24 February 2010

Flat Hamartiology

Filed under: Christianity — ktismatics @ 8:19 am

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.



  1. So what is the nature of the research in which you will try to discover additional information?


    Comment by Anne — 24 February 2010 @ 10:04 am

  2. Hmm, let’s see… do you or do you not tell your wife the details of your sin research project?


    Comment by john doyle — 24 February 2010 @ 11:46 am

  3. As we all know, some just ‘intimate’ it to their wives, until their hustler-rolfers (as in Pastor Ted) or their internet-hustler-targets (as in ‘Old Nick’ and whoever that guy was he was chasing around, I never could figure it out, although traxus thinks he knows…) starts informing the wives by email and everyone else. In your case, I would not recommend that you ‘intimate’ it to your wife. I recommend that you resist sin and realize that the wages of sin research project is DEATH!


    Comment by Quantity of Butchness — 24 February 2010 @ 12:05 pm

  4. You have here two operative theories of how to best make members and then keep them in ‘proper alignment’ with the religious organization. The means seem to differ, but the end is much the same. In the long run, the catholic version will win out. I rather think that first modernism and then the PoMo assault have already rather shattered the protestant bulwark, yet very little has changed on the other side…


    Comment by sam carr — 24 February 2010 @ 4:29 pm

  5. Hi Sam. The Catholic version is perhaps an easier game to understand and to play, more concrete than the Protestant version. I suppose an ethic based on a set of virtues fits somewhere in between the discrete behaviors of Catholicism and the holistic orientation of the Born-Agains.

    Virtues are qualities of a self that generate actions embodying those same qualities. So a person who possesses the virtue of bravery does brave deeds when the situation calls for it.


    Comment by john doyle — 24 February 2010 @ 7:45 pm

  6. Shifting the focus from the inner man or the new man or the soul back to specific actions in their own right is probably a good idea. The inward look of the Christian soul is often mirrored in the therapist’s gaze: specific actions point back to the individual actor and his desires, motives, and agency; specific actions are reduced to mere expressions of the actor’s essence or symptoms of an underlying corruption. The legalist is going to look outward toward the standards, evaluating specific actions as either conforming to or violating the law. An object-oriented hamartiology might focus more on these specific actions in their own right, as a unique confluence of actors, standards, situations, and consequences.


    Comment by john doyle — 25 February 2010 @ 7:09 am

  7. As a lifelong agnostic from a family of lifelong agnostics, I don’t find sin to be a self-interesting project. But it’s definitely other-interesting, in an ethnographic sense, as a vivid and powerful way that particular communities draw boundaries and create meaning (purity and pollution a la Mary Douglas).

    Hooking to a conversation we’re having at my place, I wouldn’t want to try to find empirical support for these notions (for their consequences, yes) – they’re pure convention. And this is another fascinating thing we agnostics notice about folks who think sinful thoughts – there’s what looks from outside like a profoundly contradictory willingness, even eagerness, to fiddle arbitrarily with the definitions, coupled with assignment of massive consequence to violations of the standards that just got dreamed up. I mean, heaven and hell are supposedly at stake, and you’re all like lalalalala here’s what I think sin is today, death to the infidel.

    Now, if it’s somehow really ok to just freaking make this shit up, I really enjoy this repurposing of flatness you’re playing with here. Just to add my $.02, when you say “Born-Again sin isn’t an object at all but an essence or trajectory or relationship,” again from outside and from your own discussion I’d say it’s an essence but NOT a trajectory or relationship. The essence may be transformed all of a sudden through conversion, but you’re either all in or all out. And in each case the relationship to salvation is played with one note. A more truly relational picture of sin might follow Latour (We Have Never Been Damned would be the key text; the original is all about purity and pollution) and find an infinite variety of morals/actors/situations hybrids – as you say, each “a unique confluence of actors, standards, situations, and consequences.” In this picture ‘sin’ would be a distributed concept with many dimensions but no essence; but that makes sin a matter of perspective, which doesn’t sound to me like what sin is for?


    Comment by Carl — 25 February 2010 @ 8:55 am

  8. “they’re pure convention”

    Of course this is the outsider’s view. The insider may claim any number of empirical sources of evidence: Scripture, the Church Fathers, tradition as a collective embodiment of truth, direct revelation. The more pomo believers would agree with your assertion that it’s pure convention, but when convention itself becomes equated with the real, then the empiricist shifts focus to defining the convention itself. E.g., Obama is a socialist if enough people in a public opinion poll say he’s a socialist.

    “there’s what looks from outside like a profoundly contradictory willingness, even eagerness, to fiddle arbitrarily with the definitions”
    The traditional believers assert the same thing about unbelievers. Situation ethics, Nietzschean ethics as aesthetics, what Alisdair MacIntyre calls “emotivism,” if it feels good do it, and so on. Paul speaks at length about how he is dead to the Law, now being guided by the promptings of the Holy Spirit to do the right thing. At the same time he does seem to lay down plenty of laws of his own. So there are internal debates raging inside the psyche of someone who purports to be speaking on God’s behalf.

    “I’d say it’s an essence but NOT a trajectory or relationship.”

    Essence is the usual understanding, I agree. However, enough evangelicals have heard that “sin” in both Hebrew and Greek means “to miss the mark,” which definitely point toward trajectory as the intent. And we’ve certainly heard enough evangelicals talk about “accepting” Christ, being “in” Christ, having a “personal relationship” with Christ, and so on to recognize the relational component of the Born-Again variant. Catholicism not so much.

    You’re right about conversion: all in or all out. Even among Catholics the venial/mortal sin schema applies only to Christians. I’m not sure if, as an outsider, you even qualify as a mortal sinner. This is a debatable point in Scriptural hermeneutics. Clearly the Old Testament Law was meant to apply only to Jews; Canaanites who followed the dietary restrictions or purification rituals weren’t earning any points thereby. Jesus focused his attention on the Jews, so most attempts to universalize his message on sin are questionable at best. Paul famously asserts that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” but he says this in conjunction with his “dead to the Law” discourse, so it’s not clear whether he thinks sin is a relevant construct for unbelievers in the AD era. The ambiguities have given theologians and practitioners alike plenty to work with over the millennia, with all sorts of factions pointing to different sources of evidence and exegetical techniques supporting their various cases.

    The hybrid version of sin you espouse would work better in a polytheistic religion, where different gods might espouse different virtues and pursue different agendas. Christianity makes gestures in this direction with its trinitarian diversity-within-unity. One of the main terms for God in the Old Testament is elohim, which is a plural noun. “Let us make man in our image,” says elohim at the end of the creation narrative. But pretty soon the monotheism kicked in solid, with God’s new name being Yahweh, or “I am who am” — emphasizing both the individuality and the essentialism. If God can talk to millions of people simultaneously inside their heads, then I’d suggest that God is some kind of distributed intelligent network. Since he seems to tell different people different things, maybe God themself has mixed opinions, operating on the basis of probabilities and dynamic consensus rather than eternal certainties.


    Comment by john doyle — 25 February 2010 @ 10:43 am

  9. Just to clarify: I too am an outsider to the faith and have been for, oh, about 25 years now. But I like to engage in speculative heresy (to borrow an apt phrase), and I suppose the fact that I once was a convert suggests that I’m not immune to the attractions/repulsions of religion.


    Comment by john doyle — 25 February 2010 @ 10:51 am

  10. “The insider may claim any number of empirical sources of evidence: Scripture, the Church Fathers, tradition as a collective embodiment of truth, direct revelation.”

    Just been reading Bacon with one of my World History sections, so I feel confident in saying that he would have rejected all of these sources, and any other text or tradition (e.g. the Ancients, coming out the other side of the Renaissance) as by definition dogmatic and not empirical. Hm. Is what counts as empiricism a matter of fact or interpretation? I don’t suppose the Pope would have minded having both the Bible and the book of Nature on his side in the dispute with Galileo, but that’s not how it played out.

    “The more pomo believers would agree with your assertion that it’s pure convention, but when convention itself becomes equated with the real, then the empiricist shifts focus to defining the convention itself.”

    True enough. Yet despite my deep appreciation of pomo, at this point I want to bitchslap the sucker a few times, take his lunch money, and have a conversation about what parts of the experience are conventional. I also agree that renaming familiar things (like socialism) creates a new object with that name. Yet if the old object is still around we’re going to have to find a new name for it or otherwise cope with the confusion, not to mention all the folks who haven’t gotten the memo.

    “The hybrid version of sin you espouse would work better in a polytheistic religion, where different gods might espouse different virtues and pursue different agendas.”

    Cool. I seem to recall Dad writing a paper in which he described chaos physics in these terms.

    “I suppose the fact that I once was a convert suggests that I’m not immune to the attractions/repulsions of religion.”

    The Pope thinks you’re still Catholic. ;-)


    Comment by Carl — 25 February 2010 @ 3:18 pm

  11. “you’re either all in or all out”

    Carl, I don’t know if you’re still around, but when I wrote this post an errant thought crossed my mind about the hamartiology of trolls and vampires. Fortunately nobody picked up on that theme, so it disappeared unremarked…


    Comment by john doyle — 26 February 2010 @ 10:12 am

  12. Yes, I see! Fortunate indeed. Especially since for every categorization of sin (flat or otherwise) there has to be a reversing countercategorization in which what’s demonized is sanctified, what’s reviled is valued, what’s rejected is embraced. Wouldn’t Mikhail be the Dark Pope of this satanic cult?


    Comment by Carl — 26 February 2010 @ 10:45 am

  13. I just declared Dr Graham Harman the most overrated philosopher in the history of the blawgosphere.

    Eloise where are you to defend me at Anodyne’s, where I’m being fucked by Lite and Chabert at the same time.


    Comment by the voice of parodic reason — 27 February 2010 @ 10:26 pm

    • This has a ‘High-Carb Sound’ to it, very ‘McDonald’s Haute Cuisine’, one might say.


      Comment by Quantity of Butchness — 28 February 2010 @ 11:39 am

  14. Chabert is back!


    Comment by john doyle — 28 February 2010 @ 12:19 pm

  15. Yeah well you’ve definitely been a low-carb ballerina so far the way you handled this mess. Lite is either being recruited for Xanadu or is already on the staff list, probably serving Missus’s lesbian whims alongside Childie as the ”straight” toygirl. I’ve been accused of ”colonial essentialization” in response to my suggestion that Dworkin was right to refuse sex with men (because let’s face it men belong to homosexuals). Then Warszawa suddenly appeared out of nowhere with her complaints against Lacan, and then of course Lite ended up persuading me that birds and other poultry write operas, too. The upside was the viewing recommendation of 3 Women by Altman, which I had completely forgotten but which I always felt should be seen.


    Comment by the voice of parodic reason — 28 February 2010 @ 5:28 pm

    • No one has handled anything with such finesse since Garbo….


      Comment by Quantity of Butchness — 28 February 2010 @ 5:39 pm

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