A Sense of Sin

A Sense of Sin

Sin has made a bit of a comeback in the Catholic Church in the last decade.  English speakers, who until recently could get away with confessing merely to have sinned in thought, word, act and omission, are now once more obliged to beat their breasts and admit to fault, fault, most grievous fault.  A generation of priests brought up with sermons on the four last things, and who, as a result, preferred to accentuate the positive in their own preaching, is dying out.   In a new generation that does not know James Joyce one or two are rediscovering the power of a preaching that draws clear lines and recovers the classic, bracing Christian narrative of a life lived on the edge of eternal damnation.

All of this is actually quite a good marketing strategy, as every evangelical preacher knows.   In answer to the question, ‘why should I listen to you?’, the reply, ‘so that you may have life and have it to the full’ packs far less punch with someone who enjoys their Sunday morning football than, ‘because if you don’t, you run a serious risk of undergoing hideous torments for all eternity.’  That ancient and medieval vision of a world of souls teetering on the edge of the pit was part of what drove Francis Xavier and so many other missionaries to baptize anyone that came their way.  It was what led so many trembling sinners to desire baptism.  In the medieval economy of salvation the dread of a day of reckoning made many a violent but pious aristocrat found a chantry or an abbey to sing his soul out of purgatory.  Concern for the welfare of loved ones beyond the grave kept the living seeking indulgences for the dead. To affirm this vision is a reasonable strategy for encouraging good, long, confession queues at Christmas and Easter and regular attendance at Mass.

Obviously there is more than just a marketing strategy – there are profound claims made here about the human condition and the relationship with God.  Christians believe that all people need to be reconciled to God and (with varying degrees of exclusivity) Christianity offers the pathway to that reconciliation.  It is not a stupid thesis to claim (a) that humanity is less than perfect (b) that we are less than perfect (c) we need help to become better.  It is not irrational to claim (though many would disagree) (d) that all this has to do with a relationship with the creator God.  However, these are not truths many of us like to think about too much.  We like to feel good about ourselves and to know that we’re basically all right.   Perhaps one of the more consistent points at which people turn away from organized religion is when they’re fed up with feeling nagged.

Here I seem to remember a remark of Chesterton, who commented that people of his generation seemed to have forgotten that they might have sins that needed to be washed away.  He contrasts them unfavourably with the ancients, who, whatever the character of their lives, at least knew that they needed washing.  We might note the twist in our own era that with a public culture of assumed moral superiority goes a very one-eyed judgmentalism.  We are quick to spot the terrible things that other people do, but it has become easy, and perhaps too easy, to turn our gaze away from inconvenient truths about ourselves.

However before we get too keen and leap back into the good old days of penance and indulgences and graphic images of eternal punishment, it is worth checking for any porcupines that may be lurking under the rose-petals.

Luther’s Porcupine

This is about confession.  Luther, some years before the division of western Christianity into Catholic and Reformed, exposed some of its fault-lines in his commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Romans.   Paul is actually talking very specifically about the relationship between believing in Christ and following the practices of the Jewish law, but for Luther Paul’s language provides a way of reflecting on his own experience of Christian belief and practice in the sixteenth century.  It is this that makes his take on confession interesting for us.  He is reflecting on a carefully worked out intellectual framework for living, which suddenly (for him) fails to fit the complexity of the human condition.

He describes how he had lived with the understanding that he would go to confession, be absolved, and thus be ready for heaven, and then a day later find himself in a state of sin and on the edge of eternal damnation, until he rushed to confession again… and so on.  Fans of David Lodge will remember his image of salvation as a game of Snakes and Ladders.  Luther himself has an ‘Oh bother spring-cleaning’ moment and recognizes that this is simply ridiculous.  I think this is the point at which, in an explosion of Teutonic energy, he says of those who have imprisoned penitents in such a logic of confession, ‘O stulti, O Sautheologen!’ – Loosely ‘You idiots, you bloody useless theologians!’

I think he is making a point with which I for one would sympathise.  We cannot actually live a lifetime oscillating feverishly between the rapturous expectation of bliss and the annihilating fear of eternal horrors.  Or at least not without madness, depression and emotional burnout.  A carefully constructed system of rules for living which carefully and conscientiously lays out the things you have to do and the things which you have to avoid and the penalty for each is a bit like school homework.  It punishes the conscientious, occasionally irritates the laid-back and has no effect on those who are beyond good and evil.  Luther is responding (conscientiously) to the confessional as a courtroom, a daily or weekly Ofsted inspection of one’s life.  As with all such things, viewed with detachment, there is no problem, this may well be how things are: sin, oo-er, be liable to eternal damnation, fair enough, go to confession, phew, get absolved on the way to paradise, result.  However, the moment we are obliged to be affectively engaged, we are condemned to the emotional roller-coaster – and that way madness lies.

The problem with the process is not entirely the fault of moral theologians.  It’s also the result of the way we humans are.  If we are at the more innocent and anxious end of the human spectrum, then we will readily believe it when told as a matter of unshakeable truth that there are things called sins about which we should feel very, very bad, because they make God very, very angry.  If we have active imaginations, we will be inspired by much Church iconography and some preaching to dwell on the horrid punishments awaiting sinners and to admit in all honesty that, yes, we deserve that.  And what is more, we will be very inventive in imagining new ways in which we might have transgressed, because it is so easy to do.  As Anselm taught us, the tiniest deviation from the will of an infinitely good God lays upon us an infinite guilt and infinite punishment.  However hard we struggle to, we fail to co-operate with grace (though others around us seem to manage) and find ourselves once more trembling with terror on the edge of the pit.

The healthier end of the Christian tradition, which was around in Luther’s day and continues to be present in all strands of Western Christianity, emphasizes in contrast the durability of the relationship with God.  Though the latest translation of the English Missal is sniffy about the language of love (probably because it sounds too sentimental and everyday) and has preferred the more opaque ‘charity’, nevertheless without love, in the sense of a tangible and enduring relationship, which can withstand the upsets and failures of life, Christianity risks becoming a form of emotional abuse.

We do sometimes do terrible things and we should feel very guilty about them and they do deserve punishment and we do need to make some sort of atonement.  We need reconciliation.  Experiencing divine (and human) forgiveness can be transformative.  That is the way we are.  But we can also find ourselves feeling very, very guilty in a very, very debilitating way about things that are very, very trivial.  The best of the Catholic pastoral tradition has always been able to guide people to see things in proper perspective, so that times of confession and reconciliation become stages (sometimes mundane, sometimes vital) of human growth on a lifetime’s journey towards God, rather than a never-ending dramatic rescue from the edge of perdition.

A novice-master once told us a story about one of the sterner members of the Glasgow clergy, who spent most of his latter years in the confessional in central Glasgow.  People flocked to him over decades.  He knew his canon law and was fully committed to the logic of damnation and the seriousness of every sin on the books.  Yet apparently, towards the end of his life, he said that he had perhaps encountered two people in the confessional who were capable of committing a mortal sin (and thereby deserving the fires of hell).   This observation might encourage us to be cautious about deploying the language of ultimate deterrence too readily, however much it features in our books.

Let us by all means acknowledge the dark side of our humanity as a reality.  But let us not lie about God or imprison vulnerable people in a psychological hell through a pedantic insistence on a logic that has never done complete justice to our experience.

Augustine’s Porcupine

            This is about original sin and it is not really Augustine’s fault.  He couldn’t know.

If you read the New Testament texts as a whole, it is clear that the life,  passion, death and resurrection of Christ are very important, as are belief in him as the Son of God, baptism in his name and commitment to his teachings.  What is also noticeable is that it there is no single story about what all those things mean or why they are important.   Hence two thousand years of Christian theology.

Paul’s voice is the one that tries hardest to work towards a consistent account, but though his voice is influential and is echoed in the narratives of the Gospels, it offers bits of answer, written over time for different audiences, rather than a system.  The key recurring ideas are that Christ dies ‘for us’, in our stead.   Those who accept baptism are thereby in good standing with the Father, freed from their liability to punishment by death.  When the time of judgment comes at the end of the world, those who have been baptized and received the Spirit will be rescued for eternal life, while the world ends and the rest of humanity is consigned to the scrap heap.   At one point (the Greek is actually pretty confusing) he suggests that as in Adam all die, so, in Christ shall all be made alive, in order to explain (at least intuitively) how it is that one man can die on behalf of the whole of humanity.

Augustine, four hundred years later, created a system out of this that has influenced every branch of Western Christianity since.  He develops Paul’s hint.  Because of Adam’s freely chosen sin the whole of his posterity inherits a will that is still free, but that is incapable (on its own) of good action.  For this reason the whole of humanity from Adam onwards is justly condemned to hardships in this life, death and eternal punishment.  By his grace, however, God sends his son to die for us.  By his grace he strengthens our will to hear the promise of the Gospel and receive baptism.  By the grace of baptism we are liberated from the effects of Adam’s sin and our wills are strengthened by the Spirit to help us live a good life in this world in readiness for happiness in the next.

Note that in this framework there is no possibility of salvation for those who have not received baptism.   There is also the problem of what to make of those who do bad things after they have been baptized.  Surely you are supposed to be perfect and you have been given the grace to be perfect, so there shouldn’t be any more sinning?

That problem is a small porcupine.   A nicely organised theory runs up against the realities of life.  In ancient Christianity, the answer was simple, anticipate possible problems and defer baptism until you’re reasonably confident of being able to sustain a life of virtue.  The death-bed is always a last resort.  Augustine himself waited until his thirties to be baptized.  The Emperor Constantine, aware, perhaps that world domination does not come without cutting a few corners, went for the death-bed option.

As time went on, for those who spectacularly failed to meet the demands of Christian living, a second chance could also be given.  A period of privation from the mysteries, public confession and a suitable period of penance permitted a reconciliation at Easter, but this was the second and last chance.  After that there was nothing between you and eternity.  In the later Western tradition, this became repeatable – important for religious who were expected to go to communion regularly and eventually for laity as well, or at least those who were coaxed away from the back of the Church to receive communion at least once a year.   Here is the background to Luther’s porcupine.

Extra Ecclesia

There is also a porcupine element in the conclusion that there is no salvation outside the community of the baptised.  As with all porcupines the logic is ineluctable.   All people are evil in the sight of God and deserving of punishment, only those who receive his grace and are baptized can be good and be rescued, therefore anyone who is not baptized is evil in the sight of God and deserves punishment.  However, the experience of those throughout the ages who have lived in both Christian and non-Christian communities, finds ready examples of non-Christians behaving better and showing more signs of loving God than their baptized neighbours.   In logic it takes one counter-example to challenge a universal claim.  Augustine is quite happy to face down such an (indirect) challenge to his theory of selective salvation.  And in our own time we have seen the return of the rhetoric of a strictly localized good us versus the bad rest.  Nevertheless, the challenge will not go away, especially in the light of the more fundamental porcupine that we turn to next.

The Genesis Myth

The Augustinian logic runs up against something bigger than that timeless puzzle for people who are fond of and admire their non-Christian neighbours.   Namely, that it is completely dependent on a literal reading of the first three chapters of Genesis.  Augustine, as we have said, has an excuse.  No one in the fifth century had any way of demonstrating that their cosmology was correct and the Old Testament had as good a claim to antiquity and authenticity as any other ancient text.  But for us, unless you are prepared to do the mental gymnastics of a creationist Christian, believing in the literal truth of those chapters is not a credible option.

Whatever story we tell about the relationship between God and humanity we have no compelling reason to believe that there was a time of paradise on earth or that we are all condemned to anything (including hell) because of the single action of a single common ancestor.   In fact, we have highly persuasive reasons to believe otherwise.  This does not mean that Christian salvation is meaningless.  It does not mean there are no such things as grace and goodness, free will and failure, heaven and hell.  But it does mean that we might need to take another look at the many layers of explanation present in the ambiguities and contradictions of the New (and Old) Testament – and our own modern insights into human nature – to rediscover with a better fit how it is God’s response to the human condition.

Right and wrong

This is about ethics and sin.

The Jewish tradition and the Christian tradition after it made much use of the philosophic tools of the Greek-speaking world.   Greek philosophers particularly from the time of Socrates had, in different ways, tried to think through what it meant to live a good life, to live ethically.  The Jews who moved into that world already had a law that trained their people in living well and found plenty of overlaps with the concerns of the philosophers.  When Paul, a Greek-speaking Jew thoroughly versed in the law, writes on ethics we find a seamless continuity between language derived directly from scripture and language that had become part of the everyday mental furniture of educated non-Jews.

There are, nonetheless, hidden tensions in this process.  These are not a problem as long as there is enough basic agreement on how we are all expected to behave.  Problems arise, however, when there is disagreement.  If we have to try and work out together what is the right thing to do in specific circumstances, it is hard enough when we broadly share the same background.  It is all the more difficult when we don’t.  Most importantly for us there is natural tension embedded in any discussions about ethics that rest partly on sacred law and partly on philosophical argument.   This tension can be most obviously felt in the distinction between ‘sin’ and ‘wrong’.  It is partly an intellectual tension about what exactly it is that makes an action ethically incorrect.   But it is also an affective and social tension.  How should we feel about it, and what should be the appropriate response within the community?

In the Pentateuch itself we get a sense of ambivalent reasoning and the need for a twofold response.  In Exodus, the Sabbath commandment is grounded in the relationship with God.  It is about imitating God who rested on the seventh day.  The day is to be kept holy.  Later in the Pentateuch, someone is found breaking the Sabbath, he is brought before the Lord at the tent of meeting and the Lord orders him to be stoned to death.  Here we have a clear sense of sin as an offence against the command of God.  What makes it wrong is disobedience towards God.  The appropriate response for such an offence is sacred horror while the source of the offence is rooted out from among the people.  It overlaps with the sense of uncleanness that separates individuals from God and makes them unworthy to be a part of the community until due rituals have been performed.

However the Sabbath commandment in Deuteronomy and Leviticus has a different grounding.  Here it recognizes that human beings need a rest from their labours of the week.  The commandment makes clear that this is about justice for the whole household, slaves, bondsmen and working guests have a right to a day without work.   It reminds the audience that they too lived as slaves and knew oppression.  What makes breaking the commandment wrong is, by implication, the harm such a breach does to other human beings.

Elsewhere we see a twofold response to transgressions (of violence or theft).  One response is juridical and involves settling the matter and making amends as far as possible within the community.  The other is sacral, and involves bringing a sin-offering to the priest, who accepts the offering, and so the sin is forgiven.  Viewed as a ‘wrong’ the action offends against justice and needs to be settled amongst the human beings who have hurt and been hurt.  It is the harm that makes it wrong and any feelings of remorse or guilt should be directed towards the person harmed. Viewed as a ‘sin’ the action offends against holiness and needs to be settled before God.  It is wrong because it violates his order and our remorse or guilt should be directed towards him.

This duality is present in the Greek-speaking world, though less evident in philosophical discussion.  While Plato does have a short but significant discussion about holiness in the Euthyphro, his bigger ethical dialogues focus on justice.  Nevertheless sacred rightness (and wrongness) is important. In Athens itself a major feature of life were the Mysteries of Eleusis.  No-one knows exactly what happened (once you were initiated, you weren’t allowed to talk about it) but the working assumption is that like similar practices elsewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean they involved ritual actions and mythical representations to do with purification and rebirth.

Drama offers some further clues.  In his three tragedies based on the Oedipus legend, Sophocles gives us a sense of the sacred horror of the man who discovers he has committed the primal sins of incest and patricide.  This horror is mirrored in the way others treat him and approach him and is matched by the need (his and ours) for some sort of sacred redemption, achieved in the last play, Oedipus at Colonus.  Similar primal, sacred horror is found in Aeschylus’ portrayal of the blood-feuds of the house of Atreus and incarnated in his earth-born Furies who rise to avenge a mother’s blood.  In this world, as in the world of the Pentateuch, there are wrongs that pollute and the pollution needs to be cleansed.

Moral sensibilities and desecration by reason

We can note here an overlap with that intuitive sense of the rightness (and wrongness) of things as a part of our primary experience, which John-Paul II drew from the philosophy of Max Scheler.  We could also recognize it as a glimpse of the immediate, rich, holistic grasp of a world of values that McGilchrist (interestingly also an admirer of Scheler) identifies as a capacity of our right-selves.  Against such a deeply, emotionally embedded sense of the way things should be, abstract reasoning about ethics that leads us to modify or adapt ancient rules can feel like a desecration, especially when it touches the primal areas of sex, family and death.

Nevertheless, philosophy has always dared to do this, and insofar as philosophy is a part of the Jewish and Christian traditions it sets up a tension within them that will not go away.  The key issues are highlighted in Plato’s dialogue, the Euthyphro, the one that discusses holiness.  Do the gods command us to do what is holy, because it is holy or are things holy just because the gods command them?  Plato argues that whatever is holy is holy of itself, and not by command of the gods, otherwise these would be little more than tyrants.

This conclusion is momentous, because it suggests that we can discover what is holy derivatively by listening to the gods.  But we can also discover what is holy for ourselves, by applying reason, our capacity to argue towards truth and understand the world.  Plato’s reason and his ethical reality are edged with a numinousness that reverences the world of the divine, nevertheless, it lays the foundation for a parting of the ways between a philosophical take on ethics that searches for the reasons why things may be right or wrong, and a religious take, that explores right and wrong as perturbations in the covenant-relationship with God.

Who is left holding the porcupine?

But where, exactly, is the porcupine in all this?  You could argue that it lies in the desecrating action of philosophical reasoning, which overrides our deeply held intuitions.   It is instructive to look more closely at Anselm, who goes in the opposite direction to Plato and emphasizes the importance of God’s command in the wrongness of things.  The absolute sense of horror before God at one’s sins (encapsulated in the older acts of contrition) flows from his position.  Let’s return to what he says in his explanation of why the incarnation took place.

In order to prove that God had to become a human being Anselm needs to show that any sinner owes God a debt that only God can pay.  He suggests, therefore, that, since God is infinitely good, any infringement of God’s command, however trivial, incurs infinite guilt and is liable to infinite punishment.   Even something as slight as a glance in the wrong direction is infinitely wrong.   Even if so slight an action would have a beneficial effect for all humanity, nothing can justify an act of disobedience to the Lord of the Universe.

Anselm’s imagination is working in the context of a world in which rulers expect absolute fealty from their vassals, and vassals can expect to have to make satisfaction to their lords if they step out of line.  The logic seems ineluctable.  Any disobedience to an infinitely good Lord demands an infinitely unpleasant satisfaction.  On this social model you can just about see how this thesis might work.  However there are other models in the Christian tradition that are not rooted in the world of Norman autocracy.   When we use these, it is Anselm’s argument that begins to look more like a porcupine.  If we transfer the case of disobedience, for instance, to the context of parent and child the thesis does not look remotely plausible.  Sometimes disobedience is a fault in itself, but more often than not it is the consequences of the action that matter, and the punishment is proportioned to the seriousness of the crime rather than to the disobedience.  We don’t consider a parent good who threatens a child with death at the slightest deviation from their instructions, let alone one who kills a child for the sake of a trivial infraction.

In philosophy (and in law) we expect a sense of proportion between crime and punishment, and it his hard not to see this as a good thing.   We find it in Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio, where he reworks the underworlds of Homer, Plato and Vergil, and carefully matches the various sinners to their punishments, albeit with a slight weighting against his political opponents.   Proportionate punishment goes with proportionate ethical training.  In Plato’s vision, we damage our inmost selves by unjust action proportionately with the action.  The more serious the injustice, the more damage to the soul.  His ideal state is a place where people can learn to live well, within a structure shaped by justice, for their own good.

Aristotle in turn reminds us that such learning is not just an intellectual exercise.  We need within our community to learn to love what is just and hate what is unjust.   That rich affective world of rightness and wrongness which seemed to give us intuitive certainties is not entirely born within us with its definitions ready made.  It needs to be approached, deepened and developed by way of training and of reason.  We need to reflect On What Matters (the title of Derek Parfit’s recent ethical tour-de-force) not simply accept what we have been told, trusting that together we can get closer to a way of life that is better for us all.  The way we think about physics at the age of ten is different from the way we think about it at university.  Similarly mature ethical exploration will sometimes, correctly, take us beyond what we once took for granted.

The Cloud of Reasons

Those ambiguous and contradictory sentences of our tradition from Genesis through to the end of Revelation are surrounded in clouds of commentary from two and a half thousand years.  Much of that commentary is based on learning from beyond the tradition.  Within that cloud we learn to see beyond a set of ancient tribal rules to a vision of a community being led towards God.  Within the cloud, we can also find tools for reflection that help us see how we are to live our stage of the journey.  And the abstractions of philosophy may coldly challenge our instinctual ethical world.  Thus we can find ourselves prised away from the comfortable and literal certainties that allow us (in good conscience) to stone a young woman to death for adultery.  But this is not undermining a proper, divinely sanctioned, intuitive sense of the rightness of things.  It is the acknowledgement that human reason can help us on our quest to find a better way of being human – and a better understanding of the will of God on the numinous edge of things.   This acknowledgement enables us to share our quest with others, recognize their goodness, and learn new things from them.   It allows Christianity to exist in the world as a wise philosophy of life, alongside other philosophies and rediscover in alien cultures how it deeply answers the needs and aspirations of humankind.