Tish Warren preaches about sin in the NYT

March 7, 2022 • 12:15 pm

I’m not sure why the NYT hired Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren to write a weekly column about her Christian beliefs in the Paper of Record, but it’s annoying. You don’t see a weekly column about humanism, or even a weekly personal musing about science, which at least has the benefit of being true. What’s clear is that the paper has some reason for this palaver: probably to cater to the spiritual feelings of its liberal readers.

But what’s also clear is that Warren is very careful to stay away from tendentious preaching and any form of Biblical literalism, though she does believe in Jesus and, I believe, the Resurrection. The Times readers like their religion to be more on the personal and spiritual side, especially with a patina of sophistication. 

As a result, Warren, despite her inability to produce stirring or even well-above-average prose, has been called by Religion News “a rising star in Christian spiritual writing” for her “willingness to merge personal vulnerability with deep theological reflection”. Well, yes, the personal vulnerability is on tap, as it is in this week’s column about sin (see below), but the theological reflection isn’t deep. It’s superficial. I would much rather read about someone’s personal reactions to specific events than to the fairy tales that constitute Christianity. But somehow superficial thought and mediocre writing can be excused if it’s about religion.

Click on the screenshot to read.

I can summarize Harrison’s thesis in two sentences (my words)

None of us is perfect; we all screw up, make messes in our lives, and hurt other people.  But the good news this Lenten season is that we can, just by recognizing our sinfulness and asking for forgiveness, we can be released by God from self-flagellation.

She does throw in the “personal” vulnerability to show how she too is a sinner (all indentations below save one are Warren’s prose):

In college, through a string of failed relationships and theological questioning, I came to understand sin as something more fundamental than rule breaking, more subtle and “under the hood” of my consciousness. It was the ways I would casually manipulate people to get my way. It was a hidden but obnoxious need for approval. It was that part of me that could not rejoice in a friend’s big award or accomplishment, even as some other part told her, “Congratulations!”

This could be said of most of us, so there’s no real insight into human psychology here. Where the religion comes in is her theological doctrine that we are all BORN as sinners (my emphasis):

This is the first Sunday of Lent, a season in preparation for Easter when Christians often focus on sin and repentance. One of the things that’s most difficult to swallow about Christianity is the idea that normal, nice people are sinners, that we are born sinful and can’t elude being a sinner by being moral or religious enough.

This is palpable nonsense. We may be born and doomed, as humans, to do bad things when we grow up,  but we are certainly not “born sinful”.  What does she mean by that? An infant is not born sinful in any meaningful sense except the Christian one: we’re supposedly born afflicted with the Original Sin of Adam and Eve.

Far, far better to reject that nonsense and just say that, as social beings evolved from small groups of primates, we sometimes act badly, usually out of inborn selfishness (perhaps the real “original sin”); and sometimes, in our modern and larger pack of primates, our selfish desires conflict with our need to keep good relations with our fellows. But if you said that it wouldn’t be religious. It would be humanistic.

The other aspect of Harrison’s column is the “forgiveness” part, and why it’s good to know that we’re “born sinful”:

The Eastern Orthodox practice of praying the Jesus Prayer has become important to me over the past few years. This prayer simply says, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It is usually prayed repetitively and meditatively, again and again.

Notice that here she explicitly is asking for forgiveness from God. It goes on:

In praying it over and over, I noticed how strange and transformative it is to repeatedly identify myself as a sinner. I am not identified primarily as a mother, a writer, a woman or a priest. I am not primarily a Democrat or a Republican or a Christian. I am also not primarily an upstanding citizen or right or reasonable or talented or “on the right side of history.” Instead, again and again, in these received words, I call myself a sinner.

This recognizes that I will get much wrong. That as a writer, I’ll say things, however unintentionally, that are untrue and unhelpful. As a mother, I will harm my children — the people I love and want to do right by most in the world. And it tells me that I will harm them in real ways, not just dismissible “well, shucks, we all make mistakes” kind of ways. As a priest, I will lead people astray. I will not live up to what I proclaim. I will fail. I will hurt people, not just in theory or abstraction. I will cause true harm.

Again, this is Harrison’s personal way to deal with her “sin”, but a humanist might say (you don’t have to say it over and over again) “Yes, I’m human: I screwed up and will screw up again. But I will try harder not to screw up and to be nicer to people.”  That is not sophisticated humanism, but neither is Harrison’s pabulum Sophisticated Theology®. It’s her own personal mantra, and, to my mind, not a particularly useful one.

Finally, there’s the “forgiveness” bit. What’s clever about Harrison’s treatment here is that she must surely believe, as a priest, and as one who believes in original sin, that the Forgiver is God. But she seems to imply that it’s her congregation that forgives her. If the former, then she’s spreading Christian fairy tales; if the latter, well, it’s other humans that must forgive you—if you’re to be forgiven. And that is humanism.

Warren:

But we’re not left to stew in guilt or shame. We aren’t just sinners; we are sinners who can ask for mercy and believe that we can receive it. Living in this posture is what makes forgiveness possible, which is the only thing that makes lasting peace possible.

Without a clear sense of right and wrong, we will end up endorsing injustice, cruelty and evil. But without an equally profound vision of grace, we will end up only with condemnation and an endless self-righteous war of “us versus them.”

After I kneel with my church each week, confessing that I have blown it, I am invited to stand and receive absolution and forgiveness. I’m then invited to “pass the peace” to those around me and extend to them the same mercy and forgiveness that I’ve received.

The Encyclopedia Brittanica (I can’t access the OED in Antarctica) uses this definition of “grace” in the religious sense:

grace, in Christian theology, the spontaneous, unmerited gift of the divine favour in the salvation of sinners, and the divine influence operating in individuals for their regeneration and sanctification.

If this is what Warren means by “a profound vision of grace”—and I’m pretty sure that’s what she does mean—then she’s saying here that true loss of our “sin”, our bad behavior, comes only from God’s forgiveness, not from human forgiveness. And note as well that Harrison has transitioned from the personal to the general here: she’s making a pronouncement that without a religious sense of “grace”, there is no conciliation for any of us with our fellow humans.

That, too, is wrong. One doesn’t have to believe in God to believe that there are ways to eliminate the division between humans. One way, of course, is through humanism itself: the notion that we are all brothers and sisters and must depend only on ourselves to right the wrongs of humanity. Warren’s “sermon” could be couched equally well—indeed, better—in humanistic terms.

What Warren has done is slyly slip her own Christian beliefs into a rather anodyne sermon about doing wrong and making up for it. And I still ask you, dear reader, why you think the NYT continues to publish these unenlightening religious musings. I really have no idea.

But she did get one thing right, noting above that “as a writer, I’ll say things, however unintentionally, that are untrue and unhelpful.”  In this column she does both.

Tish Harrison Warren. Courtesy photo (from Religion News)

Finally, Warren wants to hear how you’re praying for Ukraine! Below the article you can see this:

Like many of you, I have been praying for peace in Ukraine and for the Ukrainian people. As we feel dismayed and often powerless as individuals to respond to the horror of war, it can be hard to know how to pray. Please share your prayers or with us at HarrisonWarren-newsletter@nytimes.com or through the form below. We may mention some of your thoughts in next week’s newsletter.

Praying sure as hell is not going to help Ukraine. They need tangible human assistance, not pleading to a god. I wasn’t even tempted to fill in the boxes.

48 thoughts on “Tish Warren preaches about sin in the NYT

  1. 1. I’d say they publish it – and benefit from it – because the reader is required to bring nothing to it. No prior thought, no prior reading or technical knowledge – not even a pencil. The reader just shows up and pow – religion works like magic.

    2. When I hear/read about belief in Jesus, the first question I have is “which one?”

    The follow up question would be how they know that is the one who was resurrected – or at least the one whose body was missing when they looked for it?

    1. As Hannibal Buress said: If you want to help me don’t keep me in your thoughts or prayers — make me a sandwich.

      1. Well I am sure that the prayer warriors will be as useful as we say here as tits on a bull with helping Ukraine as they were with the recovery of Covid victims.

      1. How about the church deluding the congregation into believing it is working – and hooking them on that feeling.

  2. Spot on about all the good bits in her message being applicable to humanism. I’d even say that about the ‘traditional’ Lent concept of giving up something.

    Going without can be a useful exercise to help strengthen your willpower and to give us comparably well-off folks greater empathy and understanding towards the poor. But one doesn’t need to be Christian to get all that good stuff out of it. Islam’s Ramadan is similar.

    1. “… applicable to humanism……giving up something.”

      Born in 1941, in Lent of 1942, I gave up giving up things for Lent (and have lived a generally happy subsequent 79.5 happy years).

      1. One year several years ago, I made a New Year’s resolution to never make another New Year’s resolution.

        Works great.

        L

        1. But it would have been a good story if by January 23rd you had cracked and made another resolution! 😉

  3. Maybe she writes this fluff for free? Or she is friends with someone higher up in the NYT?
    A writer from the Jewish or Muslim perspective would be far more interesting to the readership, at least. But I would want science, of course.

      1. A fair question. If we suppose that these columns are written for a significant readership that likes reading about faith and introspection, then they might appreciate reading from a different faith-based perspective rather than their own Christian one. You know, to “get out more”. See how other faithy types think.
        Likewise, readers from those backgrounds would appreciate seeing themselves in the NYT. Now all of this is completely silly to me, but the articles are definitely not written for me.

        1. I wrote a long comment then deleted it, but return now :

          It makes me wonder what, precisely, is meant by reading about religion, or faith.

          Example: I’ve recently come across Treasury of Jewish Folktales by Nathan Ausubel. I’ve found a free book on my favorite ereader “Jewish Fairy Tales and Legends” by Gertrude Landa. These collections are GREAT! The “religion” so far only serves as a background (so far as I read). The tales themselves are great stories in their own right. Then, there are famous tales from all over, featuring characters like Mulla Nasrudin. There’s an infinite supply! And the religion takes a background role.

          … I wondered, what would a Treasury of Christian Folklore look like? I don’t know, but I’ll check it out if I can.

          Whatever that whole thing is, I can say for sure is much much better use of one’s time than following the guidance in this specimen of article above. It almost serves to inhibit ideas such as I suggest, to look for great folklore and tales – instead usurping current events on the mind of all and using it to subjugate thought.

  4. “I’ll say things…that are untrue…”

    Brilliant—she has just literally demonstrated that she sometimes also writes things that ARE true, though perhaps not often, unfortunately.

  5. The struggle between religion and science is adversarial but between journalism and religion there is just one using the other for its own good. Maybe both benefit some. The preacher wants to share the gospel all the time however he can. Radio, TV and the newspaper as well as the internet these days. If they won’t come to church every Sunday we have to go out there and get them wherever they are. Small town papers do it the most maybe. It is cheaper and even free most of the time to stick that religious column in there. Most of the time the atheist does not read it but we see it there. The small town I come from had a religious column every week. Usually it picked some small piece out of the bible, reprinted it and then explained it because otherwise, you have no idea what it is saying. I suppose they think of it as free advertising. If the times pays the minister as a journalist, that really makes no sense.

  6. I hope she’s prayed for forgiveness that so many trees were pulped for her nonsense to be printed on…

  7. “…I have been praying for peace…”

    Well, Tish, if you’d like to do something actually useful, you could, for example, donate half your priestly salary to Doctors Without Borders.

  8. It has to be bloody strange, a lifetime of looking over your shoulder. A pair of none existent eyes, judging and carrying around in your head a worthless piece of theology. Effectively a ball and chain.
    We humans are idiots, we all have our turn and no prizes who’s on top idiotic form at the moment. God might forgive but it will be sometime if ever, that some humans will.

    1. It has to be bloody strange, a lifetime of looking over your shoulder. A pair of none existent eyes, judging and carrying around in your head a worthless piece of theology.

      Yeah, this absurdity is best captured in this internet meme.

    2. “A pair of none existent eyes”

      [ small correction first : sub “non” for “none” ]

      Wouldn’t it make more sense for god instead to have the compound eye of a fly?

  9. Typos/Errors: you call her sometimes “Harrison”, and sometimes “Warren”. The latter seems to be better. As usual, feel free to delete this comment.

  10. I find the NYT printing such pap very annoying especially since its goal seems to be a promised land of an advertisement between each sentence. What might you recommend any of us do to register with the NYT that this offensive bullshit is unwelcome and, most clearly, nonsensical preaching? The next thing we’ll find is Amy Comey Barrett pumping out an opinion column.

  11. The whole schtick of sin, confession, and begging for forgiveness seems to demand an attitude of grovelling and self-deprecation in its subjects. It is possible to admit that one is wrong, and has done wrong, while still retaining one’s self-respect. Christianity seems to set out deliberately to deny and eliminate people’s self-respect and sense of worth.

    1. How true. No matter how much or how often you beg for forgiveness, the stain of sin can
      never be erased. The myth of Adam and Eve produced this fairy tale of eternal damnation
      as a form of bondage to Christianity.

  12. Tell us what prayers or Psalms you use when reflecting on Ukraine.
    What do these particular words mean to you, and how do you feel when you pray
    them?
    🥴🤢🤮

    1. Presumably she turns a blind eye to Jesus as quoted in Matthew 10:34

      Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.

  13. Her whole article grates on me. Even the title: “We’re All Sinners”. Speak for yourself Tish, speak for yourself. Since I don’t believe in the notion of “sin”, I can’t be a “sinner”.

    And also, why does she call herself a “priest”? To my knowledge, the catholics don’t allow women to be priests, therefore she is a “minister” in her (protestant) faith. If she insists on calling herself “priest”, then she is actually a “priestess”, as she is female. That is awfully close to “goddess”, which is kind of pagan. At least it would be much more fun to read her ramblings if she was pagan. An idea for the NYT: balance out this b.s. with pagan columns.

    1. The Anglicans (sometime Episcopalians in US, IIRC, perhaps now changed) like to think of themselves as not being Protestants. Especially HIGH Anglicans have lots of mumbo-jumbo retained from the papal/Roman rites which Lutherans, Methodists, etc. abandoned. Literal belief that the consecrated bread&wine has completely exchanged all its molecules for those of some person or other with initials J. C. is or was one of those I believe. Though maybe half a millenium ago, atoms and molecules weren’t in the jargon surely. I’m not sure about the trillions of viruses in Jesus’ body, whether any of them make the migration into the wafer. As for the priest versus minister terminology, ……

      I think of them as being HornyHenry the 8thians.

  14. “I came to understand sin as something more fundamental than rule breaking, more subtle and “under the hood” of my consciousness. It was the ways I would casually manipulate people to get my way”
    Look hard enough and you can find numerous peccadillos that crop up in your daily life. You can ruminate on them and build your guilt and lower your self esteem until you welcome a benevolent god who will forgive your worthless hide for not being perfect as he (gender specific) is. It’s fundamental.

  15. Sappy thoughticle columns like that of Tish Warren used to appear routinely in small town weekly papers, on the page between the local high school sports team news and the obituaries. Maybe the NYT, in a true sign of desperation, is trying to move into this market.

      1. That’s odd, because I kept hearing it called “the failing New York Times” by the guy who’s off to such a successful launch of his own new platform, “Truth Social” (so successful he no longer even bothers posting there himself, though the company has mysteriously managed to piss through a cool billion dollars in start-up cash).

        Sad!

  16. In response to her question about how we are praying for Ukraine, I posted this comment (I wonder if they will publish it):

    “If god is omniscient, he has already known whether or not he will intervene on behalf of Ukraine since the beginning of time, and is now powerless to change his mind without negating his omniscience. And, since everything unfolds in accordance with god’s plan, it is hubris for we humans to think we know better than god, such that we should or could convince him to change his plan. Clearly, if god wants us to pray, the only possible reason can be that he loves to hear us beg.”

    1. “hear us beg”
      Isn’t it strange that believers actually think god reads their mind? God doesn’t need to hear us, he’s right there in your brain, following along every thought and whim. What an impediment to living the only life we’ll ever have.

    2. “… since the beginning of time, and is now powerless to change his mind …”

      god exists out of time and mind. The question of timing of when he created everything (including time of course) means he knows all he created and how it will unfold, including the prayers that will be made, all at any point in time, and has adjusted the recipe depending on those prayers.

      1. Is it possible to “exist” absent time? Is it possible to “act” absent time?

        If you ask me, the notion of a deity (or anything else) existing outside space and time is, at best, a silly deepity or a bit of philosophical masturbation.

        1. “Is it possible to “exist” absent time? Is it possible to “act” absent time?”

          Let’s conclude both are true and then make money selling books proving it is true and assuming it is true because god loves you.

        2. Oh my – this is timely!

          From the Antarctic expedition website : “the continent” means Antarctica :

          “In reality, the continent remains outside rational time constraints and uses a highly unusual but effective pick-and-choose method to establish an operational time zone.”

          …. QED!

          It must mean god lives on Antarctica!

  17. Some religious pundits are poor at reasoning and fail to edit out their own contradictions, extraneous entities (such as angels and gods), and false assumptions (e.g., the original sins of innocent children). These folks are naive. I think that Trish Warren falls into that category. Other religious pundits are good at reasoning and use their skills to purposely mislead. These folks are evil. Example: the late Duane Gish. All of it is hokum. And none of it should be in the New York Times.

  18. My first thought is that I know historically that the statement that all “men” are sinners has been used both to justify liberal democracy (in the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr) and repressive authoritarianism (John Calvin’s Geneva and the Plymouth Colony are examples). In today’s world, every discussion of this phrase should acknowledge this and ask critical questions as to why that is.

    A minority of Christian groups do NOT believe we are “born” bad but that after(!) we are born we become(!) bad through a kind of process of osmosis. This includes many Greek Orthodox Christians, and those who call themselves Celtic Christians. (The former prefer the phrase “ancestral sin” to “original sin” for this reason.)
    IMO, it makes a huge(!) difference of which of these two you believe. The differences in the larger implications are enormous.
    Rev. Warren seems like the kind of affable clergy whose company is pleasant, but the phrase “All men are sinners” is wayyy more loaded than she is letting on.

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