April 20, 2007

More on Sin and Virtue

Wormwood's Doxy has offered a wonderfully rich and reflective response to my brief epigram in the previous post. I fear that while brevity may be the soul of wit, it can also be the doorway to confusion. So let me offer as it were a Talmudic expansion on the foregoing Mishnah.

W. D. says that the first part of my saying, "Sin is asserting one's individuality at the expense of others," engenders despair or hopelessness: "I see no forgiveness or possibility of redemption for me --- as long as I search my own needs, I will for ever be in a state of sin."

What I am trying to reflect here is to some extent the inescapability of sin: "There is none righteous, no not one." In the specific context, as I believe it was Whitehead said, "Life is perpetual theft." To a greater or lesser degree all of us live at the expense of other creatures --- both living creatures (and even vegetarians come under this; as one vegetarian friend of mine said, "I'm not a vegetarian because I love animals but because I hate plants"!) and inanimate creatures (we human beings are rapidly depleting the earth of many of its resources and doing a massive job of rearranging the molecules of former carbon-based life forms). We can attempt to do all in our power to limit the extent of our destructiveness, but some destruction is inescapable. Does this have a ring of Ecclesiastes?

And yes, as W.D. surmised, I intended this primarily as a guide to moral decision-making --- that is, to seek to minimize harm. (A hat tip to Hippocrates.) But in a positive sense, when it comes to relationships between human beings, the goal should be to see others not as a means to an end (that is, as a something to be used), but as an end in themselves (as a someone with whom to share joy). I reflected at greater length on this concept in my sermon for feast of Saint Aelred. A human relationship will naturally be a dance of give and take --- language we still use in the liturgy of matrimony. The goal is, as much as possible, to transform life itself from theft to gift.

The second part of my epigram said, "Virtue is asserting one's individuality on behalf of others." W. D. is correct that this relates to self-sacrifice, epitomized most perfectly in Jesus Christ. But I see this in the Johannine context in which Jesus places his self-giving precisely as an assertion of his identity and being: he is not a passive victim, but rather like the person who chooses to leap in the path of a bullet intended for someone else. This is where the language of my hour and I lay down my life... And I can take it up again (John 10:17-18) comes in.

I hate to appeal to paradox --- as paradox is often the last refuge of the inarticulate --- but what seems to be effective here is that one can become more perfectly what one is meant to be ("asserting one's individuality") by detachment or letting go, rather than clutching and possessing. Whoever seeks to save his life, loses it, while the one who gives his life gains it. If I am being paradoxical, I am in good company here.

In the long run, my epigram is an echo of Rabbi Hillel's famous dictum: "If I am not for myself who will be? But if I am only for myself what am I? And if not now, when?" It is, in short, an ethical balancing act in which the true moral goodness lies somewhere in that interface between the self and the other.

Finally, I also intend to this to inform the current discussions concerning the Anglican Communion --- the extent to which the identity of a church can be asserted and offered at the same time. I think the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion as a whole, for example, would be making a great mistake to bow to the pressure of some voices from the "Global South" in an effort to become something we are not. If we must suffer for being ourselves (or in being ourselves)--- and, meanwhile not insisting on having our own way in imposing our view on others (that is asserting our individuality at their expense) --- then the acceptance of this reality is a mark of virtue: the Episcopal Church is doing what it does in the belief that it is right and for the benefit of others; if others cannot accept that gift, or even more wish to punish us for having offered it, it is appropriate for us to accept the consequences of being who we are. And if not now, when?

--- Tobias Haller BSG


Wormwood's Doxy said...

Thanks so much for taking the time to do this!

I'm going to have to chew on this a bit too, but your clarifications were helpful.

I know the whole enterprise is, in some sense, a balancing act. I can only trust that there is grace for those of us who are committed to walking the tightrope.

I had wanted to work in Ezekiel's view of sin and redemption---which, if I understand it correctly, is that it is the turning from sin that brings forgiveness. But quite frankly, I overwhelmed myself with questions... ;-)

Grandmère Mimi said...

Doxy, just this morning the Lectionary readings for the feast day of St. Anselm included this passage from Romans 5:8, Paul says, "But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us." Grace is free, given even to us before we ask forgiveness or change our ways. Of course, we really don't "have" a gift unless we take possession. It's the taking possession of God's grace that is the hard question. What, exactly does taking possession of God's gift entail?

Tobias, I saw your statement, "Virtue is asserting one's individuality on behalf of others." exactly as you describe it, as putting ourselves in the line of fire (literally or figuratively) for the sake of another.

The first part of your epigram describes selfishness, which, as you say, we are all guilty of simply by occupying our space on the earth. "Love your neighbor as yourself," is Jesus' encouragement to us to find the proper balance.