Sin

Unrepentant Sensuality and the Pleasures of Sin

Dorian-Gray-dorian-gray-32846735-1600-1067So today I was reading a literary analysis of the works of Oscar Wilde. (Christopher S. Nassar called Into the Demon Universe: A Literary Exploration of Oscar Wilde.) Wait… Don’t hang up yet. Yes, I know that is a very dry opening.

I began to think about forbidden sexual practices and unrepentant sensuality, the pleasures of sin. Better?

Scholars and non-scholars have long debated the meaning of the end of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian GraySpark Notes for example, puts it this way: “The end of the novel suggests a number of possible interpretations of Dorian’s death. It may be his punishment for living the life of a hedonist, and for prizing beauty too highly, in which case the novel would be a criticism of the philosophy of aestheticism. But it is just as possible that Dorian is suffering for having violated the creeds of aestheticism.”

I am inclined to believe Oscar Wilde when he said he was not trying to impart any moral lesson at all, he was just trying to write the best literature he could. The premise he began with determined to a large extent what endings were possible. Imagine the story of a young man who wished his portrait would grow old and take on his sins instead of him. He found that his wish had magically come true… and he lived happily ever after. This is not much of a story.  I believe what Wilde wanted readers to think upon finishing the book was “Wow, that was a great story.” (And perhaps “Wow, Oscar Wilde is very clever.”)

Nassar wrote about The Picture of Dorian Gray and its relationship to the decadent movement.  the decadent “looking within and discovering not only purity but evil and corruption, yields to the corrupt impulse and tries to find joy and beauty in evil. Finally, the vision of evil becomes unbearable, the decadent has burned all his bridges, and he finds himself trapped in a dark underworld from which he cannot escape.”

When I tried to think about more modern stories where a person is attracted to evil and finds himself trapped in a world from which he cannot escape, the characters were driven by financial rather than sexual temptation.

The most obvious example is Breaking Bad. The main character, Walter White, is drawn into a world of crime in order to secure his family’s financial future. As the series goes on, he is drawn more and more into “a dark underworld” and becomes increasingly vile and unsympathetic.

The drama of Dorian is fueled by a particular anxiety about what can happen when sensual pleasure is entirely divorced from any emotional human connection. Victorians, on the one hand, felt constrained by the roles society forced them to play and they enjoyed the fantasy of throwing off all of those moral codes and giving in to their basest desires. On the other hand, they were afraid of what would happen if their sensual pleasures were not constrained. What if sexuality was not coupled with a sense of responsibility for one another?

It strikes me that the ideas that made Oscar Wilde seem so dangerous have become quite mainstream. He advocated the idea that artists needed to explore all of their impulses in order to create art and serve humanity.  In the 21st Century the notion that a person must be in touch with her sexual nature in order to be creative and healthy is commonplace. It is hard to imagine a book like Eat, Pray, Love in which the protagonist did not find amazing sex as part of her journey of self-discovery. Our anxiety, if our blaring magazine headlines and advertisements are anything to go by, is more that we are somehow missing out on the life-transforming bliss sexuality is supposed to be bringing us.

If Breaking Bad is anything to go by, however, we do have anxiety about what happens when money is decoupled from a sense of responsibility to one another. We love the fantasy of having all of our financial worries eliminated quickly. We loved watching Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, charismatic, powerful with that cool mobile phone with the antenna. In Wall Street, Charlie Sheen’s slightly less memorable leading character is, like Dorian, trapped in a dark underworld. It is not dark in the way Breaking Bad’s world is dark, but it is depicted as a world of questionable moral values which threatens to suck the young man in– a world of large Manhattan apartments, expensive cars, and gold-digger model-esque girlfriends–pleasures that are hard to escape.

Sheen’s character keeps his moral center, although he goes to jail. The real Dorain character, though, is Gekko who has sold his soul. “Greed is good,” he says. “Greed works.” Like Dorian, Gordon Gekko has no conscience about pursuing his own pleasure. As an audience we find him both attractive and repellant because he represents the freedom that comes with complete self interest, the dream of not having to make all of the compromises we mere mortals make each day in order to get along. Yet he also represents the danger of complete self-gratification.

It is a mistake, I believe, to ask whether Dorian Gray is an argument for or against the philosophy of aestheticism. It is neither and both.  Too much social constraint and too little social constraint each have their dangers. The question is not “is pursuing self-interest good or bad,” it is “to what extent should a person pursue self-interest, in what balance and what context?”

I wrote a much more detailed version of this a few days ago and Word Press ate it. The pithy version is probably an improvement.

On Being Condemned to Someone Else’s Hell

While we were on tour, a woman we know from our travels gave my Russian partner a gift, a copy of The Book of Mormon in the Russian language. He was confused by it. “I have my religion. I am Orthodox,” he said. He had not encountered evangelists before. Although Russia has large populations of different religions: Jewish, Muslim, Russian Orthodox, the religions are considered to be a part of cultural identity, not a lifestyle choice. So there are not a lot of people going around asking anyone to change.

I told him that when someone evangelizes to me, I try to take it this way: She has discovered something meaningful to her and she wants to share it with you. Accept it in that spirit.

Being a Unitarian Universalist born and bred, I fall into a category that Christians are especially prone to want to save. If you are not from one of the non-Christian biggies: Judiasm, Hinduism, Islam, you must not have a religion at all, and somehow you failed to get the memo on the whole Christianity thing.

Of course, UUs do have a religion, community and traditions of our own that we do not feel any particular need to be “saved” from. It’s an understandable mistake though. UUs often describe themselves as agnostic, a word that means “not knowing.”

I am firmly of the belief that 90% of the time when people call themselves “agnostic” it does not mean that they do not know what they believe, it means that they believe something that is not so easily summarized and they don’t want to get into a heavy conversation about it right now.

(As in, “Tell me what you mean by the word ‘God’ and I’ll tell you if I believe in that or not” or “Why are you assuming that belief or non-belief in God is the central spiritual question?”)

I grew up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood before moving to a smallish Ohio town with a mostly Evangelical population. I had many friends who felt they had a duty to save me. Surrounded by Christians, it was the only time in my life when I have felt so harshly judged. One of the stand-out moments was when a neighbor told a friend of mine that she would never have me babysit for her children because I was not Christian, as if “not Christian” were some kind of contagious disease.One evening, she must have been desperate because she called and asked if I would watch the kids. She instructed me that when I put them to bed I should say a prayer with them and sing “Jesus loves me.” I had no problem with that. When I told my friend, who also sat for them, about it later she said, “They never have me do that.”

Another stand-out moment was when I mentioned to a friend’s mother that I did not like hot dogs and she gave me a 10 minute lecture about how when the Rapture came I would have to eat whatever there was, so I had better get used to it. Then she put a plate of hot dogs down in front of me.

For many years after this experience, any time I saw a picture of Jesus, a cross or a Bible verse on someone’s wall, it seemed to scream at me: “You are an outsider. You are not one of us. You are not welcome. We know you are dangerous and immoral. We think we’re better than you.”

I was hardly devil spawn, just a shy, bookish kid.

It is a shame that I developed this aversion. For the past few years I have become fascinated with the New Testament. It took many years before I could stop feeling a bit threatened by the Christian text and fully claim that interest as my own.

It’s a strange thing being damned to someone else’s Hell.

As I recently explained to a Baptist friend of mine, Universalists (that’s the second U in UU) believe in universal salvation. That’s where the word comes from. It’s a contradiction for a Universalist to be afraid of Hell.

My friend was shocked by this because she’d been fairly certain that both of the Us in UU stood for “Believe whatever you want.”

In any case, when someone condemns you to a Hell you don’t believe in, it tells you much more about the person doing the damning than it does about the future of your immortal soul.  If a Christian friend admits that she thinks I will go to Hell after I die, it is not a big problem because that’s not a reality for me. But it does hurt my feelings that she would be fine with the idea that I would spend all of eternity enduring the most foul and painful torture she could imagine for the sin of failing to hold the same opinion she does.

(There was an odd moment in Inside Man on CNN the other night in which Morgan Spurlock quizzed a mega-church pastor on the idea that non-Christians were damned. Spurlock asked the pastor whether Gandhi was in Heaven or Hell. This is a non-sequitur when speaking about a Hindu whose cosmology is based on and endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth.)

Not being Christian, a friend once assured me, “doesn’t make you a bad person.”

Why on Earth would I think it did? If I thought what I believed made me a bad person I would believe something else.

(I was reading the first Epistle of Peter the other day and it struck me that Peter’s community was responding to just such a situation. The Gentiles mistrusted these strange Jesus worshippers. “How do we know you’re moral if you don’t worship our gods or join in our rituals?” Peter’s response was that they had to be the most moral, upstanding people around so no one could have any doubt. It is a position modern Christians rarely find themselves in any more.)

This was the confusing message I got from a lot of my Christian friends growing up, “I think you’re a good person. I love you. And you’re going to burn in Hell.”

Although I love the Bible and think it’s important for a lot of reasons, I do not take it as literal, infallible or as a divine instruction manual for life. I don’t think it works all that well when you try to read it as a rule book. What is the moral of the story of Lot and his wife supposed to be?  There are a lot of people who consider themselves to be Christians who agree with this notion.

A Christian friend who does not recently asked me “How can you know right from wrong if you don’t follow the Bible?”

I knew better than to go into the rather long history of people using the Bible itself as justification for all manner of foul deeds. I didn’t even want to get into the “how to interpret the book” discussion. Instead I asked this: “Are you saying that if it weren’t for the ten commandments, you would not know not to kill people?”

I was a bit shocked when she said, “Yes.”

I said something like, “Really? Huh.”  What I was thinking was, “I hope you never convert, then.”

I can’t agree that Christians have cornered the market on wisdom and morality and that only their book contains the true rules for life.

I do not think all religions are essentially one in different forms, but I do believe that they point to universals. Can you imagine a religion that made a virtue of non-compassion over compassion or a lack of love over love?

Here’s the thing, in my experience the big moral problem is not actually that people don’t know right from wrong. The problem is that they do know and they fail to do it anyway.

A Universalist Talks Sin

There is an article in today’s Huffington Post “Pope Francis, You Had Me at Hello, and Lost Me at Sinner” written by Rea Nolan Martin.  Martin expresses her admiration for Pope Francis with the exception of one thing.   She does not like it when the pope refers to himself as “a sinner.”

“…I ask him to think twice before he identifies himself or really any of us, as sinners first…So if not sinners, then who are we really? We are noble creatures endowed with a wealth of holy spiritual gifts that we are charged to develop and share generously with each other, the animal kingdom and the earth. If we see ourselves that way, maybe we’ll behave that way. Who we tell ourselves we are, matters.”

As a Universalist (Universalists believe in universal salvation) you would probably expect me to agree with this statement.  As a Unitarian Universalist, a partial outsider to the Christian faith, I had good reason to have a fully negative reaction to the entire concept of sin. Growing up in my pre-teen and early teen years in a fairly conservative, largely evangelical, community  the notion of sin was often directed toward people like me.  It took me a long time to find value in the concept of “sin.”

Martin’s article is founded on a number of unquestioned assumptions.  The first is that thinking positively about ourselves is, by definition, a positive and better for us and society.  The second is a dualistic view of our nature as human beings.  Western people, Americans in particular, tend to think of the self as largely separate from society and consistent no matter what the context. It is dualistic, binary.  If you are a sinner you cannot also be a saint.  If you are noble you cannot also be a sinner.

When the pope says he is a sinner, he is not necessarily making “sinner” is his identity.  Saying you are a sinner does not mean you are only a sinner.

My view on sin and the self is this: In our essential nature we are neither saints nor sinners. We are saint-sinners, people who, to put it in Christian theological terms, were created in the image of God, who retain sparks of something divine and who also have the capacity to do terrible wrongs. Being blind to either aspect of our human natures causes problems. Believing you are only noble is as unbalanced, unhealthy and potentially dangerous as believing you are only sinful.  To sin literally means “to fall short.” A sinner is not a category of person. A sinner is any person given the right (wrong) circumstances.

As St. Paul said in Romans, “I do not understand the things I do, for I do the very thing I hate.”

The Gospel of Mark, while not placed first in most Bibles, was the first of the Gospels to be written. When you read the gospels in this order the first thing Jesus is quoted as saying is:

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (“The Gospel” here, of course, is not the Bible which didn’t exist yet.  Gospel means “good news.”  Repent and hear the word of God.)

So the first time we hear the voice of Jesus he is saying, “repent.”

This is probably not the first thing liberal religious folk would like to hear him say.  We would like him to open with “Do unto others…” or “What you do to the least of these…”  He says “repent.”

Nowhere does he say, “Feel good about yourself because having good self-esteem makes you a better person.”

The idea that we have one nature– good or bad– leads us to all kinds of crazy behavior in order to bolster and preserve our images of ourselves as the “good people” we want ourselves to be.  The things we do to preserve our self-esteem are not always the healthiest for society.  Just to be clear, I am not saying that self-esteem is bad, I am saying that it should be realistic and based on real behavior and achievement. There is no great moral value in  feeling good about yourself when you have done a wrong.

A few days ago I happen to have been reading the book The Myth of Moral justice by Thane Rosenbaum.  In this critique of the moral dimensions of the legal system, Rosenbaum includes two chapters on apology.  “One of the dirty little secrets of the legal system is that if people could simply learn how to apologize, lawyers and judges would be out of work,” he wrote. “…The healing power of an apology is morally vital, but seldom seen. In his essay in the New York Times, Bill Keller observed how Americans have ‘refined the art of the apologetic-sounding non-apology to near perfection. I’m sorry if I’ve offended you.’.. In the United States, apologies are cynically applied, given as an excuse or justification for less than exemplary conduct, and not as sincere gestures of contrition.”

This is overstating the state of affairs in America a bit, and yet there is a ring of truth to it. In a culture that attributes most behaviors to inner qualities and makes them one’s unchanging identity, the stakes are very high to think of yourself as a good person and to get to work explaining away your misdeeds– as much for your own sense of self as for the other person.

Maybe it would not hurt, though, for more secular and liberal religious folk to embrace the language of sin.  I think of that rung on AA’s 12 steps:  the fearless moral inventory.  How often do we allow ourselves to do this?  More often people get to work covering up their faults, making excuses and justifications for them or pointing at other people and telling them to repent.

This past year I did a lot of reading on the life of Lord Alfred Douglas, the poet and lover of Oscar Wilde.  He was one of many of the gay men in Wilde’s circle who converted to Catholicism.  This was initially hard for me to understand.  The Catholic church then, as now, considered sexual activity between males to be a sin. Why would homosexuals be attracted to such a religion?

What was different in Christianity, and Catholicism, then and now was a matter of focus.

The authors of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes (E. Randolph Richards;Brandon J. O’Brien) explain the cultural shift within the church this way: “…at least since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, majority Western culture insists that sex is always good. Christians naturally desire to resolve the tension. Marriage gives us a way to do that. We can affirm that sex is bad-in the wrong context. We can affirm, too, that God wants us to have a gratifying sex life, albeit in the right context: marriage. In this way we are able to affirm both statements. It could be that American Christians privilege marriage over singleness and celibacy because it eases the tension that exists between traditional Christian and secular views of human sexuality.”

In the 19th Century Catholic church any sexual activity besides reproductive sex (in its most extreme form, even this was limited to the missionary position) was sinful. Those who sinned , whether with their own sex or another were not types of people. There was sin and people transgressed it or did not. Thus the homosexual was not alone in wanting to purge himself of this body and all of its lusts and the pain that came with them. Outside the church walls this was an isolating feeling, inside, it was a collective one.

I am not suggesting that this is the way we should approach “sins of the flesh” now. My point is only that the sense that we are all sinners, that we all fall short, can be unifying.

The question is not whether we sin, but what is “sin” and who gets to define it?  The problem is when people (and these tend to be people who are determined they are the good people) are bold enough to speak for God.  There is a video that Stephen Fry made for Proud2Be which sums this idea up fairly well.  Fry is an atheist and does not use the language of sin, but speaks of “pride” and “shame.”

“Part of life is learning what to be ashamed of and what to be proud of.”

So who are we in our natures? What does it mean to be human?  We are people who strive to be mirrors of the divine.  We are flawed. We fall short. We try to be better. That is beautiful.

The Sin of Usury and “The Other” as Sinner

The other day I posted a link to an article on the site Gay Christian, which noted that the Bible contains more than 100 references to the evils of the love of money but only six passages that could be interpreted as against homosexuality.  “So my question to all of you,” the article’s author Andrew asked rhetorically is “why are those SIX verses focused on so much and yet you never hear people preaching about the absolute evil that the love of money holds?”

I was reminded of a story I recounted in the book Broke is Beautiful about Father Jeremiah O’Callaghan who lost his ministry and was forced to leave his native Ireland for America after he insisted on making the sin of usury his cause.

Today we think of ‘usury” as charging excessive interest on a loan, but originally usury referred to any interest on a loan at all.  Beginning in 1819, O’Callaghan became convinced that usury was the great sin of his time.

He pointed out, quite rightly, that the official church position was that usury was a sin.

But, as Chritian historian Ray C. Petry noted in a biography of St. Francis of Assisi, “Jesus’ legacy of the poor life was, in time, to prove a challenging, if somewhat embarrassing, bequest to his followers… All too many religious associations began with Jesus’ injunctions and then rationalized them to suit the pressing demands of worldly circumstances.”

O’Callaghan’s stance annoyed some of the prominent members of his church, and put him into conflict with his boss the bishop.  While the Catholic church was not ready to officially reverse its stand on the issue of usury, it was too pragmatic to be comfortable with a priest who branded some of the most influential and prominent citizens as sinners. O’Callaghan fought a long, quixotic battle to remind the church of its own doctrine— and lost.

Daniel Gilbert pointed out in his book Stumbling on Happiness that the ideas that are the most successful are not necessarily those with the most truth, but those that have something about them that aids in their transmission.

A religion that questions the morality of the rich and powerful is likely to remain a religion of the powerless and marginalized.  Abandoning the focus on usury as a sin was one of the many small concessions that came with adapting a religion of a powerless and oppressed minority to the dominant, mainstream cultures of Rome, Europe and America.

Imagine if this were not the case and if churches were as passionate and vehement in their opposition to lending with interest.  Can you picture the Westboro Baptist Church marching around Wall Street with colorful signs that said “God Hates Bankers?”  How would our own consumer focus look through the lens of a faith that focused less on sexual morality and more on the sins of excessive greed?

The second part of Andrew’s question is why out of all of the potential infractions in the Bible, especially the Old Testament, (I’m thinking of mixing cotton and linen, eating shellfish, gossip, idolatry, not performing the proper burnt offerings) why have so many churches taken up homosexuality in particular as their cause?

My theory is this:

I have seen figures on the percentage of the population that is gay and lesbian that range from 2-12%.  Whatever the source and the figures you use, homosexuals make up a very small minority.  Somewhere around 90% of us are basically heterosexually oriented.

Putting emphasis on the sin of homosexuality, therefore, is making the big sin something most of the population actually has no particular drive or desire to do.  It makes the sinner someone else.

Making the sinner an outsider relieves the responsibility of self-examination.  It does not make the more challenging demand that we focus on our own trespasses and strive to be more ethical and moral individuals.

Straight people who rail against the sin of homosexuality are able to be affirmed in their own morality for doing what they wanted to do all along— chase after money and enjoy heterosexual intimacy and family life.  Having your lifestyle affirmed by the community feels good, and this aids in the transmission of the belief system.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”-Matthew 7:3-5 (New International Version)