Abhorrent? On a weekend?! (aka Tuesdays 48: Sin and forgiveness)

I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about the whole paradigm of sin and forgiveness, and I'm starting to think that it's broken. It is an idea with a lot going for it, but the effects on a personality rarely produce a long-term positive result when it is completely followed through.

Christians are supposed to forgive others, and thereby follow in the footsteps of God's forgiveness of all humankind. By so doing, they also support the correctness of their religion by demonstrating that adherence to divinely mandated standards of behavior produces the type of individuals that everybody wants to be around.

John Weaver recently posted something about forgiveness and abuse by clergymen that gave me some new insight on the topic. Here's a quote:

I find the politics of how abuse is handled in the church deeply frustrating. I have heard abuse victims being told to forgive their abusers, and then condemned if they did not choose to do so.

As I read it, the attitude that frustrates John is one in which the victim's lack of forgiveness is more troubling to those in authority than the perpetrator's crime, not to mention the perpetrator's repentance or lack thereof. In such a situation, the mandate to forgive is being selectively enforced as a means of social control, rather than universally enforced as a means of spiritual transformation. The weak are always required to forgive, but the strong are not always required to refrain from doing harm. Which is exactly the sort of attitude that having a close, personal relationship with God is supposed to help people eradicate from themselves and fight against in their social groups.

Dave and I recently watched an episode of Scientific American Frontiers that was all about chimps. (It's an awesome PBS show, hosted by Alan Alda--reruns air on Saturday mornings at some freakishly early hour, but thanks to our DVR we can watch at our leisure.) In between interviews with Jane Goodall and disturbing images of the bush meat trade, we got to see a center where they study the apes' social behavior. As it turns out, chimpanzee groups function using some of the basic building blocks of morality. Generous sharing is repaid by favors, fighting and selfish behavior are punished, senior members of the group mentor younger members of the group in appropriate action, etc. (Here's an article with some further info on the topic.) Moral behavior in chimps can help a group band together and cooperate in ways necessary to succeed in inter-group warfare, or survive hostile conditions in their environment.

The main distinction I can see between the human capacity for morality and that of the chimpanzee is that we have the ability to expand our moral compass--to apply the rules of good behavior to everyone, not just those who are already our allies. I say merely that we have the ability because we don't always use it. Whether it's a racial-supremacist group claiming that everyone outside their little genetic pool deserves to die, a high school clique whose members feel they don't have to be polite to other kids who aren't part of the "in" crowd, or a church whose members have collectively forgotten that heretics are people too, we can all succumb to our ancient instincts. But we each have the ability to move beyond that kind of insular attitude. We can teach ourselves to believe that all strangers are potential allies, that no person deserves to be branded an enemy in our minds unless they, as an individual, have wronged us, and that forgiveness and reconciliation, when such are possible, are always preferable to hostility and estrangement.

To me, the doctrine of original sin is meant to be a symbolic formula for inducing this transformation in the minds of people who believe in it. It goes something like this: "An omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God is the head of a tribe which includes all humanity. He is the model for all behavior towards all people. I have wronged him, but he has forgiven me, even though he knows I will inevitably wrong him again. Therefore I must conform my behavior to the model he has provided for me, and forgive others even when my instincts tell me not to do so." If a person takes this bit of emotional algebra in and invests belief in it, then it will allow them to transform their personality in a way that overrides the instinctive human desire to use a double standard of morality. They will be able to adhere to a single moral code and apply it equally to all people, out of deference to the ultimate authority of God.

But like any other piece of perfectly nice emotional algebra, like any other symbolically encoded belief, forgiveness for original sin is subject to the same types of shortcuts I discussed back in Tuesdays 46. Much like the doctrine of predestination, you really only need to change one part of one element in original sin to completely negate its transformative power. Let's say that, instead of "God has forgiven me, even though he knows I will inevitably wrong him again", a person processed the belief as "God has forgiven me, because I have promised to try to obey him in the future."

An easy enough mistake to make, to be sure! In emotional terms the new version is less counterintuitive and easier to swallow. But it has changed the terms of the contract between God and supplicant. Instead of forgiveness offered freely, what you have is forgiveness offered in exchange for submission.

The eventual effect of this will be the double standard reborn, in a slightly different form. Submission to God's authority is required in order to obtain God's forgiveness. And since the interaction between the believer and God is the model for all other relationships, those who are under the authority of other human beings must submit to that authority. If they do not, they lose their status as bona fide members of the human authority figure's group, just as they would lose God's forgiveness if they ceased submitting to his authority.

But wait! you may be thinking. All I've really done so far is to support the traditional beliefs of Christianity--that it is good to believe humans are saved from their inherent sinfulness by grace alone. So why shouldn't we just go ahead and believe in Christianity, but be very very careful to believe exactly as the Bible instructs, without changing "one jot or tittle"? And what does any of it have to do with chimpanzees?

A belief is a hardworking thing. It doesn't just sit there in the back of your personality, to be taken out and dusted off when you're having a philosophical discussion. Belief shapes action the same way a spaghetti machine shapes dough. (I almost used a much less pleasant metaphor!) It forces out all the nebulous potential for effort, attention, and affection inside the personality through a rigidly defined set of possible means of expression, which imposes limitations but also provides direction and form.

In order for a belief to perform this important function, it needs to have the following essential qualities:
1. a positive value judgment (X is valuable and to be sought)
2. a negative value judgment (Y is not valuable and to be avoided)
3. a motive for accepting the belief (which binds the person's mana to it and allows it to be integrated into the structure of the personality)

(Keeping in mind my definition of "mana", which, similar to Freud's "libido", is the combined potential of the personality to produce effort, attention and affection. Dog, I really need to post a glossary one of these days. Or maybe an NAQ--Never Asked Questions. Yeah. I like the sound of that.)

The Christian concept of sin and forgiveness contains the first two elements, but the third is a cipher. The doctrine makes logical sense, but on an emotional level the would-be believer is faced with a nasty fill-in-the-blank. God offers forgiveness of sin. God also commands obedience to his moral standards--but not, we are told in no uncertain terms, in exchange for forgiveness of sin. The two interactions are part of the same relationship, but we are to consider them as being completely separate from one another in terms of causation. Forgiveness of sin is exchanged for repentance. Obedience, again according to doctrine, may be correlated with repentance, but we are not to presume to know the extent to which they are linked. What, then, is the motive which will allow the would-be believer to integrate God's moral commands into the day-to-day functions of their personality? I've already discussed "submission to God's authority" as a possible answer, so let's look at some others:

--Nothing. After all, God offers forgiveness freely. So long as one is prepared to apologize to God for all sins, one is perfectly free to keep committing them. For reasons of social pressure and/or cognitive dissonance, however, many people who try this one in practice usually either ease their way out of the religion entirely or switch to a different motive.

--Peer pressure. This one swaps out adherence to God's commands for adherence to those of God's commands that are actively enforced by the members of one's social group. It's not doctrinally sound and hence doesn't produce the personality transformation, but it is extremely practical and satisfies all the instinctive cravings humans have for peer reinforcement of beliefs and hierarchical social structure based on adherence to a group-specific worldview. And hey, free other-determined identity!

--Gratitude. Now, gratitude for divine favor is is a beloved talking point with the more superstition-minded elements in Christianity ("God got me this great new car!"), but this is a distortion that radically changes what the religion is all about. These types of believers aren't in it for an immaculate Christ who died to make it possible to obtain God's forgiveness; they're after a fairy godfather who will bring prosperity and good luck to those who play nice and wish really hard for the things they want.
But the kind of gratitude I'm talking about here is a whole different animal. Original sin means that all humans were born lacking the ability to make a spiritual connection with God--or that we have it as children, but lose it as soon as we develop the capacity to think for ourselves. The reason God created us was so that he could enjoy being connected to us, so when this is not possible, we have zero value. Christ's sacrifice allows us to fulfill our purpose again, which raises our value from zero to infinity. (Anything God wants is of infinite positive value. That's the nice thing about divinity.) Therefore we should have infinite gratitude. Looked at logically, this is a tautology, a circular argument: obey God because obey God. Looked at emotionally, it's actually a subtler version of the submission to authority motive: God is the only one who has the authority to determine value. If you obey God, you are valuable. If you do not obey God, you are worthless.
Now, it is possible for this to degrade into the same situation we ran into with submission to authority. If a believer acknowledges any other human being as more capable than themselves of interpreting God's judgments, then that person becomes a proxy for God, and as such can dispense judgments of ultimate value or worthlessness. But since, with gratitude, the thing for which the believer is grateful comes directly from God, it is possible to avoid this problem.

So, as far as I'm concerned, gratitude is the only remotely usable motive on this list. Using this motive, a person can bind the Christian moral code into the functional framework of their personality, apply its constraints to guide their actions, and expand their moral compass so that these morals affect their interactions with all humans, not just those within their group of allies. Here's where it gets interesting.

Any unrepented sin severs the connection between a person and God, changing their status from "saved and infinitely valuable" to "damned and completely worthless." Remember, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in life are not punishments for sin--they are the inevitable results of living in a world where sin exists. The only punishment for sin is in the afterlife. But since each sin is equally able to cause damnation, each requires a new act of repentance. And in between the commission of a new sin and its corresponding repentance, the believer's understanding of themselves must change to mirror their status in the eyes of God. Repentance is always possible, because God never stops forgiving, but is also constantly necessary, because human beings are innately flawed and can never stop sinning.

This sets up a non-stop rollercoaster, filled with constant heart-pounding peril and narrow escapes. Every situation is a life-or-death situation, and every misstep ushers in the specter of ultimate doom. "Oh no! I'm damned! Please help me, God, I regret this as much as I've ever regretted anything! Phew, now I'm saved. I better not do anything like that agai--oh, no, I'm damned!" The believer's mind and heart stand to attention at all times, teetering on a razor's edge between the terror of absolute guilt and the bliss of divine absolution.

No personality can sustain this. Flipping back and forth between maximum self-worth and total self-loathing requires a level of energy that would, if mana were heat, strain the resources of a small sun. It is horribly inefficient and totally impracticable. (The character of Joan of Arc in The Messenger seems to have managed it, but in real life that level of intensity tends to result in total gibbering mental breakdown rather than heroic feats of wonder.) Instead, in practice a person will gradually work their way into an equilibrium at some random point on the spectrum between the two.

If they land somewhere in the middle, the drama and magic of their faith will fade with time, as the emotional energy required to hope for salvation and fear damnation gets siphoned off into other personality functions.

If they land somewhere near the bottom, the constant self-loathing and desperate need to constantly obtain reassurance of God's forgiveness can have one of three effects. They can become whimpering automatons and retreat from reality. They can become so convinced of their own inability to reach God that they look to others to provide reassurance--thus switching to the peer pressure motive and losing their expanded moral compass. Or, like me, they can leave the religion entirely.

If they land somewhere near the top, they will usually take the euphoria of the assurance of salvation as a license to arrogate the value-determining powers of God. As one of God's favored, saved individuals, they come to believe they possess a special insight into what he wants from others. They will often then use this assumed moral authority to attempt to gain social power over others. A rare individual here and there is able to refrain from doing this, and these are the humble, happy Christians who see the bright side of everything and are kind and compassionate to everyone no matter how bad things get. I don't know that I've ever seen one outside of fiction; those I've met in person who vaguely resemble this ideal were some of the loopiest, shallowest, most gullible saps I've ever wanted to run away from screaming. Once or twice I've run across a humble-before-God-but-not-you Christian who had high self-esteem and felt they had a special insight into God's judgments, but also used that insight on themselves and as many of their own flaws and failings as they were willing to consciously acknowledge. I have more respect for them than any other type of Christian. But on the other hand, I've met non-Christians with the exact same qualities, who felt they had developed the ability to make sound moral judgments on their own, and were equally willing to apply those judgments to themselves as to other people.

The point of all this brings me back to the chimpanzees. We all have to learn to live with each other, just like the chimps do. We have to learn to behave in ways that make us functional members of a social unit, people other people want to be around, just like apes need to act like the kind of apes other apes want to be around. And as a human being, I want to be able to expand my moral compass to the point where I consider every individual my ally who has not specifically earned my enmity. It is an incredibly delicate and exacting task all by itself.

Original sin and divine forgiveness does offer a pre-defined set of moral values and an emotional algebra which makes it possible to expand my moral compass to include every other person in existence. But it is also a belief set which, at the very best, drops me into an infinite emotional loop from which I must somehow escape before I can even take up the work of constructing my personality to meet the challenges of everyday life. And once I have done so, I've got a set of moral values whose real-life applications I must work out for myself and an identity forged in the tension between my attitude towards the actions I take and the opinions my allies have of me. Plus one extra ally, God--whose opinion of me is either absolutely supportive or absolutely condemnatory or both at the same time, depending on what I've been up to lately and how deeply I'm willing to think it through. And gives me the opportunity to either completely support or completely condemn the people around me, depending on what I know about what they've been up to lately and how deeply I'm willing to think it through.

In other words, it costs a lot, leaves me exactly where I started, and imposes behavioral constraints not of my choosing in the process.

This is why I vastly perefer to invest my belief in a more biological-style model of the afterlife. If we can continue to participate in life in some altered form after our current bodies stop working, then I don't have any problem with the idea that life on that side is kind of like life on this side. Uncertain, difficult, sometimes fun, sometimes unbearable, and constantly changing. I could live with that.


Amber E said...

Interesting well thought out post. Would you be willing to reconsider some premises? For example "But since each sin is equally able to cause damnation, each requires a new act of repentance." does not seem to me to be actual Christian theology. It could definitely be a common misconception.

As you have time I would definitely recommend a study of the book of Romans.

In Romans 4:4-5
"Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. 5However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. "

So the way I read this is that it is not repentance even but faith that gives us righteousness and salvation.

Romans 8:1-2
" 1Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,[a] 2because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death."

To me this says that I do not lose salvation even if I fall into sin. I should repent and should desire good and not to sin but sin does not obviate the free fit of salvation.

Also in Romans 8 this continues to give the perspective of continual grace:
"31What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36As it is written:
"For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered."[l] 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[m] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Also if you read Matthew chapter 26 Jesus knows that Peter is going to deny him 3 times. Not once does he threaten him with damnation.

Later in chapter 26
"51With that, one of Jesus' companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.

52"Put your sword back in its place," Jesus said to him, "for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. 53Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? 54But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?"
Jesus exhorts people to have faith but does not say that his follower has lost his salvation because of anger or lack of faith.

Okay, back to Peter. Jesus obviously knew beforehand what Peter was going to do. If we look back at Matthew 16 let's see what Jesus said to the guy:
"7Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you that you are Peter,[c] and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades[d] will not overcome it.[e] 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be[f] bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be[g] loosed in heaven."

Telling Peter that on this rock (we can argue later over whether Jesus meant Peter to be the first Pope or if he was just saying something like the rock of his faith) but this doesn't sound to me like Jesus expected Peter to lose his salvation with each sin...

Not trying to be picky but I just wanted to give you so food for thought and reflection. Love you and stay warm.


Fiat Lex said...

Thank you for a well-thought-out response!

So as I read the delicious textev you've assembled for me, the doctrinal position of Christianity is as follows: Once a person has accepted Christ, their salvation is assured regardless of their future sinful actions, level of faith, or repentance status.

In my post, I'd talked about forgiveness of sins and obedience to divine standards of morality as separate interactions in the God-penitent relationship. This separation is even stronger than I'd thought! A person must still select a motive to attach to their understanding of the Christian belief structure, in order to be able to integrate those beliefs as active parts of the everyday functioning of their personality. So fear of subsequent damnation is not a doctrinally sound addendum even to the submission-to-authority motive. Which doesn't stop people from using it in practice, but does mean we can eliminate it from serious discussion here, as we did with the "fairy godfather gratitude" type motive.

And the non-stop emotional rollercoaster of "oh yay! oh no!" would itself be doctrinally unsound. Again, doesn't stop people from using it in practice, but it does mean that if I'm going to discuss the belief absorption process I need to take a second look at that part of it.

I will do some pondering on the topic this afternoon. What, in practice, can a person use to motivate themselves to obey a set of moral standards once the threat of punishment for disobedience has been removed?