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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Sin And How To Enjoy It–Thanks To The Bible

Paul explains to the Romans that Mosaic Law is all well and good – he can’t very well dismiss the Hebrew Bible – but that the Ten Commandments have the opposite effect than God intended. 

For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death (Romans 3:5)

If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”  But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead. (Romans 7:7-9)

The proscriptions against adultery, covetousness, disobedience, etc. were never considered before Moses proclaimed them so on Mt. Sinai. Jews and disbelievers understood that they were simply normal expressions of human society.  No one had ever said that human nature was anything but an engine of venal self-interest, and although society looked down on the worst expressions of antisocial behavior and established laws and procedures to them, killing, extramarital affairs, and stealing were as much a part of human existence as helping the poor.

When the Law was enunciated and Moses announced to the world that from now on God would punish anyone who broke his rules; and that transgressors would be harshly and summarily punished, Jews were tempted to find out why. In other words if God himself condemned adultery in such explicit and uncompromising terms, it must be quite a sin.

Later in his epistles, Paul finds ingenious ways to justify his dismissal of Mosaic Law.  He has read the Hebrew Bible and understands that the Fall from Paradise was the juridical precedent he was looking for.  The Devil tempts Eve by suggesting to her that God is keeping the Tree of Knowledge all to himself.  The fruit of the tree is so incomparably sweet and delicious that he does not want to share it.

Now, Eve had never paid much attention to the tree, but when the Devil explained what she was missing – ‘Forbidden fruit is the sweetest’ – she could not resist; and as a result of her disobedience, both she and Adam were thrown out of Paradise and condemned to suffering and death.

By rejecting the Law, said Paul, and accepting Jesus Christ, death is once again does not exist.  Through the power of Christ all sins are forgiven and eternal life granted.

Looked at one way, the period before Mosaic Law was a Golden Age.  Men and women simply acted according to human nature and society was a very efficient regulator of excesses. Laws, regulations and prohibitions were not necessary.  People lived happily without any interference from institutional moral authorities.  They were as free as any society before or after.  They knew nothing of heaven and hell – that would come later – and so lived out their lives without guilt or unreasonable expectations.

Dostoevsky was particularly eloquent about this matter in his chapter The Grand Inquisitor. Christ sold mankind a bill of goods when he offered eternal salvation instead freedom from hunger and want; and his words to the Devil in the desert spawned an entire industry of religious institutionalism.

Paul’s unique selling point was inspired.  He admitted that all men are sinners and we cannot help but sin; but through Christ our sins can be forgiven.  In so saying, Paul was reverting back to the pre-Mosaic era. Knowing that the cat was out of the bag thanks to Moses, no one ever need be tempted again. There is no forbidden fruit, just human weakness. No condemnation, only forgiveness.

This conclusion, of course, had its own unintended consequences.  Now, not only could man sin, he could sin with impunity.  Confession, contrition, and forgiveness were the basic operating principles of the new religion.

Things are far simpler today now that 2000 years have ironed out all the kinks in Christianity.  Paul had to put up with a lot of antagonism, hostility, and suspicion when he went among the Corinthians who lived life to the hilt and did not like to be hectored and preached at; and he had to think on his feet when selling the new religion to the Romans and Ephesians. In my day, Father Brophy had no doctrinal issues with the Church.  Sin was sin, and his job was to get his congregation to repent.

Every Sunday at 9 o’clock Mass we were not only hectored but harangued by the old priest who shivered and shook with palsy and emotion when he called us out for the adulterers, fornicators, and self-abusers that we were. “Do you smell it now?”, he yelled. “Do you smell the stink of burning flesh and the acrid smoke of brimstone? Do you smell the Devil’s fetid, foul breath?”.  Here he paused to compose himself. He smoothed the folds on his silk cassock, adjusted the gold chain and cross that hung from his neck, and continued.

“You can smell it because you are at the Devil’s door.”

None of us children had any idea what he was talking about.  Although we could certainly envisage Hell – even Marvel comics had issues where superheroes fought fiendish creatures from the Underworld – we had no real idea what sin was.  Like the Romans, we figured that adultery and all other ‘carnal’ sins must be pretty special,.  As for covetousness, we all got pre-pubescent hard-ons in the Spring when Mrs. Lavely taught class in her sleeveless dress.  She was married to Mr. Lavely, the math teacher, and we agreed that we would give anything to climb into bed with her at night.

The good fathers tried their best to distinguish between venial and mortal sins; but again like the Romans, were only interested in the worst ones.  Telling a lie or disobeying your parents was nothing compared with what supposedly would happen to us if we truly became moral renegades.  No matter how much Father Brophy warned us of the eternal torment of Hell; or how often Sister Mary Joseph whacked our knuckles when she talked about sin, we still wanted to commit it.  Paul had good instincts.  When you forbid something, it becomes ever so much more desirable.

Some sensitive children were so frightened by the thought of eternity in a fiery underworld that they became afraid of their own shadow.  Barney Perkins, for example, did everything his parents told him, made the Stations of the Cross every Saturday before confession, never swore, and even at an early age began to practice self-abnegation.  He told us that no matter how hard he thought of panthers in the Himalayas when an image of Mrs. Lavely popped into his head, he still could only think of her luscious breasts. “When I get a hard-on”, he told us, “I whack it down.”

Barney’s self-flagellation phase did not last long.  He gave into sin easily and quickly when he was fifteen. Nancy Bennett took his pants off in the woods behind her house, pulled him down onto the soft pine needles, and showed him what sin was really like.

Paul was a prude.  He was never married and wrote in one of his epistles that marriage was not for the faint of heart.  ‘Stay as you are’ was his mantra.  If you are married, bear up under the strain and do not divorce; and if you are single by all means don’t ever get married.  From the perspective of modern-day non-Christian psychologists, all this flummery about carnal sin resulted from Paul’s diffidence if not suspicion about sex, the flesh, and a life of reproduction.

I know few men who don’t feel at least a twinge of guilt as they sit down to a home-cooked dinner with their wife and children after a cinq à sept afternoon liaison.  It might not be Christian sin which is moving them to some kind of remorse – shaking the foundations of a solid marriage is reason enough to feel guilty – but it soon passes. Men simply cannot resist the allure of other women; and for older men a May-December relationship is the only thing standing between them and the grave.

Sin is déclassé these days, at least on the East and West Coasts.  Everything is relative, progressives say, and what was formerly called ‘sin’ is nothing more than anti-social behavior enabled by external environmental causes. If liberals still act with the moral probity of a Puritan deacon, it is because they have a respect for society and the communalism they espouse – not because sinning would offend God.

Not so, of course, in the Bible Belt where sin is alive and well.  In fact it is the stock and trade of Baptist preachers from Georgia to the Texas line.  I have never seen a congregation more willing to be flayed, flagellated, and abused than that of the Third Baptist Evangelical Church of Aberdeen, Mississippi. Each time the pastor raised his Bible to the Cross and yelled scornful, even hateful words, the congregation followed with louder and louder yells of  ‘Amen’ and ‘Praise the Lord’. The minister was a master.  He was a maestro who could sound the trumpets, raise the violins, and bang the timpani according to his own score.  He could incite his faithful to a fever pitch of religious self-loathing, and then release them with consoling, redemptive words about Christ, the Lord.

The South is no more moral or righteous than anywhere else in the country; but it simply makes a bigger show of sin and redemption than other places.  Even the most devout Methodists of Chevy Chase would never think of stirring in their seats at the mention of sin. In Northern churches sin is expressed as a rejection of Christ.  He is more disappointed in sinners than angry at them; so secular Presbyterians can nod in approval at the pastor’s endorsement of right civil action and the rejection of social ills.

Paul, the early Church, and Father Brophy were right in one thing.  Sins of the flesh are by far the most enticing, alluring, and irresistible of all.  Even as kids we had no interest in lying, stealing, or cheating.  It was sex that mattered then and matters now.  Most of us expunged the last traces of religious guilt long ago, and have led happy sexually liberated lives ever since.

We have to thankful to Paul, however, for raising the issue of the power of the law to corrupt; for if there had been no Father Brophy, that sex with Belinda from Accounting would never have been so sweet.

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