One of my favorite stories about the ever-brilliant Catholic journalist G.K. Chesterton is when the Times of London once asked several of Britain’s leading intellectuals what they thought was the problem with the world. In response, Chesterton sent a postcard with two simple words: “I am.”
Chesterton’s response is as revealing as it is informative. For Chesterton is not just informing us about what is the problem with the world, he is also revealing to us how we are to view the world.
In much of Christian tradition, the fundamental problem with the world is human sin, brought about by Adam and passed on to every human being through what we call “original sin.”
The doctrine of original sin, or sin in general, is up for debate in today’s society. Who gets to decide what is the fundamental problem with the world? Why should the Christian doctrine of sin or any other religious or non-religious doctrine be the authoritative definition of the problem with the world?
This is a debate that has no clear solutions or easy answers. But what we must avoid is a sort of privileged ignorance about other worldviews or definitions of the problem with the world because we think that our definition is the right one. And it may very well be right (as a Christian, I have a particular definition of the problem of the world that I hold to be right), but this is no excuse for ignorance about the views of others.
Last week, the Ottawa Citizen asked several religious experts what they thought was the problem with the world in the context of the innocence of a child. They asked: “Is there an ‘age of innocence,’ an age under which a child’s action cannot be considered sins in your worldview?”
The responses reveal the different worldviews of the different religious and non-religious groups. For some, sin depends on intention, selfishness, and immaturity. For others, sin is an excuse, a consequence, or a coercive idea with a corporate dimension. What is interesting is that at the core, while we can say that not all of the definitions of sin are “right,” it is often difficult to say that they are not always entirely “wrong.” There is obviously a lot going on that isn’t immediately apparent to every worldview.
But, why all the focus on the problems or “sins” of the world? Well, we focus on it simply because how we define the problem with the world reveals how we understand the solution for the world.
Is there a solution, and if so, what is it? That is a question for another time – or at least another discussion because we should not forget that we are currently in the period of Advent, the time of year in which we remember that Jesus came into the world to be the solution for the world – but it is worth reading some of the responses to the Ottawa Citizen below with this question in mind.
Jack Mclean is from a Bahá’í perspective:
The question is problematic. For one thing, should we not be preoccupied with the development of virtue in children rather than innocence or sin?
An unfounded belief in “original sin” only compounded the problem. It led to coercive and even harmful methods that included harsh corporal punishment to correct the “sin.”
Undoubtedly, the souls of children are innocent and sinless at birth, but as they grow up, if left without any education, the developing characters of children will show undesirable traits such as aggression and selfishness that require correction and training.
Balpreet Singh is from a Sikh perspective:
According to the Sikh faith, a “sin” is that which takes us away from the realization of God and doesn’t allow us to understand our own true nature.
An important component of sin is intention. If an action is performed in a state of unawareness, it isn’t the result of being under the influence of one of the five faults. Further, it wouldn’t be a reflection of moving away from the awareness of God. For that reason, I don’t believe that sin occurs in the absence of intention.
Frankly though, Sikhs don’t spend a lot of time focusing on “sin.”
Rev. Geoffrey Kerslake is from a Roman Catholic perspective:
What is quite extraordinary, though, is how early children learn the difference between right and wrong. Even though their parents teach children to share their toys and to play nicely with others, we sometimes see a selfish streak in human nature emerge.
The Roman Catholic Church teaches that seven years old is a good age to begin to expect accountability for behaviour. We call that age “the age of reason,” not because the children are fully formed adults, but because by that age most children understand the difference between right and wrong and can see how their behaviour affects others.
Kevin Smith is from a humanist perspective:
Calvinists believed humans were naturally disposed to evil, a philosophy known as original sin. I might be tempted to wager my first-born that this wasn’t based solely on subscribing to God’s determinism, as much as a casual observation of their own children. The affairs of supernatural doctrine are no match for a basic principle of childhood development — kids will be kids.
The concept of sin has lost its relevance, viewed as an excuse for bad behaviour, where forgiveness is granted at the whim of a supernatural judge.
Rev. Ray Innen Parchelo is from a Buddhist perspective:
Sin, in most faiths, suggests a kind of stain or flaw that adheres at the spiritual level. However, since for Buddhists there is no permanent self, our actions cannot adhere to anything in an enduring way.
The key factor is intention — when we cling to a permanent self through our actions, this creates a moral momentum that produces consequences or fruit.
Karma is the principle of the momentum of our intentioned actions. To the extent that a child has intention, they will experience karmic consequences.
Abdul Rashid is from a Muslim perspective:
In the case of human beings, these endowments also include the ability to hear, see and observe to acquire knowledge and the faculty to analyze and draw appropriate conclusions.
A child is born with these gifts but cannot use them appropriately till a certain age. During this period, it is innocent of all sin. It is only after it has matured, can distinguish between right and wrong and can deliberately choose one or the other that the question of sin arises.
As to when a child’s action becomes a sin depends on when the child attains maturity. The actual age of maturity is not defined. I assume it will also depend on laws of the place where the act takes place.
Rev. Kevin Flynn is from a Protestant-Anglican perspective:
Strictly speaking, sin is consciously willed behaviour by an individual for which he/she is personally responsible. A sin can therefore only be done by someone who is mature and responsible.
Sin is not a personal matter only. Structures or systems of racism, sexism, intolerance and the like are part of the very matrix of our life and influence us both as individuals and as societies. For example, a technocratic spirit that uses people and nature merely to serve its own ends is sinful. Though an infant cannot commit a personal sin, she or he is caught in and shaped by this corporate sin.
Christians believe that a fresh start for humanity has begun in Jesus. We see in him a human being who lives in a free, undistorted relationship both with God and with others. He is a person who is for others, especially wrongdoers, strangers, the poor, the outcast, and the disadvantaged. We come to share in his new humanity through faith, hope, and love. The new beginning that is in and through Jesus is available to any one of any age.