Thursday, February 24, 2005

Sin

Recently I've been having an interesting email dialogue with a dedicated Christian. In response to some questions of mine, she patiently explained Christianity's view of sin. Her basic point was that sin is impurity and begins with impure thoughts - lust, anger, and so on.

My reaction was that if this is sin, then we are all guilty. If lust is equivalent to fornication, then we are all fornicators. For that matter, if anger is equivalent to murder, then nearly all of us are guilty of murder, too. I certainly am, since I have vividly imagined killing people who ticked me off (rude drivers, for instance). I wouldn't actually do it, but I can dream, can't I?

At least now I have a better understanding of why, according to Christianity, everyone is sinful. I wonder, though, if this approach to morality is really helpful or even healthy.

Years ago I was involved in Objectivism, a cultish movement that grew up around the writings (and the charismatic personality) of the novelist Ayn Rand. As an Objectivist, I was caught up in the idea of perfectionism, because Rand's morality is very perfectionistic. You must be absolutely rational all the time, must never have a thought or feeling you can't justify, must never do anything on a whim, must never give less than 100% concentration ("focus," they call it) to the task at hand, etc.

It was stultifying.

Gradually I learned the truth in the old adage, "The perfect is the enemy of the good" - i.e., in trying to be perfect, we end up paralyzed and can't accomplish anything, whereas if we just try to be good, not perfect, then we can get things done. As a simple example, if I thought I had to write a "perfect" chapter, I would freeze up and not be able to write at all. But if I just want to write a good chapter, or a good-enough chapter, I can do that.

So I have learned that perfectionism is my enemy. I have tried it, and it doesn't work.

My problem with the Christian ethics, at least as it is usually preached, is that it is profoundly perfectionistic. Jesus is even quoted as saying, "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect." Don't have the "wrong" feelings (lust or anger). Always turn the other cheek and go the extra mile. Love your enemies.

Within limits, this is excellent advice. But with no limits attached, it becomes an unreal, otherworldly formula of perfection that can never be attained.

If I were bold enough to rewrite the Bible, I would phrase these admonitions differently. I would say, "It's preferable not to experience excessive lust or anger; don't encourage it." "It's often better to turn the other cheek, if circumstances permit it." "It's emotionally healing to make peace with your enemies when you can."

The gist of the ideas is good, but the all-or-nothing quality merely inculcates guilt at not living up to a standard that no one but a perfect being could live up to, anyway.

And I wonder if my interpretation may not be closer to the original meaning of Jesus' words. I think we should consider the very real possibility - and I mean this seriously - that Jesus did not mean to be taken literally, but was exaggerating for effect.

After all, he uses exaggeration all the time. Remember the Pharisee who strained out a gnat but swallowed a camel, or the splinter in our friend's eye and the log in our own? If he could exaggerate with those sayings, why not with others? To say "Love your enemy" might be a rhetorically effective way of making a simpler point: "Try not to hold a grudge; make peace with those you're feuding with, if you can; don't nurse hatred in your heart." If understood this way, "Love your enemy" is very good advice. If taken literally, it becomes impossible. Can anyone who lost a friend or loved one on 9-11 really love Al Qaeda? And should we feel guilty about not loving them?

We can hear the "log in your eye" saying without worrying that there is an actual log in our eye. Why, then, do we insist on literalism in other sayings?

Jesus was speaking to large, restless crowds. He had to hold their interest or they would wander away. He was speaking to simple people; he couldn't get involved in complex nuances that would go over their heads. He was shouting while he stood on a hillside or in a boat - hardly the ideal way to deliver an elaborate ethical treatise. And to connect with his audience, he had to express himself in the colorful vernacular of his day. Arabic idioms are full of exaggerated imagery and rhetorical flourishes.

In short, we may be reading literally what we were meant to hear more idiomatically. "Love your enemy" gets the point across in simple, plain terms. As the condensed essence of a much more complex moral position, it is unobjectionable. If it becomes the entirety of one's morality, with no ifs, ands, or buts, then it is probably impracticable on earth.

That's my way of looking at it, anyhow. And that's why I don't think sinners are as commonplace as Christianity would have us believe. Sin is a term I would reserve for the big stuff - destructive lying and betrayal, violence and murder, abuse of power.

Most of us don't do those things. Maybe we don't have so much to feel guilty about, after all.

5 Comments:

Anonymous DH said...

I'm comfortable with Christianity because we are told we cannot be perfect and when we sin (another word for "being imperfect") it is expected and we are forgiven. We are under no illusions that perfection is possible and merely asked to do our best.

Anyway, Ayn Rand's objectivism certainly didn't make her happy. Her open and destructive affair and dare I say unChristain inablity to forgive those who didn't meet her standards made her a lonely bitter miserable woman.

I'm glad to hear you got out. I wonder if Alan Greenspan is still an objectivist?

March 16, 2005 2:57 PM  
Blogger Michael Prescott said...

DH,

Thanks for commenting! Your understanding of Christianity is probably a lot more accurate than mine. I remember seeing a bumper sticker that read, "Christians aren't perfect - just forgiven." This seems to match what you're saying. What I was thinking of was a quote attributed to Jesus in one of the Gospels - "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect." But I may be misinterpreting the quote. I don't even remember where to find it.

I don't think Alan Greenspan ever formally left the Ayn Rand movement, but as far as I know, he has no contact with it anymore. He and Leonard Peikoff, Rand's heir, don't seem to get along well.

You're right that Ayn Rand ended up bitter, angry, probably clinically depressed, and almost totally alone (having alienated her many friends and allies over the years). She ruined her marriage by engaging in an open love affair with her protege Nathaniel Branden, who then dumped her for a much younger woman. Her life, at least from about 1960 on, was a mess, a fact that even the most sympathetic biographers can't conceal. As it turns out, unbridled egoism (and the rejection of all spiritual values) is not the path to happiness, after all!

March 16, 2005 5:11 PM  
Anonymous DH said...

In many ways Rand became what she hated; rather like a communist. Rigid, demanded conformity, loathed independent thought, and a secularist's secularist. While she wanted man to reach his ultimate potential it was only within her definition of potential and by her standards. Marx had an idea of potential as well.

She is an endlessly fascinating woman.

March 16, 2005 7:16 PM  
Blogger Michael Prescott said...

I think people often become what they hate - perhaps because they (subconsciously) ascribe power to whatever it is they hate, and then wish to wield that power themselves. I found it interesting to see how Dan Rather ended up in a similar position to his bete noir, Richard Nixon. At the end, Rather (like Nixon) was stonewalling an investigation into his misconduct, insisting he was innocent even while judged guilty in the court of public opinion. His ratings collapsed (like Nixon's poll numbers), and his friends and colleagues deserted him (as the GOP abandoned Nixon). He even looks a little like Tricky Dick, with the darting eyes and fleshy, jowly face!

March 16, 2005 10:17 PM  
Anonymous DH said...

The "Rather-Nixon" analogy wouldn't survive fiction. It's too pat. Too perfect. Any fiction writer trying such a thing would be called a lazy hack.

I always wondered what would've happened to a writer who turned in a fictional story where the race for the President came down to 534 votes in a state where one of the candidates brother just happened to be Governor. And then one of the candidates asks for a recount but only in certain counties that favor him. Where the count stops and starts in the courts for 30 days until finally the SCOTUS steps in with a 5-4 decision. And, oh yeah, the guy who wins the state and ultimately the Presidency - lost the national popular vote. Real life allows contrivances we wouldn't dare accept anywhere else.

BTW, the Nixon-Rather comparison lives on! Nixon never owned up to his wrongdoing and Rather still insists no one's proved the tapes er, memos fake.

March 16, 2005 11:16 PM  

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