Tuesday, March 15, 2011

"We're sinners but God loves us anyway."

Our Lenten practice should lead us to humility, not pride in our religion. The Gospel today teaches us not only to be humble, but to be aware that we are sinners. It is necessary for us to be aware of our own sinfulness in order to acquire humility. God's mercy is there to forgive us and raise us up.

Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you men of double mind. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to dejection. Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you. - James 4.8-10, RSV

Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble." Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you.- 1 Peter 5.5b-6, RSV"
~A Byzantine Christian in a Postmodern World
I often hear Catholics and Protestants boldly profess in the face of some recurring sin that "We're all sinners but God loves us anyway" or "No one is perfect." I'm perplexed as to why these theologically-dubious, Scripturally-questionable formulas are the go-to responses among Western Christians to the problem of sin. It seems we admit our sinfulness only to cut short the progression towards repentance and conversion by which we continually die to our sins in order to be raised in humility.

Where Christ, the Apostles, and the Fathers would have us mourn and weep in response to our sins, we instead, almost instinctively, teleport to a juridic forum in our minds: "God loves us anyway despite our sins", which does nothing for me unless I believed that guilt for my sins is my main problem. Repentance in the West seems to mainly serve the instrumental purpose of expunging guilt or of having a horrible penal sentence vacated by the clemency of the divine Judge. Guilt is the byproduct of a forensic, juridical system because only a God who needs to prosecute and punish us for our sins would need the concept and experience of guilt. Never mind that such a God is an anthropomorphic deity that the West has constructed out of too little Biblical and Patristic authority and too much pagan mythology.

If God's love primarily removes guilt, then the quotes from SS James & Peter are absurd. For the ancient faith, God's love IS the Cross; it bids us to cleanse the Temple of our hearts, minds, and bodies so that the Holy Spirit can dwell in us; it crucifies our sins in us so that we can bear in our bodies the dying and rising of Christ. It's bodily and personal, not just psychological (guilty conscience).

Related are those who admit to being sinners and then in the next breath take pride in being a prickly a-hole to the enemies of their confession (I suppose because "God loves them anyway"). Raise the possibility that they are flirting with delusion and spiritual self-sabotage, and they immediately get hotly defensive spewing legal distinctions and bastardized Thomistic slogans about how "God does not destroy our personalities but builds on them." So the problem here is that it ain't sin unless we think it's bad or on some confessional-approved formulary. But if our personalities are corrupted by sin, so our personalities must be crucified as well, which is why modern Catholics who rely so much on personality tests and adore their own pet idiosyncracies again hedge on true repentance. As entertaining as it may be, having a curmudgeonly, sarcastic personality is not the personality of Christ and we are not to attach any great value to it. Now we don't need to perform some form of personality lobotomy and we can laugh about our sinful quirks but it's just dishonest to defend or take pride in them one moment and then in the next gush about what sinners we are.

To say with my lips I am a sinner and then insist in my heart that "God accept me for who I am" in all my un-Christlike imperfections makes me a liar or a fool. Do we grasp that our sins, flaws, imperfections, etc. are unnatural and parasitic on our true nature which is Christ? Or are we conceding the hyper-Augustinian belief that "to sin is human" as if we were created to sin by nature, as if God wanted us that way? When people anchor their identity in "who I am" they're usually making themselves in their own idealized self-image. What the Tradition clearly labels as sins to us aren't really "sins" but personality quirks; my pet peeves are not thinly-disguised excuses for my anger and vanity; they make me Me. So we come to Christ showing off our fashions designed by the Ego label.

But we cannot join the wedding banquet wearing our own garments; we have to put on the host's special guest garments. Hence, St. Paul will declare that those who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. In dying Christ's death, we put on Christ. We shouldn't take the clothing analogy too literally, for St. Paul is not merely referring to a cosmetic wardrobe change. When we put on Christ, he believes we are literally being made into Christ (cf., "The clothes make the man").

When St. Peter commends us to "clothe ourselves with humility," he's obviously not talking about a moralistic pose we can simply will onto us or pick out of a garment rack but a real change so that we feel, think, and act with humility. There is no real choice in the matter, just as there is no real choice between life and death. Humility isn't just a holy-roller option to be be exercised only after one has been saved or justified. For Peter, being clothed with humility is an essential witness to who God is: the One who opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble. We do not witness to a God who "loves us anyway" by simply ignoring our sins like he would a guilty verdict. Witness here is also not just a post-justification event; it is a critical dimension to every step in the Way of the Cross. We witness not to just to those who haven't yet received the Gospel but to ourselves, which is repentance.