Sunday, April 3, 2011

Reframing Ethics: Our Perspective on Sin and Its Consequences

When it comes to ethics in general, and Christian ethics in particular, I think that outsiders and insiders alike make incorrect assumptions about the nature of sin and its consequences. For example, why does the Catholic Church say that premarital sex is wrong? Well, the argument goes, simply because they do – because they have the power to. There’s a certain level of randomness to sin – or perhaps malice: i.e. premarital sex is pleasurable, so the Church says it’s wrong.

Additionally, we often make incorrect assumptions about the consequences of sin. We can view it like we view legal systems. Punishment should “fit the crime,” when this is possible; but it isn’t intrinsically connected to the act of breaking the law. For example, if I steal a significant amount of money, that money should be returned – and perhaps more, along with jail time – but the stealing of the money doesn’t naturally necessitate the return of the money. We need an outside force – cops, judges, and legal systems – to enact this. And so with sin, we think that God “assigns” a punishment for our sins – a punishment that may fit the crime, but one that isn’t necessitated by the actual act of sin.

We need only look to the Greeks about 2,600 years ago to realize that the human race has often been confused about the nature of ethics. I think people tend to view morality the way Socrates presented religion in the text of Euthyphro. In this Socratic dialogue, Socrates questions Euthyphro, a priest and therefore an expert on piety, about the nature of piety. He asks this simple question: a) Are things pious because the gods say they’re pious, or b) are do the gods say they’re pious because they’re pious? In other words, a) do the gods simply decide what is good and bad, or b) do they simply relay this information?

For Euthyphro, both options are challenging. If he agrees with A, that the gods decide what is good and bad, then he is claiming that piety is arbitrary: things are not pious or impious inherently; an arbitrary decision makes them “thus or thus.” However, Euthyphro can’t find solace in option B either, that the gods simply relay the piety or impiety of things, since this would mean that “the pious” would precede the gods, thereby devaluing the gods themselves – something a priest doesn’t want to do.

A lot of people, Christian and outsiders, view Christian ethics like option A: The Church makes blanket statements about right and wrong – premarital sex is bad; eating meat on Fridays is bad; donating money is good – but these statements are essentially arbitrary. There is nothing inherently wrong with these supposed “sins.” Because people believe in the accidental nature of sin, they believe in the non-causal relationship between the sin and the “punishment.” 10 x premarital sex = 2 years in purgatory, or something like that.

Let me offer a Christian answer to the Euthyphro dilemma, and through doing this, offer a Christian perspective on sin and its consequences. Socrates offers a false dichotomy. He presents two options to Euthyphro, without acknowledging that there could be other options. I don’t blame either Socrates or Euthyphro; I think certain unique and awesome characteristics of God were revealed first through Christianity. Regardless, here’s a third option: Piety (or goodness) is the nature of God. Therefore, what is pious and good – and therefore what is right and wrong – isn’t arbitrary; it’s based on what God is or isn’t. Further, piety doesn’t precede or undermine the eternalness of God, since it is the nature of God.

Even though the world remains other to God, it is made in the image and nature of God. What is good reflects the pattern of reality as in God, and what is bad is somehow a disruption in this pattern. Good is a reflection of God, while Sin a negation or distortion of Him. This may sound all very cosmic and unconnected to practical day-to-day choices; however, we can all chose against life and existence – by giving into the negating and solipsistic tendency to selfishness – and we can all chose life and existence, by living in the communion of man-to-God and man-to-man.

In this light, “living a good life” has less to do with rules and commands, but simply being reflective of existence, living within the pattern of Being – aligning our being with Being. Living this sort of life has less to do with “pleasing the one above,” and more to do with living the sort of life that is most in line with reality; it is about living the sort of life that is that is best for us. So why does the Church say don’t have premarital sex? Because it isn’t good for us – no other reason.

This is a paradigm shift from “It’s bad for you because it’s sinful” to “It’s sinful because it’s bad for you.” Consider someone battling with giving in to premarital sex. He may feel cautious because he thinks it’s sinful; and as a “sin,” it is accompanied with guilt and consequences – perhaps even eternal punishment. But he is battling with “the consequence of the sin” and not the “act of the sin,” unconsciously finding no direct correlation between the two.

But in reality, the consequences of sin are natural by-products of sin itself. Sin is bad because it naturally produces negative results. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Therefore, the consequences of premarital sex is what premarital sex naturally causes. The “list of sins” that the Catholic Church has created is simply a list of revealed acts that universally have negative effects on individuals. So the man battling with the temptation to premarital sex shouldn’t think that the sin would be fun and pleasurable, but the consequences, as determined by the Church or God, would be a negative and arbitrary by-product of the pleasure; instead, he should recognize that the act itself is somehow in conflict with reality or existence, and therefore he, in his deepest self, doesn’t in fact desire the act.

Just like the Christian answer to Euthyphro appeals to nature – i.e. piety is the nature of God – so too does the Christian ethics appeal to nature: The consequences of sin are the natural results of the sin. The chemist doesn’t say, “If you take enough rat poison, I will make sure you die, because I just don’t want you taking rat poison.” No; he says, “Enough rat poison itself will kill you.” The Church doesn’t say, “If you sin too much, God will not let you enter heaven.” No; She says, “If you sin too much, you are choosing not to enter heaven.”

I have two potential issues with this – issues I have answers, but not ones in which I’m not completely confident. First, what about sins like “not eating meat on Friday” and “not going to Mass on a Sunday?” I don’t think there’s a natural consequence to eating meat on a Friday, even if we’re in Lent. Second, what about Hell? What temporal action can be taken by fallen man that would naturally results in eternal damnation?

Let me take the former first. It seems apparent that, despite my earlier protestations, that certain sin is arbitrary. God’s first directive is “don’t eat this fruit.” As in Lewis’s Perelandra, perhaps God wants man to choose Him simply for Him, and not because of the natural repercussions of the act. Not eating meat on Friday would fit into this category. Of course, there is reason for this sort of rule: learning to control our natural appetites is an extremely important thing. As for other “arbitrary” rules like having to go to Mass on Sunday, there are reasons, too: God’s desire for us, coupled with our need for Him, is such that a once-a-week encounter with His living presence is so incredibly to our benefit and so essential to our spiritual survival that making this a “rule” is a good thing. But even with rules like these, they are to our benefit, not limitations.

Now to Hell. I’ve always had an internal question about Hell. What is it that man, with an inclination toward sin he did not chose, can do in his temporal existence that would deserve eternal damnation? There’s an unfairness that seems inherent in the very idea of perpetual punishment. For me, CS Lewis explores this idea in the most understandable way in his The Great Divorce. In a world after life, but neither heaven nor heaven – a quasi-purgatory – individuals make the decision to enter the realm of heaven, or travel further away, ultimately distancing themselves from God and others. How the individuals acted in life inclines them one way or the other; but the final decision comes after death. The chosen nature of heaven and hell gives me a reasonable look into the heaven-hell dilemma. Hell isn’t the punishment of sin; it is the chosen path by the sinner, the natural end result of a life without God or Godliness.

Charles Williams, an Anglican like Lewis, has explored the same idea in some of his novels. Like Lewis, often the ultimate decision made by the individual for heaven or hell – for God, life, and communion, or for solipsism, aloneness and selfishness – happens outside of temporal life. I think the reason for positing such a place of decision outside of physical history is to avoid the problem of the seeming limitations that our life on earth forces upon us. Death comes so quickly for many, and who is to say that the deceased has made a final decision for God or not-God? By allowing a space between the unpredictability of life and the finality of the afterlife, even in fiction, these writers offer us narratives concerning hell and heaven in ways that reveal the natural connection between sin and its consequences.