Humans have a tendency to sin and strain their relationship with God. But the damage can be fixed.
That's a point of agreement for a Catholic pastor, a rabbi and an Episcopalian priest who spoke to an interfaith group of 200 Feb. 7 at St. Mary Cathedral in Portland.
The panel met in the weeks before Lent and two months before the Jewish Passover.
"Sin was long viewed as an offense against God. It is, but today we speak more about breaking the relationship," said Father Patrick Brennan, pastor of the cathedral. "And sin breaks our relationships with the brothers and sisters around us. It doesn't stop there. Sin breaks our relationship with ourself."
Father Brennan explained the categories of sin devised by Catholic theologians to advance understanding. Actual sins are those we commit each day. Habitual sin is a sinful state that results from repeated sinful acts. Original sin is that universal human tendency toward sin, passed down through the ages.
Actual sin, Father Brennan explained, can be venial, which means "slight," or mortal, which points to death. Mortal sins, which are rare, mean "a complete rupture in our relationship with God." For a sin to be mortal, it must have to do with a serious matter, murder, for example. But the sinner must also have sufficiently full knowledge that the act is wrong and must act with full consent of will, without pressure or outside influence.
"I tell people they can't accidentally fall into mortal sin," Father Brennan said. "Mortal sin has to come from the depth of the person."
The sacrament of reconciliation, Father Brennan said, is the only way mortal sins can be forgiven. That sacrament, Catholics believe, offers grace to avoid sin in the future.
"If you are intersted in a life with God," Father Brennan concluded, "you need to find what is in the way."
Rabbi Michael Cahana of Congregation Beth Israel in Portland cited the first book of Kings, which says everyone sins. "We are in good company," Rabbi Cahana said. "The question is: What are you going to do about it?"
There is no original sin in Judaism, the rabbi explained. Hebrew scripture has three notions of transgression. The most common is translated as "missing the mark." The term from archery means that the sinner intended good, but made a mistake. The second term is translated as "break," and refers to the damaged covenant relationship. The last term means "crooked" and infers an intentional wrongdoing. All told, the three words occur more than 700 times in the Hebrew Bible.
The three severe sins in Judaism are murder, idolatry and sexual immorality — meaning adultery and incest.
The holy day Yom Kippur is devoted to reviewing one's life and repair the breaks in relationship with God and others. "The first thing you need to do is realize you've done something wrong," Rabbi Cahana said. "That's the hardest part." The other steps in atonement are apologizing, asking for forgiveness, doing what's possible to right the wrong and not doing it again.
The Rev. William Lupfer, Yale-educated dean of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Northwest Portland, said his church accepts revelation from scripture, tradition and human experience. That triad of sources shapes Episcopalians' understanding of sin.
Sin, Rev. Lupfer said, is composed of actions and thoughts that separate a person from God. The measure of sin is if it violates the twofold commandment to love God above all and love one's neighbor as oneself.
For Episcopalians, the repair for sin comes most often in community as opposed to individual confession. "It's a process of embracing our full humanity, understanding the depths of who we are," Rev. Lupfer said.
On original sin, he cited theologian Martin Smith, who posited that humans enter a chain of brokenness. Before they sin, they are sinned against. The sin is passed down through relationships.
The human experience of brokenness and salvation, Rev. Lupfer said, is best described in the Lenten story, which ends with Good Friday and then Easter.