I like to do crosswords puzzles in free moments. I was in trouble when I discovered the iPod/ iPhone app. I wish I could say I do them because of the new research that indicates that mental games like crosswords and Sudoku stave off Alzheimer’s disease. I’m not that forward-looking. I find that games with repetition and moderate levels of mental attention help to manage anxiety. Yes, I’m claiming health care in Solitaire, Wordsearch and Crossword puzzles.
There’s a consistent crossword question and answer that catches my attention as a religious professional. In various ways the clue reads: “topic of sermons.” The answer is always “sin.”
I find it slightly problematic that some element of popular culture assumes that all sermons are about sin. After all, preachers talk about grace, love, justice, forgiveness, prayer and hope – to name a few. But I guess there’s some truth in the fact that “sin” is the special purview of religious folk. I say something like this when I tell my students that questions about evil are philosophical, and “sin” is a theological category. Sin doesn’t just talk about what’s wrong in the world. “Sin” discusses things that God doesn’t like.
As a theologian who teaches in an ecumenical and increasingly multi-faith institution, I teach a variety of theological perspectives. I give my students a longer version of this speech:
Theology is how we think about God. There are lots of ways to think about God. We can see from the history of Christianity that there have always been many ways to think about God. God is bigger than all of the ways we approach God. Our theologies are affected by our experiences, traditions, interpretations of Scripture, and how it makes sense when we put it together (we call this the Wesleyan quadrilateral). I’m less interested in what you believe, that in how you believe. That is, I’m hoping to teach about how to think theologically, systematically (if that’s the class) and in historical and contemporary contexts.
For this reason, I teach evangelical, process, liberation, classical, Protestant and Catholic theologies together. This semester, I even added goddess theology to show that systematic theology is not the strict purview of Christians.
I’ve tried to take this approach when looking at the category of sin. The German feminist theologian Dorothee Sölle summarizes three major approaches in her book Thinking About God. While these are somewhat reductionist, I think the typology is helpful: Orthodox perspectives think of sin as disobedience. Liberal perspectives consider estrangement from God as sin. Liberation theologies think about the oppression in the world as sin.
They all agree that when we sin, we don’t just hurt each other. We also hurt God.
This connects to depressive conditions because there is an all-too-common assertion that committing suicide is a sin. In fact, it is an unforgiveable sin. In their book, Lay My Burden Down: Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis Among African Americans, Dr. Alvin Poussaint and Amy Alexander assert that this religious teaching contributes to many people’s silence about suicidal ideation. Because people are afraid of the religious consequences of contemplating suicide, they often do not seek help – which often contributes to their mental health challenge.
I’ve tried to apply my theological reasoning to the notion that suicide is an unforgiveable sin. From what I understand, the logic goes this way: When a person is born and when a person dies is part of God’s sovereign plan and will. When a person takes her own life, she is violating this sovereignty of God. Because suicide is willfully done against the Spirit of God’s life in us, it blasphemes the Holy Spirit – and this is what Jesus said was an unforgiveable sin. Suicide is unforgiveable because, unlike in the case of murder (for example), the person never has the opportunity to repent and be forgiven by God. Suicide is also an indication that a person cannot handle what is happening in his life even though part of the Bible indicate that God will not give any one more than he can bear. After all, Scripture indicates that God gives us love, power, self-control and hundreds of persecuted folk in history have leaned on God’s power to make it through difficult times.
I understand that this understanding of sin falls under the larger rubric of considering sin as disobedience to God, God’s laws and God’s will. While there are other Christian theological approaches to sin (like the ones I mentioned above), this is a common one. It is connected to a wider understanding of how one believes that God relates to the world. What kind of power does God have? Does God know what we are going to do before we are going to do it? Can God stop certain things from happening, while permitting others? If so, how does God decide which ones? What is the role of human agency? These are the kinds of questions theologians seek to answer. They become especially real in the face of suicide.
Everything in me resists the idea that suicide is a sin. I say this because I’ve been suicidal and I love many other people who have been as well. When a person is suicidal, she is not thinking about going against God’s will.
- She’s thinking that she’ll never feel better again.
- She’s thinking that her care is a burden on everyone she loves.
- She’s thinking that she’s incapable of making a positive contribution to the world.
- She’s thinking that God hates her for making her this sad, morose, numb and or bad.
- She’s thinking that she has tried every medication, every therapist, every insurance agency, every thing – and none of it has helped.
- She’s thinking that she has exhausted the love and patience of her family and friends.
- She’s thinking that there is no way to escape how horrible she feels.
This is what it’s like for the all the people who are suicidal. Many of whom are young people: Did you know that?
- Suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people aged 15-24 year olds
- Suicide is the second leading cause of death for 25-34 year olds.
- Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students.
- There are 4 male deaths by suicide for each female death by suicide
- More people die from suicide than from homicide.
- About 11 attempted suicides occur for every suicide death.
- Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth are up to 4 times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers
Did they sin? Did they do something unforgiveable? Are all these people in hell? Even if a rationally consistent theological argument can be made for this?
There’s one other thing I share with my theology students: we all have “norms.” That is, we all have normative markers by which we must measure theological claims. It’s that thing that tells you something is wrong and something else is right. Many people use the Golden Rule as a norm. If so, they would ask themselves, does this theology support or violate treating others the way I want to be treated? Others like the Love principles. They would ask: “Does this support or violate the assertion that God is love and that we are to love one another?”
One of my norms centers around God’s omnipresence. I ask:
Does an idea support or violate this core principle of my faith?: God is with us.
Supporting the idea that suicide is an unforgiveable sin suggests that God has abandoned someone in his deepest time of need. It suggests that God is more interested in laws and providence than people’s souls. It suggests that God could end pain, but allows it in the interest of a philosophical principle. Everything I know about God seems to indicate that God doesn’t do that.
If there is any God in this, I suspect it is this: suicide grieves God greatly. I believe that God is with us, feels with us, and is moved by our suffering. Even when, especially when, we can’t feel God’s presence.
I’m not sure the right word is “sin,” but perhaps all of this breaks God’s heart too.
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