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)


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?


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.


Tobias said...

What a wonderfully reflective comment! There is so much here that I'll have to think about it before I respond, and will probably do so back at my blog.

Pat Jenkins said...

How would u define a or your relationship with God?

Wormwood's Doxy said...

Fr. Haller--I'll look forward to your response. I appreciate your willingness to engage. (BTW, I did go back and link your blog in the post---sorry about the initial oversight.)

Pat--I would define my relationship with God as "a work in progress." ;-)

Davis said...

There are times when asserting one's individuality on behalf of others means telling them the truth. To do otherwise is to dimish their dignity, I believe.

Tobias said...

I've put together an initial reflection. Hope this helps explain the balancing act...

Grandmère Mimi said...

that one’s own good is found only in subjugating who you are so that others can be happy.

Doxy, I don't see that Jesus' preaching on laying down one's life for another has much to do with making the other person happy. I'm sure the disciples would have been happier, in the moment, if Jesus had done what he could to stay safe and remain alive and with them. In the end, of course, it was better for them, and for all of us, that Jesus laid down his life.

I'm curious as to how you headed in that direction. Besides, I've found that not everything we do that we think will make others happy, actually accomplishes that purpose.

Of course, I could be wrong.

Cynthia said...

For me, this has always been the paradox of faith and following God as a woman and a mother: God has called me to ministry and motherhood but both seem to be at odds with each other. And either way, I sin.

The challenge as women is to not be so hard on ourselves while trying to find the place where our dreams intersect the world's needs.

Lapinbizarre said...

Greetings. I am as near theologically illiterate as you will find, but just popped my head in to say "Hi!"

pj said...

Good grief, you are too smart for me.

I am clueless, lapsed, unchurched, apostate, whatever.

Yet I find it hard to believe that God might have a serious problem with anyone who examines things the way you do. I mean, he must have his hands full with all the people who wreak havoc on others without giving it a second thought, right? Hope so anyway.

Hey, thanks for stopping by before. I'm adding you to my tiny blogroll, okay? :)

Lapinbizarre said...

Maybe MP could grant a weekly "Southernisms" slot? Keep us more or less penned, rather than free-ranging across the property.1 No question but it's far more fun to get into these things with a a barely-comprehending audience of limeys.

Then there's the matter of Southern expressions. Was laughing just the other day about the reaction of a Southern acquaintance to a tomato and red pepper chutney (VERY good) that I made a year or two back. I gave her a jar. An hour or so later she called and said - she is, to put it politely, a tad "country" - "that stuff's so good I could lick it off a wet dog!"

The recipe is now known en famille as "Wet Dog Chutney".

Wormwood's Doxy said...

PJ and Cynthia--thanks so much for dropping by. I've got more to add on this subject--I've just been thinking about it...

LB--you made me snort out loud. I don't even LIKE chutney, but I would have to try "Wet Dog Chutney."

Ed said...

Doxy, I left a way too long comment that seems to have evaporated. Probably just as well. Suffice it to say that Fr. Haller's bon mot also impressed me and I've been thinking about it a lot. Thanks for all of this. I'll probably have to give in and write my own essay... Meanwhile, thanks for dropping by and I'm glad you liked the art.

Nina said...

We can't make people happy by becoming doormats--or if we can, they need to find a different way to be happy, because that makes them into bullies.

We are here to find our integrity and work out our salvation together. I might sacrifice my life for you, but not my soul.

Saint Pat said...

We are called to serve each other, not negate ourselves. God created each one of us to have worth and dignity. We are not called to sacrifice indiscriminately. That's a perversion of the Gospel.

Eileen said...

This is one of those issues that almost forced me out of the church completely.

The world is full of people doing so many awful things to each other, do I really want to engage a God who is an accountant of my relatively minor transgressions? At the time, I thought not.

It is, though, helpful to think about those areas you could improve upon in your own life - areas that, while minor, could help to make major improvements in your self-esteem or outlook. But, the accountant is you - not God. God is the agent, the agitator, who gets you thinking, and returning to him - having a change of heart. That's a God I can interact with, and one whom I love.

johnieb said...

Pour lapinbizarre,

Read this on a friend's blog from the Smokey Mountains of E. Tennessee,

"My neighbor's five year old burst out the front door, and hollered, 'Run, Mama's done took a fit to cleaning!' and we all high-tailed it outta there."