Currently Reading: Blue Like Jazz
As I said to a friend the other day, I'm theologically arrogant. It comes with being a junkie. I read big, important books with lots of footnotes. I rarely read fiction and even more rarely do I read the more "popular-level" books like Blue Like Jazz. However, strangely enough, I've always enjoyed and learned a lot from books like Jazz, or Ragamuffin Gospel, or (gasp) Sacred Romance, or even (double-gasp-don't-tell-Byron-Borger) Wild at Heart.
Jazz itself is a particularly insightful book for me. Don Miller and I seem to share some of the same concerns about religion and the Church and about ourselves. Both of us are "influential" people in our circles, but neither of us feel particularly comfortable with the role, possibly for different reasons. He is, in many ways, a contrarian, which I can identify with (although not too much, otherwise it wouldn't be very contrarian of me).
Anyway, Miller points out something of great significance to me. The greatest lie that he used to believe is that life was a story about him. It is ridiculous how profound that is. If only I, for a second, would stop living life for myself (with a thin veneer of altruism), what could be different? Or, better yet, what couldn't be different? I expect to wrestle with this for some time. Hopefully for the better. The thing I've noticed today, though, is how insufferably selfish I have been (and my wife can corroborate that, especially after my silly, childish temper tantrum earlier). Why is it that when a sin is pointed out, the ability to not do that thing diminishes, at least initially? But that isn't the point today.
The most obvious response to my selfishness is humility. Humility before God, before my family and friends, and before anyone else that I have dealings with. The easiest way to do this, it seems, is to be self-deprecative or self-hating. Blaming myself for everything, making fun of myself, beating myself up for things that aren't my concern or my fault or even remotely my responsibility...and doing it publicly. What I'm realizing (even though this is an old realization, that doesn't mean I've applied it) is that this form of "humility" is another, more insidious form of pride and narcissism. When I become focussed on myself in hate or bitterness or whatever, nothing about my selfishness changes. I haven't become humble before God or others or even myself. I've become so certain that the problems of the world rest so solely on my shoulders that I've forgotten about that Jesus fellow or God's sovereign love or even other human beings in this world. I'm focussed on me and how irredeemable I am. Publicly. Here's the real catch.
Repentance, the few times that I've actually had a true form of it, was mostly private. If I needed to repent of something that I did to someone other than God, then it was public, but in a limited fashion (I make it a point to try and not offend large groups of people). Most of the time, though, it is spent in actual silence before God--not just lip silence, but mind silence. Job put his finger over his lips when he repented, a sign of absolute silence. True repentance, for me, involves the same. It does no good to flaunt repentance, to talk about it publicly. When that happens, it is all show and nothing has really changed about me, except that I very selfishly believe I'm less selfish.
This hateful Narcissism, strangely, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even though I'm not feeling particularly self-hating at this moment, I'd like to keep the next set of things in the first person. I believe I am unlovable for whatever reason (I've done something terrible, I'm not attractive, I'm a failure at this-that-or-the-other-thing). This changes the way I think, speak, and act. I think, speak, and act in unlovable ways: maybe I act completely (and obnoxiously) dependent on others, maybe I act like a spoiled child, maybe I turn into a hollow, angry shell, and the list could go on. This irritates people and they start to not love me (for which, as a self-hater, I don't blame them, but secretly hate them for it). I end up believing that I am unloved. If I am unloved, if must be because I'm unlovable. And so on.
I don't think that this attitude is a product necessarily of the theological tradition I'm a part of. However, when the first tenet of your religious system is that you are total depraved (even after redemption), it is hard to not be down on yourself. It led me to question, along with another book I was reading--Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross by Hans Boersma--the concept of the sin nature. The phrase itself isn't in the Bible, instead it is a translation of the Greek word for flesh. Paul, the main user of the term it seems, doesn't mean to separate the physical body out as evil (otherwise he would have used the term 'body'), but "flesh" sort of as the total system of sin that currently comprises a part of our being. So, you may be thinking, I believe in sin nature. Yes and no. I don't have a problem with the 'sin' part, but the 'nature' part. Saying something is 'natural' is tantamount to saying it is inevitable. There is no way to escape nature. I could no more stop being a male than I could change my skin color (I realize that there is surgery for the former, but being physically a male through a scalpel doesn't really make you male, it makes you deviant). In Christian thought, something natural is the way God created it. In other words, if we have a sin nature, we cannot ever escape sin, for to be human is to be sinful. What a terrifying thought. If such is the case, even the traditional interpretation of the virgin birth (having a body specially created outside of the normal sexual union keeps Christ free from original sin) doesn't do it. Just being a human makes Jesus sinful. Well, the ancient heresy of docetism isn't far behind...and if you look at mainstream Christology, it is alive and well on planet earth. Once again, a terrifying thought.
In the words (or book title) of one of the Plantingas, this isn't the way it's supposed to be. If we believe the Bible, then it isn't until at least a day after man is created that he becomes a sinner. He wasn't created that way. It wasn't until after God finished creating man (that is, after he created both man and woman, androgeny wasn't the intention) that he and she decided to rebel. Man wasn't created with a sin nature, nor is it 'natural' for him to sin. Sin is an historical aberration from God's intention. That doesn't mean I believe in perfectionism, though.
I am an American. I was born in America, I live in America, and I will probably die in America. A formative part of my identity is guided by the history, geography, and worldview of America. I could not, tomorrow, wake up and say "I am now a citizen of Poland." (Not just because I don't look Polish, either). It isn't my choice to be American, I was born that way. However, that doesn't make it 'natural' that I am American. It is an historical thing. If I went through the proper processi, red-tape, and cultural emigration I could become Polish. Even though I was born American, I could live Polish. Sin is the same way (note: I'm not saying that being American is the same as being a sinner, all analogies break down eventually).
I was born is the status of sin, sometimes called being 'in Adam'. It wasn't my choice, but that doesn't mean I'm not responsible for it (just like I was born a Warren, not by choice, but I still have responsibilities to that name and family). Being born in something, or having the status of something, gives guidelines as to what questions can be asked, what answers can be given, and what ways are acceptable (or possible) to live. Being in the status of 'sin' questions, answers, and dictates certain things. If I stay in that status, I will more and more conform to the questions, answers, and dictates of that status. I will become epistemologically self-conscious. This is part of maturation. Have you ever noticed how children ask questions that our thought-systems cannot even handle, but seem decidedly profound? I think that is because they are not epistemologically self-conscious. Their thought process has not been fully formed, so they don't know what rules to follow intellectually. Maybe that is why Jesus told us to be 'like children'?
So, the more and more I stay in the status of 'sin', the more and more of a sinner I become. I think sin, I speak sin, I act sin. It isn't till I'm transported/emigrate to another status, another kingdom (if you will) that the status changes. Instead of being 'in Adam', I can be 'in Christ'. If I am in Christ, then I cannot be in Adam at the same time. If this is true, then the very defining characteristic of being 'in Adam', sin, no longer holds status power over me. I have a new status, that of righteous. However, since I didn't get my membership transferred until late in the game, as it were, I still have a lot of habits and thought-processi that are epistemologically closer to sin than to Christ. In other words, I still sin...often.
However, to get back to my original point, just because I sin while being a Christian does not mean it is 'natural'. It means that I haven't become epistemologically self-conscious as a Christian (known classically as sanctification leading to glorification). I still sin because sin is what I know, the status-kingdom of sin surrounds me and calls to me constantly to not remember the bad things about it and revel in all the 'good' things about it. Just because I am a Christian doesn't mean that I'm not constantly under the influence of sin. However, I am in a community of other ex-sinners who want to be more in Christ than in Adam (most of the time, at least).
Here, in some ways at least, is the antidote to self-hating narcissism (is there really any other form of narcissism?). Evil is not the way I am created, even if I act that way and others around me act that way. I, instead, was created in the image of God and am being restored to that status after a long absence. Only through Jesus, though, can this restoration happen, since I need my transferring papers, which he secured on the cross. Otherwise, I never would have even known about any other status than sin. The most comforting thing about this is that even if I do continue to think, speak, and act as in sin, Jesus is patient to help me, mould me, and change me more and more into his image.