Last week an interesting conversational point arose in our discussions after liturgy. An initial Chinese translation of the Bible translated “sin” in a legalistic way. That is a transgression, breaking laws for which penal or other atonement is required. A newer translation which connects with Chinese culture much stronger and likely hits the real meaning of the word. That word translated back into English would be that sin is best translated in Chinese as disharmony. I think the notion that sin=disharmony is natural. My “working definition” of the word has been sin is “that which separates us from God” … which in my view links far better to disharmony that to a “breaking the rules” definition.

Ann, blogging as Weekend Fisher at the eponymous blog, writes about the perception of Puritans for being joyless and very deontological in their habits. If the Puritans were actually joyless and as serious as many of their chroniclers and history seems to paint them, then the root of that problem was that their notion of sin was flawed in the same was as the above translation. However, from the exterior that may be hard to judge. Very often “rules” seems to dominate a culture and time or religion when from the interior that isn’t really the case. As an extreme case, monastic rules of order can seem very deontological and rules based, but that isn’t necessarily the case in practice.

Ann asks:

If we start with a set of laws like the Ten Commandments, then the Puritans make sense. But what if the true foundation is much more basic than that? What if the foundation of morality is when God looked at creation and declared that it was good? What if a love of the good is the foundation of morality? What if the two greatest commandments — love of God and love of neighbor — are meant to remind us of that?

The Pslamist writes and the Fathers seem to repeatedly concur that the “Fear of God is the beginning of Wisdom.” That is, that “love of the good” (a very Greek concept) is not the starting point, but that the Fathers travel very quickly from a starting point of the Fear of God which leads them to God’s love and from thence to personal humility which forms a grounding plane for their normative ethical behavior. My question for Ann would be how ‘love of the good’ which is precisely aligned with Platonic notions of a foundation for ethics if not a basis for almost all the philosophical content derived from Platonic ideas, e.g., virtue ethics … how does that separate from Greek ethics? Where does it ultimately differ? Is it merely a different idea of what constitutes the good? Is that enough? I suggested some time ago, that Christian ethics are pneumatoligical, based on our being inspired by the Spirit. Is that wrong? Is it connected or not?

Mystery. Religion uses the term mystery a lot. Trinity is a mystery. Sometimes it is said that Jesus dual nature as God and man kept distinct and separate is a mystery. Eucharist and God’s participation is a mystery. I offer that in this modern world this term is misunderstood today, one might blame Edgar Allen Poe, whom if my schoolday memory is correct founded the literary genre of the “mystery” novel. Mystery in that sense is something not understood. A popular modern notion of “mystery” is something which cannot be understood rationally. And in part this is right. But in a better sense, the related word “mystical” should be examined. A mystical cult or religion is one in which the divine is experienced personally. Mystics of any cult, be it Sufi, Christian, Hindu, or Bhuddist seek personal contact and experience of the divine. Mysticism means personal experience. The Trinity in the Christian religion is a mystery. That doesn’t mean that it is meant to be “taken on faith” where faith itself means the simple notion of believing in that which is not seen or known. The Trinity is something which we are meant to personally connect with on a personal level.

Ultimately however these two meanings, the classical mystery story or mystery in science and the mystic/mystery of religion do connect. The mystery story is solved when the characters experience and come to fuller understanding of the crime in question. The scientific mystery is resolved when the scientist (personally) experiences and understands the resolution of the paradox or that which was in question. Religious mystery is a thing which cannot be transmitted by word and reason. It can only be hinted at with word and reason. We like to think that science too is like that … but most of it is not. Science, or most of it, too is a field which needs to be experienced to be transmitted. Michael Polanyi in Personal Knowledge writes of the unexplainable skill or riding a bike. I found it amusing that his description of how we turn a bike was incorrect. Mr Polanyi offers that to turn a bike while riding, we turn the handlebars in the direction we which to turn in a fashion which is hard to describe.  Yet unless you are going very slowly countersteering is how a bike is turned. The point is that much more than is normally admitted of science and scientific advancement is an art. Becoming a scientist is an apprenticeship, filled with the passing on of personal knoweldge and experience, transmission of the mysteries of the field, that is required.

Filed under: ChristianityMark O.Religion

Like this post? Subscribe to my RSS feed and get loads more!