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III. The Nature of Sin

Now that we have the extended model before us in outline, we must take a more detailed look into some of its various aspects, starting with the nature of sin and its cognitive consequences. Reformed theologians used to speak of the “noetic effects of sin”; although (sadly enough) this topic has at present dropped out of favor, it will be important for our model, so after an examination of the nature of sin we’ll turn in the remaining part of the chapter to its cognitive consequences.

What is sin? Whatever it is, it is both astonishingly deep and deeply elusive. According to the model, there is first the phenomenon of sinning: of doing what is wrong, what is contrary to God’s will. This is something for which the sinner is responsible; he is guilty and warrants blame—but only if he recognizes that what he does is sin, or 207is culpable in failing to recognize that it is. There is also the condition of being in sin, a state in which we human beings find ourselves from our very birth. A traditional Christian term for this condition is ‘original sin’. Unlike a sinful act I perform, original sin need not be thought of as something for which I am culpable (original sin is not necessarily original guilt); insofar as I am born in this predicament, my being in it is not within my control and not up to me. (In any event there is plenty of opportunity for culpability with respect to the less original variety of sin.)

How does it happen that we human beings are mired in this desperate and deplorable condition? The traditional Christian answer: it is as a result of the sinful actions of Adam and Eve, our original parents and the first human beings. Whether this is indeed how it happened is a matter on which the model need not take a stand; what is part of the model is that in fact we are in the condition. G. K. Chesterton once remarked that of all the doctrines of Christianity, the doctrine of original sin has the strongest claim to “empirical verifiability,” the quality that back in the palmy days of positivism was widely trumpeted as the very criterion of ‘cognitive meaningfulness’; it has been verified in the wars, cruelty, and general hatefulness that have characterized human history from its very inception to the present. Indeed, no century has seen more organized hatred, contempt, and cruelty than ours, and none has seen it on as grand a scale. Our century in particular also enables us to see the social side of sin. We human beings are deeply communal; we learn from parents, teachers, peers, and others, both by imitation and by precept. We acquire beliefs in this way, but just as important (and perhaps less self-consciously), we acquire attitudes and affections, loves and hates. Because of our social nature, sin and its effects can be like a contagion that spreads from one to another, eventually corrupting247247   Examples of this contagion are salient in our century (though also of course in earlier times); for an unusual fictional example, see Brian Moore’s Black Robe (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1985). an entire society or segment of it.

Original sin involves both intellect and will; it is both cognitive and affective. On the one hand, it carries with it a sort of blindness, a sort of imperceptiveness, dullness, stupidity. This is a cognitive limitation that first of all prevents its victim from proper knowledge of God and his beauty, glory, and love; it also prevents him from seeing what is worth loving and what worth hating, what should be sought and what eschewed. It therefore compromises both knowledge of fact and knowledge of value.


But sin is also and perhaps primarily an affective disorder or malfunction. Our affections are skewed, directed to the wrong objects; we love and hate the wrong things. Instead of seeking first the kingdom of God, I am inclined to seek first my own personal glorification and aggrandizement, bending all my efforts toward making myself look good. Instead of loving God above all and my neighbor as myself, I am inclined to love myself above all and, indeed, to hate God and my neighbor.248248   Question 5 of the Heidelberg Catechism: “Can you live up to all this perfectly?” Answer: “No. I have a natural tendency to hate God and my neighbor.” Much of this hatred and hostility springs from pride, that aboriginal sin, and from consequent attempts at self-aggrandizement. We think of getting the world’s good things as a zero-sum game: any bit of it you have is a bit I can’t have—and want. I want to be better known than you, so anytime you do something noteworthy I feel a prick of envy. I may want to be rich. What counts is not how much money I have, absolutely speaking; what counts is whether I have more than you, or most people, or everybody else. But then you and others are obstacles to the fulfillment of my desires; I can thus come to resent and hate you. And God himself, the source of my very being, can also be a threat. In my prideful desire for autonomy and self-sufficiency I can come to resent the presence of someone upon whom I depend for my every breath and by comparison with whom I am small potatoes indeed. I can therefore come to hate him too. I want to be autonomous, beholden to no one. Perhaps this is the deepest root of the condition of sin.249249   This desire for autonomy, self-definition, and self-creation can assume quite remarkable proportions: according to Richard Rorty, Martin Heidegger felt guilty about living in a world he hadn’t himself created, refused to feel at home in any such world, and couldn’t stand the thought that he was not his own creation (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989], p. 109).

The defect here is affective, not intellectual. Our affections are disordered; they no longer work as in God’s original design plan for human beings. There is a failure of proper function, an affective disorder, a sort of madness of the will. In this condition, we know (in some way and to some degree) what is to be loved (what is objectively lovable), but we nevertheless perversely turn away from what ought to be loved and instead love something else. (As the popular song has it: “My heart has a mind of its own.”) We know (at some level) what is right, but find ourselves drawn to what is wrong; we know that we should love God and our neighbor, but we nonetheless prefer not to. Of course this raises an ancient question, one going back to Socrates: can a person really do what she knows or believes is wrong?250250   Meno 77b-78a; see also Protagoras, 345e. If she sees what is right, how can she still do what is wrong? The answer is 209simple enough: she sees what is right, but prefers what is wrong. Socrates fails to see the possibility of affective disorder, as opposed to intellectual deficiency or ignorance. In the absence of affective disorder, perhaps, indeed, I cannot see the good but prefer the evil, knowing that it is evil. Unfortunately, however, we can’t count on the absence of that disorder; sin is, in large part, precisely such disorder. Because of this affective malfunction, I desire and seek what I know or believe is bad.

There are many traditional arguments for the idea that you can’t desire what on balance you see to be wrong: I don’t have the space to deal with these arguments here, except to say that I don’t find them at all convincing. One argument I would like to mention, though, can be put as follows: “There a serious semantic problem here. It isn’t so much as coherent to suggest that a person might love and value what she knows is hateful, or hate what she knows is good. Consider Sam, who says, ‘I love and propose to promote what is in fact evil’: his words fail to make coherent sense. Words like ‘good’, ‘evil’, ‘right’, ‘wrong’, etc. are used to commend and censure, express approval and disapproval; hence the first part of Sam’s utterance expresses his approval of the very thing of which the second part of the utterance expresses his disapproval. You can sensibly say that you are given to approving what is evil, that you have done so often in the past and even that you often do so; but you can’t sensibly say that right now you approve what is evil or hate what is good. Sam hasn’t contradicted himself (he hasn’t asserted a proposition and its denial); what he says is nevertheless incoherent, just as if he had said ‘Hooray for the red, white and blue, and furthermore execrations upon it!’ ”

Reply: first, there are two separate questions here: (1) Is it possible to love what one knows is evil? and (2) Is Sam’s utterance coherent? These are independent: one is a question about what sorts of attitudes are possible, and the other about what sentences make coherent sense (in English). Even if Sam’s utterance is incoherent, it might still be possible to love what one knows to be evil. But second, the fact is Sam’s utterance makes perfect sense. When Milton’s Satan says, “Evil, be thou my good,” what he says is perfectly intelligible: he means to say that he prefers, and proposes to promote, what he recognizes to be evil. We can see what is going on here as follows. It is indeed true that words like ‘good’, ‘bad’, and ‘evil’ perform the function of expressing approval or disapproval. That is only part of their function, however: they also express properties. (It doesn’t matter for present purposes precisely what properties they express, but perhaps the property expressed by ‘good’ [‘bad’] is at any rate equivalent, in the broadly logical sense, to the property of being approved [disapproved] by God.) Ordinarily these two go together: one expresses approval of what one takes to have the property expressed by ‘good’. The important point, however, is that the two functions can also be prized apart: either of the two components of the meaning of these terms can be canceled. When Satan says, “Evil, be thou my good,” the aspect of the term ‘evil’ by which it ordinarily expresses disapproval gets canceled, as does the aspect of the term ‘good’ whereby it ordinarily expresses the property of being good. So Satan is 210not (of course) endorsing or proposing a condition in which what has the property of being evil shall henceforth have the property of goodness; nor is he expressing both disapproval and approval of the same thing. He is, instead, declaring, of what he knows has the property of being evil, that he approves of it, loves it, values it, and aims to promote it. His words can be used to do this just because either of the two components—property expression and attitude or affection expression—of the meaning of ‘good’, ‘evil’, and similar terms can be canceled.

As both Augustine and Pascal noted, this whole complex and confusing congeries of attitudes, affections and beliefs that constitutes the state of sin is a fertile field for ambiguity and self-deception.251251   For contemporary comment, see Bas van Fraassen’s “The Peculiar Effects of Love and Desire,” in Perspectives on Self-Deception, ed. A. Rorty and B. McLaughlin (Berkeley: University of California Press), 1988. Van Fraassen offers a subtle account of some of the tangled depths of self-deception. According to the extended model, we human beings typically have at least some knowledge of God, and some grasp of what is required of us; this is so even in the state of sin and even apart from regeneration. The condition of sin involves damage to the sensus divinitatis, but not obliteration; it remains partially functional in most of us. We therefore typically have some grasp of God’s presence and properties and demands, but this knowledge is covered over, impeded, suppressed. We are prone to hate God but, confusingly, in some way also inclined to love and seek him; we are prone to hate our neighbor, to see her as a competitor for scarce goods, but also, paradoxically, to prize her and love her. Perhaps I recognize, in a sort of semisubliminal way, that there is deep disorder and worse in my life. I half-recognize the selfishness and self-centeredness that characterizes most of my waking moments. Perhaps I note that even (or perhaps especially) in private soliloquy, where there is no question of influencing others, I imaginatively create, rehearse, and contemplate various situations in which I come out victorious, or heroic, or virtuously long-suffering, or anyway abundantly admirable. Perhaps I also glimpse the foolishness and corruption here, but most of the time I pay no attention. I ignore it; I hide it from myself, escaping into work, projects, family, the whole realm of the everyday. (As Pascal says, “Right now I can’t be bothered; I have to return my opponent’s serve.”252252   Quoted in van Fraassen, “The Peculiar Effects.”)

This ambiguity extends even deeper. One can’t help but concur with the apostle Paul: “For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19). I often do what I recognize is the wrong thing, even though I don’t want to do the wrong thing; and I don’t do what’s right, even though I do want to do what’s right. It seems that I don’t do what I want to do and, instead, do what I don’t want to. Or is it instead that when I do wrong, I want to do that very thing, but don’t then think it is 211wrong (though at other times I see perfectly well that it is, and very much wish that I hadn’t done it)? Or is it rather that at that time I do see (to at least some degree) that it’s wrong, or would clearly see that it is if I paid attention (and I also semiknow that fact then), but I don’t pay attention, because I want to do this thing? Or is it that when I do something wrong, then I do want to do that wrong thing, knowing (in a sort of muffled way) that it is wrong, even though I don’t want to want to do the wrong thing? Or is it that when I am wanting to do what is wrong, I don’t even raise for myself the question whether it is wrong? My second-level affections can seem typically better attuned or calibrated than my first level: I often want to do what is wrong; wanting to want to do what is wrong is much less frequent. I want to love and hate the right things—that is, what I see as the right things—even if in fact, as I sadly recognize, I do love and hate the wrong things. I don’t want to love myself above all; that doesn’t stop me from loving myself above all.

A traditional conundrum (or pair of conundra) asks how a person—human or otherwise—could get into this condition in the first place, and whether what is deepest here is a problem of intellect or a problem of will. According to Calvin (Institutes II, i, 4, p. 245), the first and primal sin is disobedience; he also says elsewhere that it is failure to trust God. According to Augustine,253253   (Psalms, Ps. 18, ii, 15). This became a common medieval theme; compare, e.g., Peter Lombard, II sent., d. 42, c. 7: “Superbia radix cuncti mali, et initium omnis peccati” (“Pride is the root of evil, and the beginning of all sin”). Luther concurred; see his Lecture on Romans, tr. and ed. Wilhelm Pauck (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961), pp. 5ff. it is pride that is the deepest root of sin; he also says elsewhere that envy occupies this unenviable position. These four conditions are clearly connected. I pridefully want to think of myself as just as good as anyone else, including God; it therefore irks me to have to obey him. And if he requires that I obey him, will I not begin to mistrust him? (I don’t want to obey him; it is a short step to convincing myself that what he requires of me is not for my own good.) Of course I also recognize that I don’t have divine status; hence the envy (and once again, ambiguity and self-deception). Perhaps all of these originate in that Promethean desire for autonomy, for being beholden to nothing and no one. But how can I get into the condition of desiring this autonomy in the first place? Or rather, since I am born in it, how could Eve have done so? She knew that God alone is the first being of the universe; she knew that she owed God obedience and love; she knew that her own interest lay in loving and serving God, and, in fact, she did love and serve him. So how could she get into this condition of sin? It must include an intellectual defect; it must be by way of somehow acquiring a false belief. Somehow she gets deceived into thinking that it would be better for 212her to go her own way, to be her own person. But how could she come to think a thing like that?

“Not only because he [Adam] was seized by Satan’s blandishments,” says Calvin, “but contemptuous of truth, he turned aside to falsehood” (II, i, 4, p. 245). So it wasn’t just that he somehow non-culpably fell into false belief. He was indeed deceived, but he had a hand in it himself; it was partly a matter of self-deception. He was contemptuous of truth, and that was because at some point his affections went wrong: he was seized by pride. Still, why would his affections go wrong in this way? He must have known that this disobedience is both corrupt and contrary to his own good. So there must have been some kind of prior intellectual fault. But where could such a fault originate: how could it get started? It must be because of self-deception, turning away from what he in some sense knew was the truth. But why deceive himself? There is a complicated many-sided, dialectical relationship between intellect and will here, one such that it isn’t possible to say that either is absolutely prior to the other with respect to falling into sin. One thinks that in some way it must be pride and desire for autonomy that lie at the bottom of the whole mess. Somehow there arises a sneaking desire to be like God, indeed to be equal with him, not to have to play second fiddle (or nth fiddle, for very large n).

Of course the final mystery remains: where does this sneaking desire to be equal with God come from in the first place? How could the very idea so much as enter Adam’s soul? In one way, this is easy enough for us to understand; we ourselves share in the same corruption, the same madness of the will. But Adam was made perfect; so how could it happen? That’s not easy to say. God grants us an area of autonomy (we can accept or reject him), and this desire somehow arises out of that autonomy. I see what God is like, I see what I am like, and I have a choice (a choice I partly hide from myself): I can take pleasure in my condition, which is wonderfully good, or I can give in to envy. (Perhaps at first a mere prick, a small discomfort I can’t even identify, a subterranean half-thought: why can’t I be like that, like God, who owes no one anything and is such that what he wills determines what is good?)

A speculation: for any free creature God creates, this falling into sin is clearly a possibility; God can’t create significantly free creatures who cannot fall into sin. And perhaps a high probability of such a fall attaches to free creatures (creatures with an area of autonomy) who are created in the image of God. God sets out to create beings in his own image: they resemble him in having will and intellect, and they recognize the lustrous beauty, glory, and desirability of God’s position. God is himself the center of the universe; his creatures see the splendor and wonderful desirability of that condition. Perhaps, insofar as one is free, and sees both the glory of this position and its enormous desirability, there is a powerful tendency to desire it for oneself. Perhaps there is a high probability 213that beings created in the image of God will also wind up resembling him in this: that they want to see and do see themselves as the center of the universe. Perhaps a substantial probability of falling into this condition is built into the very nature of free creatures who have knowledge of God’s glorious status and do see it as indeed glorious and desirable. There are possible worlds in which there are free creatures with that kind of knowledge and affection who don’t fall into this condition of sin, but perhaps these worlds form only a small proportion of the space of the totality of possible worlds containing free creatures. Fall isn’t inevitable or necessary; nevertheless, perhaps its objective probability is very high.

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