It’s Over
Mahler’s 2nd

The Essence of Sin

Sunday Night Journal — December 7, 2008

This is still another follow-up on the topic of sin and defiance. In email conversation with a friend (two different friends, actually) after last Sunday’s journal, I tried to articulate what I believe to be the essence of sin, and this is what I came up with: it is to see the light, to know that it is the light, and to turn away from it.

I really only have myself as a laboratory specimen for investigating this proposition, but when I think of what happens in my own mind when I sin, that’s what I see. The words I’ve given above are, of course, not entirely adequate. Or perhaps I should say they are too adequate, because they are an analytic statement, a disassembly, of something that is, often, a single mental event. And even if it is a lengthy process in time it is, finally, a single act. I don’t know what responsibility one has if one sees the light without recognizing it. But it is impossible to recognize it without making a decision as to whether to go toward it or away from it.

It’s easy to see this act in a small event. Take detraction, for instance: in a conversation you find you have the opportunity to reveal some minor misdeed or failing of a person which others really have no right or need to know. But you don’t like this person, and you’ll enjoy letting others know of the fault. There’s the sudden tug of the desire to do it, and the simultaneous discomfort of knowing that you shouldn’t, and then either the continued discomfort of suppressing the urge, or the almost physical sensation of shoving your conscience aside, followed by the pleasurable release of telling your tale.

It’s not only in directly and specifically moral acts that this happens. There is a broader and more fundamental decision which orients one’s entire life. One of the friends with whom I was discussing this mentioned the idea that God gives everyone enough reason to believe in him, and I think that’s true; I would even say it must be true, or else God would not be just. But that obviously doesn’t mean that he gives everyone an opportunity to say yes or no to the Nicene Creed. It must mean that everyone, by virtue of being human, can see something of the light that is God, and know, even if he does not use the word “God,” that he is seeing what is good and true and beautiful. And that everyone must make that fundamental decision, either to attempt to follow that light—never mind how often he fails or blunders—or to turn away from it toward something that seems more desirable, something that demands that he turn away from goodness and truth and beauty.

Of course it’s a continuing decision, beginning when one becomes conscious enough to make it and ending when one ceases to be so conscious. And to be damned is to persevere in the decision to turn away.

Why would anyone do that? Surely anyone who (for instance) chooses wealth as his God must discover eventually, even if it’s in the last instant of life, that he is wrong. And why, having made that discovery, would he not repent?

In the end, it seems, the answer to that question must be pride. Pride at the end leads to Hell, obviously. I think there is also a way that pride at the beginning may set one on the path to Hell, and make it very difficult to get off that path. And it’s a form of pride that’s especially characteristic of our time: intellectual pride, the refusal to believe anything that cannot be proved “scientifically,” that is, by physical evidence or a narrow sort of logic very well suited for investigating the behavior of matter but almost useless in questions of the spirit. Surely this pride keeps many a man or woman from acknowledging that the light really exists as something more than a subjective experience.

Some time ago in the comments here we were discussing this question, and the necessity for the believer to move forward even in the absence of quasi-scientific proofs of the faith. And someone (I don’t remember who) said something like “If you see light, why should you not move toward it?”—with the implication being that anything you could say or deduce or prove about the light is secondary to the fact that you know it is the light. I was really struck by this, and it has helped me to fret less about intellectual difficulties. Even if we cannot satisfy our intellects that God is real, we all, every one of us, sense an obligation to follow the light, and if pride keeps us from doing so we will lose our souls.

Voltaire said “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” I’ll go a step further: even if God did not exist it would be necessary to follow him; the obligation to follow the light would retain its force. And I don’t mean simply the obligation to do the right thing; I mean also the obligation to believe the right thing, as far as we are capable of understanding it: to believe that truth and beauty and goodness are real and that they ultimately matter. We sense the obligation to do this even if our intellect tells us otherwise. And that may be a proof of God’s existence, a proof built into our souls.



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