One of my favorite experiences at the BYU Studies Symposium was listening to a set of two talks on the subject of sin. That might not usually be such a fascinating topic! But these had a twist which captured my interest — sin and its effect upon human relationships.
Josh Probert, in his talk “Joseph Smith and the Relational Definition of Sin” spoke of the “doctrine” of friendship/fellowship, one of the grand fundamentals of Mormonism. Joseph’s family kingdoms and welding Temple rituals altered the traditional parameters of Christian soteriology. Probert explained that early LDS emphasis on community reoriented the concept of sin and emphasized its effect on relationships. In such a system, the higher the disruption to covenant relationships, the more serious the sin. I confess I have never regarded sin in quite this way before. I have seen sin more as an individual problem, the action of an indulgent self. But I was entranced by Probert’s description, which recognizes that personal journeys might have rippling effects in community. Sin also disrupts one’s relationship to Deity.
The following talk, “All Sin is Relational: Resonances of Mormon and Feminist Theology,” was given by Diedre Green. Green discussed the feminist perspective of viewing the self as always being in community and related it to the LDS paradigm. She spoke of LDS members’ idea of being “saviors” of men — that our own salvation is indeed contingent upon it. The expanded notion of relational sin recognizes that we cannot harm a member of our society without harming the whole. There is a communal impact of discordant relations. Green also explored feminist theology that there is a difference in feminine and masculine apporaches to sin. Valerie Saiving, for instance, “contests the traditional notion that pride is the universal sin, arguing that women’s sin of tending to dissolve herself into the agendas of others may go unrecognized—and unredeemed—if it is solely a male subject that is assumed in a doctrine of sin.” Rather than pride as the universal sin, Saiving proposes that for women, sin might appear in the form of giving “too much of herself, so that nothing remains of her own uniqueness.”
These talks got me wondering about a few things. Does viewing sin as behavior that damages saving relationships reorient our focus to love, as Probert suggests? This is an exciting way to see the subject, and seems in my mind to be very motivational. But would it tend to absolve the individual from personal responsibility? Another question this sparks is whether a relational definition of sin makes us accountable for each other’s sin. (This might be why Mormons are always into each other’s business!) If sin is regarded relationally, it would certainly be important to help others in the community to overcome sin. But how effective can we be in such a pursuit?
Do you think a relational definition of sin might be helpful for Latter-day Saints in their journeys toward godhood?