Friday, June 20, 2008

Sin and "Missing the Mark"

At the beginning of a book titled The Symbolism of Evil, Paul Ricoeur asks, "How shall we make the transition from the possibility of evil in man to its reality, from fallibility to fault?" A related question would be, "What distinguishes a mistake from a sin?" In our modern minds, the distinction is relatively clear. Ricoeur attributes this modern distinction in part to the emphasis we place on human autonomy and the will: a mistake in this case is simply the unwitting manifestation of a flaw, whereas sin is a willful embrace of wrongdoing.

I am not persuaded that these categories are so water-tight (neither is Ricoeur). I offer three demonstrations. First of all, the treatment of pedophiles in the decades leading up to the 2002 Long Lent assumed, with the regnant psychological understanding of the day, that the fault of the pedophiles was mitigated by psychological flaw, and that, such flaw being 'mended', would render the pedophile no longer controlled by this temptation, free to act morally again (this did not work). Had this behavior consistently been treated as a moral failing, as Canon Law seems to assume that it is (and from the point of view of the victim is surely is!), even where the perpetrator acted in the grips of an overwhelming compulsion, fewer relapses would have been permitted, in my opinion. In any case, the line between fault and compulsion to wrong/sinful behavior is not so clear. Knowingly dabbling with sinful behavior can bring about the situation of addiction and compulsion, in which our actions are no longer freely chosen. Is behavior after the development of addiction therefore no longer sinful? In other words, is the person who tempts fate by drinking too much too frequently a sinner while the hardened alcoholic not? If it feels wrong to call an addict a 'sinner', I suggest that this is evidence of our modern mindset, that divides a person between materialistic components and existential components. Incidentally, this is not the position taken by Alcoholics Anonymous, an organization that requires both an admission of helplessness and amendment of harm done to others.

Second example: Is it not the case that claiming to have made a mistake seems to absolve us from blame? But what if we make the same mistake five times in a row and by doing so, we harm others? "Oh, I forgot to stop at that sign; I didn't mean to hit you with my car!" At what point are we derelict for being distracted, not paying attention to others? We can demand that others forgive us (everyone makes mistakes! give me a break!) without having to repent.

Third example: we are often made uneasy by Biblical stories in which persons are apparently punished for having made (innocent?) mistakes. Nadab and Abihu are obliterated for ignorantly offering incense (Lv 10) inappropriately, and Uzzah is struck down when he touches the Ark of the Covenant, ostensibly to prevent it from falling (2 Sam 6: 6-7). The punishments of Moses and of Saul have provoked probing questions about God's justice. Job presents an even tougher case.

The Old Testament does not distinguish much between ritual impurity deriving from circumstances beyond our control and impurity that is clearly moral, in our sense of the term. A leper is no better off than a murderer with regard to the temple cult.

The Christian tradition interprets this state of affairs as evidence that the world is in the grip of an anti-creation force of evil, and we suffer from this state whether we will it or not. We humans are not able to extricate ourselves by effort, either by moral effort (the Pelagian option) nor by scientifically identifying flaws and solving them (the Enlightenment program). Rather, we are in need of grace, of a Savior, to set things right.

That there is a 'right' way of things being is a crucial point for a future post, on why Thomas Kuhn and others are correctly criticized by A. MacIntyre when they assert that conversions or paradigm shifts occur as ruptures in a person's life rather than in some way as a fulfillment (a topic that I am still working on!). I have adumbrated this by drawing attention to the presumed rupture between 'mistake' and 'sin'. So hopefully I will build on today's post as we explore this question.

P.S. I also plan to answer several questions posed by attentive readers in these main posts, since I'm not sure how many of you read the comments sections. Let me know if this approach is too confusing, or if it matters at all! Thank you and God's blessings to you!


Easter Joy said...

The distinction that was made in your post between a mistake and a sin is very thought-provoking. The victim of someone's repeated mistakes can very easily identify the mistakes as sins; however, the person committing the sin would not identify it that way as easily as the victim would. I would think that the person making the "mistakes" would think that he or she was not sinning if he or she don't seem to have the ability to stop making the mistakes.

Bob said...

Fr. Peter,

It seems that you are speaking of sin as finite actions in this post. Whether they be mistakes or willful actions, they are sin only because they are acted out. But then you state "The Christian tradition interprets this state of affairs as evidence that the world is in the grip of an anti-creation force of evil, and we suffer from this state whether we will it or not." which moves from finite actions to a state of being--regardless of whether or not that state of being manifests itself in finite actions.

When you bring this back to the thoughts on conversions being fulfillments rather than ruptures (I really like this thought and will let it kick around in my head for a bit...) I think it would be important to keep to the sinful nature rather than mixing in the manifestations of that nature. For surely, even after we have been given new life, we continue to make mistakes and/or willfully do wrong because our sanctification is not yet complete. But if we want to look at the conversion experience as a fulfillment, we need to recognize that it is the sinful nature that has been (or has to be) put to death. And it is only in the apprehension of this reality that we find the freedom to sin no more.


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