Is Sin Real?

 “The first thing is for you to decide whether you believe there is such a thing as sin.”
    It was a few decades ago, and I was meeting for the first time with this priest for spiritual direction. And his question confounded me. Of course, I thought, there is such a thing as sin!
    But he went on to say that, in effect, many clergy act as if there is no sin. There are misunderstandings, perhaps; missed opportunities; and various actions carried out in ignorance. But there is nothing that is simply wrong, and there is no one who would choose the wrong just because it is wrong.
    “So, Victor, do you think sin is real?”
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    When I first read Augustine’s Confessions—it was at St. John’s College—I was excited to discover his argument that evil is a lack of being, an absence where there ought to be a something. Evil isn’t a thing in itself, but is parasitic upon good.
    You might think that if evil is an absence, then it is unreal. But there can be awfully real absences. Think of a bridge that has a hole in it. If you drive into that hole, you have driven right into the absence of the bridge—an absence that will have very real consequences for you.
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    Sin is the deliberate turning away from a good that one ought to choose. It will be the choice of something else that is also good but a lesser good, chosen only by turning one’s back on a greater good. In a robbery, a thief chooses money (a good thing) rather than choosing to have peaceful relations with other people (a better thing than money). My spiritual director wanted to know if I thought this was possible. Could one deliberately choose to do something harmful to another person? Or would any such choice be, at bottom, a mistake, a misapprehension of what is really good?
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    I’m being too abstract. The question of sin is this: Can people choose to do bad things, to bring about harm to others,deliberately?
    And the question is: Am I capable of choosing to harm others deliberately? Not merely out of tiredness, or weariness, or a misunderstanding of a situation, but deliberately, knowingly: Is it possible for me to do the things I ought not to do, and not to do the things I ought to do?
    It strikes me as very hard to own up to this, to say that sin is real and indeed is a reality in my own life. And at the same time, it seems that Christian faith calls us to say precisely this. Although all sin is parasitic upon good, sin is nonetheless real.
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    If sin is real, it must be opposed. Augustine saw that war, and forceful police action, is sometimes something we must do out of our love for the victims of evil deeds. Sin, if it is real, really hurts people. So in response we may need to stand up, to name it truthfully, and to oppose it.
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    Around the same time I first read Augustine, I also read C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra. It is a story of new, intelligent, and thus far innocent life, coming to be on the planet Venus. An evil man has gone there to corrupt the first person. Another man from earth has been sent there, it turns out, to thwart him. He gradually realizes that there are no arguments that will be sufficient; that the evil man will not stop for anything, will twist words interminably, and so forth. Finally, the second man comes to the dread realization that he will have to use force to oppose the wicked man, lest this pristine, new creation fall into the same corruption of earth.
    Here is another difficult corollary, and yet also true: If sin is real, then there are times when it must be opposed, and there is no guarantee that any of us will be exempt from that exterior struggle (any more than we are exempt from the interior struggle).
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    Out & About. This Sunday, July 8, I’m to preach at the Episcopal Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, 6525 Inwood Rd., Dallas. The services are at 8 and 10 a.m. Then at 11:30 I’ll speak on “Love, Caring, Death, and God.”

How Close is God?

God is very strange. Start with the discovery that he is the creator, the one who gives existence to us and to everything that exists or happens, for as long as it exists or happens. God is the reason why there is anything in the first place.
    If this is so, then it is clear that God can’t be one of the things that exist or happen. If God is the cause of the universe, God cannot be something that is in the universe. And if God is nothing in the universe, two important things:
    First, there are no idols. For an idol is something in the universe that pretends to have power over the universe. There are no idols because nothing is divine, everything is created. The sun is not divine, the river is no god, and pouring your newborn child’s blood onto the field will not make the crops grow. To see that God is creator is to see that there are no gods. It’s liberating! It’s the first good news, in fact.
    But also, if God is nothing in the universe, he is also nothing outside the universe. Here is one of the strange things about God. If Sam the Spider exists, and if Sam the Spider is not inside my house, then it follows that Sam the Spider is outside my house. But God exists, and God is not inside the universe . . . yet God is not outside, either. God is no thing; it makes no sense to say he is inside or outside.
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    If your very good friend is alive, and if she is living outside the United States while you are living in Denton, then she is far away. If she were living on the moon she would be even farther away. If somehow she were living on a planet outside our solar system, she would be all the farther away. But wherever she lives, she is someplace in the universe.
    But God, although he is alive, occupies no place in the universe. Nonetheless we would be wrong to say he is very far away. Because for God, things like “distance” don’t apply.
    In fact, there is a sense in which God is “closer” to me than anything else could be. God holds me in being. God is the reason I am writing these words (and the reason you are reading them). God is closer to each of us than any intimate friend, any lover, any parent or child or compatriot. God is in fact closer to us than we are to ourselves! (He knows my thoughts better than I do!)
    This is not closeness of distance, but the inescapable closeness of the creator to his creation. Like an author’s closeness to her characters—think Dorothy L. Sayers’s closeness to Lord Peter Wimsey, for example—so is God close to us.
    How close is God? Closer than we can say, or think, or imagine.
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    Out & About. On Sunday, July 8, I’ll be preaching at the Episcopal Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, 6525 Inwood Rd., Dallas. The services are at 8 and 10 a.m. Then at 11:30 I’ll speak on “Love, Caring, Death, and God.”

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The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."