Thursday, December 05, 2013

Sin? What Sin?

(NOTE: This begins a series of essays on the Seven Deadly Sins, aka the Seven Capital Vices.  Over the centuries, people far smarter than I have differed on exactly which "sins" or "vices" should be included in the list.  The most widely known list of seven would be Pride, Covetousness (greed and avarice ), Envy (jealousy), Wrath (anger), Lust, Gluttony, and Sloth (acedia).  For purposes beyond semantics, I am going to synthesize the "common" seven with the scholarly additions and distinctions that we find in the writings of such men as Gregory the Great, Saint Bonaventure and, of course, the mighty Thomas Aquinas.  There are very important distinctions to be made, for example, between Pride and Vainglory; and between Envy and Covetousness.  I will attempt to do this without falling into legalese.)

~~  "Sin can be seen as a dynamic, insidious force that is somewhat like a disease or addiction that works to unravel the human person, making him a slave of sin and alienating him from his ultimate end."  -Andrew Sodergren   ~~

Over the past few years, I've taken the time to write on the virtues (Faith, Hope, Love/Charity, Prudence, Justice, Temperance, Fortitude).  I hope you have had a chance to read those pieces.  My daughter suggested a while back that I should do the same for the dreaded "Seven Deadly Sins" (hereafter called the "Capital Vices" in keeping with those great minds who first coined the terms-- most notably Gregory the Great and St Thomas Aquinas).  I have resisted this for a few reasons, I think.  First, I am very good at making excuses for not writing (I'm busy... life is too hectic right now... etc., ad nauseam).  Second, and probably more accurate, the thought of it unsettles me.  When I am going to examine and really delve into something, I take it seriously-- and it always touches me deep inside.  When researching the virtues, for example, I felt quite... virtuous.  Thinking deeply on the virtues, immersing myself in all the great writings and the lofty prose - all of it describing mankind's highest aim and best nature - had the effect of lifting me.  So, I ask myself, what will immersion into the darkness of this subject do to me?  Anyway, I think I have reconciled that for the moment, and so I will undertake the project.

It is sad, but necessary, that I must remind you that moral relativism has brought our world to the point where not everyone even thinks there is such a thing as "sin" anymore.  In fact, our society shuns the term itself and frowns (or worse) upon anyone who uses it.  It is beyond ironic that even a well-known atheist (and a particularly vicious anti-Christian) gets it:

~~  "Everything that used to be a sin is now a disease."  --Bill Maher  ~~

Modern secularists now seem to hold all the cards.  They have brought "if it feels good, do it" to the level of status quo.  I can, therefore I ought is now the definition of liberty.  

"For you were called for freedom, brothers. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for sin."  -Galatians 5:13 

They do not believe that God is watching because they do not believe, really, in God.  Ivan Karamazov in Dostoyevsky’s classic novel "The Brothers Karamazov" said that if God does not exist, then everything is permitted.  Here is a short excerpt from a great book, "The Devil's Delusion" by David Berlinski:  “What Hitler did not believe and what Stalin did not believe and what Mao did not believe and what the SS did not believe and what the Gestapo did not believe and what the NKVD did not believe and what the commissars, functionaries, swaggering executioners, Nazi doctors, Communist Party theoreticians, intellectuals, Brown Shirts, Black Shirts, gauleiters, and a thousand party hacks did not believe that God was watching what they were doing. And as far as we can tell, very few of these carrying out the horrors of the twentieth century worried overmuch that God was watching what they were doing either.”(pp 26-27)

In our modern world, a "sin" is now merely an affront to another person - not to God... and even then, it only counts as a transgression if it is against some law, or (more importantly) against some precept of political correctness.  Ironically, calling a sin a sin is now seen as the crime of being "intolerant;" the chief "sin" against society that one can perpetrate.

Just before he was elected Pope, Benedict XVI gave an address in which he accused modern culture of "building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires."  Yes. Everything is okay and no one is wrong for wanting whatever they want.

~~  “To sin is a human business, to justify sins is a devilish business.”  
--Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy   ~~

Bingo!  All one has to do is look around to see the decay of our society.  Since we have become so "tolerant," the values that held this country together are now faint and, at best, background noise.  The "civil society" that our brilliant founders established is now anything but.  Giving "freedom" to people without a strong moral code is the societal equivalent of giving a machine-gun to a monkey.    

It is plain to see that we do not live in a vacuum.  My sins do not only hurt me, and drag me down the wrong path, they also can harm others around me.  These "Social Sins" that harm others can also lead them to sins of their own.  When my sins and your sins and everyone else's sins are no longer seen as "sinful," they lose the proper stigma that used to keep them more of a rarity, and begin to drag down the whole society.  John Paul II called this the "communion of sin."  All of these sinful actions-- demonstrably harmful-- are now accepted by society, and there is even an air of encouragement to sin.  We all need to keep in mind that social acceptance of a moral sin does not absolve the individual of his responsibility. This is the great tragedy of America... we have turned our back on the most deadly thing in existence- and are whistling past the graveyard as we pretend that it (sin) does not exist.

~~    "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."  --John Adams   ~~

Whether for an individual or society as a whole, righteous thoughts and actions develop virtues... immoral or disordered thoughts and actions develop something else - vices and structures of sin, which lead to further vices and sins directing us toward disintegration.

~~  "Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny."  --Ralph Waldo Emerson   ~~

So, let's define this "sin" thing in terms that will help us going forward.  Now, you may not be particularly "religious" and therefore not inclined to see sin through the lens of organized dogma.  That's fine, because I don't believe it matters as much as people on both sides of the issue might think-- at least for the sake of agreement that sins are quite detrimental.  The fact is, sin is antithetical to our well-being.  Very hard to argue with that in any logical way.  Anyway, my view of sin has obviously been somewhat shaped by my Catholic faith, but I've learned a lot more about it from sources that do not rely on divine revelation-- not the least of whom is Thomas Aquinas, who, although Catholic, wrote with pure and strong logic.  For the remainder of this piece, I'll lean heavily on scripture and other religious things; but please understand that even without those, we are still talking about a fundamentally troubling and harmful aspect of human nature.   

In the Old Testament, sin is painted as several things: an act of disobedience (Genesis 2:16-17; 3:11; Isaiah 1:2-4; Jeremiah 2:32); an insult to God (Numbers 27:14); something detested and punished by God (Genesis 3:14-19; Genesis 4:9-16); harmful to the sinner (Tobit 12:10); to be atoned by penance (Psalm 1:19). In the New Testament, it is very clear that sin is a violation of the law (Romans 2:23; 5:12-20); a servitude which Grace can liberate us from (Romans 6:16-18); a disobedience (Hebrews 2:2) punished by God (Hebrews 10:26-31).  John calls sin an offense to God, disorder of the will (John 12:43), and iniquity (1 John 3:4-10).  

Jesus taught all about the nature and extent of sin-- adding internal acts to the mix, which was not thought of or known before that.  His new law was more perfect than the old law-- and more intense in many ways.  In the Sermon on the Mount, He calls many acts sins which had previously not been called such in the old law.  He went after scandal, infidelity, hypocrisy... and He taught us that sin comes from the heart (Matthew 15:19-20).  In short, Jesus jumped deeply into the true nature of sin, and He brought a fresh understanding of the danger of sin; and most importantly, He brought fresh hope in the fight against sin.

Sin is a moral evil, so we first have to say what evil is (you know, that thing that the secular modernist says does not exist).  The mighty Thomas Aquinas calls evil a "privation of form or order or due measure."  By this, he means that since only God has essential being, then only God is perfectly good in that being.  Everything (and everyone) else only has limited being, which in due proportion of form or order and measure is in its own degree good.  When there is a deficiency or privation in that form or order and measure, evil comes in.  It comes in as the acts, desires and needs of individuals outside the accord of reason.  St Thomas rightly points out that "God has endowed us with reason and free-will, and a sense of responsibility; He has made us subject to His law, which is known to us by the dictates of conscience, and our acts must conform with these dictates, otherwise we sin."

The venerable St Augustine defined mortal sin as "Dictum vel factum vel concupitum contra legem æternam."  That is something said, done, or desired contrary to the eternal law - or a thought, word, or deed contrary to the eternal law. 

So, then, virtue is caused by the subordination of the appetite to reason, or to the unchangeable or immutable good, which is God; whereas vice/sin comes from the appetite for some transitory or mutable good.

This is a good time to mention Aquinas' and St Paul's admonitions to us that when we violate our own conscience, we are sinning.  Even if our conscience is mistaken, we must listen to it, because it is our closest link to God.

   "Thou hast a good conscience? Keep it a matter between thyself and God; he is fortunate, who can make his own choice without self-questioning.  He who hesitates, and eats none the less, is self-condemned; he acts in bad conscience, and wherever there is bad conscience, there is sin."  
-Romans 14: 22-23   

So, now we know what sin is, and that it is extremely harmful to the individual and to the society; and we know that our own conscience is our best defense against it.  Now, a quick look at what causes sin.  There are interior and exterior efficient causes of sin.  Interior causes include passion, malice, and ignorance.  The exterior causes are, quite simply, Satan and man (through suggestion, temptation, persuasion, bad example, etc.)  It looks like this: the complete cause of sin is the will, which is regulated by reason, and is acted upon by the appetites.  By the way, God could never be the cause of sin or evil without self-contradiction, since He directs all things to Himself (and He is the ultimate end to all of His actions). 

Now, having defined it and discussed what causes it, we will look at the effects of sin.  They are manifold and there would be no way to have an exhaustive list of all of them.  They include physical maladies, mental anguish, inclination toward future sin (habit), hardening of the will (Matthew 13:14-15; Romans 11:8; etc.), and-- if you so believe-- punishments inflicted after death.  

First and foremost, though, the effect of sin on us mortals is to pull us away from our true last end-- that is God-- and therefore deprive our souls of His Grace.  Sins keep us in a habitual aversion from God (remember Emerson's words above).  This deprivation of Grace by the stain of sin is mentioned frequently in the bible (e.g., Isaiah 4:4; 1; Joshua 22:17;  Corinthians 6:11).  Even with no other effects, this one would be plenty bad enough.  If you can't bring yourself to admit that losing God's Grace is a real danger that you should worry about, then you can be content to consider all of the empirical and inarguable effects of bad behavior.

~~  “Sin is not hurtful because it is forbidden, but it is forbidden because it is hurtful.”  --Benjamin Franklin  ~~

A short note on prevention.  We discussed our own conscience being our best defense against falling into the trap of sin.  I take it as a matter of purest fact that, even though there is evil galore all around us every day; none of it can ever really harm us unless it gets inside of us.  We can traverse the perilous waters of this world like a mighty ship, and so long as we don't let the water inside the hull, we will not sink.  (Note: that may be the epitome of "easy to say, hard to do.")

Here's a quick and interesting look at two great minds thinking of the question of sin.  One is a pagan and the other, by some accounts, a deist.  They both get it (I love how Jefferson clearly read Plato and ran with it).

~~  “Pleasure is the bait of sin.”  --Plato  ~~

~~  “Do not bite at the bait of pleasure, till you know there is no hook beneath it.”  --Thomas Jefferson  ~~

Well, now we know what sin is, what causes it, and what effect it has on us.  So, finally, I can start us down the originally discussed path of singling out the Seven Capital Vices.  Of course, we'll start with Aquinas' words of definition from the Summa Theologia:  "A capital vice is that which has an exceedingly desirable end so that in his desire for it, a man goes on to the commission of many sins; all of which are said to originate in that capital vice as their chief source."  

Ah- so it is not really the gravity of the vice itself that makes it capital, but actually the fact that it sparks and begins many other sins.  Brilliant and infinitely reasonable (of course).

So, we all know the big seven, right?  

Vainglory (Pride)
Envy (Jealousy)
Covetousness (Greed - Avarice )
Wrath (Anger)

I'll get busy with the first one as soon as I can.  Schedule is rather jam-packed in the coming weeks, but I'll try to keep that old excuse from hindering me too much.

Off we go, fellow sinners!

God bless!


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