You’ve seen those one-off posts, right? Varied slices of insight on navigating your ideals alongside the awareness of shortcomings in yourself, in others, in the media you love (often featuring use of the dubious umbrella term “problematic”) because — because on the one hand, everyone is “problematic,” you shouldn’t expect anyone or anything to be perfect, you need to make peace with that, but on the other hand, you need to have standards, don’t use that as a flippant excuse to dismiss valid critiques, don’t use that as an excuse to throw your hands up and shrug, there’s a line somewhere, but on the other hand, you don’t need to burn yourself out in pursuit of the impossible and it’s okay to like something even if it has its shortcomings as long as you’re aware of and acknowledge them, but on the other hand, don’t get complacent, but on the other hand, be realistic, but on the other hand, on the other hand, on the other hand–
All these other hands. All this effort to extrapolate lines and boundaries and reasonable expectations based on a given value set and a conscious rejection of the oppressive and wrong, to reconcile the ideals you pursue with the inevitability of imperfection.
To me, it kind of… comes across as struggling to reinvent the wheel.
This conversation is ancient. And the reframing of the conversation in newer terms, in the vocabulary of CRT or feminism or disability activism or what have you, doesn’t make it any less so. You don’t have to treat it as a new quandary.
And, um. When I say that… I’m not expecting everyone on the internet to have studied philosophy and the history of ethics or anything. But, c’mon. I know a lot of the English speakers have at least a passing familiarity with Christianity.
So I have this horrible tendency to see those posts and think, “Come on, we’ve already covered this.”
But then again, apparently we haven’t.
So. Here we are. This post is going to meander around how I answer this conundrum for myself, involving a lot of Christian rhetoric as well as not-specifically-Christian translations. These thoughts/frames/conceptualizations are (clearly) not exclusive to Christianity, but the way I write and think about them is colored by a Christian background, and I’m not going to dance around that. On the flip side, not every Christian approaches the subject the same way as I do, so don’t take any of this as a claim to Homogenous Christian Opinion.
I hope that gets all the necessary disclaimers out of the way.
The place to start, then, may as well be with the concept of sin itself. As I have… mentioned, before… I think the word “sin” has been given more melodramatic connotations than it deserves. What I was taught is that what “sin” really means, technically, is to “miss,” as in, to miss the target, to fall short of perfection. It doesn’t mean Terrible Doom Depravity of the Vile. It just means… subpar. Even… “problematic”– with all the same attendant issues of being so vague as to avoid naming the specific problem at hand.
i.e. feel free to translate “sinning” as “doing something problematic.”
So when people make assertions about how “humanity is naturally sinful” or whatever, that’s pretty much no different from saying “nobody’s perfect.” Literally. That’s it.
The latter of which, I would think, is not too controversial.
But what do you do with that? Where do you go from there, knowing that hard work and good intentions can never elevate you to a more untouchable level? That you can never run fast enough to outrun the inevitable?
I don’t know about for y’all, but that’s frustrating for me to think about, sometimes.
Well. It helps, I think, to try and abandon the sorting system of ranking people as good or bad. There’s no point in wishing you could reach a better “level” when you trash the idea of distinct cohesive levels altogether. And it can be really hard (for me, but I know I’m not alone in this) to let go of that impulse.
What I try to replace it with is harder to explain.
So, instead, I’m just going to show you Jay Smooth’s “having tonsils” vs “dental hygiene” metaphor (which is from a speech about racism, so it’s already translated). Here’s some excerpts (although I recommend the whole video):
The problem with that all-or-nothing binary is it… causes us to look at racism and prejudice as if they are akin to having tonsils. You– you either have tonsils, or you don’t, and if you– if– so if you’ve had… if you’ve had your prejudice removed, you never need to consider… [audience laughter] So– so if someone– if someone says… if someone says, “I think you may have a little unconscious prejudice,” you say, “W– No, I– My prejudice was removed, in 2005!”
So we need to move away from the ‘tonsils’ paradigm of race discourse towards the ‘dental hygiene’ paradigm of race discourse… […] Being a clean person is something you maintain and work on every day. We don’t assume that, uh, “I’m a clean person, therefore I don’t need to brush my teeth.” And when someone suggests to us that we’ve got something stuck in our teeth, we don’t say “W–wha– What do you mean? I have something stuck in my teeth? I’m a clean person!”
The idea being, being “good” isn’t a point you reach and then you’re done. It’s something you work on continuously, learning, changing, growing.
In the Christian framework, this is why we emphasize the concept of repentance a lot. It’s not about beating yourself up over your mistakes. It’s about recognizing the “problematic” thing, pushing it away from yourself, and starting over. It’s about giving yourself second chances and permission to try again. It’s about looking down at the path you’d set yourself on and saying, “…wait a minute. This isn’t the way I want to go.”
There’s no illusions, within that, about the process being anything other than ongoing and dynamic.
In terms of actions, the ideals may be pretty fixed in place, depending on which subject you have in mind. But in terms of people, I think the ideal should be instead of achieving a state, more about developing a skill set. And there’s never going to be a standardized way for you to turn that into a measuring stick. You live each day with what you have, and you do what you can.
Well, that’s what helps me to tell myself, anyway.
November 3rd, 2015 at 3:55 pm
I do agree with your post.
But I also think you might be overestimating a knowledge of Christianity* for even someone like me who was born into a Christian family. I mean, I know some of the stories they tell you as kids, but my understanding of everything is very shallow- and I don’t ever remember being taught anything about “sin” apart from a general ‘these are the bad things, don’t do them’. So like what I’m trying to say is I wasn’t taught anything that I could connect to these kinds of conversations?
*for those that haven’t studied philosophy or anything either.
November 3rd, 2015 at 5:10 pm
Perhaps so. Well… I hope this post was interesting then? Is there anything in particular you’d like me to elaborate on?
November 3rd, 2015 at 6:33 pm
Everything. I want you to elaborate on everything.
I really love this connection from problematic to sin, and I remember seeing it before and thinking “oh, duh, of course, that’s brilliant! I should remember that.” but that was still exactly how I reacted this time as well.
I am very much a Christian, and I try to read up a little, but my Christian surroundings hardly ever talk about sin (which I think is a mistake) and so I have very little framework to build on and definitely feel like I am learning something from this. So thank you!
November 3rd, 2015 at 7:01 pm
Oh. Well. Um… Going off of what I’ve been formally taught and what I’ve figured on my own… “sin” is kind of an amorphous catch-all label for going apart from God. A lot of the way I’ve seen people talk about it seems to present it as a presence/a “positive,” but I think it works just as well to also think of it as an absence or lack — going away from, or acting without, justice and love. And so naturally I think of the concepts of oppressive behavior and sinful behavior as being… not synonymous, but having a lot of functional overlap, or the former falling under the umbrella of the latter, or something like that.
And, within Christianity… I don’t know how you can talk about the resurrection without talking about sin and our relationship to it, because the way I see it, that’s the whole purpose, that’s why we need Christ. Because there’s no surmounting that on our own.
November 4th, 2015 at 1:47 am
It was definetly interesting.
November 4th, 2015 at 2:26 am
This is fantastic, particularly for someone who’s been having trouble articulating why the “pop-culture definition” of sin is so disconnected from my own theology. I’ll certainly be including a link to this (referencing your examples) in future discussions.
November 4th, 2015 at 12:06 pm
November 7th, 2015 at 8:28 am
Doesn’t really add much, but I feel compelled to say that one of my favourite words in the English language is “hamartiology”. It keeps being defined as “the study of sin”, which is technically accurate, but etymologically it literally means “communications in falling short”. Or, translated slightly more liberally, “we all do problematic stuff, but on the plus side we can talk it over”.