Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Should We Abandon the Word "Sin" in Our Dialogue with Non-Christians?

I am wading through volume 2 of Wolfhart Pannenberg's Systematic Theology, and I am becoming more and more convinced that he is the smartest man alive. I don't know what to do with all of his arguments and conclusions, but I have to admit he has thought out all of his positions. Not only is he an expert in biblical, historical, and systematic theology, but he is also conversant in the cutting-edge ideas of philosophy, anthropology, sociology, quantum physics, and evolutionary biology. His work is truly amazing.

Chapter 8 of his work is called "The Dignity and Misery of Humanity." In it, he suggests we replace the word "sin" with "misery" in our vocabulary. He writes:

To speak of human misery is better than using the classical theological doctrine of sin to describe our situation of lostness when we are far from God. The term "misery" sums up our detachment from God, our autonomy, and all the resultant consequences. It brings out more clearly than the term "sin" itself the relation between sin and its ramifications. The term "alienation" has a similar breadth. it has two sides, both an action we take and a situation we find ourselves in. We can alienate ourselves from someone, and we can be in a state of alienation. In the German equivalent Entfremdung is etymologically close to die Fremde (the foreign country), with the implied thought of being away from one's own country (cf. the English "alien"). Alienated from God, we live in the misery of separation from God, far away from the home of our own identity.
Pannenberg suggests we talk about "misery" or "alienation" instead of sin. Note that it is not because of the negative connotations of the word "sin" that he makes this suggestion, but because the other terms are clearer. "Sin" is a theological term that is unclear to non-theologians. "Misery" and "alienation" are more understandable anthropological terms that communicate the same idea.

What do you think? When speaking to a non-Christian audience, should we present Jesus as the answer to our "sin" problem, or our "misery" problem? Is the meaning of the word "sin" so unclear to those outside of our tradition that it has lost its value in extra-community dialogue?

1 comment:

Rob Dilfer said...

The word "sin", however, makes it clear why "alienation" or "misery" occurred and who is to blame. One could ask, "Well, who is causing this misery?" or "Who alienated me from God?" Sin also implies disobedience against something universal rather than a relativistic code of conduct.

I've found that most people understand what sin is, just not what the ramifications of their sin is. If we stick with "sin", we need to be specific and explain the consequences of sin. If we go with "alienation" or "misery" we need to clearly define that it's caused by sin.