Friday, April 20, 2007

Sin & Virtue

Sin is asserting one’s individuality at the expense of others. Virtue is asserting one’s individuality on behalf of others.
---Tobias Haller BSG


I deeply admire Father Haller. He is not only an excellent theologian, but he’s a damned fine poet---and he has a sense of humor as well. In my experience, that’s a pretty rare combination of traits and I always find something to think about on his blog.

So when I saw his latest post, I felt compelled to give the assertion I quote above some serious thought.

I confess that it makes me squirm.

Now that is probably a good thing. If there is one truism about people of faith, it is that they are far better able to point out other people’s sins than to accept responsibility for their own. I am acutely aware of this tendency, and I try very hard not to fall prey to it.

But there is something about Fr. Haller’s distinction between sin and virtue that leaves me feeling hopeless. That distinction convicts me, because I have recently made a choice to assert my individuality in a way that will perpetually be at the expense of others. In the contrast Fr. Haller has drawn, I see no forgiveness or possibility of redemption for me---as long as I assert my own needs, I will forever be in a state of sin.

I’m not sure what to do with this notion.

To be sure, I doubt Fr. Haller had any specific sin in mind when he wrote that---and I actually think it may be a good guideline for moral decision-making. I’m just uncomfortable with the theological implications of making a sinful choice.

Is it possible, in that bipolar world, to “turn, then, and live?” (Ezekiel 18:32)

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Liberals are often accused of promoting a happy-clappy God who is no longer interested in individual sin. I know some folks like that, but not many. I believe most people are aware of their sinful tendencies and their sinful acts, even if they would prefer to overlook or excuse them.

Having been reared in a fundamentalist church with a strong Calvinist streak, I have the opposite problem. I tend to obsess about my own sins. The grace I have found in the Gospel wars with my deeply rooted fear that God really is a vengeful tyrant, just waiting to zap me for my transgressions—which, I regret to report, are many.

This is one liberal who takes sin very seriously indeed.

I believe God is deeply wounded by my sin, and that His most earnest desire is that I turn from it and live the life He is calling me to live.

So is the choice as stark as Fr. Haller makes it out to be? What do you do when you find yourself having to choose between sin and virtue as he has defined them? If you step off the “right” path, can you ever undo your choice to assert your individuality at the expense of others? Once the damage is done, is the sin ever reparable? And who decides at what point the cost to others rises to the level of “sin”?

Other questions come to mind, as well. What, exactly, is “the good of others”? Who determines it? What does it mean to assert your individuality on behalf of others? Does that mean you engage in some kind of positive action? Or do you simply deny yourself whatever it is that you want if that desire might affect someone else negatively?

And do you have any right to your own happiness at either pole?

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I suspect that much of the way we respond to those questions has to do with the culture in which each of us was reared—and our gender.

Fr. Haller’s definitions of sin and virtue reflect what I see as a “feminine” perspective. The two choices are both defined in terms of the needs of others—which is a way of looking at the world that the vast majority of women in the world would recognize immediately. The perspective that the needs of others trumps one’s own desires is one that women are generally expected to embrace without question—or risk being branded “unnatural.”

Most women I know were taught from the cradle that virtue consists of giving up what you want so that others can have what they want. Thus, your own personal level of misery becomes a measuring stick for your virtue.

Maybe this is the reason I reacted so strongly to Fr. Haller’s definitions. They seem too close to an injunction to give up yourself completely for the sake of others—that one’s own good is found only in subjugating who you are so that others can be happy.

Yet I claim to follow a Savior who did just that—gave himself completely for the sake of others, to the point of death.

Jesus clearly did not relish this idea, however, or he would not have begged God to spare him from such a fate. He resigned himself to his suffering, but he did not embrace it. Is there a message for us in that?

If we want to be virtuous, are we called to give up ourselves completely? To whom? And for how long? Do we have to suffer for years and decades and lifetimes in order to “prove” our virtue and our commitment to God?

And if we reject that model, how do we show repentance for our sins?

I wish I knew the answers to this post full of questions. I invite you to jump in and help me figure it all out.