A while back, my friend Josh gave me a copy of "The Reason for God - Belief in an Age of Skepticism" by Timothy Keller, and today I was reading the section entitled, "The Problem of Sin," which I found very interesting and enlightening.
Keller gives this definition of sin:
Sin is the despairing refusal to find your deepest identity in God. Sin is seeking to become oneself, to get identity, apart from Him.
Sin is not simply doing bad things, it is putting good things in the place of God.
So the only solution is not simply to change our behavior, but to reorient and center the entire heart and life on God.
What I really interesting in this section, was his explanation of the social consequences of sin:
How does this destruction of social relationships flow from the internal effects of sin? If we get our very identity, our sense of worth, from our political position, then politics is not really about politics, it is about us. Through our cause we are getting a self, our worth. That means that we must despise and demonize the opposition.
If we get our identity from our ethnicity or socioeconomic status, then we have to feel superior to those of other classes and races. If you are profoundly proud of being and open-minded, tolerant soul, you will be extremely indignant toward people you think are bigots. If you are a very moral person, you will feel very superior to people you think are licentious. And so on.
There is no way out of this conundrum. The more we love and identify deeply with our family, our class, our race, or our religion, the harder it is not to feel superior or even hostile to other religions, races, etc. So racism, classism, and sexism are not matters of ignorance or a lack of education.
Foucault and others in our time have shown that it is far harder than we think to have a self-identity that doesn't lead to exclusion. The real culture war is taking place inside our own disordered hearts, wracked by inordinate desires for the things that control us, that lead us to feel superior and exclude those without them, and that fail to satisfy us even when we get them.
I think that is really telling. I have always wondered why, for example, there are such fierce rivalries between high schools in the US (where kids go to school according to where they live). Its kind of dumb that the one group would "hate" the other group, just because their parents bought a house in a different part of town, on the different side on an imaginary line decided by some school board officials...
Or, you wonder why neighboring nations, in Europe for example, despise each other so much. Oh, I don't like you, because you are Romanian - as if that person had any choice about where they would be born. What if you had been born in that country, instead of the one you were born in? Would you then hate yourself?
Its ridiculous really - and most of the time, the explanation you hear for this kind of behavior or attitude is that it is a result of ignorance and a lack of education, but Keller (in the footsteps of Soren Kierkegaard, Jonathan Edwards, and C.S. Lewis) points out that the real reason for this is sin - that people are trying to find their identity and self-worth apart from a relationship with God, putting other things in His place.
This explains the "us and them" mentality, and the reason why people who claim to be open-minded and tolerant are often intolerant of those who don't agree with them.
There's a lot more good stuff in the chapter, and the whole book is really excellent - I would recommend it to anyone.