Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Defining Religious Language: Atonement, Redemption, and Sin

I remember in the Baptist church I grew up in that, as Easter got closer, the sermons about sin would become more and more strident. We all sinned, or violated God’s laws for us… and it was only through the cross that we fallen humans could be redeemed from that sin.

Long before I became a Unitarian Universalist I gave up this idea of sin, as well as the idea of the redemptive nature of the cross. For me, the meaning of the cross is about paying willingly the cost of fighting for one’s ideals, not about paying the cost of sin. Jesus was crucified not because he had taken on the sins of others, but because he specifically refused to give up his ideals, and instead chose to stand up for them to the powers of the day.

One of the amazing things for me, as I move back into a new liberal understanding of my Christian roots, is to realize that I have not completely given up on the idea of sin… I’ve just re-defined it. I am a Unitarian Universalist who still believes in sin… at least in my understanding of myself and my actions in the world.

For me, to sin is to know, based upon my ideals, values, and principles, that something is wrong… and then to do it anyway. It is the intentional violation of my own personally held (or at least expressed) ideals and values. To sin is to consciously and intentionally choose not to live up to my better self.

This is not that different from my understanding of sin as a child, but I believe it is far more profound. I believe that I hold greater responsibility for my actions under this understanding of sin. First, my set of ideals and values have been chosen by me, not handed down to me from on high. If I violate them, I am not violating God’s law, but mine. Second, I do not have anyone but myself to place the responsibility for my sin upon. In my understanding of sin, there is no “devil who made me do it.” Third, I am responsible for calling myself to live the ideals and values I profess, and to strive to do better when I do not. There is not a promise of future reward, so I am not bribed into good behavior. I am called to live in tune with my values and principles from within, not from without.

I know, in a Unitarian Universalist context it is very controversial to talk about sin. Society has a fairly set understanding of what actions are sinful. But in my system, what actions are considered sinful depends entirely on the values and principles that one professes and holds, not upon a doctrinal formation of specific actions.

Let me give an example of this… when I was a child in the Baptist church, it was considered a sin to doubt that the bible was the word of God. That “sin” is deeply in line with the values and principles that I was being indoctrinated to at that time. But under the values I hold now, which include a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”, the “sin” would now become if I regarded any writing of human hands as the infallible word of God. All human writing is fallible and context bound, and the works collected in the Bible are profoundly human writings.

There are more controversial examples I could use. My childhood faith considered homosexuality a sin. Now, for me the sin would be to deny my own inherent nature, whether straight or gay. My childhood faith considered challenging authority to be a sin. Now, for me the sin would be to refuse to challenge authority when it commits injustice. My childhood faith considered doubt to be sinful. Now, that same doubt is the passion and the motivation behind a seeker faith, and a constant check upon my own assumptions.

Or let us look at it the other way. My childhood faith believed that we were saved and others damned. Now, it would be sinful for me to accept such inherent divisions between myself and others. My childhood faith taught that prayer could and should be used to petition for things I want. Now, it would be a sin to abuse my relationship with God in that way. My childhood faith taught that the care for this earth was unimportant, because we were going to be raptured away. Now, it is a sin to abuse this world at the expense of future generations.

I believe in Hosea Ballou’s understanding of atonement for sin… that we do not have to appease a God angered by our sin (not my concept of God) but rather we should show remorse for our intentional violations of our own values, principles, and ideals because that is the first step to self-forgiveness and self-compassion. The principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person applies first and foremost to ourselves, and we atone for sin to recognize our own inherent worth and dignity despite our failings. Atonement is not appeasement… it is the first step to growth.

It is in that spiritual growth from out of our failings that we find redemption, true redemption. Not redemption for some future afterlife, but redemption in this life, in this time, to live towards the best ideals we set for ourselves in the here and now. This is I think the most powerful aspect of this human centered understanding of sin, atonement, and redemption. By practicing self compassion and self forgiveness in line with a commitment to spiritual growth, we accept the ability to once again engage with the world to the best of the ideals we hold and profess.

If those ideals and values are represented for you in the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism, then righteous living is to live up to them as best you can, recognize when you don’t, forgive yourself for falling short, and grow spiritually from that experience.

If those ideals and values are represented for you by the 10 grave precepts of Zen Buddhism, then righteous living is to live up to them as best you can, recognize when you don’t, forgive yourself for falling short, and grow spiritually from that experience.

If those ideals and values are represented for you by the 10 commandments of Judaism, then righteous living is to live up to them as best you can, recognize when you don’t, forgive yourself for falling short, and grow spiritually from the experience.

Find an ethical system or moral guide. If none you find in current religious traditions speaks to you, then look for it within yourself. Articulate it. Try to live it. Recognize that sometimes you don’t. Forgive yourself and learn from when you fall short.

Sin, Atonement, and Redemption… all centered in this world, in this time, and within our own hearts. Controversial in many liberal circles, I know… and heretical to the conservative faith I was raised in. But if it calls us to strive to live to our better selves, then I think there is value in such a re-definition of these painful terms.

Click here to read the rest of the “Defining Religious Language” essay series.

Yours in Faith,


Leave a Reply

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: