Sin is a human concept. It is the invention of priests used as a device for the control and exploitation of their followers.
The Bible tells the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Christian teaching uses this story as the basis for the doctrine that humans are born in a state of sin.
With the benefit of our current knowledge of human evolution, we might retell the tale. Homo erectus evolved following a strategy of increasing intelligence and developing language. It was a risky strategy because increased brain power requires more food and longer childhood as well as resulting in more difficult childbirth. Language brought the ability to think about abstract concepts such as right and wrong. The success of the strategy resulted in population increases which could only be accommodated by spreading out, first through Africa, and then around the world. Population expansion eventually overtook the food supply available to hunter gatherers necessitating the development of agriculture.
Saying that Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge with the result that woman was condemned to painful childbirth and that they were thrown out of the Garden of Eden with man condemned to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow seems after all quite a neat way of conveying the essence of human evolution and its consequences. We have to read the story in that context. It is an attempt to understand the human situation based on the misconception that suffering is a punishment from God.
The ability to think that actions might be "good" or "bad" leads inevitably to value judgements about oneself and others. Knowing that something is "bad", yet doing it makes it worse. Being aware aware of God, we fall into the trap of assuming that He shares our concepts of "good" and "bad" and are only one step away from claiming that our criteria come from God. It is a very big step for a clear thinking person of faith to then declare that "bad" actions anger God and an even bigger step to saying that God requires a price to be paid. But for those who would play the priest, these are two very easy and very profitable steps.
My own understanding of these things is conditioned by my personal experience of God's love and the conviction that God loves us all equally. God sees our actions in terms of the effect they have on others. Actions which benefit others bring joy to God, actions which impinge on the well being of others disappoint and sadden God. But nothing can separate us from the love of God. The God who loves is incapable of anger.
While I reject the concept of sin as something which incurs God's anger, I take very seriously the fact that our actions impinge on our relationship with God. I think the simplest way of describing this reality is to say that we are in a relationship of love with God, but that love is a two way relationship and while God never stops loving us, our experience of His love is dependent on our love for Him. To love God is to "walk in his way" doing the things which bring God joy and not doing the things which sadden Him. If our actions are selfish and harm or disadvantage others, we are distancing ourselves from God and the experience of His love.
The Old Testament gives "God's law" to the Jewish people in the form of the Ten Commandments and the 603 additional commandments. These are all contained in the Torah, the first five books. The dominant theme of the rest of the Bible is the failure of the Jews to obey the law, but there is also the promise that one day God will dispense with written law and write a new law in our hearts.
Jesus put things more simply reducing the 613 to just 2: "You must love the Lord they God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength" and "You must love thy neighbour as yourself". He also explained to us how God would send the Holy Spirit to dwell within us thus fulfilling God's promise to write a new law in our hearts.
This then is the theory as expressed in the language of Christianity. If we allow ourselves to enter into a relationship of love with God, the Holy Spirit will come and dwell within us offering guidance as to our behaviour towards other people, living things, property and the environment. I believe with utter conviction that this experience of God is not limited to Christianity. Other religions will describe it differently, but as a Christian, I believe that there is only one God, the creator of the universe, so I must accept that anyone who prays to God, by whatever name, and feels God's love and receives His guidance has been touched by the love of the same God I know.
In practice, most of us, for most of the time, manage to walk our own path and distance ourselves from experiencing God's love and guidance. It is therefore necessary to have a set of guidelines by which to live our lives. All religions are very good at producing what they claim to be "God's Law". These laws bear little resemblance to the guidelines I will attempt to outline. The 613 laws of the Torah are directed at Jewish people. By contrast, the protests of the prophets are almost entirely directed against, Royalty, the ruling classes, the priesthood and the wealthy.
The guidelines I will attempt to give fall into two broad categories, those relating to us as individuals and those relating to government, society and religious leaders.
As individuals, we should consider how our actions affect others trying to imagine how we would feel if the roles were reversed. It then becomes obvious that:
Either through action or inaction.
Jesus added to these the most unusual command that we should love our enemy.
Suppose our new neighbour who has just moved into our street turns out to be a bully who damages our property, steals from us and threatens us with violence if we protest. This person has become our enemy. On an entirely different scale, the nations of Europe were faced with a situation where the new government of a neighbouring county decided it had the right build up its military forces, invade other countries, plunder property, enslave populations and exterminate ethnic and other groups. That nation became our enemy.
Does Jesus's commandment imply that we should not stand up to our enemy. I do not accept the pacifist argument. My enemy is also my neighbour's enemy and it is one thing to allow him to injure me, but quite another if by my inaction I allow him to go on and inflict harm on my other neighbours. Love allows us to stand up our enemy. Demands that we meet our Enemy in love, but with sufficient strength that he will consider it wise to accept our offer of friendship. But this is only my personal response in the present state of my relationship with God. An example of the pacifist approach is provided by Gandhi's Salt Marches. The protesters arrived in an orderly que with Gandhi and the leaders in front. The soldiers gave each in turn a good beating, but their resolve was soon broken down by the numbers of willing victims who believed that God was with them.
These examples demonstrate that matters of morality and rules for human behaviour are never as simple as we might like to think when it comes to applying them to specific cases. The God who loves all of us with an equal passion does not set hard and fast rules.
The Ten Commandments were a good set of laws for a simple community of nomads. Large populations living in urban areas require a much more detailed set of Laws. These laws are inevitably formed by Royalty, the ruling classes, the priesthood and the wealthy. Many of them relate to facilitating the exploitation of the people by these groups. The dominant theme of the Old Testament Prophets is the expression of God's anguish over the behaviour of these groups in their treatment of the people.
My suggestion as to the guidelines for those who would set themselves up in positions of power or leadership are in the form of duties and prohibitions.
Society of every form of leadership or government has a duty
Those in positions of leadership and power
Speaking personally as a British citizen, the performance of our government and leadership is lamentable. Seen in the perspective of history, things have been steadily improving in the last thousand years since William the Conqueror enslaved the British. As we look at how governments and systems of government have fared around the world, we should be proud of the the achievement so far as we work to continue the trend.
Additional guidelines apply to Religious leadership. If someone sets them self up as representing God, or as acting as an intermediary between the people and God, they have a duty to God!
Religious leaders should
I think too much is made of the concept of freedom of religion. We have the right to hold to our personal belief and not be forced to adhere to any doctrine which others would impose on us. We have a right to freedom from the abuse of our religion. But if our religion is corrupt, then freedom of religion should not protect us from criticism. If our religion impinges on the welfare of others, freedom of religion should not protect us from being restrained or prosecuted.
I would go so far as to say that much that is preached in God's name is not only abhorrent to God, but also constitutes a crime against humanity!
It is hard to say which must cause God the greatest grief, the use of religion to oppress and persecute women, the false teaching about sin as something which angers God and incurs his punishment or the use of religion to justify torture, killing and war.
The problem with discussing these issues is that humans are inherently illogical because of the very nature of language. We are always trying to stretch the meaning of old words to convey new ideas. A word can take on many meanings and what one person says, can mean something entirely different to each of several listeners. This problem is particularly acute with words which name groups of people. It becomes very hard to criticise a minority within a group without being misunderstood and assumed to be criticising the whole group. All religions are plagued by those who infiltrate their leadership and pervert their religion. The world is currently suffering from militant extremists who have infiltrated Islam. They use words like "Muslim and "Brother" to try to gain the support of others while the statistics speak for themselves. By far the greatest numbers of deaths come from Shiite extremists killing ordinary Sunnis; Sunni extremists killing ordinary Shiites and fundamentalists killing ordinary Moslems.
The fact that at the present time, most religious militant fanatics are Muslim should not blur our judgement. Christians have had their periods in history where religious persecutions and wars between Protestant nations and Catholic nations, as well as between Catholic and Orthodox nations have produced far more dead. (It is not that long since Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State, facilitated the holy war between Roman Catholic Croats and Orthodox Christian Serbs which plunged the former Yugoslavia into war.) Hindu extremists continue to kill Muslims. Naziism was a pseudo religion based on Christianity while the whole Japanese war effort revolved around Shintoism. All were eclipsed by Stalin and his rule under the religion of Atheism.
I actually believe that it is not the extremists who cause God the greatest grief, but the moderate religious leaders who resist, or are deaf to the call of God to stand up to the extremists and preach God's abhorrence of violence with conviction to their followers.
God creates through evolution. Humans are a unique species because they have evolved culture and their evolution has become cultural evolution. The physical evolution of our brains could only take place if it was accompanied by a cultural evolution first supporting stable family units and later stable tribal units. The evolution of language and language based thinking made us unique and opened the way for a massive explosion in cultural evolution.
The Bible tells the story of a group of peoples who developed a culture based on their relationship with God. It records just how fragile that relationship was on their part. As we follow the story, we see the evolution of their religion as a force holding them together in a national identity and enabling them to survive as a nation. History records how that religion enabled them to survive for another 1,940 years as a Diaspora. The social model enshrined with their religion was that of monogamy and the stable extended family unit. The inclusion of rules on sexual behaviour within the doctrines and teaching of their religion played a vital role in this.
What we have to understand is the set of relationships between, people, God, religion and society. Religion stabilizes society. Religion feeds on the individual experience of God's love, but is usually deaf to God's gentle influence. Within this dynamic, religious leaders use the concept of God to justify their doctrines and laws. This is what has evolved and we are stuck with it. Laws on sexual behaviour have become enshrined within religion.
The Torah gave a very simple law on adultery. Anyone caught in the act of adultery should be stoned to death. The Jewish leaders brought a woman caught in the act of adultery to Jesus as a test. He took time to consider his response, then turned to the angry mob and said "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone". One by one, the crowd melted away until Jesus was left alone with the woman. Turning to her, he said "Has no one condemned you" ......"then neither do I condemn you, go away and sin no more."
The law was important as a force for social cohesion and Jesus said nothing to diminish the law's condemnation of adultery, but what he made clear was that breaking the law did not break the woman's relationship with God. The crowd did not melt away of their own accord, it was only through the action of the Holy Spirit within each one of them turning their thoughts to their own transgressions which led each and every one to drop their allegation; just as it was through the action of the Holy Spirit that the woman was both convicted of her wrong doing and assured of God's forgiveness through the touch of His love.
Society needs guidelines, but the individual can never diminish God's love for them self through breaking those guidelines. While Jesus demonstrated God's forgiveness of the individual on this occasion, at other times, he also stated that adultery could be committed in the mind by lusting over someone. He is also recorded as having tightened the law regarding remarriage after divorce.
The law of the Torah was equally explicit regarding buggery, but Jesus was never confronted with a man caught in the act. The tension between the need for guidelines and God's refusal to condemn the individual continues to perplex the Church. The issues are further complicated by the fact that religious leaders have added many laws facilitating the oppression of women. The Anglican Churches are currently divided on the two issues of the acceptance of gay Christians and the ordination of women. Since the Bible would appear to be clear on these issues, both causes have been taken up as bandwagons by the liberal theologians in their ongoing struggle with the fundamentalists.
Humans may have evolved the ability to think, but they have not yet evolved the ability to think clearly. I believe this to result from the nature of language which is always in a state of flux as we struggle to express new ideas with old words. Identifying gays, women and people from ethnic groups as "minorities" we fight for the rights of all minorities without considering the individual cases. With this false logic, we find well meaning people defending the rights of ethnic groups to persist in customs of FGM, forced marriage, polygamy. We also finding them defending the rights of sexual deviants to promote their subculture.
I believe that monogamous stable family units held together by love are the natural order of human society. This, I believe, is the direction which God prefers human evolution to be taking. God creates through evolution, but evolution is a risky business and the outcome is never certain. The only certain thing is that species become extinct. There is every indication that humanity is driving the planet into another mass extinction and only our further cultural evolution can prevent that disaster.
The basic problem faced by humanity is that we still have the breading capacity of prey, but have reached the top of the food chain allowing our populations to expand beyond the ability of the land to support them. Cultural evolution has tried various models to overcome this situation, each based on laws or customs relating to gender and sexuality. The Greeks tried a model based on homosexual extra marital activity regarding procreation as an unpleasant duty. Various ethnic groups now mostly adsorbed into China evolved a society based on female inheritance by the eldest daughter with those unable to marry mostly becoming monks and nuns. Every group which solves its own problem of overpopulation is at risk of being overrun by neighbouring groups who believe in unrestrained procreation.
This is the background against which we need to evaluate the role of religious law in controlling human sexuality and gender rolls. We also need to take into account the fact that humans are not genetically programmed to know what to do when boy meets girl. We are a learning species and we need to learn what to do. The human mind is a blank canvass hungry to adsorb information and in the case of sexuality, whatever the nature of the information, it will form part of the complex interplay between mind and hormones.
Human sexuality has evolved to form lasting pair bonds through an extended period of courtship and a redirection of sexual activity from procreation to love making. The period of extended courtship is facilitated with social rules forbidding sexual intercourse before marriage. The abandoning of such rules in Western Society has resulted in a reduction of the percentage of stable lifelong pair bonds.
God does not have laws. God has love. Love for each and every living creature is the diving force behind God's desire for each of us to behave in ways which do not harm or impinge on the well being of other people. If we are sensitive to God's influence, then we develop laws which guide us in appropriate behaviour towards each other. Laws relating to human sexuality must be judged on this basis. If they facilitate the repression of women, then they are a human invention. If they facilitate loving family life, they are compatible with God's hopes and aspirations. Religious leaders have an important role in guiding society as it formulates its law. If they are sensitive to God's influence, their guidance will result in laws which support family life and cherish the rights of the individual.
Because the adolecent mind is a blank canvas hungry to learn about sex and because what it learns will be reinforced by primitive hormonal mechanisms evolved hundreds of millions of years before we evolved into a thinking species, it is very important for the stability of society that young people are both provided with appropriate learning material and protected from harmful material. The problem being that ideas can have such terrible power over the feeble human mind. Laws tend to deal in black and white. Human behaviour takes on all the shade from black to white making it extremely difficult to define the dividing line between normal and deviant behaviour. At one extreme, we might define normal sexual behaviour as that which leads through courtship to stable lifelong marriage and the rearing of children in a loving supportive family environment. At the other, we might draw the line by defining rape and sadomasochism as sexual deviance.
My own inclination is to say that we take sexual gratification out of context when it becomes pleasure seeking for its own end. Its true context, is within the forming of a stable relationship, bound together by love for the purpose of procreation. I can put this most simply by saying that "having sex" and "making love" are two quite different things. But even that is an over simplification because evolution tends to work by bolting new systems onto old and cannot go back to the drawing board and create perfect humans. The hormonal systems which control animal behaviour are still there within us and we are subject to irresistible urges. Even St Paul acknowledges this aspect of human sexuality and says that a husband and wife have rights over each other's bodies and that one should not refuse the other.... when the biological need to have sex on the part of one partner is too urgent to wait until the other is in the mood for making love, there has to be some give and take and most loving couples who have been together for some time will understand exactly what I mean when I say that "having sex" and "making love" are two quite different things. Those who can control the urge to "have sex" and wait until the opportunity arises to "make love" find life far more fulfilling. Therefore it is a good thing for society to have rules such as "no sex before marriage" supporting such behaviour. It is a bad thing if society responds to the inevitable failure and the developing bulge in any way other than supporting the couple in setting up home together and celebrating their marriage.
I would suggest that sexuality becomes perverted when it is associated imagery, objects or practices unrelated to the pair bond between two partners. A fairly innocuous example would be the prostitute who dresses as a nurse to please a particular candidate. She has in fact used her professional skill to establish an association in the mind of the client between orgasm and herself in nurses garb, so that whenever her client reaches that point in his biological cycle when he turns to thoughts of having sex, he is drawn back to her. It is inappropriate to discuss more blatant examples because simply by putting them in writing, one runs the risk that some poor fragile mind will pick up the association.
Anyone who likes a good TV drama will have noticed the increased obsession for "bonking scenes" and the changes in fashion of preferred style. A far cry from the movies of the 30s where well clad husbands and wives would say good night and climb into single beds. The problem with drama is that it creates role models for the adolecent to copy. A simple scene between two male actors in which they talk of one of their female colleagues as "gagging for it" transmits a harmful role model for the attitude of men toward women.
Western society has suddenly discovered paedophilia. It is not a new phenomena, but it was previously swept under the carpet. We have now become educated in the ways of this subculture and can recognise grooming. The question in my mind is how do we differentiate between grooming and the process by which homosexuals help young people to discover that they are gay. As a society, we do not allow the promotion of paedophilia on the media. If a TV channel were infiltrated by paedeophiles and showed a program in which a twelve year old girl was groomed by a man, showing this as a positive experience for the girl, we would at once recognise this for what it was. Why then are we blind to the promotion of homosexuality.
The problem with religion is that the religious become over concerned with respectability. So much so that they become blind to perversion. The Bible condemns bestiality in plain simple language. As a child, I listened to jokes on the radio about Arthur Fallowfied going past the windmill in his wellingtons to look at the pictures on the wall. Nicely timed to follow Sunday lunch, I guess many a clergyman tuned in and listened in all innocence, ignorant of the fact that for the members of the subculture that had infiltrated the BBC, the joke lay in the fact that the wellingtons were used to facilitate bestiality after Arthur had worked himself up into a state of arousal looking at pictures of naked women on the walls of the Windmill Theatre.
Just as the police force has to select stout hearted officers to view pornographic material in search of paedophilia and and other illegal material, it is necessary for religious organisations to come down off their high horse of respectability, acknowledge the existence of these subcultures and become well enough informed to exert a positive influence on society. The only way of influencing society is by creating a climate of opinion through preaching and the use of the media. Religious leaders need to find a way of talking about such things, other than to simply rant on about sinners and Hell or to turn a blind eye in the name of political correctness.
Evolution produces pragmatic solutions, not perfect solutions. The process by which we become either male or female is not 100% successful. The development of genitalia, and male/female characteristics of mind and physic are controlled by hormones. They are not written into a blueprint. Even at the point of declaring the new born baby to be a boy or a girl, about 1% of the pronouncements are uncertain. The distinction between a male mind and female mind is even less well defined. While it is quite simple to label paedophilia, sadomasochism and bestiality as deviant behaviour, the gay issue is not so simple.
I personally am prejudiced against homosexuality as the result of an experience as a fourteen year old hitchhiker with a paedeophile driver whose hand kept wondering. The problem comes with the way in which language functions. The word "gay" has been coined to encompass all manor of modes of behaviour behaviour, mental and physical characteristics. The Bible uses neither the words homosexual or gay, but refers to the act of buggery. Before the adoption of the word gay, homosexuality was synonymous with buggery. Most normal men are revolted by homosexuality, thus defined, and the natural inclination is to drive such people from the community. The use of the term "gay" by homosexuals is a two edged sword. It may help them to claim respectability through identification with others who are encompassed by this label, but at the same time, it results in the natural prejudice against men who bugger boys being applied to the whole gay community. This is the way language and word based thinking works.
As Christians, we suffer from the use of language. The word "gay" comes with its all its pre-war meaning and trips off the tongue without causing offence, but we are far too respectable to talk of buggery. Caught in this trap, we fail to differentiate and have allowed the call for "gay rights" to turn into a full scale campaign for the promotion of homosexuality.
What we can say for certain is that the purpose of life is procreation. Everything in nature is about spreading genes from one generation to the next. First and foremost, we are here to procreate. That is our birthright. It follows that anyone who is helped to discover that they are "gay" has in effect had their birthright to procreate stolen from them. For this reason, I would say that in general, the promotion of "gay" life styles as an acceptable alternative is unacceptable. The persecution of those who do not fit the norm is also unacceptable. But we have to be sensible about these matters and realise that within the "gay" community as indeed within the "straight" community, there are modes of behaviour which are clearly unacceptable.
The task facing religious leaders is to differentiate between the various shades of grey in formulating their rules and teaching accordingly.