Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Is there such a thing as objective sin, or does it always depend on the situation?

Q:  I've been reading through your blog entries and I've noticed that a few times you draw on the point that people often want an overly legalistic definition of what sin is and isn't. That this is a flawed way of looking at it, because "[sins] are things that are not loving and so take you or others away from God", and that "people living by the rules miss the point entirely".

That makes perfect sense to me, but how then can one make a blanket statement that something is always a sin? Like if someone breaks into a families house in the middle of the night and the dad yells a choice selection of four letter words to scare the intruder away, he is doing it out of love for his family. 

That might be a bad example given your response to "Why is swearing a sin?", but the point I'm trying to make is that I don't see how there can be certain things that are always wrong, regardless of context. Given the right circumstances, is there not always a case in which something is not actually sinful?

Intuitively, that doesn't sound right to me. To say, "It doesn't matter what you do, as long as you're not opposing love by doing it" seems to me to be on the path towards moral relativism. By extension then, it doesn't matter what Church you belong to, as long as you're a good person, but I've heard this notion mocked more than once. And rightly so, Jesus was pretty clear about the necessity to all be one in Christ. 

I may have strayed from the point a bit here, but what I'm trying to get at is that I don't understand how love can be the only consideration in determining what is and isn't sinful. That sounds great and makes logical sense to me, but it seems very counter intuitive to what I've grown up thinking.

A:  This is a fascinating question, but one that I struggled to sum up in a single sentence for the title, so I doubt many people will read it!

I theology professor of mine once explained that every heresy is the overemphasis of one truth over another, while the truth always falls somewhere in the middle.  So, for example, some heresies emphasized Jesus' humanity, and ignored or denied his divinity, and others emphasized his divinity.  But the truth is he is both human and divine.

You use the example of 'four letter words', but I actually think that swearing is the perfect example of one end of the spectrum.  I don't use the 'f-word' our of respect, but I don't think it is inherently sinful, and think that when french people describe seals there's nothing wrong with using the 'ph-word'.  

So on one end of the spectrum you have people who want to declare that "Swearing is a sin" and then they want to define what precisely is a swear, and struggle to differentiate between ass as a swear referring to a gluteus maximus, and the innocent bible friendly term referring to a donkey.  So the most flexible man in the Bible is lot, who tied his ass to a tree and walked a mile.  I don't even think that within this context, I have sinned by using the term!  

Anyway, that is the legalistic end, and I think it is the end to which most of us err.  We want strict definitions on how far is too far and which words are swears and conditions for cohabitation and for wars.  And if it is not clearly defined we are frustrated.  But truth is, it is not clearly defined! Because moral life is a skill, not a list of rules.  Like in any other skill, say Basketball, there are rules, guidelines, and advice, all of which we have to function within.  But even if you do everything technically within the defined guidelines, you need to hone your skill before you can score!

At the other end of the spectrum are the 'relativists'.  These are the people who want to say that whatever they feel is right, is right.  This philosophy is very popular, because it is very tolerant and accepting. There seems to be a general movement in our culture to thinking that this is totally right, and that legalism, and so all rules, is very wrong.  You notice the irony even in saying that.  But the last thing people want to do is to be 'condemning', or to try to declare anything to be a sin.  Interestingly, people who adopt that philosophy tend to pretty readily condemn anyone they perceive as being judgmental. At the extreme ends of that spectrum are people who want to explain away things like the holocaust and say that it wasn't really wrong, and we can't judge what they did, etc.  Sure, there were extenuating circumstances, competing philosophies, but I would argue that it is important and even our responsibility to acknowledge that the holocaust was wrong.  I think most people intuitively agree with me.

So simply, are somethings wrong in every circumstance?  Sure. Torturing the innocent.  Sexually molesting a child.  I cannot imagine a circumstance where these things would not be wrong.

But I will go further.

Abortion is always wrong.  In every circumstance.  Now I don't judge the individual who has an abortion-  they may have had faulty information, a poorly formed conscience, extenuating circumstances. It is because of this that the responsibility of the Church is to provide good information, help form consciences properly, and provide for solutions to the extenuating circumstances.  When we say that something is wrong that does not give us licence to judge and condemn people.  It means that what they did was inherently, spiritually destructive.

Think of you spiritual health as being comparable to physical health.  Some things are ok in moderation, but harmful in excess.  Other things are always harmful.  And other things kill you.   The Catholic Church are the doctors who help identify the threats, and then treat the damage done by them.  Some things which are harmful in some situations- like lopping off a limb- are the necessary medicine in other situations.  But this requires judgement and expertise.

This is why it does matter which religion you believe in.  The Church has been given the Holy Spirit to help it identify the various threats.  So the Church isn't just guessing-  the Church has guidance and the guarantee of getting it right.  

If all you have to go on is instinct to from your conscience, I doubt that you would ever come to the conclusion that contraception is contrary to the dignity of human life and thus of sex, and so is wrong.  (Though some people do figure it out on their own).  The Church then has 2000 years of accumulated wisdom coupled with the guarantee and guidance of the Holy Spirit.  

What we need to do as individuals is first of all give our 'assent of faith' to the Church.  This means that if our own judgement does not align with that of the Church, we assume that the Church got it right instead of ourselves.  Under this we allow our consciences to be formed.  This means we hone our skills, learn how to apply the principals of morality to our daily lives. After that we "Love, but do what we will" as St Augustine put it.  

There isn't some rule book which you can just look up your particular moral dilemma in and get a hard and fast answer.  That's because God doesn't want people who are just skilled at following rules.  God wants people who are skilled at loving.