace without also mentioning what is different about early Friends theology. They held to an uncompromising doctrine of human perfectibility. There was to be no pleading for sin and making excuses for compromise with the world or with Christian principles. So youre suggestion that they believed we were all sinners needs the qualification that they also believed we could become perfect and shouldn't make excuses for not being perfect.

Paul L said...

There's a Calvin & Hobbes cartoon where Calvin asks Hobbes, "Do you think babies are born sinful? That they come into the world as sinners?" Hobbes replies, "No, I just think they're quick studies."

I agree with Hobbes, and I think so would Barclay. "All have sinned. . ." isn't a statement about nature, but a fact, a diagnosis, as you put it, not a condemnation.

But what is it that makes us such quick studies? I think it relates to the temptation that Adam and Eve sucumbed to. They didn't eat the fruit because the serpent said it was delicious, but because "it will make you like God, knowing good and evil." That was the name of the tree, after all.

So idoltry is the fundamental sin -- trying to be "like God" instead as we are created. Everything else flows from that.

I've long thought that Zen Buddhism captures the sense of innocence regained better than most Christian commentary. There's one particular story I love of the master and student who come across a woman standing on the bank of a river. The master offers to carry her across on his back, despite the rule that monks should have nothing to do with women. He lets her off on the other side, and he and the student continue walking.

But the student is fuming. How could his master betray the tradition like this? After some miles, the master asks him what is wrong. The student says, "You carried that woman across the river in violation of every teaching we've been given. What's wrong with you?" To which the master replied, "I set her down on the other side; it sounds like you're still carrying her."

Johan Maurer said...

Richard, I agree with you on the Quaker "difference"--and it's in my comments, just not as prominently as Friends usually put it. Sometimes my self-appointed gadfly role leads me to emphasize the parts that Friends usually leave out, in my experience.

Here's what I said about sin in the Historical Dictionary of the Friends (Quakers), ed. Margery Post Abbott, Mary Ellen Chijioke, Ben Pink Dandelion, John William Oliver, Jr. (all rights reserved, I'm sure):


Sin is disobedience to the known or knowable will of God.

The earliest Friends tended to agree with the Christian orthodoxy of their time that sin had originated with the disobedience of “our first parents,” Adam and Eve, by the evil intentions of Satan. George Fox said that sin came from transgression and disobedience, obeying the Serpent (in the Garden of Eden) rather than God. Robert Barclay carefully describes the implications of this original disobedience in his Apology, Proposition IV, Section II. All of us are direct descendants of Adam and Eve, thus we are like them in our natural propensity to disobey and our inability, in ourselves, to overcome this propensity. However, Adam and Eve sinned as the consequence of their disobedient acts, not by simply existing, and the same is true of their descendants: We may be weak and subject to temptation, but we are not sinful until we actually sin. In Barclay’s words, “... This seed [of disobedience, sown by the Serpent] is not imputed to infants, until by transgression they actually join themselves therewith....” (Prologue to Proposition IV.)

This “functional” way of thinking about sin had enormous consequences for Friends. First of all, it integrated naturally into Friends’ understanding of the power of Jesus Christ and led to the doctrine of PERFECTION [another entry in that dictionary]. If sin were a matter of disobedience rather than our essential nature, then freedom from sin required gaining the power to understand God’s will and be obedient to it. Friends saw that power as coming from the light of Jesus Christ. “With the light you come to know the Messias, your Saviour, to save you from your sin ... this light ... shews you your evil deeds, and evil ways, when God is not in all your thoughts, when your heart revolteth.” (Fox, Works, 4:73.)

(The assertion that Christ has the power to enable his followers to overcome sin was a terrible scandal to other Christians at the time Friends arose. Fox and Barclay accused other Christian leaders of seeking to keep their followers in their sinful states, in the Devil’s custody, denying the full power of the Savior.)

Secondly, Friends’ emphasis on actual behavior rather than a theoretical state of depravity or innocence helps explain why there was very little systematic thinking about sin in Friends theology since the first generation, or in the development of Friends’ books of Christian discipline or faith and practice. Friends do not deny their own sinful ways; as Howard Brinton revealed in his study of Quaker journals, most autobiographies regretfully note a period of frivolity or “bad company,” before Quakerly sobriety sets in. However, among most Friends past and present, progress toward freedom from sin is (assuming genuine faith and a desire for holiness) a matter of practicing obedience in worship, study, personal relationships and service. Likewise, books of faith and practice from the earliest to the latest do not emphasize sin so much as evidence of disunity or threats to the reputation of Friends arising from actual behavior, to be lovingly confronted in various disciplinary processes.

Robert Barclay, An Apology for the True Christian Divinity.... Philadelphia, Friends Book Store, 1908.

Benson, Lewis, Notes on George Fox (2 volumes). Privately published, 1981.

Howard Brinton, Quaker Journals: Varieties of Religious Experiences among Friends. Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill Publications, 1972.

Also see:

Quaker Hill Conference Center and Earlham School of Religion, Friends Consultation on Overcoming Sin and Evil (conference papers). Richmond, Indiana: Quaker Hill Conference Center 1988.

Wilmer A. Cooper, A Living Faith. Richmond, Indiana: Friends United Press, 1990 (especially pp. 55-64.)
- - - - - - - - -

Paul, there are some amazingly similar monastic stories from the Christian monastic tradition. (Am I trying to one-up the Buddhists? :-)) And of course it was Paul who said that the letter kills but the Spirit gives life, which in a way agrees with your point that idolatry is the underlying problem.

Robin M. said...

I don't always click on the blues clips, but I'm always glad when I do. I'll have to leave the theology for another day though.