The Usefulness of Sin
By Philip Simmons
World home page
|My career in sin began early in the era of space exploration. At age
five, I considered it my patriotic duty to lie on my back in a large cardboard
box and practice counting down from 10 to “blastoff.” I knew I had the
imagination, guts, and technical know-how to make it into orbit. What I
lacked was the wardrobe. For some time (I’ve always thought of it as weeks,
but it may have been days), I’d been eyeing a plastic space helmet lying
in my neighbor’s backyard, apparently forgotten by another kid in the neighborhood.
Then one day when nobody was home next door, I sneaked over and tried it
on. It was muddy and scratched, and when you pulled its visor down over
your face, the world vanished in a green haze.
Space flight was never the same after I stole it. After a few thrilling
missions, fear and guilt overwhelmed me. I kept the helmet hidden, used
it little, and eventually lost track of it. I told no one of my crime and
did my best to hide the twinge I felt the following Christmas when Santa
delivered a new and better helmet, clean and shiny, with a built-in microphone
and a visor you could see through. Though both helmets are long gone, as
I sat down to write this essay I realized that I’ve kept in a small niche
of memory these icons of my first sin and that over the years I’ve bowed
to them, remembering.
Sin begins with the consciousness of sin. That is, with guilt. Clearly at age five I could feel guilt and thus could sin. Where does our capacity for guilt come from? From our parents, maybe. I can’t believe that at five I was far enough along in my Catholic education to have gotten it directly from the church. Maybe children are born with an innate moral sense—as numerous philosophical and religious traditions have held—but surely culture plays its part also.
It’s said that ancient Greece had a culture of “shame” rather than “guilt.” Shame is a communal creation; it’s a matter of looking bad in others’ eyes. Guilt is more inward, having more to do with one’s relation to oneself. In the history of human consciousness, guilt is a relatively new development. Had I been a child in first century Rome—stealing a toy gladiator’s helmet, say—I probably would have lacked the kind of self-consciousness needed to feel guilt as we know it today. Ancient Greece and Rome valued the individual self less for its uniqueness than as an expression of those universal virtues by which it served the community. Only with Christianity does the self become the stage for the drama of individual redemption and salvation.
This marks a radical change: suddenly our individuality matters on a cosmic level. Further, we can sin not just by performing a wrongful action but by merely thinking a bad thought! President Jimmy Carter’s famous admission to having lusted in his heart comes straight from Matthew 5:27-28, where Jesus, revising Mosaic law, teaches that sin issues from our hearts and minds (see also Mark 7:17-23; Matthew 15:15-20). Even before I took my neighbor’s space helmet, I had sinned by simply wanting it, a notion that would have been strange to most Jews of Jesus’ day and laughable to the Greek and Roman nobility. Worried that the merest swerving of our hearts can doom us, we learn to keep tabs on ourselves. Shame becomes internalized as guilt, and a new self-consciousness is born. For the first time we become, as Nietzsche puts it, “an interesting animal,” acquiring enough depth of soul to be not merely bad but evil. And as Christian doctrine develops, the news gets even worse: according to the sterner traditions of original sin, before I’ve even filled my first diaper, before I’m old enough to covet so much as a crayon, never mind my neighbor’s wife, I’m sinful because Adam bit into the wrong apple back there in the primal nudist colony.
It’s no wonder that many of us who have found our way to Unitarian Universalism from Christian backgrounds want nothing to do with the whole business of sin. When I think of the seven deadly sins—quick, can you name them? Pride, Envy, Anger, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony, Lust—I see a veritable catalog of a humanness I’ve increasingly come to think of as precious. A day would hardly be complete without my committing every one of them. So I’m as daunted as anyone by the thought that rediscovering the concept of sin, and thereby confronting my own sinfulness, might be a useful spiritual exercise.
One of our problems with the word sin—and this goes for mainstream Christians, Jews, and Muslims, as well—is the way it’s been co-opted in recent decades by fundamentalists of all religious traditions. UUs have good reason to be wary of traditions and communities more inclined to judgment than mercy and who seem to focus mainly on separating the saved from the damned. But when we assume that only people from less enlightened traditions actually believe in sin and that we are somehow “beyond all that,” aren’t we committing the sin of pride?
Often it comes down to our disagreements with a particular list of thou shalt nots: UUs agree, for example, that a person’s sexual orientation should not consign him or her to the flames, and judging from some UU gatherings I’ve attended, I’d say we’re fairly permissive about drinking and dancing. But beyond objecting to particular strictures and the punitive spirit with which they’re invoked, many UUs, I suspect, object to the idea of sin because they don’t want religion to make them feel bad. The May/June 1998 cover of the World showed a small town UU church with a sign out front proclaiming, “We Don’t Do Guilt.” A clever marketing phrase, and I’m sure the folks who put it out there did so with a playful sense of irony. Nonetheless it captures the appeal of Unitarian Universalism for many who either have been turned off by their religious upbringings or find the therapist’s office a better place for confronting their dark side than a church sanctuary. A UU minister of my acquaintance, known for his challenging sermons on social issues, once berated his congregation for coming to church seeking “dollops of Emersonian moral uplift.” And he’s right. A feel-good approach to religion carries the risk of moral and spiritual complacency. In refusing to confront our own wrongdoing or in fixating on vast social problems and imagining ourselves as their solutions, we locate evil somewhere “out there,” beyond the walls of our sanctuaries and our own flawed human hearts.
An image surfaces from a Woody Allen movie: robed monks shuffle around a courtyard, chanting beautiful music while rhythmically bashing their heads with boards. I have no interest in self-flagellation. In opening such a vexed subject, I could say I’m simply following the best UU tradition of restless inquiry. The idea of sin unsettles us, but as Emerson wrote, “People wish to be settled; only so far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” Emerson eventually left the ministry of a denomination so settled he called it “corpse cold,” and maybe I just want to make enough mischief to keep our blood flowing. But I also have more selfish motives. I’m willing to explore the question of sin because I’m desperate for understanding, because I’ve seen enough of life to have been brought to my knees before its mystery.
I am frankly—and, I’m afraid, unfashionably—desperate for God. I say this even though my notion of God remains fluid and at times impossibly vague. For God you may wish to substitute high self, spirit of life, creative power, interdependent web of existence, ground of Being—whatever term you use for that which has ultimate significance. I’m helped in this matter by a story from Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s Honey from the Rock, in which Kushner asks some grade school children how many of them believe in God and to his dismay not a single hand goes up. He eventually thinks to ask instead how many of them have ever been close to God. Showing no awareness of the contradiction, every child raises a hand. They tell Kushner about their closeness to God when helping their parents, when lighting Shabbos candles, when angry and sad at a grandparent’s death. Too often, Kushner writes, we get hung up on the question of “believing in” when what we really want is “closeness to.” In choosing to live close to God, I’ve decided I no longer have the luxury of waiting until I’ve figured out, intellectually and once and for all, what exactly God is.
By our middle years most of us have seen enough of grief, pain, and loss—and also of sudden, unreasoning joy—to know that life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery in which we are called to participate. For me the search is made more urgent by living with Lou Gehrig’s disease, daily evidence that my years are numbered far fewer than the three score and ten promised in the 90th Psalm.
So if I’m willing to contemplate my own sinfulness, it’s in the hope that by so doing I can draw closer to God. We may recoil from the idea of sin because it seems to name what is wrong about us. Most of us suffer feelings of unworthiness and need no further reminders of our failings, thank you. We look to religion to lift us up, not beat us down further than we’ve beaten ourselves with the twin scourges of guilt and self-loathing. And yet, at the risk of sounding like a tent revival preacher, I must ask: are we willing to be healed?
These days I find myself apologizing frequently. Out of frustration I speak harshly to my wife or children, or I neglect to carry out a promise, or I do something else especially stupid and thoughtless. I’ve grown appallingly good at saying I’m sorry. Appallingly, because I find myself apologizing for the same things day after day. Too often, when I ask forgiveness for something, when I say, “I’m sorry” or “I’ll fix it” or “I’ll clean it up” or “It won’t happen again,” what I’m really saying is “Yes, I’m sorry I forgot to pay the manure bill, I’m sorry I said your latest watercolor looked muddy, I’m sorry I stepped on the hamster, but what I really want now is to be left alone to get on with my deadbeat, hypercritical, hamster-crushing life, which, however flawed it may appear in your eyes, has its advantages, including the advantage of being able to say and do what I please.”
To break this cycle, then, I’ve found it useful, when admitting my wrongdoing, to tell myself I have sinned. Admitting that an act is not just wrong but sinful places it in a larger arena, for to sin is to tear the fabric of being, to be out of alignment not only with ourselves and those immediately before us but with the universe. I understand Unitarian Universalism’s seventh principle, “respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part,” as requiring us to acknowledge that our lives have a sacred dimension. The sinner, as one rabbi told me, believes he’s in business for himself. Atoning for one’s sins—as Jews do on Yom Kippur—means, among other things, acknowledging one’s interdependence with others and with all existence.
All world religions place wrongdoing in this larger context. Papa-krita, the Vedic Sanskrit word that comes closest to our sin, denotes any action not in accord with the cosmic order. In Taoist philosophy, Tao refers both to the fundamental nature of things and the way of being in alignment with it. The Hindu and Buddhist concept of karma acknowledges that actions arising from ego, and thus not in alignment with the order of things, affect us both in this life and lives to come. To see ourselves as capable not merely of wrongdoing but of sin is thus to take ourselves more seriously than we may find comfortable. It’s to acknowledge that what we think and say and do matters in ways beyond our ordinary understanding. And so the sacred work of healing is harder than we thought: we confront our sins to heal not only ourselves and our relationships but the universe.
I’ve gotten tiresome lately, cornering people and trying to make them talk about sin. Recently, for instance, I asked a distinguished seminary professor for his definition of the word. (We were at his son’s 50th birthday party, crowded into a farmhouse kitchen, drinking home brew out of Mason jars.) He replied, unhappily: “alienation from others and from God.” At another party (white wine and cold salmon on the screen porch, panoramic view of mountains, children frolicking on the lawn), I killed a conversation with another white-haired theology professor by mentioning St. Augustine’s admission, in his Confessions, to having suffered (and satisfied!) lustful urges while in church.
I hope I’m getting somewhere with all this. Where I think I’m getting is to the recognition that sin not only takes us away from God but opens the way back as well. If we never leave the garden, we will never get the wisdom necessary to know what we have lost. A UU minister I know, though not much inclined to God-talk, finds the biblical story of our expulsion from the garden a good metaphor for our maturation process, both psychological and spiritual. Lawrence Kushner, in Eyes Remade for Wonder, goes further, suggesting that the whole thing was a setup. Like any good parent, God knew that to grow up we would have to leave home and so put that tree there to create a pretext for kicking us out. “We have read it all wrong,” Kushner argues. “God was not angry. God rejoiced at our disobedience and then wept with joy that we could feel our estrangement and want to return home.” Sin is not merely useful, then, but necessary. Sin, in short, is the path to wisdom.
Hamartia, the Greek word translated as “sin,” is commonly understood to mean “missing the mark.” But when used in Aristotle’s Poetics, it’s translated as error, frailty, or tragic flaw. Seen this way, sin, or hamartia, is an essential part of our humanness; it brings the exalted tragic hero down to our level, bonding the audience to the hero in a community of suffering. Our errors, our frailties, our hamartia doom us to that confrontation with fate by which we gain wisdom. Both Jesus and the Buddha show the way through suffering to enlightenment and/or reunion with the divine. And yet both lives show there’s no shortcut to bliss. We must suffer our humanness. Some Tibetan Buddhists believe that after many lifetimes of advancement we can attain the status of a deity and temporarily live outside human form. But to advance to ultimate enlightenment, we must return to incarnation. It’s a sign of their high spiritual attainment that the deified humans are in fact eager to do so, despite the suffering that human life entails. Just as Jesus needed a body in order to lay it on the cross, we need our humanness in order to approach the divine.
Like the Greek hamartia, the Hebrew word translated as “sin” (chet) also means “to miss the mark.” The metaphor comes from archery, and the rabbi who told me about the word was careful to define it as “to aim and miss the mark.” Better to aim and miss, he explained, than not to aim at all. Thus when we contemplate our sins, instead of dwelling on our badness, we should ask, “What was I aiming at?” When I read about poor Augustine tormented by lustful thoughts in church, it reminded me of English novels whose heroines look forward to church every week for the chance to lay eyes on a Certain Young Man. Indeed, the boredom of Mass was made bearable for me as an adolescent only by the erotic possibilities suggested by an hour’s gazing at the back of Susan McDonough’s neck. I’m delighted to learn, after all this time, that early Hasidism developed a doctrine concerning “lascivious thoughts during prayer,” which teaches that such fantasies betoken our nearer approach to God. As Lawrence Kushner explains, “We must realize that such thoughts are in reality only rejected parts of ourselves that sense this time of great closeness to God and come out of our unconscious, yearning for redemption.”
I’m not suggesting that my adolescent urges—which, to be sure, have followed me into adulthood—are necessarily a sign of high spiritual attainment. But now, instead of condemning them—or, worse, trying to suppress them—I can ask, “What was I aiming at?” However wide of the mark my adolescent fantasies may have been, what I was aiming at ultimately was true adult love. And now that I’ve found my way to it, as a married man and father, I can understand such thoughts as reminders of where I have been aiming all along. So after stray thoughts or harsh words, I gather up my misspent arrows and ask, “How can I better love those near me? How can I better love my God?”
Sinning may not always be a matter of aiming and missing the mark. Many times we blunder out of mere thoughtlessness, when we seem not to have been aiming at all. Further, the ancient metaphor of the bow and arrow doesn’t fit the idea of original sin that develops in the modern era: sin not as a wrongful act but as an existential condition, an unavoidable separation from God that is the cost of our humanness. Still, by acknowledging our aimlessness, we may take aim for the first time. Acknowledging our separation from God, we aim for reunion.
We do not heal ourselves by scourging or rejecting our sinful parts but by drawing them into a circle of holiness made large enough to include them. There’s nothing our demons enjoy more than a good fight, nothing that confuses them more than our embrace. Our goal, always, is to transform evil through love.
For many years I avoided the whole idea of sin, remembering the aura of judgment and punishment surrounding my childhood trips to the confessional. Having to present a plausibly sinful self, I would kneel in the darkened booth and whisper exaggerated accounts of my badness into Father Sheehan’s ear on the other side of the grate. Sometimes, returning to the pews to say my Hail Marys, I would feel the relief of a burden lifted, but just as often, the ritual seemed forced and pointless.
The Catholic Church now calls confession the “Sacrament of Reconciliation,”
and it’s taken me a long time to realize that the whole point of acknowledging
our sins is to announce our openness to healing. This was brought home
to me recently when I was asked to sing a solo at a healing service being
held one Wednesday evening at our village’s Protestant church. It turned
out to be a small gathering, with only three people other than me and the
minister, a lay assistant, and my friend who was there to play the organ.
Though this was not my church, I had known everybody in attendance for
years, and the service was beautiful, with prayers and gospel readings
and long stretches of silent meditation. At the appointed time I rose on
wobbly legs and sang:
There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole.
We contemplated our sins, we prayed for ourselves and for others who needed healing, and toward the end we came forward for the laying on of hands, the minister praying briefly over each of us in turn. I had taken part in this ritual in other settings and, despite having had some powerful feelings, had always felt uneasy with that kind of ecstasy, never fully quieting my skeptical mind. But this was different. These were just ordinary folks, after all, humbly mindful of their faults and just as humbly open to the possibility of grace. There among friends in that quiet old church, we were asking for no miracle other than the ordinary miracle of love.
However often we may miss the mark, love is still our aim. Some nights I lie awake remembering that boy I was, eager to rocket heavenward and wearing the stolen helmet I thought would get me there. Now, lying in the stillness of my darkened house, sensing starlight over the fields beyond my windows, I know I’m still trying, flat on my back, aiming, counting down.
Philip Simmons is associate professor of English at Lake Forest College. Now disabled by Lou Gehrig’s disease, he lives and writes in New Hampshire.
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November 4, 1999 by the
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