Stephen Fry

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.

Fry, Flow, Frustration

My subconscious was having a British pop culture night recently.  I dreamed I was on the set of Downton Abbey. I had an acting role, it seems–the character of a person who had died and come back as a ghost.  I was chatting with Stephen Fry about my recent ballet tour.

It was because Stephen Fry showed up in my dream that I decided to look up his web page and I discovered his open and honest post about his attempted suicide and struggles with bipolar disorder.

There was a line in his post that I related very much to.  (The version of this sentence for grammatical purists: “to which I very much related.”)  The grounding power of having a book to write:

“In the end loneliness is the most terrible and contradictory of my problems. I hate having only myself to come home to. If I have a book to write, it’s fine. I’m up so early in the morning that even I pop out for an early supper I am happy to go straight to bed, eager to be up and writing at dawn the next day. But otherwise…”

I write, not because I like the way it sounds when I say “I am a writer” or because I dream of writing a best seller that is made into a movie and getting an Oscar for best screenplay adapted from my novel (although, I must admit I have these fantasies).  I write simply because the idea of not writing makes me go off the rails a bit.   The process of writing, the focus, the flow keeps me centered.  When I am working on a book (or play, or article or speech) and I have that momentum, I feel as though I am in harmony with the world, not fighting against it.   It is not a thought that comes up in this way, because all I am thinking about is the work, but when I am writing I have a sense of purpose, a sense that I am doing what I am supposed to be doing.

There is an expression that I took away from a book called The Van Gogh Blues by Eric Maisel.  The author described the depression that artists often experience as “a crisis of meaning.”  Artists, Maisel posits, suffer from “being dropped, willy-nilly, into a world not of their making, which they are forced to make mean something.”

When I am in the process of writing, I never have a meaning crisis.  When I step out and enter the world of selling and marketing the finished literary work I am constantly confronted with crises of meaning.  If you follow my blog, you may have noticed a theme of frustration with the business of publishing and a lot of musing on failure. Writers are always failing, I wrote.  (See also “You Weren’t Expecting to Be Paid, Were you?” and “How Writing is Like Working at McDonalds.” and my series on the near impossibility of selling an indie or small press book, my post on post-publication depression, my post on the frustration of having your book stamped with an inappropriate genre label,   and  But What if My Ship Doesn’t Come In? in which I discuss the taboo of failure in America. So, yeah, I’ve written about my frustrations quite a bit.)

There is no easy route to publishing.  Go to any forum for independent authors and you will find their list of grievances against traditional publishers: they don’t support authors enough, they want to make changes that detract from the work, they are risk averse and focused on the bottom line. What is more, it is hard to get your work accepted by them.  Indie forums sometimes sound a lot like high school, where you complain about the popular kids and how superficial and mean they are and how they won’t let you into their club.  But the biggies don’t corner the market on badness.

I stumbled across an article on “The Plague of Independent Publishers” today (while looking for a small publisher for a new novel.)  It does a good job laying out the downsides of going with a smaller publisher.  A small indie publisher can be the best of both worlds– lots of personal attention, lots of freedom but not having to go it alone, or it can combine the inattentiveness of a large publisher with the lack of distribution and marketing of self-publishing.

Finally, self-publishing, which is a huge amount of work and generally does not yield the kinds of results most authors dream of.  One of the things that is not often said about self-publishing is that it can be expensive.  The cheapest professional editing is likely to cost around $2,000 and that is before you get into cover design and layout. If you are a starving artist, self-publishing actually has a very high barrier to entry if you want to do it to a professional level.  (And if you don’t, what’s the point?)  The financial burden can make it harder to break into for some people than traditional publishing.

None of these struggles are anything new.  Writers have always faced these kinds of issues when they looked away from the page.  There is no method of publishing that makes a writing career easy, and there has never been one.   Moving out of the state of flow of the writing process and into the harsh world of trying to find readers can seem like running full speed into a brick wall.

Now, I don’t write posts about the challenges of being a writer in order to whine and whinge.  I don’t explore these topics for sympathy and attention.  (One of the most interesting criticisms I read of Stephen Fry’s admission that he had attempted suicide was that it was a plea for attention.  I don’t know much about his life, but attention does not strike me as something Stephen Fry lacks.   Follow the link above to his article about the experience.  I think a lot of people will relate to what he has to say about feeling lonely and yet wanting to be left alone, whether they suffer from clinical depression or not.)  I do not even write about the pitfalls of publishing for that old TV talk show standby reason: so that others will hear my story and feel that they are not alone.

Rather I write because writing is how I find meaning and I am trying to force the challenge itself to mean something.

So what does it mean?

I don’t know yet.

So I’ll keep writing.