In the past few months, I’ve found myself asking: What woman has not experienced some form of sexual harassment? I don’t know any. The #MeToo social media campaign, which has spread worldwide, has proved this problem is pervasive and can no longer be written off as a side-issue. Women are finally being taken seriously instead of ridiculed as a bunch of complainers, bandwagon-jumpers, or being “too delicate.” Although this problem can include such egregious issues as rape and abuse, the term “sexual harassment” is a more nuanced way of recognizing any use of sexuality as power to oppress others. As such, it has probably been going on since the beginning of human time.
How do we explain and deal with such a seemingly intransigent problem? As a scholar of religion, I recognize this issue raises some theological questions about human nature. Does it confirm the negative view that people are inherently prone to go astray? Does it imply that laws and punishment are primarily needed to restrain this harmful human tendency? And, as some might ask: Does it prove the reality of the Christian doctrine of sin?
The hundreds of spiritual but not religious (SBNR) people I’ve interviewed in my research would answer a categorical “no!” to these questions. They insist the real problem is the concept of sin itself. They particularly reject what Christians call “original sin.” According to the interviewees, Christians believe that God created humans bad and, what’s worse, is now punishing them for it. They think Christians simply use morality, rules, fear, and peer pressure to restrain sin rather than ameliorate it. They believe that Christian theology only holds out one ray of hope for humans. That is, that a select few can — through somehow appeasing God — be reassigned to a heavenly afterlife.
Overall, SBNR interviewees were confident that Christians see humans as riddled with sin, a claim they vehemently rejected. When I asked them “What does it mean to be human,” amazingly, 100% of them answered, “Everyone is born good.” As one said, “I don’t want someone to tell me I’m born fallen and God is punishing me for it. I believe everyone is born good and has the right to seek their own self-fulfillment.”
But what about the bad things actually done by individuals— the things that Christians have traditionally labelled as “sin”? In other words, what about the Harvey Weinsteins of the world? Interviewees again took a different approach. Although they hesitated to name any behavior as “good” or “bad,” they did acknowledge that people can “mess up” or go astray. However, for SBNRs, messing up is not some inherent capacity of humans, but solely a result of faulty upbringing, deprived environment, childhood abuse, and/or biological and psychological dysfunction. This therapeutic interpretation was nearly universal among my interviewees. This implies that sexual harassment is primarily a function of psychological distress, perhaps having been abused or ignored as a child, being obsessed with dominating others, or having a narcissistic personality disorder.
What about systemic issues that humans are simply born into, such as patriarchy, sexism, racism, or other forms of what Christians call “social sin?” The SBNRs I spoke with rarely brought up such problems, although I am confident they are aware of them. Instead, they often insisted that people have the power to “draw negative energy” towards themselves and resist it through their own “positive energy.” Again, there was a therapeutic aspect to their explanations.
Is there another way to explain such a pervasive problem as sexual harassment? A recent article in Time magazine suggests there is. This explanation departs from the therapeutic perceptions of SBNRs but also steers clear of the implications of the Christian idea of original sin. The author, Jay Newton-Small, suggests that human “messing up” — in this case the problem of sexual harassment — is actually a matter of numbers and structural social inequality.
The article proposes the “critical mass” theory of change. A critical mass is not a majority, as one might think, but can consist of a seemingly small amount, just 20% of a total. Once critical mass is reached, change is possible. This argument suggests that sexual harassment is more about unequal gender representation and social practices that have long been condoned by a society ordered according to patriarchy. Optimistically, it also suggests this could be changing:
“If it seems like the structures that enable sexism are exploding, that’s because they scientifically are, according to the theory of critical mass. When women reached 20% in the Senate, they went after the Pentagon to reform the military’s sexual-assault protocol. When they reached 25% of Hollywood producers, they took down Harvey Weinstein and his casting-couch culture. And when they reached a third of the White House press corps… [many prominent] serial harassers in the media began to get called out.”
The article goes on to say the same thing happens whenever businesses, boards, courts, and other institutions reach that critical mass. To speed up that “critical mass” process, the author suggests we need to keep track of how many women make up police departments, companies, school boards, zoning commissions, etc., because “Somewhere in that zone, when women comprise 20% to 30% of an institution, things begin to change.”
This is very encouraging. But what does it imply for the Christian doctrine of sin? Does it mean that SBNRs are right in rejecting it, even if their therapeutic account of messing up isn’t the full picture either? In other words, have Christians over-emphasized sin? Have they made sin, and not love, the focal point of the gospel message? Do they not take seriously the biblical indication that God’s grace pursues, reaches out, and tenaciously courts us despite our resistance?
These questions unearth real concerns that Christians should take seriously in dialogue with SBNRs. And, what’s more, much of what SBNRs say about human nature isn’t in conflict with Christian beliefs. Christians agree that humans are meant to be good and that human nature is not, at its core, bad. Christians can see the value in the widely accepted contemporary goal of seeking happiness, meaning, and satisfaction in life. Christians can acknowledge that many human problems are created by difficult backgrounds, psychological and biological issues, and abuse, but also by social structures that distort life.
However, Christian theology makes important spiritual contributions that should not get lost. For instance, the Christian doctrine of sin is not essentially pessimistic, as SBNRs think. God created humans good. God wants us to grow, improve, and fulfill our deepest potential, and God acts toward that end. Our own role is all about orientation. As we orient ourselves to the Source, the Creator, the one who knows each of us better than we do, we are aided by grace to grow and flourish. Therefore, the problem is not inherent badness, but an inherent tendency to dis-orientation.
Unfortunately, in a broken world a right orientation is not automatic. Humans are born into a world distorted by many wrong or ignorant choices that have a long history and develop structures all their own. The concept of original sin is simply describing this set of conditions. But humans still have choices. Unfortunately, often we choose to turn away from, rather than toward, our source. This turning away is inseparably joined with negative consequences that SBNRs see as messing up, and Christians define as sin.
Also, a right orientation, even when achieved, is difficult to maintain. It takes conscious effort to stay tuned in to God. As strong and determined as we may be, we are also fragile, vulnerable, and mortal. Being fragile and vulnerable don’t in themselves count as sin, but they do complicate matters. To overcome our tendency to mess up, to stay rightly oriented, we need help.
Some help might come from the “critical mass” theory, which is optimistic and encouraging. The problem of sexual harassment may decline once women, minorities, LGBTQ persons — and others likely to be hounded by dominant persons — comprise more of our government, media, corporate boards, courts, and other institutions. The critical mass theory may help us all strive for a spirit of cooperation and mutual empowerment.
But Christians don’t believe that overcoming problems such as sexual harassment can be just about numbers. Christians believe that, even with the right numbers, humans will still mess up, unless they are fundamentally reoriented, day-by-day. Consequently, the human condition requires spiritual solutions. Christian theology reminds us that humans, both as individuals and as groups, can turn away from love. Unless that changes, the numbers will always be off, and egos will never be sufficiently healed. The Christian doctrine of sin is not pessimistic or deterministic, but it is realistic.
Religious people and SBNRs need each other. As I suggested in earlier articles and in my book Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious, we need to talk. Both the confusions and the contributions on each side need airing. It is likely SBNRs see the “log in the (Christian) eye” which prevent Christians from living what they say they believe, that humans are created in God’s image and thus fundamentally good. And an understanding of sin can help SBNRs see that both individuals and groups must strive for a right orientation that goes deeper than numbers or even a repaired ego, cultivating the moral identity needed to fight the problems they recognize in the world.