Friday, May 13, 2016

Is sin against God infinitely heinous?

It is interesting to note the reaction people have when they notice some dearly beloved symbol being offended, even if strictly no physical harm is done. Consider the reaction you might get, for example, if you drive around certain parts of downtown flying a Confederate flag from the back of your truck; or if you use an American flag as a doormat; or even if you insult a beloved and dearly departed figure of national history. These actions are not strictly speaking harmful: no one will bleed if you use the American flag to wipe your feet as you enter the house. But plenty of people take great offense at these symbolic acts of rejection and irreverence, and oftentimes the response is even violent.

Why is this? I take it this happens because we understand something to be of great value, and that valued demands a corresponding respect in the behavior of others. Some things are to be respected and treated with dignity because they are good, and the opposite behavior is subject to punishment and censure. This is true even if the beloved object which has been insulted is incapable of harm -- say because an American flag is not sentient at all, or because the dearly beloved person who has been insulted is dead and so incapable of suffering harm.

This shows that the gravity of an immoral act is not always a function of the harm it produced. Some things can be deeply immoral and consequently censurable even if they are not strictly speaking harmful.

These reflections help us to understand the Christian claim that sins against God are especially heinous. This is because God represents the ultimate value; everything else is truly good only thanks to some resemblance to and participation in the goodness which God is himself. God is the paradigm and embodiment of intrinsic value; nothing could be good unless God himself shared some goodness with it in some way or other. Because God is the Good Itself, consequently sins against God -- refusal to live in keeping with God's will -- are all the more heinous. It is not merely some good person or good thing which has been insulted; it is the Good itself, it is value itself, it is goodness and meaning and life itself which has been insulted and rejected.

Now of course God cannot be harmed by anything we do. This is the classical theistic doctrine of God's impassibility: he is incapable of suffering harm or of being affected by anything we do. But we have already seen that the gravity of an act does not necessarily consist in the harm it produces in another being. The gravity of sin comes not from the supposition that God has been harmed in some way, but rather from the insult and attitude implicit in a rejection of Goodness itself.

Certainly not every sin is on a par. Some sins represent more heinous rejections of goodness than others, and not every sin is undertaken in a manner that is fully responsible. Many people reject God but out of an ignorance of who he is: they do not know that God is the Good; they think of him as just another being among beings, and a particularly annoying one at that, who is just concerned to keep us from having fun. A person like that who rejects God doesn't know what he's rejecting, and although serious, I should think his sin is less grave. But a person who understands and sees clearly that God represents the paradigm of value, and that consequently a life should be lived in keeping with God's will, but instead rejects God because only in this manner can he act as his own guide and source of value in life -- such a person's sin is truly mortal and deserves infinite punishment. A rejection of the Good itself, of everything that is valuable and intrinsically worthy of dignity and worship and respect: this is the attitude of an utter reprobate who deserves punishment by any reasonable judgment.

Because sin is so grave, consequently we ought to be so careful in our own lives. Too often we are tricked into thinking that sin is not bad, that is really a "forbidden pleasure," and the more we ruminate on the pleasure, the less reasonable we find that it is forbidden. We have to remind ourselves what is really at stake in an act of sin: it is an act of cosmic rebellion and a usurping of true and proper values. Furthermore, because sin is so grave, it is therefore all the more wondrous and unbelievable that God himself, the Good against whom we sin and insult, took on human nature in Jesus Christ and made atonement for our sins through his life and his cross. The Good, though we insult him, wants our salvation and not our death. Beyond teaching us what is right and wrong, he makes efforts to bring us in line with the truth in our actions as well, and does everything in his providence to keep us from punishment. Thanks be to God!


anonymous said...

I agree with your general point, but just wondering whether you are equivocating between someone committing an act that violates something intrinsically valuable, on the one hand, and someone committing an act that is immoral, on the other. Obviously, a sinful act can possess both of these qualities. For example, gossiping about my friend can transgress transcendent values (say, transmission of truth) and also harm my friend (and my relationship with him). And it seems to me that when gossiping possesses the quality of being harmful, gossiping is considered as immoral. However, when an act possesses the quality of transgressing transcendent values, the act is not considered as immoral, though perhaps it is considered disrespectful, impious, or something like that. I suspect that you won't disagree with this point, nevertheless, I thought I would quickly point out what appeared to be a subtle but important equivocation in your interesting post.

Steven Nemeș said...

Thanks for your comment. I am not sure that I buy the distinction.

I think our offense at immoral actions and our offense at the transgression of some transcendent values (to use your phrase) is of the same nature, and the reaction can oftentimes be the same. People in a village might band together to kill the man who raped the chief's daughter, and they might just as well band together to kill the man who cursed and insulted all their ancestors. Whether or not such actions are actually immoral, of course, depends on what the dictates of morality are and whether or not someone has actually transgressed against a genuine value, rather than merely an imagined one.

anonymous said...

Your example of the village is an interesting one, though I am having trouble not seeing how the reactions of the villagers in both scenarios as fundamentally grounded in the villagers having undergone some degree of psychological harm (and thus, both reactions being responses to what is considered to be an immoral act). I take it that even where the man curses the village's ancestors, the villagers have some deep spiritual and perhaps even personal connection/relationship to their ancestors, and so, cursing their ancestors imposes some degree of psychological harm on them. For example, if someone were to scathingly curse my wife, this would impose psychological harm on both of us, which would probably result in me expressing some form of outward and physical indignation toward the perpetrator. Because we have undergone such psychological harm, the cursing is an immoral act. Similarly, the cursing of the villagers' ancestors may impose psychological harm on them given that they take themselves to have a personal connection with their ancestors, in which case their retributive efforts (I think) should be properly seen as a reaction to what is an immoral act.

Steven Nemeș said...

But the villagers are primarily reacting to an offense against the insulted ancestors, who by stipulation are not harmed by the insult, rather than to the harm done to themselves. Likewise, suppose someone insulted your wife while she was not around, or after she had died, so that she was not herself harmed by the remark in any way. The point is that an offense remains because something of value has been slighted, even if symbolically and verbally only.

anonymous said...

If someone insults my wife while she is not around, am I not harmed? Though the insult is not directed towards me, I am still harmed indirectly, which makes the insult immoral and not merely a disrespect of value.