Friday, May 20, 2016

Sin is the failure to love

First John 4:16b says this:
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.
I understand from this verse that sin which ruptures our relationship with God, sin which separates us from God so that he no longer abides in us nor do we abide in him, can be understood as a failure to love in the manner that is natural to God. Put another way, to remain in friendship with God means to love in the way that is natural to God, to love in a way that reflects that same love which is God himself. The failure to love in this manner is effectively to cut off friendship with God.

Why is this important? Why does this matter? In this day and age, many people simply do not see why Christians think some things are sins. Some persons talk and think as if God simply named certain things at random and declared them sins, perhaps for no other reason than to rain on our parade. But this verse suggests a different line of thinking altogether: rather than being arbitrary in his declarations of sin, God himself in his love functions as the standard and measure of the life a human should live; sin is a failure to conform with the love that God himself is. God wants us to be like him and to reflect his character; this is what we were made for. Sin consequently is the failure to maintain this likeness and to step outside of the boundaries dictated for human nature.

I want to emphasize this point with respect to sexual sin. Love, of course, is a concern for the good of the other person for her own sake, a respect for her intrinsic dignity and a refusal to objectify her or to treat her merely as a means to personal gain. Sexual sin, however, constitutes a failure to adopt this attitude towards the other person with respect to her sexuality. This is why lust is always a sin: it means gazing upon the other person merely as a sexual object, merely as a means for the satisfaction of sexual desire. (It goes without saying that sexual attraction as such is not the same as lust.)

Sex outside of the context of marriage is also a sin, and a grave one. The desire to engage in sexual activity with the other person without fundamentally committing oneself to her, without accepting responsibility for the natural consequence of sex (namely, procreation), demonstrates a level of objectification and disrespect for the full being of the other person. The same line of reasoning clearly applies to intentionally and unnaturally non-procreative sex within the context of marriage.

I mention all of these things because sexual ethics is one perennially controversial element of Christian teaching, even among Christians themselves who in large numbers have abandoned the traditional views (and not typically for any good reasons). There is something about the unrestrained sexual impulse that presents a deep and fundamental impediment to religious devotion. John of Damascus writes the following about sinful postlapsum humans:
For, since [man] had been created half way between God and matter, should he be freed from his natural relationship to creatures and united to God by keeping the commandment, then he was to be permanently united to God and immutably rooted in good. Should he, on the other hand through his disobedience turn his mind away from his Author—I mean God—and tend rather toward matter, then he was to be associated with corruption, to become passible rather than impassible, and mortal rather than immortal. He was to stand in need of carnal copulation and seminal generation, and because of his attachment to life was not only to cling to these pleasures as if they were necessary to sustain his life, but also to hate without limit such as would think of depriving him of them (De Fide Orthodoxa II:30).
The Damascene apparently connects the obsession with sex and the violent resistance to the attempt to limit engagement in sex to some kind of deep awareness of death, guilt, and separation from God. Perhaps Ernest Becker might say the same thing, even if in different terms and for different reasons. In any case, the central point and observation to note here is this: sex and exaggerated attachment to it presents a powerful, sometimes violent impediment to true religion and morals.

But it is not a thinking or rational obstacle; it is unthinking. The arguments in favor of Christian sexual ethics are relatively clear, and the responses to the arguments are in many cases attempts to confuse matters by appeal to alleged persistent ambiguities and uncertainties about issues of metaphysics and nature with relatively easy answers. Other persons are just overwhelmed at the prospect of having to limit themselves in this particular domain of their lives. But that it is difficult, or that it provokes a response of revulsion, does nothing to show that Christian sexual ethics is false.

The truth remains in spite of all this: those who live outside of love, those who knowingly fail to love in the manner which God has taught us through the self-sacrifice of Christ (cf. 1 John 4:7-10), sin in a way that fractures their friendship with God. Precisely because the desires involved in this domain of life are so powerful and often overwhelming, we therefore ought to be increasingly careful and watchful over ourselves. And we should not forget this profound truth from the Damascene: it is impossible to observe the commandments of the Lord except by patience and prayer (De Fide Orthodoxa IV:22).

9 comments:

tobeplain said...

My 'Christian sexual ethic' is different to yours. In mine, birth control within marriage is not sinful. It occurs to me that whatever we do, whether we adhere to the Catholic view and ban contraception, or the Protestant view, we don't escape sinfulness. In other words, I accept the possibility that contraception may be sinful, but equally sinful - so it seems to me - is denying people the use of it, especially in certain situations (in that banning it burdens people unnecessarily, arguably leading to harm). Rather than fussing over attempting to perfect human behaviour (which is impossible I think) isn't it better to look to Christ and his work on the cross as the doorway to reconciliation with God? This is not to argue that we should not attend to the quality of our behaviour - in the Bible, God expects us to behave well (as you say through loving our neighbour) - but even in behaving well we remain apart from God. Good behaviour is expected but does not make us 'good' i.e. does not bring us into fellowship with God in itself - as I understand it.

Steven Nemeș said...

Thanks for your comment! I think we have radically different understandings of the nature of Christian salvation. I don't agree that we are never free from sin, that we always remain apart from God, etc. On the contrary, I understand that genuine righteousness, genuine goodness, is necessary and therefore possible for the Christian:

"His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature" (2 Pet 1:3-4).

I agree that the cross of Christ is the basis of our reconciliation with God. But once we are reconciled, we are expected (and so therefore capable) of maintaining that reconciliation through a life well lived, i.e. without mortal sin.

As for your suggestion that it may be a sin to burden married couples by not permitting them the use of birth control, I would say the following. If it genuinely is a sin to use birth control, as I've argued, then it isn't a burden to tell people not to use it! In the same way, it isn't a burden not to permit people to hate their enemies when they feel like it, or not to lie or cheat when it's to their advantage, because these things are just wrong, plain and simple. They have to adjust themselves to the truth. Certainly it isn't easy to obey the moral natural law—certainly no one ever denied that—but if you grant that a thing is objectively sinful, it would be out of place, I think, to describe as "burdensome" to teach people not to do it.

tobeplain said...

Thank you for responding.

The issue of birth control is less clear-cut (in the Bible) than lying or stealing which is why for me it goes into a different category and may be considered and weighed.

I acknowledge the distinction you make between coming into fellowship with God (through Jesus) and maintaining the fellowship (through good works). I'm am not sure how this might work. If the fellowship is maintained through good behaviour, inevitably there will be a list of rules to adhere to, and adhering to rules is no way to escape sin. If it was, Paul would have achieved it. It merely creates a lot of different ones, oppression, rejection, discrimination, pride and so on. I see no evidence of freedom from sin, not in myself or in anyone else, not even in my Catholic friends. I see you say 'mortal sin'. As a Protestant, I have no access to this distinction, as far as I know.

Steven Nemeș said...

I should make it clear that I think some moral truths are capable of being known apart from the testimony of scripture. Recall that I gave an argument in my original post for the conclusion that the use of contraceptives is immoral: it involves the objectification of the body of the other person. I take it doesn't convince you right away? :-)

As for your second paragraph, I suppose I have a couple remarks to make. I think that Christians are enabled to be free from mortal sin though not necessarily from venial sin. Also, this is a freedom that is empowered by the grace of God through the Holy Spirit; it's not merely "keeping rules" that keeps us free from mortal sin but love for God and neighbor through the grace of God. Of course, the extent to which we are free from sin depends at least in part on the vigilance and care we show not to sin. There is not a lack of grace or empowerment but only of effort. And as for the mortal/venial distinction, consider 1 John 5:16-17:

"If you see your brother or sister committing what is not a mortal sin, you will ask, and God will give life to such a one—to those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin that is mortal; I do not say that you should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not mortal."

tobeplain said...

Yes, it's there in 1 John! I wonder what he was thinking about. It must be the 'blasphemy against the Holy Spirit' (which also is something I don't understand well).

I accept the argument of your second paragraph.

Regarding your first paragraph, I too believe that some moral truths can be known apart from the testimony of scripture. I might even go as far as to reject some 'moral truths' based on the testimony of scripture (is this terrible?)

I understand your argument about the objectification of the body; the phenomenon is obvious at every turn in the modern world and it is easy to see how contraception has contributed in separating the sexual act from procreation and therefore, in many cases, responsibility. What I don't see is how the objectification argument applies within marriage - in particular, within my marriage. Despite the use of contraception, my husband bears the weight of responsibility for us. In a very true sense, he gives his life for us, working at a job he hates (we decided I would care for one of our children with a disability rather than develop a career, so no income from my efforts). I try and imagine life without contraception. Would my marriage relationship be better, more Godly? There would certainly be many children and not enough time or money to care for them. Perhaps in an older, agrarian society many children would be an asset (and with a village to help raise them). If the answer is abstinence within marriage, firstly, this is harsh and counter intuitive to the lived experience of marriage and secondly, the abstinence itself would be a form of birth control (since in 99% of cases there would be no other motivating factor for it).

I don't say you are wrong but I fail to see why you are right.

Steven Nemeș said...

Re: mortal/venial sin, I think the distinction goes back to the Old Testament law itself. There are some sins which are punishable by death, but others are not. This suggests that not all sins are on a moral par -- an intuitive point which accords well with our moral intuitions. Certainly theft considered abstractly is not as bad as murder or genocide! So also, a white lie told for mild personal gain is not as grave as intentional and premeditated adultery. Understanding 'mortal sin' as that sin which ruptures our fellowship with God, it also just makes sense (to me, anyway) that God, in reconciling us to himself, should also empower us in such a way that we are not longer subject to the 'law of death' (cf. Rom 8) because of which we separate ourselves from God through sin.

Let me try to explain why I think that the objectification can still apply in the context of marriage by the following. It is important to understand the body as a real and essential constituent of the individual person. This means that the body's disposition and tendency is a disposition and tendency of the person. For this reason, when a married couple engages in sexual activity during a time in which the female body would normally tend towards conception -- because of course there are times when this is not true -- and intentionally blocks or circumvents that tendency, the body is then being treated merely as a means to accomplishing sexual pleasure or the emotional-spiritual union of the two persons without being respected on its own terms. The objectification is still occurring, even if it is not done with perverse intention or merely out of lust. It is as if I were to eat food but to throw it up before I could digest it: in that case, the body (in this specific case, the mouth and stomach) is being used as an object for the sake of the pleasure gained by eating, without being respected for its intrinsic function of digestion. I should note that this line of reasoning also shows (vis-à-vis your comment about abstinence) that it can be appropriate and lawful to have sex during the natural period of infertility, because in this case the disposition of the body is not being blocked or "disrespected" or circumvented. The body is not being treated merely as an object by which to accomplish sexual pleasure or emotional-spiritual union, or whatever.

Maybe I cannot convince you, but I certainly appreciate the opportunity to formulate my reasoning in greater detail. :-)

tobeplain said...

Well I'll do my best for you then :)

Thanks for the info on mortal/venial sin.

Your 'essential constituent' argument makes sense (in so far as I understand it). Is it another way of saying that a person is not primarily a mind (a will) inhabiting a 'vehicle', but that the body itself has rights which must be taken into consideration by the will; another way of saying 'respect the body'? I've been thinking about this overnight and can see a few possible weaknesses.

Who decides the disposition and tendency of the body and bodily parts? Bodies and parts have multiple functions. Reproductive systems are also pleasure systems which foster a distinctive type of intimacy necessary in forming the emotional basis of families. People may say that the primary function is Reproduction, that this takes precedence over lesser functions. How can we know that this is true? It may be that body parts possess a quality of flexibility in their dispositions and tendencies enabling them to work in conjunction with other parts (with the disposition and tendency of the brain for example, part of which must surely be decision-making and self-determination). In this case, a brain is free to make certain decisions concerning other body parts without disrespect, for example at one time deciding to experience pleasure without conception, at other times with.

The 'disposition and tendency' argument undoes the 'abstinence/rhythm method' argument, doesn't it, in that by withholding genetic material from an ovulating wife a husband disrespects her body's disposition and tendency?

Also, if the 'disposition and tendency' argument holds, marriage rather than life-long abstinence is a better way to respect the body.

My name is Kate by the way. I did mean to write to you with my own name initially but it came up with my Twitter name (yep, I don't know how to work stuff).

Steven Nemeș said...

Hi Kate,

Thanks for this amicable and stimulating conversation.

I think I would phrase my position about the body a bit more strongly than you did. You write, "the body itself has rights which must be taken into consideration by the will." I agree, but I hasten to add that the body's rights and respect is really that of the person, because it is a part of the identity of the human person herself. You're right: the person is not a mind occupying a body as a vehicle, but rather essentially embodied.

You ask: "Who decides the disposition and tendency of the body and bodily parts?" The truth is that, in a sense, no one decides these things. They simply are; we discover them, rather than deciding them. Thus, we have discovered that the human body tends towards certain sorts of activity under certain conditions: sex had during certain times of the woman's monthly cycle cannot impregnate, and at other times, it can. Furthermore, the fact that people engage in sex with contraceptives for the sake of preventing possible pregnancy shows that they know what the natural disposition of the body is; otherwise they wouldn't make use of artefactual objects for the sake of obstructing it.

My argument is not that reproduction is a primary purpose of the sex organs and emotional union is a secondary sex, although clearly sexual naturally had can result in the former without the latter, as well. Rather, the argument is that the intrinsic dispositions of the body have to be respected as they are, and not prioritized one over the other. It is true that human beings, in light of their intelligence and freedom, possess the power to manipulate the natural functioning of their body in various ways. But a manipulation that amounts to a misuse of nature or acts contrary to nature is immoral; the brain, rather, should recognize the nature of the body and to fulfill it than to obstruct it.

In this light, engaging in sex in such a manner as intentionally to avoid pregnancy which would otherwise happen is seen to be a misuse of the body. It would be like eating food but throwing it up before it could digest: in both cases, a critical system of the body is being used without permitting its natural function to be fulfilled.

You write:

The 'disposition and tendency' argument undoes the 'abstinence/rhythm method' argument, doesn't it, in that by withholding genetic material from an ovulating wife a husband disrespects her body's disposition and tendency? Also, if the 'disposition and tendency' argument holds, marriage rather than life-long abstinence is a better way to respect the body.

I don't think these arguments are valid. Recall that the immorality of contraceptive sex, in my argument, is based on the misuse of the sex organ: it is used in such a way that it does not fulfill its natural function, whether for pleasure's sake or for avoiding the burden of another child or whatever. But in life-long abstinence, there is no misuse of the organ since it is not being used at all; neither need it be used, since clearly sexual activity is not a necessity for the preservation of the individual. Its use is voluntary and can be set aside, if the person decides to pursue some other good end with his or her time.

Because the use of the sex organs is voluntary, therefore it is not objectively required to engage in sex at all. If a person should do it, they ought to do it in a manner consistent with nature. But it is consistent with nature to have sex during the woman's natural period of infertility, and if a couple decides to regulate the number of children they produce out of prudence, they can utilize the natural period of infertility to their benefit without obstructing nature. After all, this is a means that nature itself provides for engaging in sexual activity without the risk of pregnancy.

tobeplain said...

I pressed the wrong button just now and lost my reply!

I have almost used up my time and fear I won't remember my points very well. How awful. The family has the telly on now and I can't think straight (a great argument for a life of celibacy!)

I had two main points. The first: nature is your arbiter in questions of morality concerning use of body parts. For me however, nature is flawed (Fallen) and no longer perfectly reflects God's will and grandeur. It's 'actions' upon us are often detrimental and we are free to resist and subvert where necessary (but I do admit I haven't thought this through very well yet).

The analogy of eating/vomiting doesn't work (for me). As I see it, food should be swallowed not in order to respect the natural design of various body parts but to sustain life. Using artificial contraception does not threaten the life of the person.

(There's a Nazi documentary going on the background here making my arguments seem horribly trivial).

I accept what you say, that according to the original argument (misuse of parts) my arguments regarding abstinence and celibacy are invalid. I do wonder though why considerations of tendency and disposition apply only in situations of use. Is there a good reason for this? It strikes me as arbitrary. Are you sure it doesn't inadvertently objectify the person (in considering the needs/desires of the parts not 'in themselves' but only during use)?

I must finish up now. Forgive this messy reply.