The Relational Definition of Sin

Bored in Vernal conferences and symposia, doctrine, feminism, Mormon, theology, women 31 Comments

Avatar-BiVOne 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?

Comments

comments

Comments 31

  1. I have been moving down this road for a while. Ostler has this exact view of relational sin, which he expressed on Adam F’s post ‘What is Sin?’ and in his books. Moreover, I have argued before that our accountability is inter-dependent.

    http://mormonmatters.org/2009/09/20/on-agency-and-accountability-an-inter-dependent-view/

    I don’t think the relational view of sin is just helpful. I feel that it is the only way that we can approach this issue succesfully. This is not to say that it does not bring with some problems. For example, the experience of guilt in and through this relational definition of sin can be more easily avoided through hypocrisy and self-deception. It means that we can deceive ourselves that we what we are doing is not wrong but that someone’s reaction is wrong because it is hurting me and making me feel bad. There is a sense then that moral relativism can creep in. Moreover, I have not seen anyone adequately deal with issues of competing inter-personal interests within a community. What if my action will be redemptive for one but damaging to another. Who takes precedent? Can we always benefit the whole community (or even just two people) equally and simultaneously?

  2. I have mixed feelings on this.

    On the one hand, the relational definition of sin counters John Stuart Mill’s “one simple principle” that social condemnation must be reserved for actions that have a harmful effect on others. The problem I’ve had with this idea (a foundation for much of strict libertarian and liberal thought) is that it’s hard to find a truly “victimless” sin. Individually, an action that seems to affect only the individual involved (say, use of pornography) may have little direct effect — but it may have a significant effect on the institutions and livability of the general culture.

    A good analogy is the case of a farmer filling a low spot in his pasture in the San Joaquin Valley. It may have little direct effect, but if enough people do that (we are told) it will effect water quality, flood control, whatever benefit we derive from fairy shrimp, etc. We have obligations in how our individual choices effect our fellow beings, and to be effective, those obligations may have to extend to concern for second- and third-order effects.

    On the other hand, the “relational” idea of sin can lead to the conclusion that society is justified in imposing a comprehensive belief system on all of its members. Islam — in particular, Sharia law — is a perfect example of this. Utah in the early pioneer days was another. I’m not sure if this can be reconciled with the doctrine of free agency.

  3. I’ve been seeing this concept of sin for a long time, largely due to my influences of D.Z Phillips and Wittgenstein. The problem that I see in Ostler’s conception (and most who attempt to define a relational aspect of sin) is that he still wants to make sin a metaphysical thing–in Ostler’s case, it is sin-energy (which seems to somewhat be influenced by the Impact Training group therapy).

    In fact, my SMPT presentation next week is largely going to be around this notion of sin as relational. In my view sin is the separation of relationships related to suffering. The atonement then is God’s attempt to show us the way to repairing (and establishing) relationships by conquering sin/suffering.

    As the liberation theologians would say, Christ didn’t die for (on behalf) of the sins of the world. Christ died for (because) of the sins of the world. As Ignaciao Ellacuria would say, we need to stop asking why Jesus died, and instead ask why they killed him. Doing so should change our whole perspective.

  4. For what it’s worth, when people who have near-death experiences have a “life review” where their life flashes before their eyes, they don’t necessarily feel judgment for the sins they committed. Instead, they say they “feel” the effect of their actions on other people. When they inflict some kind of hurt on someone else, during the life review they FEEL what that person felt.

    Not in all cases, but enough to make it interesting.

  5. Thanks for this BiV.

    I think the relational view of sin has a lot of merit and gives a great framework towards trying to understand the concept, but like Rico, I think it has potential to lead to wrong conclusions. Any relationship difficulty could be reduced to “sin”. Any pop-psychology could be used to define sin. In fact, to me, the Valerie Saiving example cited appears to be just that: “giving “too much of herself, so that nothing remains of her own uniqueness.”” This is a sin? Why? The lack of moderation or the unhealthiness? Scripturally, I think you could just as easily argue that such a woman is a saint, not sinner. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t there and didn’t hear the presentation, but we should remember that any perspective we take may improve our view in some respects while limiting it in others.

  6. I absolutely view all of us and “sin” as inter-relational, or as stated in the OP: “But I was entranced by Probert’s description, which recognizes that personal journeys might have rippling effects in community.” I come at this largely though the concept of karma and more metaphysical means than anything else.

    As far as the “relational” nature of sin, I think there are much better ways of defining it than how we do, and do think it is more relational than absolute. As an example: in current LDS theology, sexual sin is defined in absolutes: only with your wife (if a man) or your husband (if a woman). In current LDS society, this leads to many issues: homosexuality and how to relate to that, masturbation (which according to a poll the majority don’t think is a “sin”), development of relationship skills when young, etc. It has also been inconsistent throughout time. We have times when a single man took multiple wives. We have times when a man with multiple wives wanted another man’s wife as well. We have accounts in the Bible of men with their daughters to “preserve seed”. Etc.

    An alternative “relational” viewpoint towards this could be seen as more healthy. Avoid harming someone else with sex. This would obviously prohibit adultery. But it would also generally prohibit “unrighteous dominion” within a marriage. It would frown on casual sex. It would avoid any situation where sex is used to take advantage of someone else. It might allow for masturbation. It might also allow for homosexuals to be together in a committed and monogamous relationship.

  7. Narrator: How could Ostler get a view of sin as “sin-energy” from the Impact Training when, as I understand it, such LGAT trainings, including Impact, deny that there is such a thing as sin?

  8. BTW Ostler has a new paper on atonement on his website that focuses on this relational view of atonement. It also responds to Deidre Green and her criticisms of his view of atonement — which is kind of ironic.

  9. “How could Ostler get a view of sin as “sin-energy” from the Impact Training when, as I understand it, such LGAT trainings, including Impact, deny that there is such a thing as sin?”

    Well I doubt Impact denies sin, as they are largely Mormon-based and developed for Mormons. From a friend who had gone through it, it seems that they rather have a notion of negative energy that we collect through hurting others. Thus, sin-energy.

  10. Narrator: Ostler says that he got the notion of energies as a measure of our relation with God from Patristic and Eastern Orthodox theologians. Certainly there is a notion of energies both divine and human in such traditions. Why not take him at his word?

  11. Christine,

    The relationship between his sin-energy and what I’ve read and heard about the Impact trainings seems to strong to ignore. I am not denying that there were other influences as well. Perhaps the sin-energy is a modern expansion of an ancient idea using Impact trainings.

  12. narrator, Christine, mind linking something to Ostler or Impact so those of us less in the know can figure out what in the heck you’re talking about? My own search results haven’t been very successful.

  13. Martin: Impact is a large group self-awareness training located in Salt Lake. If you google LGAT you should find all that you want to know. From what I know of it, it was started by members of the church but I don’t know if they are still active. Impact is kind of an off-shoot of the old Lifespring training. They teach that there is no right or wrong and no sin, it is only the pragmatic consideration of what works and doesn’t work — as I understand it. So it doesn’t seem to make sense that a notion of the energy of sin (i.e., darkness) is somehow derived from this source.

    However, it is not really important because even if it were a source, the origin of an idea doesn’t tell us anything about its truth. The notion of light in the D&C and the Patristic sources that speak about the “energies” actually cited by Ostler seem to me to be a much more likely source.

  14. Thanks for these great comments. I’m on vacation right now, so I don’t have much time, but I’m really interested in looking at what Blake has to say about these things, especially his response to Diedre Green. Narrator, I’ll be at SMPT next week, so I’ll be interested to hear what you have to say in your presentation.

    I love the thought-provoking questions that have been brought out by these comments, and I’m hoping to have more time to ponder these issues. Maybe we can discuss this more after SMPT!

  15. This makes me think of the law that states,” every action has a reaction.” Even if you want to take the sin language out of the conversation and talk about it in terms of what is right and wrong. I think most people don’t have problem with identifying clearly defined paramaters for behavior but for the people who don’t, People tend to think that they have the right to do what ever one pleases to do without it having any consequences. For example, You have a neighbor who habitually plays their music very loudly. So loud in fact you can’t hear your own tv which is on a relatively moderate level. You go to your neighbor and ask for him to please lower your music and he replies,” I have the right to listen to music as loudly as I want.” MY response would be,” Yes, you do have the right to listen music in your apartment, but you have the right to listen to your music in mine.”

    This might be a little simplistic for this argument but everything in life has a cause and effect relationship. Take for example the case of abuse, of which I am talking about animal abuse. I adopted a dog 4 months ago(the love of my life and the absolute cutest dog ever) but he was abused and neglected by his previous owner. I now have to deal with the after effects of that abuse by getting him to learn how to trust men again, because its quite obvious from our walks together that is who abused him. He had made great strides but in this one area he is still skittish. My beau wants nothing more than to please me any way that he can and he often does, but let a man get close and he will recoil

  16. Interesting. Thanks for the summary.

    I think there is a lot of merit to these thoughts, except I think the notion could go too far if we talk about actually being accountable for someone else’s sins. We can definitely contribute to them (e.g., the concept of ‘collusion’) but individual agency is still really important.

    That said, the notion of sins being on heads of fathers for generations shows that it may not be that clear-cut there either.

    Interesting stuff to ponder.

  17. m&m-“I think there is a lot of merit to these thoughts, except I think the notion could go too far if we talk about actually being accountable for someone else’s sins. We can definitely contribute to them (e.g., the concept of ‘collusion’) but individual agency is still really important.”

    I am reminded of the beautiful sermon by Father Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov:

    “Above all, remember that you cannot be anyone’s judge. No man on earth can judge a criminal until he understands that he himself is just as guilty as the man standing before him and that he may be more responsible than anyone else for the crime . . . For it is possible that, if I myself had been upright, this man would not be standing before me accused of a crime. If you can accept the responsibility for the crime committed by the man standing before you, whom you are judging in your heart, then take the crime upon yourself and pay for it with your suffering and let the accused walk away without reproach. . . .

    “If the evil deeds of men sadden you too greatly and arouse in you an anger you cannot overcome and fill you with the desire to wreak vengeance on the evil-doers – fear this feeling most of all, and once go and seek suffering for yourself, because you too are responsible for the evil deeds of all men. Bear that ordeal and your desire for revenge will be quenched when you understand that you were guilty yourself for having failed to shwo the light to the wicked, as a man without sin could. For if you had done so, you would have lighted the path for the sinful, and the criminal might not have committed his crime.”

  18. Awesome post BiV.

    Another question this sparks is whether a relational definition of sin makes us accountable for each other’s sin.

    Ugh, a libertarian’s worst nightmare.

    As usual I agree with Thomas and have very mixed feelings. The basis for libertarian thought involves punishing those for aggressive (physically aggressive that is) actions toward someone else, or violations of contracts/property rights. Obviously this ignores the lesser impact we all have on each other through daily interaction.

    From a human perspective I don’t think it can any way be construed as fair to punish those who do something which is not physically aggressive or a direct violation of property rights. After all, we can’t be in the business of fairly evaluating the emotional impact we all have on each other. It’s just not humanly possible.

    Consider the current operation of out gov’t, using force to make us care for the less fortunate. Is it reasonable to force someone to do something, even if it’s good for society as a whole? Libertarian thought would say no, but the logical conclusion of the relational sin idea would suggest yes!

    As for how God might choose to punish – well that’s a different matter and I have no idea. It is certainly conceivable that God could punish/reward us in this relational sin sort of way. If this is the case, it’s just one more incidence of contrasting ideals in Mormonism – part of what makes Mormonism great!

  19. I think a more fruitful way to look at it is to realize that punishment for a moral law is more like the law of gravity than a legal suit. God does not punish us because He hates sin; God hates sin because it punishes all of us.

  20. I can’t see why a relational view of sin makes us responsible for anything more than the acts that we do that cause damage to our relationships. We are responsible for what we do that causes harm. That seems pretty defensible to me — and it doesn’t mean that we are responsible for the acts of all. It does mean that we are responsible for what we could have done to enlighten others (pretty standard Mormon fare I would think) and for the suffering of others that we could have alleviated. But we are responsible only for what it is in our power to do and there is not some collective or corporate guilt even on the relational view of sin.

  21. I think we lose something when we focus only on the relational (systemic?) view or only on the individual. I’m obviously biased due to my specific educational pursuits, but I view sin as occurring both within individual(s) AND between people.

    In other words, I believe most of us are in some measure responsible for contributing to the system that influences others to sin. I also don’t believe any person is 100% solely responsible for their sins. An easy example would be an addict who grew up with a lot of trauma.

    I would agree that most sins affect others, but would just add that most sins are committed under the influence (to some degree or another) of others.

  22. @22 I would agree with you but that line of thinking wouldn’t account for those who grew up with trauma and who choose to live happy whole lives without abusing drugs, alcohol, etc

  23. Dblock – so you are saying that if someone overcomes a bad start and doesn’t abuse drugs and etc., then they are 100% responsible for the outcome? I’m not sure what you mean… could you explain a little more?

    Let me be clearer as well – I think Rico said it best in #1, and in his post he linked to. Basically, I think we are all in some measure victims to (or even beneficiaries of), and responsible for, the system we live in that influences us. Obviously there are plenty of people who overcome tremendous difficulty and live relatively functional and self-reported happy lives.

  24. I think we lose something when we focus only on the relational (systemic?) view or only on the individual.

    I agree with this — I see there is a tension in there that has to include elements of both without swinging to one side or the other.

    Narrator,
    Interesting quotes. not sure it’s clear, but I’m not suggesting final judgment on our part. But I think part of what makes the Atonement so amazing is that sometimes we really can’t pay for or suffer for what consequences our weakness and sin can put on someone. I think we do all we can to repair when we repent, but it’s impossible to erase all the effects.

    It does mean that we are responsible for what we could have done to enlighten others (pretty standard Mormon fare I would think) and for the suffering of others that we could have alleviated.

    I think there are scriptures that can support this. Still, it’s not quite that simple, imo, since inherent in our fallenness is an inability to always get it right all the time, no matter how much we care or love. We as mortals will always fall short. Secondly, we don’t always have the knowledge of what really needs to be done to avoid inflicting pain or to do all possible to enlighten others.

    One of the things I have been thinking about lately is how woven into the journey of mortality is not only trying to overcome our weakness, but having charity for others’ weakness (not taking advantage of others’ weakness a la Eth. 12), forgiving and loving our enemies, blessing those who curse us (even by their actions?), etc.

    Interesting to think about because I think there is another tension there — just as there may be a community effect of sin, there seems to be also a community *responsibility* for how to respond to those negative effects. Do we punish others for the sins they have committed that have hurt us (in doing so, wouldn’t that be ‘the greater sin’ according to the scripture in D&C 64 (I think that is where it is)?) or do we forgive and have compassion in return?

    And yet, in the desire for love, there are also the bounds of law. Membership in the Church is dependent on commandments and law, etc. However, there are also scriptures that remind us that even when someone is not at the point of being able to participate fully in the ordinances, that we can still welcome them. I think there is where some of what narrator quotes can come into play. I think it’s too easy to shun people or shy away from people who have caused pain to the community; I think there is much to be said for trying to reach out when appropriate to ‘take on’ some of that pain rather than inflict it.

    So *many* tensions that are coming to mind as I think about all of this.

  25. M&M-

    “I think we do all we can to repair when we repent, but it’s impossible to erase all the effects.”

    Let’s say I get angry at my wife and say something unkind. She’s hurt and won’t talk to me. After things have cooled, I realize the folly of my ways and ask for her forgiveness. This is perhaps accompanied with shoulder massage and whatever else. She forgives me, the hurt and anger are gone, and everything is back exactly how it was–perhaps even stronger. Soon the event is no longer remembered.

    What other effects are there that need to be erased?

  26. #26 – Sure, in isolated, simple instances, your example works. What about in situations where repeated offense has caused a destruction of trust? What about in cases where the one you’ve hurt turns around and hurts others – others of whom you might not be aware? What about times when you are unaware of the harm you have done – when it was unintentional yet real?

    Fwiw, I think all the effects can be erased in some situations – but I’m not confident the offender is the one who can erase them. I think the eraser is in the hands of the offended, not the offender – even though the offender certainly can make it more likely that the offended will use the eraser – and one of the most important aspects of an Atonement theology for me is the positing of someone outside one’s self who can love the offended and help her use an eraser to forgive, whether or not the offender “deserves” forgiveness.

  27. Ray-

    “Sure, in isolated, simple instances, your example works. What about in situations where repeated offense has caused a destruction of trust? What about in cases where the one you’ve hurt turns around and hurts others – others of whom you might not be aware? What about times when you are unaware of the harm you have done – when it was unintentional yet real?”

    Then how is torturing a God supposed to make this better?

    “one of the most important aspects of an Atonement theology for me is the positing of someone outside one’s self who can love the offended and help her use an eraser to forgive, whether or not the offender “deserves” forgiveness.”

    So then the Atonement is for the offender and not the offendee? Are you saying that the Atonement enables the offended to forgive me, and thus I can be forgiven? If so, I think I may agree with you, but I think it would be for different reasons.

  28. I am finding alot of intrigue here.  I was reading somewhere that one of the things that tends to undermine us – in these 10,000 arguments we all seem to have in our married life … is plain old sin.  The example the author gave, was two people at a Subway.  The guy is ordering a meatball sub, and his wife says put it in the same basket. He gets upset at her because he thinks she’s treating him like a kid.  He disagrees with her and bickers in the Subway sandwich line. We’ve all seen arguments like that. But what the author did, that I found fairly interesting… was that he studied the underlying reasons for why the argument took place…  This was interesting to me, because most of the arguments I have with my wife… for some reason, seem to be hard to remember why we were arguing in the first place…..  What he comes up with , is this: the root of the problem is really old fashioned sin.   His sin, is one of lack of Humility. Hers. Pride.   He’s thinking she’s telling him what to do. And she’s thinking that everything she ever says causes a fight. 

    And what he does is this: he asks the question. What if the husband stops and thinks, for the reason, behind what his wife is doing? She’s trying to save table space.  And then, what if the wife does the same… and wonders why her hubby might not want the meatball next to the turkey club. Maybe the meatball sub is drippy? Maybe it would get tomato sauce all over the turkey club?…

    And then, what would happen if… the husband says, you know, it’s ok to put them in the same basket … but I don’t want to get everything all sauced up. And then the wife could understand and say, well you know – the tables are going to be small. Maybe we could separate with a wrapper or something like that.

    But the root of that little piece of hell we’ve all seen on earth – the marital squabble – was really sin. That’s what blew me away. So yea, I can see some relational stuff happening as a result of sin.

    It’s not going to help me to overcome my addiction to coffee, though.  (still not yet a mormon, but working on it!)

  29. Woops. Add to the above – when I said “he ‘s thinking, she’s thinking..” deal up there. I think what the author originally said was .. that her sin was Pride. She’s too proud to
    have her husband tell someone not to do, what she told them to do… that she’ll nip her husband for it , in public.

    She’s thinking that the move of his meatball out of the basket, away from the turkey club – shot her down as the person who sets the table.  She sees that as part of her right, and so she’s too proud to back down and tell him it’s ok to keep that saucy meatball sub in another basket.

    And as you know, when women dig themselves in for a fight…. 🙂 let’s not go there. But yea. The idea was that her pride was hurt when her husband decided it’s time for the meatball to go out of her basket because she was proud of her idea to consolidate and save space and that pride was driving her. In perhaps. excess.

  30. My final thoughts (fitted together after I re-read everything)

    The relational definition of sin broadens and expands our idea of sin. The idea that sin is committed largely in private, is a Victorian holdover.  We’re now in a fully interconnected society and I feel that  – the idea that there is someone out there who will damage that connection – will rise ascendant as a form of disruption over the previous notion that there are invisible rules to break.  In general, people in the 21st century are in rapid transition to a hive mind and we as a species are likely to one day become just that.  Unless we decide its dangerous and stop it.

    So my contribution to this discussion , is that viewing sin in relational definition is only relevant insofar as it is God’s will that we, as a species, should survive in another form –

    If it is God’s will that we will live on as individuals, then sin must be regarded individually. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Just because you’re not upset at your wife or husband, doesn’t mean – you haven’t sinned. Sin doesn’t  affect the fabric of a community – it can easily hide behind simple etiquette protocols that are designed around a post industrial, individualistic society.

    On the other hand, if our kids are going to google everything, then eventually they’ll
    stop thinking for themselves. At which point anything that’s disrupting connection
    to anyone else, and the net – will take front and center as the work of the horned being.

    Sin is a very real thing, after all. It’s the action of a monster, in our world. It’s not like sin will be just one thing for all time. 

    At one point, nearly 800 years ago, it was a sin to step on an earthworm.  And there were mendicants who were praised long and far , for their ability to remain so holy as to walk around little bugs they saw on the ground.

    About 2700 years ago, in sparta, sin was defined by your lack of ability to kill men on the battlefield. Men’s status and standing as good and upright, depended entirely upon how many men you could kill. You went home, from war, once a month – to make sure the species continued on. But otherwise, the primary focus of society was to keep killing and they adjusted their religious beliefs, right or wrong, good or bad, in that pre-christian era – around stories of noble Gods of war.

    So yea. I think you need to keep sin as it is. It’s not relational.  It all boils down to personal decisions that you need to reconcile with yourself.

    If tomorrow, I can’t see.. and my ears cannot hear… and my brain is wired to the internet… then I’ll likely have to change my ideas about connections to others.

    But first, we’ll have to defeat this upcoming stage where everyone – when they’re talking to you,  will just be making updates to their social media page, and not really caring what you’re going to say in response.

    I liken that to “internet , as a surly 13 year old “… hopefully the net will get back to being a garage shop and we can get back to basics.  It’s going to involve us all pushing our limits, though.

    Fun article!

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