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On The Nature of Sin, Part Two

 

'What must I do to be saved?' Or, in other words, How can I purify my heart so that I too may 'see God?' Jesus often, in terms that are clear, simple and unambiguous, addresses this question.

He says, for example:

'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.' Mat.19,21

'Do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.' Mat 5,39-42

'If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away ... And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away ...' Mat 5,39-30

'Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on ... do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day's own trouble be sufficient for the day ...' (Mat 6, 25 & 34)

'If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.' (Luke 14, 26)

This is very different from the atmosphere of, say, the book of Proverbs or of Wisdom, an old man giving prudent advice to his son. This is not prudent advice. Looked at from a worldly point of view it isn't even, at least in appearance, very good advice and it is probably safe to say that most Christians throughout most of the history of Christianity have chosen to disregard it, or to pay it only very occasional attention in extreme circumstances.

It seems that it is not possible to live our lives according to these principles. It might almost be said that, ever since Luther renounced his monastic vows, the impossibility of obeying Christ's commands has been the central organising principle of Protestantism. Justification by Faith alone and not by works is a confession of human impotence before the works that are demanded. And Orthodoxy does not disagree. The constant refrain of Orthodox prayer and worship is a cry for mercy, beseeching Christ to make up the gap, the abyss, that there always is between what we need to do for the purification of the heart and what we are willing to do, or able.

Nonetheless, the impossibility of fulfilling Christ's commandments, the constant need for grace to fill the gap between what we do and what we need to do, does not in any way absolve us from the need to try to obey Christ's commandments. The impossibility of justification by works does not mean that works are useless ­ and the whole history of Christianity is illuminated by many efforts to live the Christian life in its full integrity. In the Protestant tradition these are often undertaken by apparently eccentric sects, often withdrawing from the world and often having to engage in a great deal of improvisation, of trial and error, errors which may have catastrophic results. Within the Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions it takes the more structured and generally accepted form of the monastic and eremitic life, a discipline that is clearly understood with centuries of experience behind it. This is not the place to discuss in detail the differences between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic approaches to monasticism but, generally speaking, the Roman system is more tightly organised than the Orthodox which is comparatively loose and personal. The Orthodox discipline may be hard but it is based on the personal relation between the individual monk or nun and his or her chosen spiritual adviser.

The most obvious characteristic of monasticism is withdrawal from 'the world'. But what is 'the world' and why should we wish to withdraw from it?

'The world' is sometimes also translated as 'the age'. The word 'secular' means 'of the age' or 'of the century'. We are very used to people, ourselves included, complaining about the age we live in and its ills. And often we speak as if some other age, in the past or perhaps in the future, might be better. But even during the ages when Christianity ­ whatever variety of 'Christianity' we might happen to favour ­ was widespread, its values understood, its symbols everywhere present and treated with reverence, we find devout Christians denouncing 'the age' and wanting to withdraw from it. Each age has its typical evils just as each age has typical virtues, but always it is 'the age' and always it stands against the integrity of the Christian life. If Christ's commandments are difficult or impossible to follow it is not just because of our personal weakness or sinfulness. Our own personal weakness and sinfulness are constantly being cultivated and reinforced through our engagement with 'the world'.

Among the last words said by Jesus to His disciples prior to the Crucifixion we find the following: 'Hereafter I will not talk much with you: for the prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me.' (Jn 14,30). The prince of this world is a principle that is not Christian and 'the world' is a word that designates the whole sum of human relations that go to make political society. These function according to a logic which is in opposition to the commandments of Christ. That logic can be influenced in such a way as to become less harmful or more harmful to the commandments of Christ. But its underlying principle is anti-Christian. It is Babylon.

As we go about our daily business doing what we need to do to feed our families, chatting with our neighbours, perhaps helping friends who are in trouble, it is difficult to imagine that we are following a logic determined by a prince of this world who is, usually, identified with the Devil. And this is especially so if we happen to be living in a society that is relatively stable with a relatively thriving economy.

Yet it takes only the smallest amount of historical and political curiosity to realise to what extent our relative comfort and security are based on the historical slave trade; on the mass expulsion of peasant farmers and their forced conversion into a powerless and ruthlessly exploited working class; on the imposition of war and mass murder throughout the world in order to open up markets and gain control of primary resources. That is a 'left wing' view but we could equally severely judge the horrors that accompanied the rise of Communism and the various anti-Imperialist movements throughout the world. The Left will expose one set of horrors and justify another; the Right will expose one set of horrors and justify another. Both the exposure and the justification are of interest to us. Some horrors may be a pure result of human badness. But more profoundly there is a logic, an inevitability about the states that we call 'evil'. That logic is interpreted by Christians as the governance of the prince of this world.

When the monk renounces the 'good things' of the world, one of the reasons (it is not the only reason) is that these 'good things' come tainted with blood. And though evils may be addressed and corrected, the result is a rearrangement of the evil. The underlying logic of evil remains. Politics, to paraphrase Clausewitz, is the continuation of war by other means. All human history proclaims that the logic of war is inseparable from the logic of political society and no-one who defends the maintenance of a standing army with all its machinery of murder and mayhem can dare to argue otherwise.

So our engagement in society is in itself a submission to the dominion of the prince of this world. And is in itself sinful, part of the great problem of sin that is at the heart of the Christian religion.

But if we cannot withdraw from the world (and the monasteries themselves often rely on support from the world) what is to be done?

It can never be stressed often enough that Christianity, unlike Judaism or Islam, is not a religion of law. This is the key point made over and over again by St Paul. Paul had of course been a pharisee and was well versed in Jewish law. We may assume that his original persecution of the Christians was due to his conviction that they were in breach of, and posed a danger to, the integrity of the Jewish law.

'Justification by works' is justification by law. The law-based religions propose a method by which the world, under the domination of the prince of this world, can be saved. It can exchange the rule of the prince of this world for the rule of God. It can obey God's law. Or a particular human society - the Jews for example - can obey God's law. Paul, as a Christian, argued that the effort to do this simply revealed the enormity of the gap between our lives, under the domination of the prince of this world, and the 'purity of heart' that is required if we are to 'see God'. The merit of the law is not that it can resolve the problem. It can't. Its merit is that it shows us the sheer enormity of the problem. It induces, or can induce, that consciousness of sin that is the first step towards resolving the problem.

The withdrawal from the world that was preached from the very earliest days of Christianity ('Come out of her, my people', Rev 18,4) is a withdrawal from the brutal logic of the prince of this world, the logic that is currently expressed in the survival of the fittest logic of neo-liberal economics (but it was expressed differently in the all-pervasive influence of the State in the old Soviet Union). It is an entry into another logic structured by the war against the passions, the attempt to realise here and now, on this earth, 'purity of heart' and hence communion with God. Orthodox theology calls this communion 'theosis', or 'deification' (becoming God) and we believe it has been achieved by some, perhaps by many, individuals. Most of these are probably unknown to the officers of the Church but those who are known are honoured as Saints. In becoming one with God they become part of the new Man, Who is Christ as against the old man, who is Adam; and they can help us too to participate in the new Man, however far away we may be.

The one thing needful for such help is of course that we should be looking in their direction, in the direction of the new humanity in Christ, the Communion of Saints, and not, as we usually are, somewhere different.

This is the role of the Church. The Church in its essence is the Body of Christ and participation in it IS participation in Christ. In its human manifestation, in the world, the Church tells us of that participation, fills our hearts with longing for it, makes it easier. If it does not do this ­ however good or bad it may be in purely human terms ­ it is not the Church.