Thursday, March 26, 2009
Thoughts on sin
We are now past the midpoint of this Lenten season and, like most people observing this time, I have become more contemplative in the last few weeks. I have been reading a book called The Concept of Sin by Joseph Pieper both for my own education and for a paper I am working on. Pieper does an excellent job in this work of explaining exactly how sin is defined in the Christian tradition and successfully scrapes off the barnacles of public opinion and cultural misunderstandings of sin. I could write at length about the various points that Pieper makes (in fact I am doing just that for one of my classes) but today I just wanted to bring up one point that hit me in the chest as I was reading.
Pieper’s explanation of sin is fairly in depth and covers a lot of ground, but what essentially makes an act a sin (or more to the point, a mortal sin) is that it is an act that intentionally moves away from God and towards the self. He establishes this point early on but throughout the rest of the book he keeps returning to the question “How is it possible for us to knowingly turn away from God?” This question can be restated by paraphrasing Paul’s thoughts: Why do I not do the things I know to be good and right but do the things I know to be wrong? The answer Pieper comes to towards the end of the book is found in our identity as created beings. God is all good and it is impossible for Him to be otherwise because this is the state he has always held. In fact, explaining his goodness by saying he has always been this way it misleading because it denotes temporal existence, it is more accurate to say that He is good. He was not created with good attributes, he is good. When God created man, He did so in His own image. For that reason man is capable of being good just as God is good. But it is this creation that sets us apart. We are created in God’s image, so we have the potential for good but it is what we were created from that gives us the potential for evil: nothing. God did not form us from some eternally existing matter. He called our being forth from nothing. Because of this we always have the potential to return to nothing, to turn from God and face the void.
As I read this section of the book, I felt a heaviness slide over me. It reminded me of that feeling when you are driving in the winter, listening to your radio, and enjoying the day not thinking about anything else until you suddenly realize that the traffic in front of you has suddenly stopped. You push the brake but the icy road prevents you from stopping fast enough. Your carefree, happy world was suddenly violated by the reality of danger. Reading Pieper’s explanation made me suddenly aware of the danger I was in. This is not the first time I had realized that sin was a movement towards nothingness. I had read enough Pieper and St. Aquinas before to be familiar with this thought. But this was the first time that I had truly considered my origins in that nothingness. It suddenly became clear that when I try to focus on myself and not God I am looking into the void and moving towards it. In fact, I was drawn to it like man who feels pulled back to a rundown, dirty town simply because it was once his home.
I had bought into the illusion that there was a separation between God and everything else; that all that existed was neutral matter that God simply had a deed for; creation was God’s in the same sense that my house is mine. But this is a lie. As soon as we try to remove God from our perspective and take Him out of creation we cannibalize ourselves until there is nothing left. We can see this happening in philosophy already. Beginning in the renaissance philosophers shifted our focus from a God centered viewpoint to a Man centered viewpoint. With each movement after that, Enlightenment, Romanticism, Modernism, and now Postmodernism , we see the destruction and disintegration of the self. We turned from God and sought truth in the institutions of man but found them to be corrupt. We looked in community in nature and found chaos, we looked to our senses but found them unreliable, finally we looked to our own self but had no reason to claim legitimacy. We dammed up the River of Life and started devouring creation but nothing we consume could sustain itself. It all turned into dust in our mouths. So we kept devouring till there was nothing left.
This perspective has really affected me deeply. I think it is probably the case with many people in the world including Christians that we separate God from his creation. We can easily picture turning our back on God to focus on the other things we are more interested in. We wake up Sunday morning and decide to go to Denny's and play some golf instead of going to church. Even when we are convicted by our choice we only see this as rejecting church or, at most, setting God aside. But in reality we are rejecting God, the milk we drink at breakfast, the car we drive, the grass we tee off from and everything else. To reject God is to reject all of creation. We must see our lives on these terms. Every action we take, every thought, every feeling is moving us either closer to God and his infinite goodness or closer to the nothingness from which we came. I often recall one of my professors saying that the greatest compliment you can give someone is to say "it is good that you exist." In honoring God we say to all creation that it is good that it exists. In sin we are saying too all things I don't care that you exist. In my sin I tell my 4 month old son, I don't care that you exist. This is a sobering thought for this sobering season.
Sorry for the downer on my first post in a while but it is Lent you know. Easter will be here soon and I will post something a bit more positive.