Posted On 21 Aug 2011
The confusion about sin is unhelpful and unnecessary. Let’s briefly examine this important topic in order to make it more helpful by clarifying it.
The ordinary understanding of it is that it is an offense against The Divine.
Let’s start by disentangling the ordinary understanding of sin from concepts that are often related to it such as salvation, repentance, and immortal life. Let’s also consider it apart from its history as an idea.
There’s a fundamental analogy in ethics that is quite helpful when thinking about sin.
The question is ethics is: “Which kinds of moral judgments are fundamental?”
According to an ethics of Doing, “deontic” judgments, which are judgments of moral obligation, are fundamental in ethics. These judgments are rules or imperatives that answer the question, “What ought I to do?” Kant and Mill are philosophers who argued for an ethics of Doing.
According to an ethics of Being, “aretaic” judgments, which are judgments of moral value, are fundamental in ethics. These judgments are descriptions of character traits that answer the question, “What ought I to be?” Plato and Aristotle are philosophers who argued for an ethics of Being.
Similarly, the fundamental question here is: “Is sin being or doing?”
There are thinkers who have argued for each alternative: Sin can be understood as doing something that violates divine law or it can be understood as being something that excludes the divine.
Different religious traditions interpret it differently. Sometimes, the same religious tradition interprets it differently! For example, there are Biblical passages that can be used to support either interpretation.
A serious problem with interpreting it as a doing (in other words, doing something that is a violation of Divine law or failing to do something that is required by Divine law) is that it obviously requires Divine law. Where’s the evidence that Divine Law exists? Furthermore, even if it were real, what could prevent there being wildly different interpretations of it?
Personally, I don’t think that the evidence in favor of the existence of Divine law is compelling. Furthermore, and more importantly, there are sound arguments, such as those advanced by Plato in Euthyphro, for thinking that there could be no such thing.
There’s another important problem about thinking that it is a doing: it makes avoiding it merely a matter of following rules. Isn’t that just too superficial? Even if there were a complete, consistent, unambiguous set of rules for what to do or not do in every possible situation, is all that is involved in avoiding it merely following or breaking a rule? I think not.
Properly understood, it is a much more profound concept than the either/or of rule following or breaking. So let’s turn to the other alternative that relates it to Being.
Like me, you are a human being. Sin, I think, involves relating the two aspects of our very nature, namely, our humanity, which is form, and our Being, which is formless. [For the terminological distinction between Being and Becoming, click here.]
If so, sin is not something you do or fail to do: sin involves what you fundamentally are. It occurs when an individual’s form and formlessness are misaligned, which occurs when an individual identifies only with form and forgets or ignores formlessness.
To be a human is to be a limited, temporal form. It’s to be a combination of various qualities. [For an example of at least the right kind of account, see Chapter 6 of my The 7 Steps to Mastery.] You already understand this; at least in part, you already identify with your body and mind (thoughts and emotions), and these are forms (objects, things).
Being is the divine, unlimited, eternal domain of formlessness.
Every particular entity, whether it be your favorite stone or lake or relative, is a form whose essence is Being.
A human being is living in sin whenever there is separation from (blindness to, ignorance of) the essential Being within. Sin is ignorance of the fullness and reality of the present moment. Though it comes in different degrees, there’s only one variety.
If you think of Being as God, then sin is being without God. Atonement is union with God, being at one with the Divine. At least in the Christian mystical tradition, this is the outcome of successful absolute prayer (as opposed to ordinary petitionary prayers, which are blasphemous, or to prayers of gratitude).
If you don’t think of Being as God, that’s perfectly acceptable. It really doesn’t matter how you label it, how you conceive or talk about it; what really matters is only your form/formlessness alignment right now.
Because the word ‘God’ is very apt to mislead in a theistic or post-theistic culture like ours, it’s actually much better for us not to think of Being as God. Being is formless; it is not personal. Since a personal formlessness is incoherent [self-contradictory], the idea of a personal God, which is critical to the three theistic religions that come out of the Biblical tradition, should be dropped.
The bottom line here? Do not ignore Being. If you have fallen into the habit of complete identification with form and want to live well, you must break that habit.
Living well requires a balance between form and formlessness, between Becoming and Being.
The ideal of living perfectly well is important because it requires the elimination of suffering.
If there were no identification with form, there would be no suffering. It’s not all or nothing: the less we identify with form, the less we suffer.
Nearly everyone is out of balance. Nearly all of us (including me) are too identified with form. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that balance is simple and natural. It may not be easy to break the habit of ignoring Being, but many, many people have done it and there’s no reason at all why you cannot do it also.
I wish you well!