Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Aporia of Sin

Those who know my views will recall that I believe sin to result from spiritual immaturity. The world is a classroom, and pain its primary mode of instruction.

But for a moment I began to doubt that this is so. Let me explain.

There are men and women who seem to sin in full knowledge of what they do; and among such, there are many who are quite wicked. They murder. They rape. They steal. They enslave. How can we attribute this to mere immaturity? To do so seems to miss the very sinfulness of sin. Sin is terrible, but it is sometimes chosen though it is known to be terrible. How can the claim that sin results from spiritual immaturity capture this fact? It seems to me that it cannot.

But if sin is not a result of spiritual immaturity, what then is it? The one response that seems possible is this: sin is deliberate rebellion against a God who is known to be God. This does seem to capture the sinfulness of sin. It does not reduce it to mere ignorance. It makes it out to be what it is - odious and destructive.

But sin-as-rebellion in turn seems an impossible view. For how can we possibly explain rebellion against God when it is known that it is God against whom one rebels? If one knows that one rebels against God, one must know that one will lose. One must know that one will suffer. One must know that there is nothing that to be gained and everything to be lost. Thus to suppose that sin is rebellion against a God who is known to be God seems a psychological impossibility. We would never chose to do that which could not benefit us in any way.

Here then is our aporia: embrace sin-as-spiritual-immaturity and miss the very sinfulness of sin, or embrace sin-as-rebellion and make the genesis of sin absolutely inexplicable.

At present, I do not see my way out of this bind.


SteveK said...

Hi Franklin,

Thus to suppose that sin is rebellion against a God who is known to be God seems a psychological impossibility. We would never chose to do that which could not benefit us in any way.

What do you think of this possible third option? This would be rebellion against a God who is *believed* to be God. He's not the true God, but a God made in the image of man.

This false image comes as a result of unwavering pride and the subsequent absence of redeeming grace. God gives grace to the humble, but resists the proud.

Some people have a certain knack for staring virtue in the face and believing it is vice. This 'skill' is learned over time by repeatedly inserting pride where humility is required.

Franklin Mason said...

Sorry about the delay of my reply. Life is busy.

I would ask this: how did it come to be that man exhibited the pride that precluded the possibility of a genuine knowledge of God? What is the source of this sin? As before, it seems to me that there are only two choices. (We cannot suppose that God first made man imperfect. God is perfect, and so too are all his products - at least in their initial state.) Either man was (of necessity) made immature and his pride is a symptom of that immaturity, or man was not spiritually immature to begin and yet still committed the sin of pride.

That is, I still don't see a third option here. For any sin that one might name - pride, too - there are but two options.

SteveK said...

Hi Franklin,

I think I'm beginning to see your point better. Ultimately I don't have an answer, but something a friend said to me was interesting and may play a role in all of this. He said that Adam and Eve lacked the ability to know the consequences of sin fully and completely. This lack of knowledge creates curiosity, and we all know where that can lead.

Could the lack of knowledge of consequences be a form of spiritual immaturity, or could it provide the impetus for curious rebellion? I can see it both ways.

Anna said...

Wile I agree that God created Adam immature, I also think that we must say that he did sin, because his was a deliberate act of disobedience. Anyone who has children understands that children can choose to disobey. Is my child's disobedience less sinful because he doesn't understand the consequences? He at least knowingly chose not to trust my word, or that what I told him was good for him. Is not a child's disobedience of their parent saying in effect -your word for me is not good, I know what is best for me? Is this attitude not sin and pride also?

Anna said...

I just thought of something else, so I hope you don't mind me adding another thing that you might consider when asking about sin.

It is the nature of sin to enslave the one who indulges in it. Sin once and it is easy to escape. Continue to sin and we increasingly develop a 'taste' for it. And after many acts of sin, it starts to become a disposition of the soul.

We all know that the rapist probably started with pornography -not looked at once -but the temptation came a second time...and he gave in... and a third time... and he started to want something more exciting... Because he has developed a taste for this thing he continues to justify his actions as not being odious and destructive since he does not want to stop doing them. Part of the nature of sin is to lead us into delusion.

And as Christians we know that repentence is the only way to freedom from sin. We have to willingly struggle against the forces of sin to free ourself from the bondage we freely entered into. In lack of that struggle we will simply become worse and worse. However, if because we love our sin we refuse to acknowledge what we are doing is wrong, how can we repent?

Can we see the problem we have gotten ourselves into if we have developed a love of vice and hate righteousness?

It may be immaturity, but it is willful immaturity and to what degree can God help us if we insist on living life according to our own terms, loving wickedness instead of righteousness, truth and beauty?

Vlastimil Vohánka said...


That's really aporetic.

A couple of hash remarks spilled out

1. St. James: "The devils also believe, and tremble." But they still want to rebel.

How so?

Once I asked A. Pruss:

"Do you think, like Swinburne, that temptation is a necessary condition of a (strongly) significant free choice of a creature?

What about the fall of Satan? Did God tempt him? Is not every tempting sinful? Does not Christ say in the gospel that temptations are not from God?"

He replied:

"No. What is required is incommensurability between some value one takes to inhere in the bad choice, insofar as one understands this value, and some value one takes to inhere in the good choice, insofar as one one understands this value.

The best story I know is that given by St. Thomas ( )."

Another round:

Pruss: "... we do exhibit freedom when choosing between,
say, pleasure and virtue, or other pairs of incommensurable goods. The
beatific vision presents us with a good that is commensurable with every other human good, and hence once we see the beatific vision in heaven, we cannot choose any lesser good in preference to it."

VV: You wrote: "... we do exhibit freedom when choosing between, say, pleasure and virtue, or other pairs of incommensurable goods."
However, if pleasure and virtue are incommensurable, how can I sin when choosing pleasure instead? Sinning presupposes realizing that what is done is bad (and so commensurable with what is good)."

Pruss: "Here's one possibility: virtue is ordered to a greater good, while pleasure is not. So in themselves they are incommensurable, but they
have other extrinsic features. Another possibility: To fail to
choose virtue is by definition what is bad."

2. Franklin: "One must know that there is nothing that to be gained and everything to be lost."

Well, is there really nothing to be gained? Cf. St. Thomas again (link above).

And does the subject know clearly and distinctly that there is nothing to be gained? (Note: this question won't help with the fall of angels.)

3. Last year I wrote at W4:

"The German Rabi Peter Levinson said: "If I believed in Jesus' Resurrection I would be baptized tomorrow.",9171,920335-2,00.html

So, maybe he would (if he believed), but he wouldn't have to. If he were not baptized (but believed in Resurrection and its specific consequences), then maybe we would ask: is he crazy? But, ..., when asking this, we should realize that many times we decide similarly: we know we should do "it" (whatever "it" means), sometimes we also know doing "it" is the only way to happiness (or the only way obviating despair), but we do not want. And that *is* puzzling: how could anyone be so silly? On the accounts I take to be more reasonable than others, there is sufficient evidence that such choices -- puzzling as it, at least to some point, is -- happen very often, they are called sins, and those accounts suppose that at least part of the mystery is explained by alluding to some value which the morally badly deciding agent takes to inhere in the bad choice, insofar as he understands this value. The opposing accounts claim that such decisions (in such settings are) are, in some sense, impossible, there are no sins, and the alleged explanation is no good. Such accounts seem to be incompatible with the claim that someone can believe in the Resurrection (and its relevant consequences) and, at he same time, rebel against God or be a nominal Christian."

4. This seems to be the key: "... some value which the morally badly deciding agent takes to inhere in the bad choice, insofar as he understands this value." (It's a paraphrase of Pruss. Anyway, I suggest to ask him for advice.) Which suggests that there is something to be gained, even in the case of the fall of angels, or at least something believed to be gained. A free focusing on this aspect, seems to me, enables to sin.

How so? Some analogies: Even if there are are no beliefs over the formation of which one has direct voluntary control, it can still be the case that there are beliefs over the formation of which one has indirect voluntary control or beliefs over the maintenance of which one has (direct or indirect) voluntary control.

An illustration of an indirect formation:

"Suppose the year is 1950 and you are a young person, sincere and idealistic, eager to consecrate your life to some cause higher than a bourgeois existence of consumption in suburbia. You have vibrant stimulating friends who are members of the CPUSA. They tell you that the Revolution is right around the corner. You don't believe it, but you want to believe it. So you go to their meetings, accept Party discipline, toe the Party line, and soon you too believe that the Revolution is right around the corner. In this example, the formation of belief is indirect. You do various things (go to the meetings, repeat the formulas, toe the line, etc.) in order to acquire the belief."

Maybe that fallen angels saw that there is something to be gained, and they subtly, quickly, but analogously, and indirectly made themselves focusing on this something and disregarding the rest.

Just a proposal.

Vlastimil Vohánka said...

Addendum to (5), ad indirect voluntary belief formation


"As a libertarian, I think it is causally possible for me to reject grace, and start living an epistemically and morally reckless life, thinking muddily, to the point of denying the existence of God and the principle of non-contradiction."

Ilíon said...

Pride, and self-deceit.