Thursday, February 07, 2008


Last night during the Ash Wednesday service, we were doing the traditional recitation of Psalm 51.

It's a perfectly nice psalm; my favorite verse is, "Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow," largely because it reminds me of that wonderful scene in Puccini's La Fanciulla del West, when Minnie reads the miners a portion of this psalm and explains, "Cio vuol dire, ragazzi, che non v'e, al mondo, peccatore cui non s'apra una via di redenzione."*

I am afraid, however, that when we got to verse 5 ("Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me"), my mouth just clamped shut. I couldn't say that part, because I don't believe it.

*That means, boys, there isn't a sinner in the entire world to whom a path of redemption will not open.


seithman said...

Is this a relatively new development in your beliefs?

The doctrine of original sin (and the closely related Calvinist doctrine of the total depravity of man) was probably one of the first things I started taking issue with in regards to the form of Christianity I was raised in.

-- Jarred.

Faustus, M.D. said...

Wow. So you're not only heterodox (the Puccini) but you're a pelagian heretic too!

I knew there was a reason you turned me on.

Elizabeth said...

The Orthodox church does not have a doctrine of original sin, and therefore we would interpret texts like these as a sickness, not sin or guilt. That we all are weak and have need of healing, even from birth. I don't know if that'll help or not, just thought I'd throw it out there. :-)

kr said...

As a mother and a Catholic, I have this to contribute:

God didn't design us to be faulty/amenable to sin (failings).

But w start off from conception with whatever about life is hereditary (more than just genetics)--and then whatever environment surrounds us, however faulty, we absorb and learn as "normal"/:the way things Should Be"/HOME. This is of course first Mommy, then family, then community.
This is genetic, hormonal, and spiritual/energetic.

So we are conceived in sin--because our parents are not sinless when they conceive us. We are born in sin--because we have already learned hormonal responses and voice patterns and spiritual patterns that leave us open to whatever failings our mothers and to a lesser extent the others around us suffer from/with.

God doesn't doom us.

But to the extent that we don't purge our crap prior to having children, we pass it on: they are born with unhealthy/unholy responses, built in.

Heal-able. But sometimes only with direct grace.

Andy said...

J: no, not new. I've wrestled with this for some time. It was an odd experience, totally not pre-meditated. I just couldn't say those words.

Dr. F: Yes, I have a few wacky ideas. This is why I'm Episcopalian. I'm not sure expressing a fondness for Puccini exactly makes me hetero-anything, though.

E: I can see that.

KR: I see what you're saying and I think you have valid points, but I can't call that "sin." For me, it's not sin until you can attain some fundamental, basic understanding of who you are and what you're doing with the ability to grasp the difference between right and wrong. You know, this is why we don't execute the mentally retarded (ermm...except in Texas) and why we have a juvenile criminal system that distinguishes children from adults, because we widely recognize that culpability is proportional to one's capacity for understanding. I don't find that a heretical idea.

Anonymous said...

What happens if one considers sin as separation from God's love, and redemption as turning towards God's love?

Also considering that the psalms have multiple translations depending upon thier intended use, maybe you just need to find the right translation that makes sense...

But then, I'm rahter full of my own special set of heresies, so perhaps I'm not the best person to listen to...


little-cicero said...

I have more heresies yet- what if "sin" is not the manifestation of evil in the soul but rather, ignorance about what will make one happy. To be good is to know how to be happy. If you horde the riches of the earth for yourself, you are still doing bad if you do so at the peril of your own happiness, and if you are made more happy by giving to the poor you are doing good. In this case, doing good is a study that each of us must take up if we are to become happy.

As a consequence, babies are "sinful" or "guilty" only because they are powerless to pursue happiness in life. The beauty of this that we find embodied in the baby's smile is that the baby has all it's life to pursue its own happiness.

Of course the problem with my joining you in saying "sin" is that we'll derive a messy connotation with the word about "evil" and "hatred" and "damnation," A baby is neither trying to be unhappy (evil) nor is it putting the unhappiness of other before its own happiness (hatred) nor is it damned to remain unhappy forever. Rather, at that moment the baby is stupid about becoming happy, and full of potential to become happy.

It's really a much less messy way of talking about ethics, isn't it?

Andy said...

I have more heresies yet- what if "sin" is not the manifestation of evil in the soul but rather, ignorance about what will make one happy.

LC has discovered Buddhism!

I think Buddha was RIGHT ON in his diagnosis of what's wrong with the human condition, but his prescription was off; he encouraged withdrawal from the world, whereas I think Jesus wanted us to engage and change it.

little-cicero said...

Actually I discovered Socrates and the General Theory of Human Action (at any given moment a person does what he thinks will make him happy). Immediately following the GTHA, if you accept it (I have my doubts) is that if this is the way people act and many people act badly, they do so because they are mistaken about what will make them happy (the same is true of tyrants, children and advertising moguls).

I am extremely interested as to how it relates to Buddha. Please share!

If Buddha's fault was in withdrawing from the world (which I don't think is necessarily the case), that fault was certainly not shared by Socrates. Socrates focused on making goodness a science- a matter of knowledge, for this reason; one doesn't throw around ideas aimlessly and meditate in order to heal a sick person- rather one hypothesizes, tries cures out, records failures and finds the right cure. If you want to be right about living, you have to make a science of it.

As I understand it, Buddha did not make goodness a science so much as he made it a spiritual excercise. While the sufficiency of reason in attaining knowledge may be challenged, at the moment I am ill-equipped to do so, and must conclude momentarily that goodness must be a science to be right about it.

Or, in biblical terms, the Garden of Eden (or the natural turning point of the human species) gave us the option of pursuing knowledge to attain happiness or living in the natural happiness of pure spirituality. For whatever reason, humanity chose the former pathway and we've been forced to do so ever since. In short, it is the human committment to reason for happiness that brought about original sin, because it burdened us with ignorance by requiring knowledge. The Buddha isn't so much escaping the world as he is escaping the committment of reason to the goal of happiness.

kr said...

Ah, so it's the "born guilty" part you choked on, really, it sounds like. My parsing of "born with sin" doesn't address that, and I agree it is ridiculous to assert moral guilt prior to the age of reason (in fact of course I believe both of our churches assert that there is no moral culpability before the age of reason?). My translation (which I admit is not always the best) says, "Indeed, in guilt I was born," which could be covered by my previous natural-consequences explanation.

It also might speak to the broader cultural mixed-feelings in David's time (which we have somewhat inherited) about the holiness/damnableness of women+birthing, and sex and sexuality. In a culture where women were considered Ritually Unclean for ... well, any thing specifically due to being a woman, and where Ritually Unclean is a bizarre mix of shunning and too-holy-to-touch (untouchable in both directions), David might have just been noting that he was born of Woman.

Not that I would encourage you to declare to God and community during service that you are especially sinful because your mother bore you ;). It's just another interesting layer on the question.

And it is of course mitigated by God being born of a woman: a tidy NT correction of an OT theological flaw ;).

kr said...

LC, here's a proposition I've been working on.

In the same way that men are naturally more able physically, women are naturally more able spiritually. (And we should all celebrate and trust each other and ourselves rather than distrusting and trying to undercut the others and ourselves!)

This whole "it must be arrived at through reason" thing you have going on--is just another example of the fundamental masculinity of Indo-European-root cultures. God gave y'all (men) enough Revelation to get you to the right places theologically without the help of women (I have a new theory about that too, but I'm still working on that ;) )--but it is not The right and proper way. It is just as proper to fly to God intuitively (as long as one keeps reference to reality, including both science/creation and revelation) ... with spirit as guide, rather than with reason as guide. They are parallel processes, of equal value.

Also, I wonder if the Buddha and other major male spiritual figures all are So Amazing seeming because most men just CAN'T do what they do--they were gifted by God or extra-feminine, maybe--and notably, history was mostly written by men, so the presentation would be through the male lens. There are a lot of things that suddenly make sense to me, with this overlay--where I've long wondered, "What's the deal with that guy being on that high horse about [x]? OH, for a man that's DIFFICULT! OK, cool." Presumably like my pride and accomplishment in sports when I was younger--which was nothing special compared to boys, but I was pretty accomplished, and worked hard at it, for a girl.

Woo woo! That should set everyone's teeth on edge ;).

As usual, LC, I agree with none of your basic terminology definitions (hatred etc.) and generally disagree with your intellectual construction to define "sin" ;). However, I haven't time to get into that, I just thought I'd throw a wrench into the deeper assumptions ;). cuL8r ;).

little-cicero said...

If spirituality deigns to provide me with knowledge about The Good, I will not try to stop it- that's less work and more good for me. At the moment I must address my ignorance by learning how to live a good life as best I can, and reason seems the best way to do so while I'm waiting for spiritual revelations by way of Zen Koans or Rosary prayers.

I brought up "sin" and the connotations thereof only because that's what you guys are discussing, and I want to see if Platonic hedonist ethics can address such things as "original sin," The problem I have with sin is that it carries with it all of these demonic elements from Medieval Christian mythology. I grant you that if people ever act badly knowing that what they're doing is bad for them, there may be some sort of demonic element in what you call "sin," but I am not persuaded people ever act against their own happiness knowingly.

little-cicero said...

Come to think of it, that last comment was more than a little feisty.

I must address intuition seriously. It has its place in reasoning- as a matter of fact I am more and more often seeing intuition as the dominant source of evidence in the Socratic dialogues. Intuition is not necessarily separate from reason. In Socratic terms it is what you remember in the process of "learning," Intuition is opinion (right or wrong), that I cannot deny.

The question is, when intuition is right and is thereby what we call "knowledge," where is this knowledge coming from?

I would really like your answer to this, that I might clarify your position.

kr said...

LC, I'm not clear whether you thought I was "feisty" or you were feisty, but if me--congrats, your emotional sensibilities are (finally ;)! ) kicking in :).

My go at a response yesterday was both TOO fiesty ;) and too long, so I will try again, more succinctly.

1) Demons don't cause sin--they can only work with our own broken-spots and encourage bad habits and choices (I was going to say "our," but I'm pretty sure they can introduce new ones from outside of us--if we have openings). We still do the choosing, whether to move further into or further out of sin. (Stopping cold turkey is a rare event, and involves both will and miraculous grace, in any sin large or small. I think ;).) And demons, yes, in the medieval sense. The Renaissance humanized them--the sin of Pride marred a lot of the work Western Civ did at that time, when we really stepped up and tried to be gods/like God--and the Devil laughed all the way to the bank: it's a lot easier to dismiss Evil as just "evil" (humanly comprehensible, never absolute nor incomprehensibly sourced) now.

2) Hatred: however irritating to me, I am glad for you that hatred is only an intellectual conceit for you. I hope that keeps on.

3) Knowingly acting against one's own happiness: I can definitely, personallyy, say yes. (See also, letters of Paul.) Seriously, though, the more conscious one becomes about their living, the more one sees and understands their own choices ... and the more obvious it becomes that the habit-life, our comfort-life, our imperfect intellectual learning, our imperfectly trained will, etc., all work together (or, rather, all work in opposition, if we are trying NOT to sin ;) ) to keep us tripping up. As one gathers new experience and new ideas, one suddenly learns that (x) was a _choice_ and not just 'the way things are' ... how ingrained is the habit, of thought or action? They take a while to let go of! And that ignores the new ones we misguidedly take on ("oh, the Church can't be serious about THAT still!" ... "but this is so much 'easier'!" ... "but the other person wanted it so badly, and I 'love' them!").

4) 'Glad to see you are considering the equality of intuition with logic at the intellectual table. ;). Socrates: the whole questions structure, when aimed toward discovery, is intuitive, unless he is fishing for an exact answer (pedagoguery in a gentler form). I've repressed all that "you are supposed to accept that Western Civ is properly based on these exemplars of massively misogynistic socieites" reading, so you'll have to be the judge. (Oh, that Renaissance, so Enlightened.)

'K, not sure I answered what you wanted answered, but at least this time I directly addressed some actual points ;).

little-cicero said...

So we agree that intuition is part of knowledge.

If we remain in disagreement on GTHA, you are quite right I'm sure to bring in demonic forces and evil- irrational forces of human action. At the moment I am convinced (by better iterated proof of Protagoras 355-358) that knowledge is sufficient to prevent us from acting against our own happiness.

Our disagreement is on the GTHA. May I ask for an instance when you think you acted against what you thought would make you happy at the moment, so that I can show that it was mere ignorance? Nothing naughty or villainous necessary, just something that made you unhappy that you knew would make you unhappy. Sorry if I'm being too personal, I just see no other way to proceed.

kr said...

OK, LC, I've sat with this for a while. I have so many examples, you see ... but then I put together some other work I'm doing with this conversation, and realized a major point where our bases are different.

Here, try to wrap your head around this (and I'm not assuming you are stupid, I am assuming that because the converse is SO HARD for most women to wrap their heads around, this proposition will be hard for most men): women literally cannot--literally CANNOT--live "in the moment." Can't. Simply can't. It CAN NOT HAPPEN. We are constantly aware not only of everything in our environment, but also of all past events/possibilities and future possibilities/probabilities, to the full extent our brain is capable. (More intelligence or knowledge = more capable. Depression or exhaustion = way less capable--but still capable!)

We can often be more focussed on one thing (although some women never really grow into that skill)--but we can never truly focus, the way (I'm told!) a man would understand this concept.

It is my growing understanding that men _can_ actually literally single focus (task management) and live in the moment (chronological managment), and in fact nearly always do. Like, if you "worry about the future," you spend a chunk of time worrying about the future (it becomes your "task"), and then you do something else. Or ... something--this is all very foreign to me! It is hard for me to IMAGINE; it falls into the mental category of "just accept it as true while you try to network it to all your other knowledge (so you can be constantly aware of it as well(!))".

SO, to bring this back around, as a woman I am literally incapable (totally serious, LITERALLY INCAPABLE) of acting in a way I recognize is a poor long-term-choice, without being AWARE that it is a poor long-term-choice, no matter how "easy" or "nice" it might seem in the short term. And sometimes I act those ways anyhow--because I am human, eh?--but I am aware they are against my overall happiness, and occasionally even against my immediate happiness. Also, I often (often often!!!) choose things that are entirely immediately uncomfortable because I see that they are steps toward eventual better outcomes. Well, probable eventual better outcomes.

Hence, men find aecsetics laudible, like it's a "hard" thing, which has been among the things that have always mystified me. Or total virginal chastity. Women are greatly attracted to women who have learned to live ... well, 'lusciously' or hedonistically ... because it takes WORK, that's an ACHIEVEMENT, to get close to "just enjoying" life.

I am told that masculine women and feminine men can nearly do what the other side does; I know in my academic achievement years I could focus to one task with only a dull awareness of my surroundings. (Any transgendered people reading are welcome to weigh in.)

So. Damn, you guys have it hard on the stop-a-sin question--how much more you have to consciously build your habit-life to support your moral code, sicne your brain isn't providing the constant-awareness! But then, I suppose you don't constantly (literally constantly, not just sometimes, not just if you are focused on a moral question) have the guilt-monster, who looms larger or smaller depending on how well a woman thinks she is living.

Which brings up two recurring themes:
1) If Jesus hadn't come as a man and set up a male heirarchy, Western Civ men would have had no reason to listen at all (God in the OT required thunders and fires and The Plagues to get that patriarchal society to listen ;) ).
2) All that "foundational Western Civ" philosophy is SO DAMN MALE. It is brilliant, in its way--but it IGNORES half of humanity and then expects to be universal (and is offended when a bunch of people just don't agree with the brilliant propositions therein). THIS is the kind of thing that riles me, THIS is the underlaying set of assumptions that led to the Renaissance-->modern science-->modern "medicine" conceiving of women as 'faulty men.' LC, study it, great--but it is not and WILL NEVER BE, because it is not built on a 100% foundation, THE ANSWERS.

(I'm waxing intellectually enthusiastic there, not yelling, btw.)

The easy and obvious example: sex/masturbation Women CANNOT be single focused, and if they believe what they are doing is wrong, they are VERY aware of that, NO MATTER how "good" it feels--and I am suddenly understanding why it is so easy for men to assert "there's nothing wrong" with such a huge variety of things that are so cleary bad ideas. Women are also easily distracted by things like a baby crying, a spot on the wall, how tangled the sheets are getting ... this is the level of awareness we live with. Also, if we have an injury or a headache ( ;) ), being sex-foxused does not make the pain go away (although the hormones thereby released can physically help). I assume this is why "having a headache" is such a tag-line, because to a man that wouldn't make any sense at all: the headache would 'go away' (not be felt).

Anyhow, it is not possible for me to make a perceived-happiness decision in a moral vacuum.

Any of that make sense?

little-cicero said...

I'm working on the rest of your comment, and will finish my reaction in a day or two. At the moment, I love your summation of male-female difference- as a matter of fact I am showing this to a girl with whom I was discussing this topic earlier, and have found this useful in summing up our differences. This is, I assume, why all but one of the female philosophers at my school are into feminist philosophy.

"We are constantly aware not only of everything in our environment, but also of all past events/possibilities and future possibilities/probabilities, to the full extent our brain is capable."

That's what Socratic ethics should suggest- in the moment you should have working knowledge of what was pleasurable and painful in the past, you should understand the present environment, and you should know what the future possibilities and probabilities for pleasure or pain are. These aren't just nice features for Socratic Ethics, they're essential to overall happiness. If you're right about the differences between men and women, women are better equipped than men are. The fault that men so often fall into is over-focusing on the present when immediate pleasure is not all that concerns their overall happiness.

Actually, one of the more feminine (according to your description) things Socrates argued in Laches was that there is no tripartite virtue of "virtue then, virtue now, virtue later"- it's all the same virtue- what will have brought you the most overall happiness.

kr said...

OK, let me toss one more thing into the mix.

This all apparetnly has something to do with the physical neurological development: women are wired more across-the-two-sides-of-the-brain, men have fewer such connections.

UNTIL midlife, when men grow more connections and women unwire some.

Which is an interesting side note to all those old-guy philosophers ... and all the cranky old women with no patience for people thinking in circles (old women tend to prefer that people "just get to the point and stop wasting time," in my experience). In men, age brings wisdom, in women, decisiveness. Heh.

Also interesting how women were considered the major source of societal spiritual guidance when we all had short lifespans ... wonder if that will shift now ;).