Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?John 9:2, NRSV
Understanding the Question, “Who Sinned?”
To understand this question, we need to first place ourselves in an ancient world and consider how people used to think compared to how they think today.
In his 2007 book, A Secular Age, philosopher Charles Taylor lays out an extensive argument how, in five-hundred years, Western society transitioned from one where atheism seemed incomprehensible to one where faith is God is often untenable. In doing so he describes how, as a result of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, Western society shifted from a world of transcendent-enchantment to immanent-disenchantment.
A world of transcendent-enchantment abounds in mystery. Weather patterns, natural disasters, disease, and conditions like blindness at birth all stand beyond comprehension. Because god often fills the gaps of misunderstanding, ancient society would often blame these things on the divine, seeing them as some form of punishment.
Because the gods caused these things, they also saw the gods, or perhaps a different god, as the source of cure. Thus the need for a transcendent being to protect you from an enchanted world.
This means the common path to restitution involved asked questions like:
- “Who sinned?”
- “Which god did they sin against?”
- “What would please this god so the punishment will end?”
So the disciples’ question flows not only out of their theology, but also the cultural climate of the ancient world. It only made sense that God would punish the wicked and reward the righteous. Any suffering had to be a sign of judgement. This is true both for the disciples and the religious leaders who later declare that the man born blind was born into sin (9:34).
So Who Sinned, the Parents or the Child?
The idea that a man’s sin caused his blindness might make us uncomfortable. But the notion that God punished someone for the sin of their parents might cause some to lose faith. What kind of a jerk God is this who would blind a kid because of something his parents did?
However, in the disciples‘ world of transcendent-enchantment, this not only seems reasonable but backed up by the most basic lessons they learned from the Bible. After all, it is right there in the Ten Commandments:
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.Exodus 20:4–6, NRSV
Remember, in an ancient world, you saw yourself as living at the mercy of the gods (or in the case of Judaism, your God). Questioning God could easily invoke divine wrath that resulted in punishment (for you or your children). The disciples assumption that questioning could lead to punishment is really them holding on to a simplistic faith.
Israel’s Invitation to Complexity
All of that said, a closer look at the Hebrew Bible reveals God continuously inviting the people of Israel to engage in a richer and more complex approach to faith. It is a reality embedded in the story of Israel’s naming as a nation.
In Genesis 32, the patriarch Jacob spends the evening wrestling with God. When morning comes, Jacob refuses to stop fighting until he is blessed. As part of that blessing, God changes Jacob’s name to Israel, which means wrestle, because, “you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
The history of Israel, and in many ways the history of the Hebrew Bible, is the history of the people of Israel wrestling with the conflict between divine revelation and their human conceptions of God.
The struggle manifests as Moses challenges God when God wants to abandon Israel (Exodus 33). Poems where people question God (Psalm 22 is a famous example) fills the Psalms. Job is really a repeated asking of the question, “Who sinned?” We even see it in contradictions within the Bible where Ezekiel 18:1-20 dedicates itself to saying that no sin of a parent will result in the punishment of a child. It culminates with the statement:
The person who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own.Ezekiel 18:20, NRSV
In other words, God invites us to move beyond one-to-one correlations. God wants us to wrestle with our experience and how it interplays with the divine self-revelation. For more on what this kind of faith might look like, I recommend Rob Bell’s, Velvet Elvis.
Leaving Transcendent Enchantment
While the disciples lived in a world of transcendent enchantment, today we live in what Taylor would describe as immanent disenchantment.
The world is no longer mysterious in the way it once was. While we cannot control weather patterns, we can often predict them and, when they do ravage our cities, we have the resources and knowledge to quickly recover.
Natural disasters like earthquakes still happen, but we understand the plate tectonics that cause them and we know how to construct buildings to make them more resilient.
Similarly, while their are new diseases like the corona virus pandemic, it does not take long for us to understand what they do to the body, how they transmit, and what we can do to “flatten the curve” to make them manageable if not vaccinate for them and eradicate them completely.
Even conditions like blindness at birth often link to genetics. For those conditions we don’t understand, the only thing that seems to get in the way is money for research.
Our once enchanted world is largely disenchanted. Apparently it was never the gods punishing us that caused these problems, and we never really needed a transcendent being to protect us from them. The gaps we do not understand are getting smaller everyday, so theologies that limit the divine to the gaps find less and less room for God.
But we are mistaken if we think that the shift to immanent disenchantment means that we have also abandoned the disciples’ simplicity. After all, we are still have our own ways of asking, “Who sinned?” although we are more likely to phrase it as, “Who’s to blame?”
Two common frameworks we use to answer this question are meritocracy and victimhood, which we will explore over the next two weeks.