I think one of the many social changes we’re seeing unfolding before us is the loss of sin. I don’t mean loss in the good sense of moving away from sin. Rather I mean loss in the sense that the very category of sin is rejected and rendered incomprehensible. Much of Mormon proselytizing depends upon a shared sense of sin. That is that sin is something to overcome and the atonement is the answer. Without a notion of sin it is simply much harder to see what the point of Jesus or the atonement even is.
Part of this is inevitable I suppose. Years ago Fowler’s Stages of Faith popularized the idea that traditional theology was a lower stage of faith. The highest stage of faith was an universalizing conception where sin really didn’t apply and there were just more ethical acts.
What brings all this up for me are recent comments by John Dehlin about the atonement. I bring this up not to draw attention to John but just because I think it’s the perfect example of something I’ve worried about for some time.
For most of my life I felt deeply attached to the Christian teachings regarding sin, and the need for an atonement via Jesus Christ. “I Stand All Amazed” was my favorite hymn as a youth.
In one sense the atonement is an ok teaching – in that it acknowledges that we all make mistakes. For some, this can encourage humility and self-improvement.
But I realize now that the teaching of the Atonement also strikes at the core of much religious-based harm, in that it plants/spreads the idea that we are all inherently flawed/broken/bad/fallen/dirty/sinful, and are thus dependent on a set of beliefs and/or a man-led institution to become whole/fixed/good/saved/worthy/clean again. But always only temporarily…until the next mistake/screw up/sin/transgression (which is always just around the corner, since expectations are set so unreasonably high).
Sometimes goodness can emerge from this model, but often the atonement model can engender guilt/shame/sadness/self-loathing…that can become toxic for many….leading to anxiety, depression, and even suicidality.
For far too many, the atonement doctrine puts us on never-ending hamster wheel of shame and dependency.
What if we were all taught from infancy that we were/are whole, and that every mistake was/is nothing more than an opportunity to learn/improve?
In other words there’s improvement, but sin is really just a myth. Now I just don’t think that’s true. God wants us to improve for sure. And his arm is always already outstretched to receive us. However sin is more than just a mistake. It is a fundamental breaking of that relationship. By way of analogy it’s akin to how adultery isn’t merely doing something wrong. It’s a devastating betrayal of our relationship with an other person.
Yet Dehlin’s view here seems all too common. Not only doesn’t he believe in sin and atonement. The very notions of sin and atonement become seen as themselves evils. Further, I think John’s view is rather typical of many who self-identify as “Nones.” That is they self-identify with no religion. Given how fast that category is growing, this has, I think, large implications for how we do our missionary work. How do you get someone interested when the very idea of atonement is a negative?