As a Catholic kid I grew up amid a hierarchy of sins. Venial sins were minor everyday violations — lesser offenses like swearing or disobeying your parents. Minor offenses incurred minor punishments: say a Hail Mary or two as penance; or, if you don’t get yourself confessed by a Priest before you die, you might have to put in a few years in Purgatory for each venial sin before you get to go to Heaven. There were distinctions made between venial sins: disobeying your parents was naughty, but lying to your parents was pretty bad. Mortal sins were the big ones: murder, … and what else? I was never clear on that. I assumed that violating the Ten Commandments was a mortal sin, but one of the Commandments is “Honor your father and mother.” So disobeying your parents is mortal and not venial? Or maybe hitting your parents is mortal? My mother told me that her grandmother used to tell her that if you hit your mother your hand will stick up out of the grave. Maybe that’s what happened to Carrie in the movie. Oh, I remember another mortal sin: failing to do your Easter duty, which meant that you had to go to confession and communion at least once between Ash Wednesday and Easter. The consequence of committing mortal sin was potentially dire: if you died with an unconfessed mortal sin on your conscience you went straight to Hell with no possibility of release. The idea of a habitual pattern of sinfulness was alien to my young Catholic understanding: you could tell a bunch of lies without being a liar. Confess each lie and you’re off the hook.
I went agnostic as a kid, but then later on I got Born Again. I learned that the distinction between mortal and venial sin was bogus: any offense against God was grievous. No Purgatory either: only Heaven and Hell. Going to Confession? Irrelevant. If you’re Born Again, then you’ve been forgiven for all your sins past, present and future. There was debate about whether there might not be an Unforgivable Sin, or whether you could lose your salvation, or whether an ongoing pattern of sinfulness might mean that you’d never been saved in the first place. In the Born-Again theory that I learned, sin wasn’t a specific behavior but a way of being: either you were for God or you were against Him. Or perhaps sin was a life direction: moving away from God rather than toward Him.
And so in my on-again off-again Christian pilgrimage I encountered two distinct theories of sin. In the Catholic version, sins are discrete “objects.” One might think of sins as excretions of the self that cling to you and that weigh you down. These sin-objects come in varying weights, but there is a category of extremely heavy sin-objects that drag you all the way to hell. The lighter-weight objects participate in a kind of economy: you can get rid of the weight either by saying some prayers or by putting in some time in Purgatory. Famously, Martin Luther didn’t much care for the way the sin-economy was being administered by the Church. Clearly our contemporary criminal justice system operates according to a Catholic principle of discrete crimes as excrescences that can be paid for by time or money, unless of course it’s a “mortal crime.”
In the Born-Again hamartiology sin was a way of being, or a direction of movement, or a relational position. Sins as discrete objects weren’t important in and of themselves. Sins were external signs of an inner corruption that produce them, just as individual coughs and sneezes signify an underlying sickly condition. It was even possible to cure the sickness without clearing up the symptoms right away: the sinner’s corruption is removed, his direction turned around, his relationship with God restored, even if he does continue excreting the odd sin-object now and again.
So now I’m wondering whether the new object-oriented ontologies might be able to generate some alternative hamartiologies. Catholic sins are objects, but they’re hierarchically arrayed. Born-Again sin isn’t an object at all but an essence or trajectory or relationship. So I’d say that the Catholic scheme gives us a better starting point. On the other hand, there’s the Born-Again view that all sins, big and small alike, are equal in that they’re all generated by a serious, indeed a fatal, underlying condition.
How about this: Each person is an object; each sin is an object. A sin may (or may not) emerge from the interaction of a specific person with another person or situation or object: call this interactional context a “temptation.” The specific sin that’s spawned in the temptational interaction is a composite object, its specific properties generated by but irreducible to the properties of the individual sinner and the other object which the sinner encounters during the temptation.
What if temptation is resisted: is no new object formed? Or does resisting temptation produce a “virtue-object”? Do sin-objects still carry varying amounts of weight, as in the Catholic economy, and can removing this weight still be paid for by penance-objects? Do virtue-objects carry weight, or perhaps buoyancy — an anti-weight that counteracts the weight of sin-objects? Clearly more research is needed.