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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Faith and works and self-delusion

Dtcwee asked a great question about scriptural references to how we work toward salvation.

How can we work towards salvation if “we” are not responsible for our faults and flaws, for redeeming and righting ourselves?

The same problem emerges in Buddhism where the main symptom of delusion is the impression of a self, yet it seems to be the ‘self’ who decides to become a Buddhist, meditates, studies the sutras and seeks enlightenment.

In a Christian context ‘works’ comes from the Greek ergon and can also mean actions, deeds, or accomplishments. Faith, on the other hand, comes from pistis which means ‘persuasion’ as in “God’s divine persuasion“.

It might seem that we are therefore responsible for our works and deeds and actions, but God is responsible for our faith, for persuading us to believe and trust in Him.

The orthodox answer to the problem of faith and works is therefore simple: faith is the cause of salvation, but we should see that reflected also in the person’s works or deeds, i.e. faith without works is dead.

In reality I think the controversy only exists if we accept our separation from God as real.

From the point of view of separation from God, I am the one in control of my beliefs and actions, the one responsible for my merits and my faults. (See “Better to reign in hell?” for more).

From this point of view, whatever I may do to save myself is fruitless. It is only through God’s intervention, through the gift of faith that I am saved.

Yet even then some Christians appear to hold that faith must be accepted as an act of will in the strong, voluntarist sense. In other words, even though faith is a gift from God, I still have to accept the gift in order to be saved. The illusion of responsibility will keep creating a role for “me” to play, because we are terrified of the idea that God is the author of it all.

Yet that is the conclusion we must draw from Paul’s letter to the Philippians:

“continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who works in you to will and to act on behalf of His good pleasure”

Your willing and your acting are dependent on God. Your sense of responsibility and control over your willing and acting are due to pride, and an inflated, delusional sense of self.

Christians who cling to their sense of separation from God interpret these themes in terms of opprobrium for their will and acts and the state of their soul. They emphasise how flawed and degraded and sinful they are, how much in need of God’s grace and help.

They’re not wrong, but the flaws and degradation and sin rest on the very sense of separation, the pride that is opposed to God’s grace. The end is not to receive enough help to patch us up and send us on our way, but to realise our total dependence on God and the falsity of our pride and responsibility in the first place.

Consider the words that Jesus spoke to Catherine of Siena, the great saint and mystic:

Do you know, daughter, who you are and who I am? If you know these two things you have beatitude in your grasp. You are she who is not, and I AM HE WHO IS. Let your soul but become penetrated with this truth, and the Enemy can never lead you astray; you will never be caught in any snare of his, nor ever transgress any commandment of mine; you will have set your feet on the royal road which leads to the fullness of grace, and truth, and light.

Human beings exist, but our minds contain a strong sense of responsibility, agency, and self-control that we identify as “me”. This is the meaning of “you are she who is not”.

In paradise, Adam and Eve did not know that they were naked. That is, they lacked the self-consciousness and accompanying delusion of self-control that we inhabit.

In Christian terms, this is the root of all sin – pride, the delusion of responsibility and control.

But to overcome this sin, we need to embrace the paradox that we are not responsible for it. It might seem that dwelling on this sin and error and seeking to overcome it is the right path, but this only reinforces the sense of separation, the pride and false self that are the root of the problem.

It is much better to recognise that none of it has ever been within our control. But even to recognise this is not within our control either. We were never responsible in the first instance for the fault or flaw from which we now run and hide and from which we constantly seek to redeem ourselves, in our own eyes if nowhere else.

This is likewise the meaning of Christ dying for our sins, of him taking onto himself the punishment for all our faults. This dynamic of sin, punishment, and vicarious redemption never made sense to me as it does and has done to many others.

But it has the same effect of unburdening us of responsibility for our fault, our flaw, our fall.

It is, after all, the sense of responsibility for our grievous fault that underpins the subsequent grasping for control, the pride and the misery that accompany us through life.