Thursday, September 20, 2012

Of sin and atonement and what we can learn from Yom Kippur

"You can't conceive, my child, nor I nor anyone,
 the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God."
--Graham Greene

I said something below about imposing religious ideas on the non-religious, and the advent of Yom Kippur is my starting point for that observation.  Talk of the Nation devoted some time to the Jewish observance and the ideas of sin and atonement; the guests were a rabbi, an imam, and a Jesuit priest, and the discussion was uniformly excellent between them.  But first I think of the "Christian" holidays of Christmas and Easter, and even of Mardi Gras, which marks the end of Epiphany and beginning of Lent.  Those are widely observed holidays, or at least very widely known, but they commonly have as little to do with Christianity as a fish has to do with a bicycle.  Yom Kippur is distinctly Jewish, and distinctly related to the concepts of sin and atonement, as well as the nature of God.  Lent is similar, but far less widely observed among Christians.  But what was interesting to me was the very idea of "sin" in the first place.

Sin is a concept passed down in America through Puritanical hands and closely associated with an "angry God," thanks to the eloquence of Jonathan Edwards.  I'm hard pressed to condemn the Puritans, in part because they are part of my religious heritage through my ordination into the United Church of Christ.  I have a direct connection to them through the Congregationalist church which is a major historical root of the UCC.  But sin is so often, among Christians and those who know the term only from Christianity, a burden, a malaise, a source of shame and despair.  It doesn't have to be, although Christians since at least Augustine have treated it so.  As Krister Stendahl points out, if sin seems deeply connected to our Western sense of self, it's because the source of our self-consciousness (literally as well as the source of our shame/self-concern) is Augustine and his confessions.  Paul, if you can strip away your anachronistic lens placed over his letters by the saint of Hippo, has a clearly "robust conscience," and defies the sense of shame and despair that haunts more pious Christians nearly 2000 years later.  So if we are going to make sin a universal condition of all humankind, we have to discuss just what we mean by the term.

It isn't that we can't make sin a universal issue; it is more how we do it that concerns me.  To hear the rabbi discuss the tradition of atonement for Yom Kippur, I heard the echoes of a covenant behind it.  If Alberich is good enough to read this, perhaps he can add more information in the comments, because my knowledge here is admittedly fragmentary, and even my memory of what the rabbi outlined is fading away.  The practice, though, involved far more than prayer and confession in corporate worship (as almost every Protestant and Catholic does in weekly worship).  It involved activity, the basic thrust of which was to seek forgiveness and make amends before turning to God to ask for absolution.  This was, basically, the Muslim practice as well, but in the rabbi's description I heard the clear substrate of a covenantal idea, of being bound by the covenant with Abraham to others (perhaps even Gentiles.  Why not?), and owing them as much duty as you owed to God.

It started me thinking that religion today is declared to be a private practice, and that is the problem with it:  we want our religion to be private and personal, when of all things it should be the must public and corporate.  Not corporate in the meaning of a fiction of law, but corporate in the sense of corporeal, of lived in the world, and incorporated into daily life.  How many Christians prefer to leave their religion at the door of the church, to pick it up again like a hymnbook or a church bulletin on Sunday morning?  There is a problem, but I still maintain a slight one, in Christians behaving like Rick Perry:

On Tuesday he spoke on a conference call with fundamentalist Christian activist and former pastor Rick Scarborough as part of Scarborough’s “40 Days to Save America” campaign to inspire and organize religious right voters. Echoing sentiments he expressed in “Fed Up” and remarks he made at the Reliant event, Perry said the separation of church and state was a myth being used to drive “people of faith from the public arena.” Perry said America is engaged in “spiritual warfare” and that Religious Right activists who “truly are Christian warriors, Christian soldiers” need to stand up to “activist courts” and “President Obama and his cronies in Washington.”

“Satan runs across the world with his doubt and with his untruths and what have you,” Perry said, “and one of the untruths out there that is driven — is that people of faith should not be involved in the public arena.”
I think his words are the sheerest nonsense, but if he wants the people in the public arena to be only people of his version of faith, my best response is to show up in the arena with my version of faith; not to set mine aside so I can be a better citizen when I reach the agora.  And if I'm going to live my faith, my confession and repentance and atonement have be something more than what I offer to and ask from God in the privacy of my thoughts or in the repetition of a printed prayer.

Does that mean I should expect this of everyone else?  No, of course not.  But it was the rabbi who spoke of giving forgiveness as well as receiving the confession of sin, and that was the linchpin of the covenant, to me.  Of course, just because it is expected doesn't mean it is given, and just because two Christians, or two atheists for that matter, try to reconcile but one won't and reconciliation takes two, doesn't mean a covenant would fix it, or a covenant is broken.

A caller to the program said that people can forgive each other and learn to get along with each other without religion; that humankind knew apologies and forgiveness were necessary long before religion came along.  I'm not so sure about his history or his anthropology, but even taking him at face value and accepting the basis of his argument, the fact remains:  how many people will do that without some sense of the metaphysical, or the transcendent, of a covenant or a binding love of God or something beyond the need of two people to cooperate, to make forgiveness finally happen?  It is like the argument that religion is not needed to build hospitals, orphanages, homes for the elderly and the mentally challenged, places of refuge for workers forced to work far from home.  No, it isn't needed, but the German E&R church built all those things in the 19th century for fellow immigrants from what wasn't yet then Germany, for those who were strangers from foreign countries who spoke an almost common language and little more.  How many atheists did that, without first requiring a profit motive or a favorable tax law?

I have a book by a Jesuit priest that describes sin in terms of the American frontier of the 19th century.  Sin, as I recall him putting it, is either violating one of the rules of the town (for which the sheriff will harshly punish you); or sin is being in the wagon train, and wanting to turn back.  I like that second metaphor:  it places us in a journey, among others with a similar purpose, going to a destination that, like Abram in Genesis 12, we can't quite imagine.  And sin is not a rule we break, but a lack of faith in where we are going, and who is leading us there.  In terms of the Hebrew scriptures, it was the land flowing with milk and honey, which would be theirs so long as they were faithful to God; and the Torah gave them guidance (much more than that, but again, I'm no rabbi).  In the Christian scriptures, that destination is the kingdom of God, and the journey is not to a physical locality, but out among people.  People who believe as we do, and people who do not.  According to the letters of Paul, it's the people in the former category who actually give us the most trouble about where we are going, and how to get there, and how to behave along the way.

I'll have to leave it there.  Perhaps I can return when I am more coherent, or more sure of what I want to say.  But I won't get any further just now.


  1. Since you asked, all post a few comments. I am still recovering from a tough week (in academia "on Rosh Hashana it is written, on Yom Kippur, it is sealed" has a very direct meaning given that re-appointment folders are due this time of year ... fortunately, my department has decided to grant me tenure, but the dean still needs to approve, etc.), so don't count on me for coherency right now:

    How many Christians prefer to leave their religion at the door of the church, to pick it up again like a hymnbook or a church bulletin on Sunday morning?

    Interestingly, my Rabbi gave a sermon about how many of us Jews do the same thing this past Rosh Hashana. He sometimes re-works his sermons into blog entries, but he's not done that with this particular sermon. In any case, his pre-Rosh Hashana blog entry might be illuminating:

    But in short answer to your question, atonement for sin on Yom Kippur certainly has a covenantal notion at its root: not only is Yom Kippur observance commanded in the Torah, but its raison d'etre is that the Jewish people, as a body, are holy and in a covenental relationship with God and, as such, need to be pure: the rites of Yom Kippur (which, in lieu of the actual rites, are still performed via a dramatic reading) and asking/granting forgiveness ("to err is human, to forgive is divine" as the saying goes, so by forgiving others, we are emulating God's holiness) are purifying of body, mind and soul.

    Indeed, in many places in Torah, you will find references to rituals of atonement as being important acts to maintain the covenant, which does not only bind us to God, but also binds us together as a people. A people who are torn apart even if only because of unforgiven slights cannot be in a covenant with God because they are no longer a people. For instance, our teaching says that the Second Temple was destroy because of "senseless hatred" and gives an example of what is meant by that:

    I guess a greater sense of what the High Holidays are all about can be obtained by considering the Torah and Haftarah (Prophetic) readings which include the Akedah (second day of Rosh Hashana), the famous passage of Jeremiah about Rachel weaping for her children (second day of Rosh Hashana), the Book of Jonah (Yom Kippur afternoon) and Isaiah 57:14 - 58:14 (Yom Kippur morning).

    Note also that Yom Kippur is followed 4 days later by the Harvest Festival after which we also celebrate the completion of the cycle of Torah readings and pray for rain ( which is all about God providing us water because of the merits of our spiritual ancestors in establishing a covenant with God.

    I guess I should probably note the group confessions that occur on Yom Kippur, etc., but I should probably get back to my day job ...

  2. I'm a lot more skeptical about the ability of atheism, as a social phenomenon instead of an individual belief, to sustain socially beneficial institutions and laws. That skepticism overcomes a lifetime of habit of overlooking this issue out of leftist solidarity and the reaction to the red scare of the post-war period. It took the combined efforts of blog atheists and the likes of Dawkins and Harris to remove my self-imposed denial effort.

    It might be most useful to think of what it takes to get an effective percentage of the people to overcome selfishness in order to, first do no harm and then to go farther and actively do good. Believing that God requires you to do those things doesn't work all of the time, The selfishness is strong in most of us. Without believing that God requires that of us, all that is left is whether or not we can get away with something we want, Or, typically of the rich and powerful to rig things so other people pay the price for it. Which is one of the things that makes any system other than democracy so notably dangerous for the majority of people. History might provide the necessary experiments in the form of materialist, atheistic governments which have been 100% violent dictatorships which have produced environmental disasters as well as piles of corpses. The history of non-atheist governments, even those with an official, state religion produces a high proportion of the same but it isn't a uniform result.

    I've come to conclude, considering some of the things that popular atheists say about things like morality, inherent rights, free will, that the reluctance to vote for atheists might be based in skepticism about whether or not someone who does not have a belief in those things would be ruled by anything higher than what they thought they could get away with. They get away with a lot even when they claim to believe those. It's not hard to imagine what the results are going to be if they didn't have any belief that those are more than mere delusions like unicorns and celestial teapots.

    I think American liberalism has died through the enforced norms of secularism that we stupidly followed in regard to the feelings of atheists back in the post-war period. The replacement with a libertarianism that associates the amoral assertion of will with freedom and elevates the ability to do what you want to as the supreme good produces the opposite of a good society. I don't think we're going to get back on the road to the common good with the secularized discourse required on the left today.

    If you want to see where atheism will get us, consider how people treat animals and the environment, where insufficient moral restraint allows total destruction. That, explicitly stated, is where the sciency materialists want us to go.

  3. If you want to see where atheism will get us, consider how people treat animals and the environment, where insufficient moral restraint allows total destruction. That, explicitly stated, is where the sciency materialists want us to go.

    E.O. Wilson would beg to differ. But he may be the exception that proves the rule.

    I think, more and more, there's also the problem that "reason" has simply replaced "faith" as the metaphysical construct which binds us all together; and so the materialists such as Wilson haven't escaped metaphysics at all. And reason becomes just another shade of "belief."

    And I put those terms in quotes because I think all three are generally, in that conversation, misunderstood and misapplied, and therein lie a myriad of problems.

  4. E.O Wilson is something of an exception. As his idea of Sociobiology was taken over and turned into evo-psy he wisely decided to go into an alternative career promoting the protection of bio-diversity. I think that as evo-psy has been increasingly exposed as a pseudo-science that Dawkins turned to religion bashing as a second career. Which is the more obviously related career move. Materialist ideology, as distinct from non-ideological science, was always presented as science from the 1860s onward. It's astonishing to someone who has never read the primary material from that period to find how explicit Huxley, Spencer, Haeckel, and others were in giving primacy to materialism even over actual science. If Darwin was largely silent on that subject, his closest circle of followers, those he cited and encouraged couldn't be clearer about their motives. Though you have to read them, in full, instead of the ideologically excerpted parts most people know, to see that.

    Wilson became even more of an apostate by rejecting W.D. Hamilton's "altruism" equations. I haven't read him admit that metaphysical concepts permeate even the atheist articulation of crude materialism in relation to life but it's something that is as subtle as a red light flashing in even the most determined of the materialist fundamentalists.

    I wish I had ten dollars for every blog atheist I've read asserting that they are 100% empirically-evidence based as they reveal in the same paragraph that their thinking is pervaded with what they claim to disdain in their opponents. I might be able to make a living at blogging.

    Of course, Wilson's effort to preserve biodiversity is absolutely based in a moral position, one that isn't scientific, one that materialism can't identify as being more than a mere delusion produced by brain chemistry. First you have to accept that other beings have rights to live that are more important than your right to make money from oil and coal or your right to have a trophy on your wall. That is something that materialism is far less able to produce than a belief that Genesis is something more than the ruins of "bronze age goat herder ignorance.

  5. Alberich--by the way, thanks for the comments. I'm too busy this weekend to do them justice with a response, but they are much appreciated.

  6. You're welcome. And for a few post-Yom Kippur thoughts/links:

    * Leonard Cohen's riff on the High Holiday prayer "Une Taneh Tokef": "Who by fire" -- ... and his take on the motif found in Jewish prayer, "may it be your will" --

    * On the subject of Leonard Cohen, since I am a father, this song -- -- always gets me when it comes to the lines about "the great surprise" (my daughter does this sort of thing). Appropriate to the thread because memory is one of the biggest and key themes of the High Holidays

    * Even God prays:

    * And I was thinking about the take-home message of Jonah in light of this election year: it's not (just) about God's forgiveness or (just) about God's plan for you, but fundamentally the lesson is "You didn't build that", isn't it? Isn't one of the main points of the High Holiday season not just about forgiveness and judgment and mercy but remembering on "the birthday of the world" who ultimately built that? Or, to take it back to the first link -- "Who is calling"?

  7. Been a Cohen fan most of my life, and have an album (! Yes! an actual LP!) with those three songs on them; never, ever, did I connect them with Judaism, but suddenly they open up like flowers in my mind.

    I usually meditate on "Joan of Arc," and these wonderful lines: "I saw her wince, I saw her cry/Saw the glory in her eye./Myself I long for love and light/But must it come so cruel, must it be so bright?"

    Now I have new meditations to contemplate, and the thought of even God praying. Thank you, alberich; it is this strain of Jewish culture/thought/tradition which enriches my own spiritual understanding, and I am always grateful for more insight into it.