Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Sinning Boldly: Just Not So Deadly

Americans are doubtless a religious people, but we don't believe in the hard stuff any more. Certainly not in the doctrine of sin, original or otherwise, which seems to have gone missing, even among evangelicals, sometime around the time hell disappeared.

Still, we seem to gravitate, in fascination if not faith, to the Seven Deadly Sins, those transgressions classified by Catholic thinkers from Pope Gregory the Great on as particularly hazardous to our spiritual health. Perhaps it is the enumeration. (Why seven?) Or the parlor game of ranking them. (Is lust worse than gluttony? Is pride the worst of them all?) For whatever reason, books and even movies on the Seven Deadly Sins appear with some regularity—far more often, to be sure, than those on the Seven Cardinal Virtues.

What is missing from contemporary American culture is a sense that something is missing from this world. There is little awareness here of the incompleteness and unsatisfactoriness that Augustine took for evidence of another life, and that saints from Mary to Mother Teresa have taken as a charge to make this life conform to our imaginings of the next. Quoting Baudelaire, Flannery O'Connor once wrote that "the devil's greatest wile …is to convince us that he does not exist." If this is true, these are perilous days.

Say what you want about the vices of the dogma of sin, one of its virtues has always been to remind us that we—all of us—live between the animals and the gods, that one of the underappreciated challenges of human life is to somehow become a human being. Of course, there are myriad ways to avoid this task, one of the most popular being to imagine that you are in some important respect (morally perhaps?) superior to your fellow human beings. The doctrine of sin reminds us that this path leads to individual and collective ruin.

But this doctrine need not only humble us. It can embolden us, too, lend us the power to talk back to power, to remind those who denounce others—other races, other nations, other religions—as evildoers that we are all evildoers. This is a hard truth for any culture, harder still for an optimistic culture tethered only to the sky. But it is one that we ignore at great cost.

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