Welcome Back, Sin

The age of modernity is ending. For all its trademark confidence, even its name suggesting an endless run, the modern age falters now. Soon it will stagger into the grey mist of history.

What comes next for us? Modernity overreached, and we inherit not confidence, but suspicion. Postmodern is a worthless label, signifying only hiatus and transition.

Can we hope to see a renaissance of human will? If we can somehow join in common purpose, then yes. But what would that involve?

The idea of will suggests adventure and achievement. But something else may come first.

The will embraces responsibility. Our choosing may work for the greater or lesser good, which is to say, for good or evil. If human will has any role to play, then the idea of morality must be re-established, and with morality the recognition of sin.

David Brooks in his 2015 book The Road to Character argues for a renewal of individual and communal responsibility. In the book he refers to morality 101 times, sin 80 times.[1]

How did modernity come to devalue morality and sin? The very first blog in this series identified scientific positivism and religious fundamentalism as “two towers of belief in the latter modern age.”

Scientific positivism does not recognize the will, because the will is not something reproducible and available to a neutral observer. As described earlier, philosophers who embrace positivism or natural realism regard free will as an illusion. If there is no will, then personal responsibility, morality, and sin make no sense and need no attention.

I would like to suggest that fundamentalism and even conservative religion of the modern age (I’m speaking of Protestant Christianity here) also offer weak formulations of sin and personal responsibility. They do this by emphasizing the absolute sovereignty and perfection of God in contrast to the impotence of human will. Although certain Biblical texts can be cited for this view, I think it becomes a major theme only when philosophies born of hierarchical temperament are overlaid upon Holy Scripture. If human will is impotent from the start, then sin and personal responsibility have little meaning. The poet of Job and later Jesus proclaim a different view.

The doctrines of John Calvin epitomize the problem. Total depravity is Calvin’s description of the human condition. If that is an absolute judgment (which is how it is described), then how much of a role does human will have? Very little. And if human will plays a next-to-nothing role, then how can the human condition be called sin at all?

To a Calvinist, the really important choices in our lives – religion, spouse, career – if regarded as our responsibility at all, amount to a progressive disclosure of God’s will for us. God’s will is all-important; human will doesn’t change anything. Think of choices that we might make together – the type of schools to support, the kind of government to establish, the role of corporations in shaping our lives – these become theological rather than human questions. Is there any role for free will in the dutiful Calvinist life? Perhaps to determine which breakfast cereal to eat, or which sports team to follow. That is to say, not much.

As in an earlier blog, let me now confess to overstating the case. I actually believe that seeking God’s will for my life could be the highest expression my will can make. But the point is this: Some theological doctrines prominent in the modern age, now departing, have had the effect of minimizing human will and thereby making sin irrelevant.

If our culture learns again how to believe in will, we must also re-learn how to believe in morality and sin. The will chooses. Looking forward, what the will chooses is good. That from which the will turns away is bad. Good and bad are simply defined as what the will chooses and rejects.

But this simple way of defining good and bad works only as the will looks forward. Sometimes the will looks back, remembers choices in the past, and chooses differently in the present looking forward again. When the will looks back, regret can descend upon it, as the consequences of past choices play out in time.

Choosing begins to reflect upon itself. When it does, then meta-choosing – a higher level of choosing – happens, and primary choices themselves begin to look good or bad.

Therefore, the old terms still apply. Sins are bad choices. Morality is the making of good choices. Sin is the misuse of personal freedom and responsibility.

Augustine in a 6th century fresco

Let’s remember what Augustine taught about good and evil. They are not opposites. Evil does not have an existence of its own, while good in manifold variety exists as the actual, varying aim of choosing. As choosing is diverse, so is good. Good is composite; there are lesser and greater goods. Evil represents the confusion of choosing lesser goods over greater ones.

Likewise, sin is not the opposite of morality, but sin is a state of confusion in which I or we choose the lesser good. Morality prevails when I or we consistently choose the greater good and choose without regret over time.

If you have never read Augustine, get his latest best-seller On Free Choice of the Will and read his description of the relation of sin to acts of will. Here is a sample:

Whatever the cause of the will might be, if the will cannot resist it, it is no sin to yield to it; but if the will can resist it, let it do so, and there will be no sin. What if the cause of the will deceives the will and catches it off guard? Then let the will guard against deception. What if the deception is so great that the will cannot guard against it? Then there is no sin, for who sins by doing what he cannot guard against? But there is sin, so it is possible to guard against it. [2]

There are 3 settings in which sin happens, marked by who or what gets hurt or disrepected by sin. There are (1) sins against self, (2) sins against others, and (3) sins against God, or if you prefer, sins against the universe.

Sin can also be characterized according to whether one person or a group of people is choosing badly. The group may range from a couple to a culture. Human will manifests itself not only in individuals, but also in groups making decisions. Likewise sin can be either individual or communal. This applies in any of the 3 settings presented above. Despite their importance, in this blog I’ll give scant attention to sins of groups of people. Such sins deserve attention later. For now, there is much to cover at the individual level.

Sins against self may be called private sins. For sins against others, the term interpersonal sins hits the mark better than such descriptors as relational or social. Perhaps the term ultimate sin can be used to refer to sin against either God or nature.

Categorizing sin in terms of the 3 settings – private, interpersonal, and ultimate – may help us to recognize the distortion of modernity and the direction needed to revive a robust notion of sin. Positivism, the capstone of modernity, can analyze human actions in terms of their effects on self and others, but positivism assigns no responsibility beyond the misapprehension of natural law. In positivist philosophy, neither private nor interpersonal sins exist. There is only the breach of natural law. Anything that needs correction must be corrected by adherence to universal scientific truth, or perhaps more accurately, by devoting time, effort, and resources to additional research.

Likewise, fundamentalist and Calvinist faith posit that all sin is ultimate, that is, all sin is against God alone. In the beautiful confessional Psalm 51, King David prays to God, saying “Against thee, thee only have I sinned.” David had committed adultery with the wife of Uriah the Hittite, a loyal and upright soldier in David’s army. When an attempt to hide the adultery went awry, David initiated and commanded Uriah’s murder. Yet by the fundamentalist interpretation David did not sin against Uriah, only against God.

In Sunday School this morning we read a passage from the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus said, “If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). Jesus gave the same message of responsibility to family and neighbors many other times as well. The fundamentalist ethic, which defines sin only at the ultimate level of sin against God, deserves this kind of correction now as much as ever before, as we leave modernity behind.

A chief task before us is to learn how to recognize private and interpersonal sins again. We have lived too long with a heavy dose of ultimate sin, and even that has almost lost its meaning. Let’s quickly look now at private sins and examine interpersonal sins in the next blog.

Most private sins, or sins against self, probably fall into the class of stupidity. In the previous blog stupidity was defined as the willful devaluation of habits of thought and study that enable the choosing of greater goods over lesser ones. I’ll repeat the lines presented there, still unsure why I find them so appealing:

It’s not stupid if you can’t help it.
It’s not stupid if it’s in the past.
It’s not stupid unless you think it is.
Pray for stupidity.

There are at least two other kinds of private sin – laziness and cowardice. They have their own lines:

It’s not lazy if you can’t help it.
It’s not lazy if it’s in the past.
It’s not lazy unless you think it is.
Pray hard for laziness.

It’s not cowardly if you can’t help it.
It’s not cowardly if it’s in the past.
It’s not cowardly unless you think it is.
Find courage in your fear.

The same considerations of competence (that you can help it), immanence (now and not in the past), and ownership (it is your judgment to make) that we applied to stupidity also apply to laziness and cowardice.

Let me admit that I find it difficult to recognize any major class of private sin beyond stupidity, laziness, and cowardice. Gluttony is a form of stupidity. Greed is an interpersonal sin, not a private sin. Rashness is stupidity. Workaholism is mostly an interpersonal sin, but it also involves aspects of stupidity, laziness, and cowardice as it means living with blinders on.

Augustine tells us that even some regretful acts committed out of ignorance are sinful. These acts derive mostly from laziness. As he says, “You are not blamed for your unwilling ignorance, but because you fail to ask for what you do not know.”[3]

The three classes of private sin seem to differ in their relation to past, present, and future. Stupidity, I propose, devalues the past. Wisdom, or avoidance of stupidity, develops through study of how choices lead to consequences. But only the past can display choices and their consequences for us.

Laziness devalues the present fleeting moment in preference for the dead past and an imaginary future. I can make nothing happen except in the present. When the present swells with work or play – two sides of the same animating force – the future gains movement from my will. But laziness leaves me drifting from past to future as if asleep.

Cowardice devalues the future, tries to run away from it, preferring the security of the past. Yet I cannot run away, because the past holds nothing secure. Cowardice then hugs the ground, but time overwhelms me like a rushing flood.

Cowardice has another aspect. Even more than stupidity and laziness, cowardice comes close to being an interpersonal as well as a private sin. The future involves contact with other people and new people. So cowardice means a turning away from people – my turning away from you.

To swim in the current of time requires courage. An uncertain future rushes toward us. If a person believes in God, there is comfort in believing God secures the future. Caught in the flowing torrent of time, that person finds courage by trusting God.

sin-sisyphus-reconstruction_of_nekyia_by_polygnotus-2For those whose will does not allow trust in an external transcendent being, there remains the more difficult possibility of trusting the will inside of us. Albert Camus depicts Sisyphus glistening with sweaty courage. Each day repeats for Sisyphus. His future lasts only a day, but each day finds a rock raised higher from morning to evening, and purpose expressed through muscling absurdity from valley to mountaintop. Defying limitations, Camus has Sisyphus remain true to his task in an eternal now.

Look at the alternative descriptions of courage above – courage born of trust in God versus courage founded on inner defiant will. Arthur Schopenhauer did not believe in God in traditional terms, but he did suggest that the will inside is the same as the will that creates the external world. His suggestion seems difficult, unfathomable, yet it beckons. Might we someday find that these two views on courage make no difference in practice?

Courage is for heroes. I need to retreat sometimes into my comfortable home with stupidity, laziness, and cowardice. These sins are my soulmates. We whisper riddles to each other about the possibility that the will exists.

David Brooks tells us that the most fundamental sin is pride.[4] I’m not there yet. I still remember my mother and father telling me they were proud of me, and I don’t think that was a bad thing.

Some aspects of traditional morality come from hierarchical cultures founded on authority. In these cultures pride is the sin of not knowing your place. Correspondingly, the most fundamental virtue is humility, and this translates as submission to authority.

I have little use for pride or humility. They do not bring the intimations that stupidity, laziness, and cowardice do. What about the person who dutifully avoids all sense of pride? Can she be proud of that? What can humility do for me? Not nearly as much as my friends – stupidity, laziness, and cowardice – do.


Next post:  Benevolence or Kindness?

Previous post:  Sometimes It’s Better to Be Stupid

Searching for GSOT outline:  Home

Featured image:  Hieronymous Bosch. Detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights. By WikiImages, Pixabay, CC0 Public domain. Fresco depicting Augustine, painted in the 6th century CE, St. John Lateran Basilica, Rome, Wikimedia Commons, CC0 Public domain. Sisyphus, modified from detail on 1892 reconstruction of the ancient painting “Nekyia” by Polygnotus. Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain, Carl Robert and Hermann Schenck.

[1] Brooks, D. The Road to Character. Random House, New York, 2015, Kindle edition.

[2] Augustine, On Free Choice of the Will, transl. Thomas Williams, Hackett Publishing, Indianapolis/Cambridge, 1993, pp.105-107.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Brooks, D. The Road to Character. There are many references to pride throughout the book. See especially the section on The Humility Code, beginning at Kindle location 4994.


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