Sin and Feeling

One of the things that bothered me about the typical definition of sin in Christianity is the focus on actions and eternal law.

“Law” is a metaphor. God doesn’t have laws any more than our legal system has a “spirit”.

But it’s a strong metaphor because what we call “law” stands like a guide and a container for our actions and choices.

Perhaps you could say that human law, justice, judgement and punishment are a reflection of this divine thing that is properly nameless and wordless but must be translated into human terms if we are to talk about it.

Sin as action

Sometimes we do things that we know (or come to learn) are wrong, and we struggle with our own conscience over them. In fact moral theology has many caveats to this basic dynamic that include the formation or malformation of the conscience, the broader context of culpability, and so on.

A good judge takes into account all kinds of extenuating and aggravating circumstances.

But sin itself never really spoke to me in this context of action and law and judgement.

Sin as state

I’ve been thinking about it lately because someone asked me a question regarding sin, confession, and the problem of psychogenic illness and temperament.

I suspect the problem is that long-term anxiety and depression, and the temperament that predisposes me to these states, deny me any clear sense of the path before me, or that the root cause of my problems is ultimately my own transgressive actions.

If you can see the path, then yes you will know when you’ve deviated from it.

But if you can’t see the path, then being told that your actions are the root cause of your suffering is about as helpful as being blamed for being lost in a fog.

That’s not to say that I lack a sense of actions that are transgressive or immoral. Rather, the root cause of my suffering in life was not obviously related to any particular action or disposition.

It’s as if everyone was saying “just stay on the path and you’ll be fine. And even if you step off the path, you can return because God is forgiving”. Meanwhile I’m nodding politely while wondering where this path is exactly.

Finding the path

I think my temperament, and my Feeling function in particular, conceives of the world in a different way.

That’s probably why I was drawn to Eastern religions in my youth. Dharma is basically the same as Eternal Law, and the Dao is basically the way, but each has a richer, more substantial context in relation to the divine. Not that Christianity is really any different, it’s just a question of emphasis:

Do you emphasise God as judge and divine legislator? Or do you emphasise God as the path, the “way” itself, the outer boundaries of which are roughly marked with moral warnings?

Before I learned any Christian philosophy or theology, it seemed obvious to me that the moral law was the outermost perimeter of a deeper spiritual reality. Clinging to the moral law was like going to a beautiful mansion in the hills, and then stopping just inside the fence.

Yes, if you want to live in God’s house you can’t go outside the fence, but why on earth would you? Do you sit comfortably in a friend’s living room, loving their company, yet continually fretting that you might any moment fall off the edge of their property?

Private prayer

I think a lot of this goes unsaid in people’s personal relationship with God. People yearn to feel connected to God somehow, and that’s what is really important.

And some types or temperaments are completely fine with the idea that their actions help or hinder this relationship, and that confession or asking for and receiving forgiveness is the best way to remedy that relationship.

For these people, it makes sense to promote concepts of sinful action, eternal law, and forgiveness as the core dynamic of God’s interaction with the world.

But if you’re lost and living in a fog, it might be due to a number of factors that don’t necessarily fall under the standard definition of sin.

It might be the result of other people’s sins. Or it could be a kind of sin that isn’t commonly known or understood.

From a melancholic/introverted-Feeling perspective, there’s not much point trying to confess a Feeling. Yet this strong Feeling function so overshadows everything else that it not only blots out our sense of the divine, not to mention happiness, but it also obscures our own role in giving rise to this obstacle.

That’s what gave me this intense thirst for understanding. The hope of understanding my condition brought knowledge, insight, wisdom, to the fore rather than moral uprightness, sin, or forgiveness.

A person lost in a fog doesn’t need forgiveness, they need clarity. They need to know the lay of the land so they can stop falling into holes. They need a light, and in that light they can find the path.

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Autoimmune and Myopia – parallels

When I had my autoimmune disease I felt great.

Let me put that in perspective.

Before the disease, I’d suffered from a kind of chronic state of anxiety and depression, coupled with a sense of disorientation and…well it’s hard to describe, but imagine knowing you have to do something vitally important, but having no idea what it is. Live with that for long enough and it doesn’t go away, it just turns into a sort of dull psychosomatic ache.

The primary cause of my autoimmune disease was mental. I reached the incredibly bitter conclusion that I’d been wrong about life, that life had no meaning and no purpose, but my desire for meaning and purpose had harmed me on the only metric that counted: money.

My obsession with meaning had stopped me choosing a normal path in life, where I could have found some kind of career and made a reasonable amount of money. Life would be meaningless either way, but at least I could have endured the meaninglessness in a nice house instead of a small unit.

Once I concluded there was no meaning to be found in life, I actually started to feel better. I felt immediate relief from the symptoms that had plagued me for years. I’d finally dismissed the idea that there was a meaningful path to follow, so I no longer felt the desperate need to discover that path.

In fact I no longer felt anything much at all. And feeling nothing was pretty good.

If it hadn’t been for the growing immobility of my SI joints and the recurrent bouts of grinding ache and pain, I would have been pretty content.

It was thanks to my autoimmune disease that I finally clawed my way back onto the path, and rediscovered meaning in life. I couldn’t ignore the pain, and I couldn’t pretend that an autoimmune disease was something imposed on me by a blind, external reality.

So I started investigating it. I knew that I had been better off feeling meaningful misery than meaningless pain. I retraced my steps from a dull world where only money and comfort mattered, to the world I once knew – the one where I had rejected a normal path in life in favour of finding answers.

In practical terms that meant I wanted to cure my autoimmune disease. It took a lot of work, a lot of fruitless investigation. But finally I realised there were two main components to the disease.

First, it had suppressed my usual unpleasant feelings of needing to strive for some unknown goal.

Second, each flare-up was triggered by a change in my mental state, a kind of decision to focus, be more intent, and drive myself unrelentingly toward a particular material outcome.

So in order to reverse the disease I had to do two things.

I’ve mentioned in the previous post that I had to reverse the decision. I had to accept that the desired material outcome might never occur. I had to consciously embrace failure. That was the only way to stop that incredibly rigid, driven state of mind. It was the only way I could genuinely relax.

And then – counterintuitively – I had to return to those unpleasant feelings. I didn’t know if they were final, or what meaning they had. But I knew from experience that they had predated the autoimmune disease, and had disappeared when the disease first emerged.

I suspected the main cause of the disease was having suppressed those feelings, replacing them with mundane material goals.

So I tried to find those feelings again. I remembered what they were like, and although they were deeply unpleasant, I knew that they were more real than the false contentment that had come with the disease.

Myopia

If the autoimmune disease parallels myopia, then the same two principles might well apply.

Firstly, there may be a negative emotional state that was suppressed with the onset of myopic symptoms.

Second, there may be a definite decision – a change in mental state that corresponds to the suppression of those negative emotions.

Unfortunately my myopia set in long ago. I don’t have strong memories of how I felt before the myopia, and I don’t even have a clear timeline of when the symptoms emerged. I didn’t know I was short-sighted until I had an eye test.

But I do have more general memories. What I will try to do next is to see how those general memories correspond to the emotional resonance of the myopia symptoms. In other words, what is the biographical significance of the emotions that arise in connection with my short-sightedness?

Likewise, what kinds of decisions might I have made as a child or young teenager that correspond to the significance of myopia symptoms? What decisions might resonate with poor vision, or might appear to justify myopia as a kind of trade-off?

If my autoimmune experience is indicative, I should expect to feel a lot worse when those old feelings resurface. But it’s better to feel them than to blindly suppress them. A more meaningful life isn’t necessarily a more pleasant or easy life, but it is definitely worth living.

Saving our best advice for others

A friend is worried about 4th year med, stressing out about the changing circumstances and expectations, afraid of failing.

I offered lots of advice, but none of it seemed truly satisfactory.

In the end, I asked what she would tell me, if I were in her situation.

We both knew the answer: stop whining. Just do what you need to do. Do your best, try your hardest, if you pass you pass, if you fail you fail.

It’s a comfort because there’s no ambiguity. Either you have what it takes to pass, or you don’t. Passing is either dependent on your efforts or it isn’t.

But what intrigued me is how clear the answer is when we’re looking at other people’s circumstances. Call it ‘the clarity of not caring’ if you like.

Not that we don’t care about others, but we don’t care in a way that obscures the obvious course of action.

When it comes to our own lives, we’re blinded by worries and possibilities. We lose the clarity that lets us be frank with others.

It reminds me of a passage from Zhuangzi:

When an archer is shooting for nothing
He has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle
He is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold
He goes blind
Or sees two targets –
He is out of his mind.

His skill has not changed, But the prize
Divides him. He cares,
He thinks more of winning
Than of shooting –
And the need to win
Drains him of power.

It’s not easy, but when we’re struggling with a problem we can sometimes benefit by imagining someone else in that situation and what we would then advise them.

I once read a book by a psychologist that suggested we have greater insight into ourselves when we look at our objective behaviour rather than using introspection.

These methods aren’t foolproof, nor are they necessarily always the right approach. After all, our advice to others isn’t exactly omniscient, is it?

But it can at least help us gain clarity, temporary respite from fears and desires that otherwise cloud our assessment of the situation.