Questions, Questions
A new approach to sin
Cf. Catechism, paras 1846-69, 2517-27


For many people, one of the most off-putting things about Christianity is its apparent emphasis on ‘sin’, and feeling ‘guilty’. In an age of broken families and psychological misery, guilt feelings are all too common, and not always healthy or helpful. Many people have been abused as children, either in their families, or in their schools, and too often even in a supposedly Christian environment. In that context, to talk - as Catholics do sometimes - about the need to ‘recover a sense of sin’ might seem to be making things worse.

But the sense of sin isn’t a question of indulging morbidly in feelings of guilt. It is a question of how we are all afflicted by an objective disorder of the will, and how we may be healed and freed from that disorder. Evil exists, and we can (and do) deceive ourselves about the extent we let it get a grip on our own souls. There is no way to break free except by the power of truth. Truth is our salvation.

Sin is wrong because, bit by bit - quite apart from the damage it does to others around us (who are more affected by it than we sometimes realize) - it obscures the truth, it cuts us off from the truth of our own being, it disintegrates us. It also prevents us from praying effectively.

I am not going to go into detail here about what constitutes a ‘sin’. Here I am more concerned with the nature of sin in general, and what it does to us, and why we should avoid it with the help of God’s grace, which is poured out for us in the sacraments and for which we should learn to pray at all times.

One of the most interesting writers on the ‘meaning’ of sin is the Russian Orthodox priest, mystic and scientist Pavel Florensky (d. 1937). The following extracts are taken from his massive book, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth (trans. Boris Jakim, Princeton University Press, 1997).


Florensky on the real nature of sin

‘Without love (and to have love it is first necessary to have God’s love) a person disintegrates into fragments of psychological elements and aspects. God’s love is what unifies a person. Therefore we pray: "Unify me with Thy love, unwedded Bride." Yes, "unify me," or I will fall apart and become that very same "collection of psychic states" which alone is recognized by "scientific psychology", this "psychology without a soul". "Thou are my stronghold, Lord. Thou art my power!" exclaims a soul that has understood its impotence and instability.

‘Sin is the element of the disharmony, decay, and decomposition of spiritual life. The soul loses its substantial unity, the consciousness of its creative nature. It is lost in a chaotic vortex of its own states, ceasing to be their substance. The I drowns in the "mental deluge" of passions [p. 129].

‘...Sin lies in the disinclination to leave the state of self-identity, the identity "I=I", or more precisely, "I!" The root sin at the root of all sin is the assertion of oneself as oneself, without relation to that which is other, i.e. to God and to all creation. It is self-immersion without self-transcendence. All particular sins are only variants or manifestations of the stubborn self-immersion of selfhood. In other words, sin is the power of the protection of oneself as oneself that makes a person a "self-idol". It is the power that "explains" I through I, not through God, and grounds the I in I, not in God. Sin is the fundamental striving of I by which I becomes firm in its isolation and makes of itself the unique point of reality.

‘Sin is what closes off all reality from I, for to see reality is precisely to go out of oneself and to transfer one’s I into not-I, into what is other, into what is visible, i.e., it is to love. Sin is therefore the wall that I places between itself and reality, an encrustation of the heart. Sin is opaque; it is darkness and gloom.... For light is the visible revelation of reality, while darkness is the isolatedness, the separatedness of reality. It is the impossibility of appearing to one another, mutual invisibility [p. 132].

‘According to a plausible etymology, the Russian word for sin (grekh) is related to a word for mistake (ogrekh), so that to sin is to make a mistake, to miss the mark, or just to miss. But what does sin make us miss? It makes us miss the norm of being that is given to us by the Truth.... Sin is waywardness, a wandering from way to way, not the taking of the one true way [p. 133].

‘The true way is chastity. The etymological meaning of the corresponding Greek word for chastity, so-phrosyne or sao-phrosyne, points to the wholeness, healthiness, unimpairedness, unity of the inner life, in general to the normal state of the inner life, to a person’s unfragmentedness and strength, to freshness of the spiritual powers, to the spiritual organizedness of the inner man.... So-phrosyne is simplicity, i.e., organic unity, or, again, integrity of the person: "A person’s spirit must be accessible and hospitable, prepared for veneration and thanksgiving. It must be unburdened hearing and a ‘pure’, ‘simple’ eye."

‘The opposite of sophrosyne is the stae of the pervertedness, debauchedness, or reversedness of the soul. The virgin soil of the person is reversed; the inner layers of life (which should be hidden even for I itself; sex is the preeminent example) are turned to the surface. By contrast, that which should be open - the openness of the soul, i.e. sincerity, directness, the motives of acts - is hidden inside, making a person secretive. In this state, a person’s life is not lived "in a fitting manner" and everything is out of place in it. A debauched person is turned inside out, as it were. He shows the reverse side of his soul and hides his soul’s face. Such a person’s eyes avoid looking directly at another person and the lips of such a person expel rotten words. He trembles lest others find out about his weakness, but he himself shamelessly displays what is most shameful.

‘Shame [meaning the sensation or experience we call ‘shame’] indicates what should hide inside, even though it is lawful and given by God, and what should be bared. But when there is not shame, shamelessness and cynicism appear. What should be hidden is exposed, and what should be shown is hidden. The ascent to the apex of consciousness of all that which should properly remain in the half-darkness of the subconscious domain, or the descent of consciousness into the mysterious twilight of the roots of being, Ham’s seeing his parents’ nakedness, is precisely that dislocation of psychic life which is called perversion [p. 134].

‘Sin is intrinsically unstable. The unity of impurity is illusory, and the illusoriness of this pseudo-unity is revealed as soon as it is compelled to confront the Good face to face. The impure is united as long as the Pure is not present, but the mask of unity is torn from the impure at the mere approach of the Pure. This dissolution of the impure, this self-decomposition of the "nauseating power" is graphically portrayed in the tale of the healing of the Gadarene man who was possessed by an unclean spirit [Mark 5:1-13]. It is worth noting that the singular number of the unclean power is suddenly changed into a plural number as soon as the Lord Jesus asks this power what its name is, i.e. when He asks it what its hidden essence is’ [p. 135].