Friday, July 2, 2010

The Human Problem and Full Permission Living

One of the Epistle lessons appointed for the Daily Office this week is a famous passage from Paul's letter to the Romans. In it, Paul writes about the struggle with sin. Here's the passage in J. B. Phillips' translation:

Can it be that something that is intrinsically good could mean death to me? No, what happened was this. Sin, at the touch of the Law, was forced to expose itself as sin, and that meant death for me. The contact of the Law showed the sinful nature of sin. After all, the Law itself is really concerned with the spiritual - it is I who am carnal, and have sold my soul to sin. In practice, what happens? My own behavior baffles me. For I find myself not doing what I really want to do but doing what I really loathe. Yet surely if I do things that I really don't want to do, I am admitting that I really agree with the Law. But it cannot be said that "I" am doing them at all - it must be sin that has made its home in my nature. (And indeed, I know from experience that the carnal side of my being can scarcely be called the home of good!) I often find that I have the will to do good, but not the power. That is, I don't accomplish the good I set out to do, and the evil I don't really want to do I find I am always doing. Yet if I do things that I don't really want to do then it is not, I repeat, "I" who do them, but the sin which has made its home within me. When I come up against the Law I want to do good, but in practice I do evil. My conscious mind wholeheartedly endorses the Law, yet I observe an entirely different principle at work in my nature. This is in continual conflict with my conscious attitude, and makes me an unwilling prisoner to the law of sin and death. In my mind I am God's willing servant, but in my own nature I am bound fast, as I say, to the law of sin and death. It is an agonizing situation, and who on earth can set me free from the clutches of my own sinful nature? I thank God that there is a way out through Jesus Christ our Lord.
~ Romans 7:13-25

Commenting from an Orthodox perspective on the problem of sin and our need for salvation, Fr. Stephen writes:

It is the nature of things that Christ did not come to make bad men good, but to make dead men live. This is to say that the nature of our problem is not moral but existential or ontological. We have a problem that is rooted in the very nature of our existence, not in our behavior. We behave badly because of a prior problem. Good behavior will not correct the problem.

And he continues:

The nature of things is that people die - and not only do they die – but death, already at work in them from the moment of their birth, is the primary issue. The failure of humanity is not to be found or understood in a purely moral context. We are not creatures of choice and decision. How and why we choose is a very complex process that we ourselves do not understand. We can make a “decision” for Jesus only to discover that little has changed. It is also possible to find ourselves caught in a chain of decisions that bring us to the brink of despair without knowing quite how we got there. Though there are clearly problems with our choosing and deciding, the problem is far deeper.

One of the earliest Christian treatments of the human problem, hence the “nature of things,” is to be found in St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. He makes it quite clear that the root problem of humanity is to be found in the process of death. Not only are we all slowly moving towards some inevitable demise, the process of death (decay, corruption) is already at work in us. In Athanasius’ imagery, it is as though we are falling back towards our origins in the dust of the earth. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

And thus it is that when he writes of the work of Christ it is clearly in terms of our deliverance from death (not just deliverance from the consequences of our bodily dissolution and its separation from the soul but the whole process of death itself.)

This is frequently the language of the New Testament as well. St. Paul will write: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me, and the life that I now live I live by the faith of the son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Or even on a more “moral” note he will caution us to “put to death the deeds of the body.”

The importance of these distinctions (moral versus existential) is in how we treat our present predicament. If the problem is primarily moral then it makes sense to live life in the hortatory mode, constantly urging others to be good, to “take the pledge,” or make good choices. If, on the other hand, our problem is rooted in the very nature of our existence then it is that existence that has to be addressed.

Read it all.

In comparison to the Apostle Paul and Fr. Stephen, I'm struck by how little I hear in the Episcopal Church about the human problem and the seriousness of sin. That's odd given the fact that the Renunciations in the Prayer Book's Baptismal rite underscore the pervasiveness of sin and evil at the cosmic, systemic, and personal levels of existence, and that, in the Baptismal Covenant, we promise to persevere against evil and, whenever we fall into sin, to repent and return to the Lord (cf. The Book of Common Prayer, pp. 302 & 304).

Then again, we live in a culture in which theological ideas like sin and the Fall no longer resonate, a culture in which the very idea of an ontological problem with human nature is repressive nonsense, and a culture in which the only problem is failing to maximize one's pleasure and fulfill one's "authentic" self. I think the description for a blog entitled "Full Permission Living" sums up this cultural mindset quite well:

Full Permission Living ... is an approach to living life as it is naturally meant to be lived. Full Permission Living is based on the understanding that human beings are, by first nature, sane, loving, cooperative, creative, humorous, intelligent, productive and naturally self-regulating. Full Permission Living rests on the foundation of truth that all people are entitled to live pleasure-filled, spontaneous lives without guilt, shame or oppressive inner rules and prohibitions. Indeed, we are meant to live with full inner permission to follow our natural inner guidance and our inborn pleasure instinct to seek out gratification in all of our actions and endeavors, and that such a way of living always benefits those around us and those that we love.

In the 7th chapter of Romans, the Apostle Paul shares what he discovered when he took a look at the "natural inner guidance" driving his "authentic" self. It wasn't pretty. And so it's difficult to imagine a starker contrast. For what one blogger calls "Full Permission Living," the Apostle Paul would call "Fully Imprisoned Living."


Peter Loffredo said...

The inner struggle that Paul is describing could be characterized in modern psychiatric terms as an obsessive compulsive disorder." The unwanted behavior that Paul keeps indulging in is typical of someone who harbors guilt, particularly around sexual feelings. Here's Paul: "I don't accomplish the good I set out to do, and the evil I don't really want to do I find I am always doing."
Paul even seems to be aware that the urges reside in his subconscious mind: "My conscious mind wholeheartedly endorses the Law, yet I observe an entirely different principle at work in my nature."
Where Paul, and Christian theology, falls short, and with dire consequences, is in abdicating responsibility for what lies in one's subconscious mind. Instead of true self-examination and self-work, Paul, like many "sinning" Christians, blithely blames "his nature" and "The Fall" for his behavior: "In my mind I am God's willing servant, but in my own nature I am bound fast, as I say, to the law of sin and death."
The unfortunate results of this kind of self-flagellating trickery can readily be scene in the rampant sexual acting out among religious people, especially Christians. It is guilt and the suppression of sexual feelings that leads to negative acting out, not our true nature. Jesus understood this. That is why he said these things: "Judge not lest Ye be judged," "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." "The Kingdom of Heaven is within you." Jesus understood that it was the human ego's capacity to judge that was our "original sin," leading to our fall from paradise. God created us perfectly, and in His image, including with the free will to explore notions like ego, guilt and judgment, but pretending that we are the victims of our own nature is a distortion that has led many professed Christians to a lot of what Paul would describe as "evil" behavior.
Thanks for reading my blog!
All My Best,
Peter Loffredo

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for commenting, Peter. The portrait of the Apostle Paul you're offering is one whose validity I don't accept. It strikes me as, at best, a thin reading, and at worst, a form of psychological reductionism. (Nor, BTW, do I accept pitting Jesus against the Apostle Paul in radically oppositional ways.) By contrast, I think that the posting from Fr. Stephen I cite does justice to the Apostle Paul.

But generally speaking, what you're saying does seem to underscore the point that we tend to reject (even within many mainline denominations) the classical meanings of terms like "sin" and "the Fall," especially insofar as they point to an ontological problem we simply cannot will our way out of (which you characterize dismissively in a memorable phrase as "self-flagellating trickery"). And actually, taking Paul and the tradition (articulated via Fr. Stephen) seriously, we could say that religious people (or anyone else, for that matter) acting out in sexually destructive ways - in spite of knowing better and willing otherwise - actually makes the Apostle Paul's point, providing warrants for the diagnosis that there is, indeed, an ontological problem with human nature such that the credo of "Full Permission Living" looks like a peace treaty with sin and fallen human nature.

For me, all of this points to the radically counter-cultural character of the Christian faith.


A "peace treaty with sin," yes, I like that, Bryan. I do believe that is what Jesus was advocating. It is only by making peace with our inner struggles that we can cleanse ourselves of that which negates our highest nature.

Bryan Owen said...

I'm confident that neither Jesus nor the Apostle Paul would approve of a "peace treaty with sin"! It is Jesus, after all, who tells the woman caught in adultery whom he saved from stoning: "Go your way, and from now on do not sin again" (John 8:11). And the Apostle Paul writes: "Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means!" (Romans 6:1-2). Indeed, for Paul, "to set the mind on the flesh [i.e., to set the mind on what is corruptible, rebellious, and hostile to God's law] is death" (Romans 8:6).

The Jesus we find in the four Gospels, as well the other New Testament writers and the Church Fathers and Mothers, do not commend "Full Permission Living." On the contrary, insofar as they would regard "Full Permission Living" as a peace treaty with sin, they would regard it as by definition a peace treaty with death.

Bryan Owen said...

From the Epistle reading assigned for yesterday in the Daily Office:

" ... put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires" (Romans 13:14 NRSV).

It would be difficult to find a more succinct condemnation of "Full Permission Living."