How do we know a sin when we see one? Bishop Dan Edwards of Nevada wrote a brief and insightful commentary on that question this past Saturday on his blog. I highly commend Bishop Dan's blog (his travel commentaries through Nevada are terrific), and reprinted in full below is his essay on sin:
How do we know a sin when we see one?
By Bishop Dan Edwards
A recent letter to our diocesan newsletter chided church leaders for failing to teach that homosexuality is a “sin.” I don’t want to tackle the question of whether homosexuality is a sin or not on a blog. It takes more words and more serious reflection than this medium affords. But it does raise an important question I want to ponder a little. What is a “sin”?
The letter to the editor sparks this question for me because Scripture does not define homosexual acts as sins. Only one specific homosexual act is prohibited and it is described as a ritual purity violation, which is quite a different matter. Ritual purity violations are in the category of planting two kinds of crop in one field or wearing a poly-blend suit, not the category of murder, theft, adultery, and other such moral issues having to do with justice and integrity. But if something is not defined as sin in Scripture, that doesn’t resolve the question. Scripture doesn’t say anything about “enhanced interrogation techniques” (torture), toxic waste dumping, or human trafficking – but I feel certain in my heart that those things are sins. So how do we know if something is a sin?
We get some interesting notions about it. I grew up in East Texas where there were many small denominations of the Free Church traditions. They were divided over whether certain specific acts were sins. Some said all dancing was a sin; others believed only fast dancing was a sin, and others thought fast dancing was ok but slow dancing was a sin. Some believed it was a sin to go to a movie -- ever; others held it was ok to see a film on Saturday night but it would be a sin to do so on Sunday. Some believed smoking was a sin. Others thought smoking was a sin if done by women, but it was ok for men. The there was hair! We had letters to the editor of the Texarkana Gazette arguing that the male hair styles of the 70’s were sin. Others held that it was a sin for a woman to trim her hair at all. (That incidentally is the only one of these notions that actually had a Biblical basis.)
One of the great virtues of the Anglican Tradition, always held, then made explicit during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, is that we are free to disagree about such things, but we don’t divide up over them. We still pray together and love each other as family. It is the nature of families to disagree. That keeps it interesting. But as we disagree, what kinds of arguments can we use? How do we discern right from wrong? How do we engage in moral reasoning?
Scripture may not answer all our questions, but it is our starting point. The letter of the law kills, but the Spirit gives life. So we read our Bible looking for the mind of God and the heart of Christ. “What would Jesus do?” is a solid way to start.
But when Scripture doesn’t give us a clear answer, we have tradition to draw from. That doesn’t mean we are stuck with the morality of primitive times. If so, we would still be practicing slavery and executing people for stealing sheep. Tradition is our warehouse of experience -- what have we learned from the past? Some practices have proven over the centuries to be wise and merciful. Others have done more harm than good. Tradition means we look at our experience and learn from it.
And we use our God-given reason. Logic is part of that. Kant may be out of fashion, but not with me. He demonstrated that there is a rational core to the moral order. His principles of moral reasoning are an essential step: Is this a rule we can apply to everyone? Are we faithful to the rule to never treat another human being as a means to an end, but always as an end in himself or herself. Kant used logic to validate the Golden Rule laid down by Jesus. But there is more to Reason than logic. All we can learn from psychology, sociology, biology, economics, and the whole field of human learning is properly part of our moral reasoning.
So that makes the question of sin something to ponder carefully. It takes a lot of thought and a lot of humility. I have come to the opposite conclusion from the man who wrote the letter about homosexuality. But I deeply respect many people who disagree with me. I just pray that those of us who disagree will study, think, pray, feel, and talk with each other patiently and in good faith. We may have much to learn from each other. That’s how you can tell a community of faith from an enclave of the like-minded doomed by their homogeneity to become small minded.