The Nature of Sin: Hints from the Thought of a Deist

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The question of sin and the forbidden nature of sin looms large in the understanding of God as Father. What is God's nature as Father--arbitrary rulemaker or dedicated guardian. Is something sinful because it is forbidden? Or is there something more?

Reading through Edmund S. Morgan's biography of Benjamin Franklin, we find the following passage:

from Benjamin Franklin Edmund S. Morgan

He never came to accept the Bible as a divine revelation or Jesus as the son of God. But he characteristically discover a new basis for Christian morality in the usefulness that was so unhappily missing from what he had earlier taught his friends about the rightness of everything. His new view was "that tho' certain Actions might not be bad because they were forbidden by it [the Bible], or good because it commanded them, yet probably, those actions might be forbidden because they were bad for us, or commanded because they were beneficial to us."

This is how Franklin remember his change of heart and change of mind in the autobiography, and it seems to have been a accurate description. He enunciated the same view of moral in Poor Richard's Almanack for 1739, in slightly different form: "Sin is not hurtful because it is forbidden but it is forbidden because it's hurtful. . . . Nor is a Duty beneficial because it is commanded, but it is commanded, because it's beneficial." Franklin arrived at this formula for reading the biblical Commandments only after a great deal of thinking on his own about what was hurtful and what was beneficial to himself and to the rest of God's creation.

We have in one way a very utilitarian view of sin and virtue and one result of this is that Franklin develops a very odd list of virtues. However, utility aside, is the view of sin more compatible and more coherent with respect to the image of God as a loving father.

What is more plausible from a loving Father--that he will arbitrarily forbid some things and encourage others or that the reasons for his strictures would have foundation in what is good for the child He is guiding? It would seem to me the latter. If so, that would mean that we should look upon sin as an action that is forbidden because of the harm it causes the individual committing it and the community in which it is committed. Morgan later calls such reasoning heretical (although, I think he means in this instance "going against the common strain of religious thought" rather than technically heretical.

I have not yet consulted the catechism on the matter and so cannot advance this theory without the caveat that it might indeed run counter to the teaching of the Church; however, I don't think that it does: I suspect that it falls into the realm of the theologian rather than the proper realm of the magisterium--but if there is anyone left who is still reading this blog, perhaps they can better advise as to the Catholic validity of the statement.

However, I have always viewed the commandments of the Bible as being there to prevent harm to God's children--body, mind, and soul. For example, I look upon many of the provisions for kosher as dietary laws that either (1) prevent sickness of the body--think trichinosis, or (2) prevent harm to the soul--think about the provision against eating the flesh of strangled animals--more about cruelty and the mark that inflicts upon the soul than about the arbitrary provision that the means of death somehow taints the person who consumes of the flesh.

I don't know, but I offer these speculations, half-formed as they are, as a reflection on the nature of Fatherhood. A good father makes his rules and laws not to impress upon his children a whimsical and variable will, but because he knows the inevitable consequences of actions and the harm or good that will come from performing them. If it is legitimate to consider sin in this light, we have a deeper insight into the Fatherhood of God and why that image is so important in our understanding and relationship to all things Divine.

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I know you're not a fan of Scott Hahn, but that's what he teaches! From my notes, taken at a conference at which he spoke:

William of Occam was the first to question the “via antiqua” of Augustine and Aquinas, which is that God loves us and knows us and that laws are for our benefit. William of Occam said that that limits God’s power, and that God’s laws arise from his will, not his intellect. God could’ve made murder a positive good, as a necessity for salvation. “Abba” became “Allah”. Occam said that “God could’ve crucified a donkey to atone for our sins.”

Corrupt popes then made sense. Power and law are threats to us, because they are arbitrary. Then Machiavelli came along and said “the end justifieds the means”. Why? Because God does. We are imitators of God. If, after all, God does the arbitrary to achieve his ends then why shouldn’t we?

Luther studied the nominalists. He once said, “I’m nothing if not an Occamist.” It’s popular to think of Luther’s scrupulosity as a problem of personality, a psychological thing, but Hahn sees it as possibly a theological distortion. If God is arbitrary and you never know what he’ll ask or do, then how do you know if you’re in a right relationship with such a despotic figure?

Luther chose faith as the attribute God (arbitrarily) chose that we would need to be saved. Not love or honor, but faith, and “thank God it’s that easy” was Luther’s sentiment. God not a father figure. And the Calvinistic theology of predestination again shows this arbitrary nature of God that was in vogue.

Of course the Church hasn’t been immune and is suffering along with everybody else. This image of law as limiting our freedom is in the water now, it’s in the air. The concept of mortal sin leads to the “via moderna”, the modern way, in that it makes us more slave than child, making us aim to avoid punishment rather than love. Pope John Paul II said, “Sin affects our intellect by exchanging a vision of God as Father to one as master.” That God's laws are for our personal fulfillment is mostly foreign to us because the last seven centuries have made law the opposite of freedom and personal fulfillment.

In the 1300s the revolution was intellectual. William of Occam and others. In the 1400s came the cultural revolution. Universities started becoming secularized and downplaying theology. Art became about nature rather than God. Nothing wrong with that at all, but to emphasize a lesser truth at that time was indicative of an agenda. In the 1500s there was a theological revolution. Papal authority discarded. In the 1600s there was a philosophical revolution. Truth claims were considered private, reason now trumps faith. Philosophers were greater than theologians, universities greater than seminaries, because reason was considered more important than faith. In the 1700s there were political revolutions. We’ll serve no monarch. French Revolution pushed state over church. Social contract now completely secular. We had a contract, not a convenant with our leaders. In the 1800s the scientific revolution of Darwin, Marx and Freud, all emphasizing power, with Freud attacking the father figure saying we must uproot paternity. By the 1900s there was the breakdown of marriage, the sexual revolution, the right to abortion. The social contract was extended to marriage; marriage became a breakable contract instead of an unbreakable covenant. And how can one deny homosexuals the right to marry if law is arbitrary anyway? If we’re suspicious of God, we’re going to be all the more of popes and priests and fathers. We see all power as suspect.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on August 17, 2010 6:00 AM.

What It Means When We Say God is Father was the previous entry in this blog.

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