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 Notes towards a definition of Sin


'A man, given the fact that he is being corrupted by the "moth" of time, does not like the intrusion of eternity into his life and is not easily able to adapt himself to it. He often considers this intrusion to be sheer unforgiveable insolence ...'
Father Justin Popovic: The Inward Mission of our Church (1)

A few years ago I was looking for a formula that would express in as few words as possible at once what it is in Christian teaching that distinguishes it from the teaching of other major religions; and also a sort of bedrock of doctrine that all the major Christian denominations could be said to hold in common. The formula I came up with went as follows:

'The principle idea unique to Christianity is the idea of salvation - that mankind is in a fallen state from which it cannot escape by its own efforts. Human beings are condemned by the justice of God and require to be saved by a force external to themselves. That force is identified with the Founder of the Christian religion; and because, for His work to be effective, there can be no question of His will conflicting with that of the just God, or His power being less, He is identified with that God through the doctrine of the Trinity.' (2)

At the time I wrote that I considered myself to be an atheist and I was particularly interested and immersed in the literature of the Calvinist tradition. I had little if any knowledge of the Eastern Orthodox tradition. If I were to rewrite it now I would put less emphasis on the 'judicial' aspect - 'Human beings are condemned by the justice of God'. This is indeed one of the points that can be said to differentiate the Western and Eastern traditions - a distinction that may go back a long time. The West sees the problem in terms of an offence that requires to be punished; the Eastern tradition will certainly use that same image but it does not see this as the essence of the problem. The separation of the concept of 'sin' from the concept of 'crime' is a major theme of the argument I want to develop. For the moment I will just observe that the etymological origin of the word 'sin' lies in an Old English word that refers to a punishable offence, while the Greek word hamartia means, I am told, 'missing the target', something, in other words, that is headed in the wrong direction. (3)

Nevertheless there are some elements in my inadequate attempt to define what is distinctive in Christian doctrine that I would wish to retain: 'mankind is in a fallen state from which it cannot escape by its own efforts.' We are not what God created us to be and we cannot become what God created us to be through our own efforts. The concept of sin I shall be developing bears some resemblance to the Buddhist concept of suffering. But in the Buddhist concept it is only by our own effort that we can be saved, that we can escape out of the endless cycle of suffering. We have many - indeed an indefinite number of - lives in which to do so. We have the help of spiritual leaders, of gods, of buddhas; but they are essentially guides, telling us what we should do. In Christianity we only have one life in which the drama of salvation can be played out and the work is essentially a work of God. The different Christian traditions disagree on the extent to which we can contribute to this work, and on the actual mechanism by which the work is accomplished, but essentially it is a work of God, Who has Himself assumed human flesh and overcome the power of sin and death through His own death and resurrection.

The life of Christ, then, His teaching, His death, His resurrection, is the solution to a problem - a problem that is so enormous that we cannot solve it ourselves, a problem that can only be solved - with difficulty - by the Creator of the Universe Himself.

Before developing this further and approaching the question whether this notion is or isn't true, it is necessary to remind ourselves that for millions of people over hundreds of years it has been credible. They have been told that they are being sucked into a swamp of sin and corruption so terrible and all-encompassing that only God Himself can save them. And they have believed it. Whether or not they have felt it corresponded point by point to their actual experience they have certainly felt that it was not ridiculous, it was not radically incompatible with their own experience.

The Church of England, for example, has often been criticised as a complacent, rather smug and self satisfied church in which the consciousness of sin and of the need for penitence were relatively weak. But if we look at the Book of Common Prayer we find that every time Anglicans came to Morning or Evening Prayer they would be exhorted by the priest:

'Dearly beloved brethren, the Scripture moveth us, in sundry places, to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness; and that we should not dissemble nor cloak them before the face of Almighty God our heavenly Father; but confess them with an humble, lowly, penitent, and obedient heart; to the end that we may obtain forgiveness of the same, by his infinite goodness and mercy.'

This was followed by the General Confession which included the words: 'there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.'

And at Holy Communion the parishioners were urged:

'For as the benefit is great, if with a true penitent heart and lively faith we receive that holy Sacrament ... so is the danger great, if we receive the same unworthily. For then we are guilty of the Body and Blood of Christ our Saviour; we eat and drink our own damnation, not considering the Lord's Body; we kindle God's wrath against us; we provoke him to plague us with divers diseases, and sundry kinds of death.'

I have put this in the past tense because, although the Book of Common Prayer is still supposedly in use, it has been largely replaced by the Alternative Prayer Book in which the language used is much weaker. A similar development has occurred in the Roman Catholic Church. But it has not occurred in the Orthodox Church. All acts of prayer in the Orthodox Church are prefaced with the words: "Most Holy Trinity have mercy on us; O Lord blot out our sins; O Master, pardon our iniquities; O Holy One, visit and heal our infirmities for Thy name's sake ...' The daily cycle of prayers is punctuated with repetitions of Psalm 51 (50), most powerful of the penitential psalms:

'Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know mine iniquity, and my sin is ever before me. Against Thee only have I sinned and done this evil before Thee, that Thou mightest be justified in Thy words, and prevail when Thou art judged. For behold, I was conceived in iniquities, and in sin did my mother bear me.'

A prayer of St Basil the Great used every morning talks of 'our supplications which we, daring because of the multitude of Thy compassions, offer Thee at the present time from defiled lips ...'

I could go on indefinitely. The point I am making is twofold. First, that in passages of this kind the Church is stating the problem to which Christianity, the life of Christ, is the solution; secondly, that down the ages Christians have received this as credible in the light of their own experience of the world - and many have found it so compelling that they have even gone so far as to attempt what Jesus tells them to do: 'If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.' (Matt 19.21)

However, the fact that the churches nowadays are retreating from this kind of language suggests that it no longer seems so credible, the problem of sin is not so all-pervasive, we no longer talk of our 'manifold sins', our 'defiled lips', we no longer think of ourselves as sunk in iniquity. Something has changed. Clearly the draining away of the more violent expressions of consciousness of sin in both Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism is a deliberate decision; the case for it must have been advanced and argued and a literature must exist on the subject which I confess I don't know. But certainly all my life I have heard people saying that Christianity was too much obsessed with sin, that it was too gloomy, that the Gospel is joyful news, that Christianity is the religion of the Resurrection not just of the Crucifixion etc etc.

The Good News of the Gospel is, however, that there is now a possibility of salvation, of cure. But it is difficult to know why we should need salvation if there is no danger, or why we should need a cure if there is no disease. I am reminded of a passage by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard, writing in the mid-nineteenth century, observes that almost the whole population of Denmark claims to be Christian and that the state church in Denmark exhorts its parishioners to lead good, decent, moderate, kindly, sensible lives, presenting this as the essence of the Christian idea. Bearing in mind passages such as Matt 5, 29-30:

'If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.'

he comments:

'if what we mean by being a Christian really is being a Christian ­ what then is God?

'He is the most comical being that ever lived, His Word the most comical book that ever came to light: to set heaven and earth in motion (as He does in His Word), so threaten with hell, with eternal punishment ... in order to attain what we understand by being Christians (and we are indeed true Christians) ­ no, nothing so comical ever occurred! Imagine that a man with a loaded pistol stepped up to a person and said to him, "I'll shoot you dead", or imagine something still more terrible, that he were to say, "I'll seize upon your person and torture you to death in the most dreadful manner if you do not (now be on the watch, for here it comes) ... make your own life here on earth as enjoyable and profitable as you possibly can." This surely is the most comical speech ...'

and he continues

'Under the assumed conditions [that the church-going population of nineteenth century Denmark really are Christians - PB] the New Testament neither is nor can be a guide for Christians ­ for the way is changed, is entirely different from the one in the New Testament.

'The New Testament therefore, regarded as a guide for Christians, becomes, under the assumption we have made, a historical curiosity, pretty much like a guidebook to a particular country when everything in that country has been totally changed. Such a guidebook serves no longer the serious purpose of being useful to travellers in that country, but at the most it is worth reading for amusement. While one is making the journey by railway one reads in the guidebook: "Here is Woolf's Gullet where one plunges 70,000 fathoms down under the earth"; while one sits and smokes one's cigar in the snug café, one reads in the guidebook, "Here it is a band of robbers has its stronghold, from which it issues to assault the travellers and maltreat them"; here it is etc. Here it is, here it was; for now (it is very amusing to imagine how it was) now there is no Woolf's Gullet but the railway, and no robber band but a snug café.' (4)

All this immediately poses the question 'what is sin?' 'what is Woolf's Gullet?' 'what is the robber band?' When I had the notion of giving this talk I had Kierkegaard very much on the mind and I turned to his book The Concept of Anxiety, which has the promising subtitle: 'A simple psychologically orientating deliberation on the dogmatic issue of hereditary sin.' (5)

The Concept of Anxiety is a subtle and in places dense and difficult analysis of the different types of anxiety that accompany sin; but in the book he explicitly refuses to do what I wanted him to do which is to offer a definition of sin. He argues that sin cannot be known from the outside as an object of study; it can only be known by personal experience. He dismisses the aim I have set myself with some degree of contempt:

'When someone asks a stupid question, care should be taken not to answer him lest he who answers become as stupid as the questioner ... So when the single individual is stupid enough to inquire about sin as if it were something foreign to him, he only asks as a fool, for either he does not know at all what the question is about and thus cannot come to know it, or he knows it and understands it, and also knows that no science can explain it to him. However, science at times has been adequately accommodating in responding to wishes with weighty hypotheses that it at last admits are inadequate as explanations. This, of course, is entirely true, yet the confusion is that science did not energetically dismiss foolish questions but instead confirmed superstitious men in their notion that one day there would come a project maker who is smart enough to come up with the right answer' (p.50. It should perhaps be said that here Kierkegaard specifically has in mind the question as to what would have happened had Adam not sinned rather than, strictly speaking, what sin is).

Elsewhere (I have tried and failed to find the precise refrence but I recall it very well) he compares the person who asks what sin is to a person holding a length of burning tow in his hand and wondering where the smell is coming from. Sooner or later he is going to find out.

This all fits with Kierkegaard's existentialism which stresses the limits of thought and observation as means of embracing reality. Reality is experienced with our whole sensibility and though it may be modified by the thoughts we have about it, it is itself non-verbal. So The Concept of Anxiety is not a book about sin as such but about the consciousness that accompanies sin, an anxiety that can be felt quite independently of whether or not the word 'sin' exists in the mind of the person who is feeling it.

However it is clearly possible to be in a state of sin without having the slightest consciousness of it, or the slightest feeling of anxiety. Anxiety as described by Kierkegaard is not the problem; it is the form taken by consciousness of the problem at its different levels. But his millions of Danish Christians who think of Christianity as an exhortation to a moderate and sensible lifestyle are not, we assume, anxious. They are not conscious of the problem, and it would be a sad thing if the moment when they became conscious of it, the moment when the flame running up the tow reached their hand, was the moment just after their deaths, when it was too late to do anything about it.

An outstanding example of the possibility of being in sin without being conscious of it, without any accompanying anxiety, comes in Jesus' parable of the publican and the pharisee:

'Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, "God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.
"I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get."
But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, "God, be merciful to me a sinner!"
I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.'

Luke 18.10-14

Hazel Sherman has pointed out that we do not understand this parable unless we realise that in any normal understanding of the terms the pharisee is a good man and the tax collector is a bad man. The pharisees were attempting to keep alive the Jewish idea under the difficult circumstances of the Roman occupation. Having an expertise that was as much juridical as religious they made a point of not receiving payment for their legal/religious services ­ they were required to learn a craft that would provide their livelihood. Saul, the pharisee, was a tent maker. The virtues this particular pharisee ascribes to himself ­ fasting and tithe giving ­ are real virtues. It was not unreasonable of him to consider himself to be superior to extortioners, unjust men, adulterers. But in fact he doesn't even boast of his virtues as if he was deserving of personal praise. He 'thanks God' that he is not as other men; to use a rather Protestant expression he 'gives the glory to God'.

The tax collector on the other hand is an agent of the Roman occupation, a collaborator, in every way analogous to those in the occupied countries who collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War. Implicit in the idea is an element of corruption, as in the case of Jesus' friend, the tax collector Zachaeus (Luke 19.2 et seq). We may imagine that after this exemplary confession of his sin this tax collector, like Zachaeus, might have changed his ways, but Jesus does not say it in so many words, and if He had said it, the point would have been weakened. The point being that 'sin' in Jesus' understanding of the term has no necessary connection with social or political morality. From the point of view of social/political morality the pharisee is much to be preferred to the tax collector. There is indeed no comparison between them. But Jesus is speaking from a different point of view, from the point of view of what is necessary for our eternal wellbeing, the 'one thing needful' (Luke 10.42). And from this point of view, the contemptible man who knows that he is contemptible is better placed than the good man who does not know that he is contemptible.

The sin of the pharisee, then, lies in not knowing he is a sinner. It is difficult to convict him of anything else. How does this relate to the churches which have, deliberately and knowingly, weakened the references to sinfulness in their liturgical texts? How does it relate to those saved Christians who every Sunday go to church to give glory to God that they are not as other men, they do not go to the pub, they don't use drugs, they don't give way to disorderly sexual feelings, they are saved, clean, free, washed in the blood of the lamb. Is there not at least a danger that, as Jesus says elsewhere (Matt 23.27) of the much maligned pharisees, they are whitened sepulchres, clean and white on the outside but inside they are full of dead men's bones?

Sin in this understanding is not an action ('a' sin) but a condition which may or may not give rise to actions; it may be harmful to other people, but it may not, or the harm it does to others may be so subtle that no court of law could ever seize hold of it. The sin that is usually attributed to the pharisee is the sin of pride, or self esteem, famously one of the 'seven deadly sins' - pride, avarice, gluttony, sloth, anger, envy and lust. These are not actions. They are dispositions of the mind, even if they do not issue in action. Jesus talks of this in the Sermon on the Mount:

'You have heard that it was said to the men of old, "You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment."
But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, "You fool!" shall be liable to the hell of fire.'


'You have heard that it was said, "You shall not commit adultery."
But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.'

Matt 5.21-22,27-28

Imagine, for example, you are fifteen years old. You are walking down the street and you see a boy holding a super new mobile phone with a miniature TV monitor linked to the internet that enables him to watch at any moment of his own choosing the latest episode of East Enders. You look around and see that no-one is in view. You hit the boy over the head and run off with the phone. Obviously what you have done is sinful, but it is also an antisocial and illegal act for which you may be seized by the police and hauled before a court of law.

But perhaps instead of attacking the boy and stealing his phone you decide you really have to have a phone like it and, in order to raise the necessary money, you get a job delivering newspapers and in a few weeks you have earned enough. You haven't 'done anything wrong' but you are still implicated in sin. At the very least you are in danger. The name of the sin is covetousness, or avarice. You covet the mobile phone. What is wrong with that? It is an event that takes place in the heart and that is where the great struggle for eternal life takes place. It should be filled with the love of God: 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' (Matt 22.37, Deut 6.5). All your heart , all your soul, all your mind. But instead it is filled with the love of a mobile phone that includes a TV monitor connected to he internet that enables you to see East Enders whenever you like.

But it will be said, and many Christians will say it, the teenager who wants something that is in itself, or appears to be, perfectly harmless and who is willing to make the sacrifices of his time and energies that are necessary to obtaining it perfectly legitimately ­ not only is he behaving innocently but he is behaving virtuously, he is acting in accordance with the laws and principles that ensure the wellbeing and stability of our society. Our society is based on the idea that in order to obtain the things and services they want and need people will work to produce the things that are wanted and needed by other people. I think John Rogers will develop that theme when he talks to us next month on the subject of money.

This is entirely logical and reasonable, but it is a logic and reason that is quite different from the logic and reason that are to be found in the New Testament. The principles given by Jesus are the love of God and the love of the neighbour. These principles do exist within our society, many ­ indeed nearly all ­ people do live them to a greater or lesser extent but they exist as something that is a little apart, alien to our everyday lives. We may or may not be able to find a little space for them but they are not the spiritual principle, they do not dictate the logic on which our everyday life is based. The word 'logic' is of course related to the word 'Logos', translated in the English Bible as 'Word'. Jesus as the Word of God is the Logos of God, but the Greek 'Logos' also means 'reason' as in the reasoning faculty but also as in the 'rationale' of things, the reason, the animating principle of their existence. The Philokalia, the anthology of writings of the saints which for many Orthodox Christians is second in importance only to the Bible, uses it in the plural, 'logoi' - everything, not just God, has its own logos, its own logic. Our ambition as Christians is to participate in the Logos, the logic, the rationale, the Word of God in the Person of Christ. But the logos, logic, rationale of 'the world' is radically different. (6) At the present time it may be said to be animated by the spirit of avarice, of acquisitiveness. At other times it may be said to be animated by the spirit of pride, as is the case with the warrior societies which received Christianity in the early centuries and whose own highest value was the value of honour. How amazed they must have been at Jesus' command to accept insults meekly, to turn the other cheek (Matt 5.39). To this we may add revolutionary societies whether on the French Republican or Bolshevik model, whose motivating principle, at least in the early heroic phase of their development, is anger.

I have stressed the fact that sin could be at least apparently or superficially socially harmless. But now we are moving into the region of a sin which is both socially necessary and socially harmful, constructive and destructive or, if you prefer, good and evil. And for those who know their Bibles that phrase will have a certain resonance because it goes back to the Biblical account of the origin of the problem of sin in the world - the eating of the fruit of the 'tree of the knowledge of good and evil' (Gen 2.17).

'Knowledge' in this sense does not mean theoretical, intellectual knowledge - 'science' in the way in which the word is used by Kierkegaard ­ knowledge of something that is treated as being external to ourselves. It means experiential knowledge, a Good and Evil that has been known, experienced in the heart. The phrase 'the knowledge of Good and Evil' is extraordinary and deserves close attention. One might have expected Sin to be introduced through the Knowledge of Evil, but the Knowledge of Good and Evil? And yet this is an accurate description of the operations of Sin as we experience it. There can be little doubt that the pharisee standing in the temple giving thanks to God for all his blessings was feeling good. The boy who has worked for weeks doing his news rounds feels good as finally he acquires his new mobile phone (though if he is anything like me he will probably lose interest in it in a couple of days). I can hardly imagine how good Hitler must have felt when he obliged the French to sign the armistice of 1940 using the same railway carriage that had been used to sign the armistice of 1918. I cannot imagine how any heart could be strong enough to contain the triumph he must have felt at that moment. We still use the word 'good' to describe such feelings ­ vengeance, sexual fulfilment, the satisfaction of a splendid meal ­ the same word, 'good', that we use when speaking of God, of the disinterested love of God, of the eternal life that God bestows upon the saints. But in the first case we are talking about a good that is inseparable from evil ­ and perhaps of an evil that is inseparable from 'good' ­ a good that is an obstacle to the eternal life, the 'tree of life' that Adam lost when he was expelled from Paradise and which, according to tradition, supplied the wood for the most holy Cross on which Christ was crucified. (7)

The expulsion from Eden on this reading was not a punishment because Adam and Eve disobeyed a commandment of God. God was not 'offended' by their disobedience (the thought is ridiculous). It was rather the inevitable consequence of the fact that a heart that was open to this good that was inseparable from evil could not assume the unmixed good of Paradise, of communion with God, of eternal life. Human nature, so goes the Christian teaching, was wrecked in the person of Adam, reduced to the conditions of animal life and to death, and had to be fashioned anew in the person of Christ, perfect union of God and Man. Through passing from union with Man as represented by Adam to union with Man as represented by Christ we can return to the condition of Paradise.

I seem somewhat to my own surprise to have reached a point at which I can offer a definition of sin. It is very simple and obvious but that does not mean it isn't true or useful. It goes something like this:

Sin is submission to a logical process that goes contrary to the logic of the Love of God, the return to Paradise, the fullness of life that is eternal life.

The logical processes that lead us astray are many and various but they have been usefully summed up in the doctrine of the 'seven deadly sins', the passions, or, in the book by St John Cassian given in the Philokalia, the 'eight vices': anger, pride, lust, sloth, envy, gluttony, avarice. Cassian omits envy and for some reason I don't understand distinguishes 'pride' and 'self esteem' and adds 'despondency' - interestingly enough since despondency is analysed as a sin in Kierkegaard's The Sickness unto Death.

These passions between them could be said to constitute almost the whole of our spiritual life. The course of the day - at least in my own experience - is a process of meandering from one to the other. They also, as I have already remarked, constitute the spiritual foundations of the society or societies in which we live. Our participation in that society is a participation in the sins that have been necessary to enable that society to live. We may argue whether or not the recent invasion of Iraq was necessary to the survival of our society; but we can hardly argue with the observation that our society is dependent on oil. When I originally thought of giving this talk I had thought of orientating it round the question: Is Homosexuality a sin? - given the importance this question has acquired recently through the disputes in the Anglican communion, the controversy over certain remarks made by the Italian nominee to the European Commission, the possibility that anxiety over 'gay marriages' played an important role in the re-election of President Bush in the United States. I was going to observe that even if we conclude that homosexual practice is sinful - lust being one of the seven deadly sins - it would be difficult to argue that it was more sinful than the act of filling one's car up with petrol when one has some knowledge of the historical process by which access to that petrol was obtained.

Obviously this has been a very Christian-orientated reflection on Sin. It may be that it could be adapted to the terminology of other religions but I am not in a position to do it. It could not be adapted to atheism. It turns wholly on the problematic of our relation with God. No God, no sin - and, we might add, no internal struggle, no 'interiority' (to use a word much favoured by Kierkegaard), no depth, since how can we achieve depth without the effort of digging? Of course atheists do experience internal struggle and do achieve depth. But that is in their quality as human beings. It has nothing to do with their atheism, which is not an aid to it. As atheists, they may well deplore the passions of avarice, lust, gluttony etc, but only insofar as they give rise to undesirable social consequences. The atheist can have no sympathetic understanding of the defining characteristic of sin - that it is harmful to the eternal wellbeing of the sinner and need not be socially harmful in any serious way.

Christians often claim that Christianity in some way invented morality, that atheists, insofar as they are concerned with morality, are participating in something that evolved historically within the Judaeo-Christian tradition. This is very far from being the case. The distinctively Christian idea is Sin and Salvation and atheism is a protest against it. Insofar as Christians concern themselves with morality independently of the logic of sin and salvation it would be more true to say that they are participating in something that evolved historically outside the Judaeo-Christian tradition. (8)

Christians may be motivated by their faith to concern themselves with moral and political matters but in doing so they are entering into a logic that is shared with non-Christians. In attempting to analyse social and political issues Christians have little or no advantage over non-Christians. In terms of effectiveness they may even be operating at a disadvantage since to be effective in the world it is virtually impossible to avoid entering into a logic that the Christian would have to recognise as sinful. Christ says of the Prince of the World - whom we may identify as the guiding principle of the world - that he 'has nothing in Me' (John 14.30).

Although Sin is all-pervasive and although understanding it is the key to the Christian's understanding of the world it is a problem that can only be approached on an entirely personal, individual basis. The Christian may be concerned with the work of preventing malefactors from harming their neighbours but that is a social matter and has nothing to do with sin. The only sin that can concern him is his own. The malefactor may indeed be a sinner, but the Christian has no way of knowing if that sin, gross and obvious as it may be, is worse than his own. This is one of the meanings of the parable of the publican and the pharisee. And the story of the woman taken in adultery: 'Let him who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her' (John 8.7). And Jesus' admonition:

'Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?
Or how can you say to your brother, `Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when there is the log in your own eye?
You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.'

Matt 7.3-5

While preparing this talk I came across what might be an interesting example of this. It came in an interview with the Swedish film director Lukas Moodysson who has recently made what appears to be a very brutal film about the pornographic film industry. In any conventional understanding of course the stars of a porn film, ritually humiliating themselves in public, could be said to be sinners. But Moodysson comments: 'I think that there are strong links between people who have been abused in the past, and a kindness between hurt, broken people. They take care of each other' (9). He sees something that perhaps others might not see. Something that might be greater than the little virtues that come so easily to those of us who lead easy lives.

At one point Kierkegaard in The Concept of Anxiety, talking about 'spiritlessness', says that it is characterised by the absence of struggle:

'The lostness of spiritlessness, as well as its security, consists in its ... comprehending nothing as a task' (p.95)

Struggle, the sense of purpose, of a task, is characteristic of spirit. Without such struggle, without spirit, there can be no talk of eternal life. The circumstances of the struggle are temporal and burn away. It is the struggle itself that has something of the quality of eternity. So Sin has a rather elastic quality to it. A sin can be enormous or can dwindle to insignificance depending on the circumstances. A small, pathetic struggling towards God in a context of overwhelming vice and temptation may be worth more than a lifetime of effortless virtue. The vice and temptation and the virtue fall away, the spiritual quality developed in the struggle remain. Another reason why any human judgment of sin in its external manifestations is meaningless. We may be able to recognise sin in others but we cannot imagine ourselves to be in a position to assess it. The only sin we are able to judge or condemn is our own.

This is illogical according to the logic of the world and impractical in terms of social necessity. The Church, the Body of Christ, is the one place in which the logic of the consciousness of sin, of repentance and of ascetic struggle towards the love of God, the return to paradise and eternal life prevails over the logic of the world. If this does not occur then we may reasonably wonder if it really is the Church.


(1) In Orthodox Faith and Life in Christ, Belmost, Mass (Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies), 1997, p.21 Return

(2) Peter Brooke: Ulster Presbyterianism, Gill and Macmillan, Dublin, 1987. The passage does not appear in the 2nd edition published by Athol Books in 1994. Return

(3) 'The primary meaning of the Greek word is "failure" or, more specifically, "failure to hit the mark" and so a "missing of the mark", a "going astray" or, ultimately, "failure to achieve the purpose for which one is created." It is closely related, therefore, to illusion ...' From the glossary in Palmer, Sherrard and Ware (trans): The Philokalia, vol 1, London (Faber and Faber), 1979. Return

(4) Søren Kierkegaard: Attack upon "Christendom", Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1972 pp.110-111 Return

(5) Søren Kierkegaard: The Concept of Anxiety, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1980 Return

(6) This may be an abuse of the terms Logos and logoi as they are used in theology. The definiton given in the notes to the Philokalia stresses that the term logoi refers entirely to the rationale of things as they were created and intended by God. It says: 'As the unitary cosmic principle, the Logos contains in Himself the multiple logoi (inner principles or inner essences, thoughts of God) in accordance with which all things came into existence at the times and places and in the forms appointed for them, each single thing thereby containing in itself the principle of its own development. It is these logoi, contained principally in the Logos and manifest in the forms of the created universe, that constitute the first or lower stage of contemplation.' However, 'logos' is a Greek word used in common and everyday discourse and in that context it is surely possible to talk about a logos, a logical, rationally comprehensible process, of sin. Return

(7) See for example Hymn 16 of the Hymns on Virginity by St Ephrem the Syrian:

'The tree of life was sad when it saw
Adam fade away before it, so it shrank
smaller and smaller into the earth and finally
it too vanished, but
now it has appeared again at Golgotha
and humankind,
breaking away from the fowler's snare,
flees to it as to a safe
refuge. Now, instead, it is
our persecutor who is beaten down, and we
at last are reunited with the Tree.'

The Cornish Ordinalia also structures its account of the Biblical story from Genesis to the resurrection round the theme of miraculous wood derived from the Tree of Life. Extracts are given in Kent and Saunders (ed): Looking at the Mermaid, Francis Boutle publishers, London, 2000. Return

(8) I have argued in my Islam and Politics that Christianity, unlike Islam and Judaism, does not propose a distinctive political order. With the conversion of Constantine Christianity sanctified a political order which already had its own well-established independent existence. And the most serious Christians withdrew from it to the desert. Return

(9) The Guardian G2, 4/1/05, p.14 Return