Tag Archives: sin

What is a sin?

By Augustinus

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines sin thusly:

1849 Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as “an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.”

1850 Sin is an offense against God: “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in your sight.” Sin sets itself against God’s love for us and turns our hearts away from it. Like the first sin, it is disobedience, a revolt against God through the will to become “like gods,” knowing and determining good and evil. Sin is thus “love of oneself even to contempt of God.”In this proud self- exaltation, sin is diametrically opposed to the obedience of Jesus, which achieves our salvation.

Part of the crisis of the modern church is exemplified by the split among members of the church with some advocating revision of old doctrines on sexual issues such as homosexuality, masturbation, marriage, divorce etc while others insist that revision of long standing church positions on these issues would be tantamount to the church endorsing sin. These very issues are being debated in this and last years Synod on the Family. So to find our way through these controversies it is not enough to rely on the Bishop’ reports or the Pope’s final “Exhortation” after the Synod ends. Instead we need to get clear what we mean by sin before we can decide whether something like homosexuality or divorce are sins.

The catechism defines sin as an offense against reason and God caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods and a failure of genuine love for God and neighbor. Now what makes an act an offense against reason and God?  Lets turn to St Augustine for an answer to that question…

Augustine on Evil in the “Confessions”

The Confessions of Saint Augustine of Hippo (354–430) were written when he was in his 40s and sometime after his conversion to orthodox Christianity. He was, at the time, Bishop of Hippo in modern day Algeria. He lived at a time when the Roman empire was in crisis. In the middle of his life around the year 410, the Goths sacked Rome itself. The sack of Rome led Augustine to write his massive City of God. Twenty years later, as Augustine lay dying, a second Germanic tribe, the Vandals, invaded North Africa and captured Hippo right after Augustine’s death. These conquests by the Germanic tribes that took place throughout Augustine’s life spelled an end to the 1000 year old Roman empire. Augustine very likely was affected by this world-historical change.

During his early adulthood Augustine was a member of the Manichean sect or religion. This was an interesting amalgam of Christianity, dualistic Gnosticism and old-world Zorastrianism. The Manichees solved the problem of evil by asserting that God was not evil, but evil was, like God, a primordial force opposed to God’s will for creation.

After his conversion to Christianity (chronicled in the Confessions), Augustine battled two other sets of religious ideas or heresies that nevertheless colored his theory of evil. These heretics were called the Donatists and the Pelagians. The Donatists believed that only sin-less or morally upright priests and bishops could legitimately administer the sacraments. Augustine argued that the grace-imparting efficacy of the sacraments did not depend on the spiritual state of the minister administering the sacrament. The Pelagians argued that human beings were not significantly enslaved by sin. Human free will enabled people, by their own concerted efforts, to attain to God without any special intervention from God. The Pelagians also downplayed the need for infant baptism and questioned the whole idea of original sin. Augustine argued that Adam’s sin introduced disorder and death into the human race and made it very difficult, but not impossible, for people to use their free will to will the good, the true and the beautiful.

In the Confessions Augustine presents a sketch of his views concerning the nature, origin and remedy for evil. The Confessions are composed of 13 books, with the middle book (book VII) most directly concerned with the nature, origin and remedy for evil. While the first nine books contain a narrative of Augustine’s life, they also are littered with philosophical asides and theological speculations. The last 4 books are more directly philosophical. They address topics that are central to Augustine’s theory of evil. These include memory, time, scripture and the nature of creation and the Church. I will return to the relation of these topics to the question of evil below.

Throughout the Confessions, Augustine introduces conceptual paradoxes that are relevant for the questions of God, evil and salvation. Although God is immutable, He changes everything we mortals are exposed to. Although we do not have God, we are aware that we do not have Him. We must therefore in some sense have him-else we would not be aware of the absence at all. Similarly, in the memory we may be aware that we have forgotten something but when we find it in memory we know that that was indeed the thing we had forgotten. So we must have had some knowledge of the thing in question—else we would never had recognized the thing when it came back to us out of our memories. Similar paradoxes abound with respect to our desires. We desire what we do not have. Yet how can we know that we desire something unless we in some sense already possess it or know it? We possess the desire in our memory and to that extent we know a simulacrum of the thing desired. Therefore memory both contains and does not contain all things. It collapses time and space insofar as it contains all that we have experienced. Yet it does not present a whole reality. Its being is intermediate between the real and non-being. Thus, matters related to the source and origin of evil might be placed in this intermediate space of non-being but oriented towards being; i.e. potential being.

In the case of desire the paradox is linked with the nature of evil itself. Much of the Confessions is given over to Augustine’s struggles with sexual lust and disordered desire or concupiscence. Augustine notes the paradoxical nature of being unfree and yet free when one is dominated by one’s own lusts. We feel compelled to return to the lust, the theater of our unfreedom-despite not wanting to do so, and despite having the power to avoid that fate. We willingly become will-less or depersonalized. We flee from rationality, awareness and freedom into ignorance, automatism, and non-being.

This I take is one of the strands of meaning concerning the nature of evil Augustine pursues in the story of how he (when he was a teenager) and his friends stole some pears from a neighbor’s tree. The crime was without motivation. He was not hungry, not angry at the neighbor, not bored and not attempting to get the fruit for anybody else. He stole the pears simply out of a perverse desire for disorder and malice. The urge to do the deed. Augustine argues, came out of nothing and was purely destructive. “What fruit did I ever reap from those things which I now blush to remember, and especially from that theft in which I found nothing to love save the theft itself, wretch that I was? It was nothing, and by the very act of committing it I became more wretched still.” ( Confessions Book II 16; p. 47 Boulding trs).

In Book VII Augustine develops the theme of the human penchant for nihilistic nothingness. He starts with the assumption that God is good; that His substance is the greatest good. God is Being for Augustine and Being is good. “What need is there to prove at length why that substance which is God cannot be corruptible. If it were it would not be God.” (Confessions Book VII 6; p. 167 Boulding trs). Augustine does not seem to consider that goodness cannot properly be termed a substance at all. All that God has created is also good because it all comes from God’s hand. “Evil, therefore, is not a substance; if it were, it would be good”(Book VII 18, p. 182 Boulding trs), because it would have come from the hand of God. But again, Augustine does not seem to consider the possibility that goodness is not a substance. Therefore if evil is the opposite of good then it is the opposite of something that is not a substance and therefore it may not be mere nothingness.

“Where then is evil where does it come from and how does it creep in? What is its root, its seed? Or does it not exist at all?” (Confessions Book VII 7, p. 168 Boulding trs)…“For you evil has no being at all, and this is true not of yourself only, but of everything you have created, since apart from you there is nothing that could burst in and disrupt the order you have imposed on it.” (Book VII 19, p. 182 Boulding trs)

If evil is a nothingness, then what is all this evil we all experience and do each day of our lives? “I inquired then what villainy might be, but I found no substance, only the perversity of a will turned away from you, God the supreme substance, towards the depths—a will that throws away its life within and swells with vanity abroad.” (Book VII 22, p. 185 Boulding trs). For Augustine then, the source of evil in the world is a turning away from God, a kind of involution of the will, a perversion of the will, an option for nihilation rather than being, a choosing of lower values on the scale of values/ being, rather than higher values.

Whenever we give into that choice for a short term reward over a long term higher value we are actually opting for non-being and nihilation rather than being. Thus, ultimately for Augustine the source of evil in the world is free will. To the extent we are free to choose the good and we do not engage that option, we voluntarily enslave ourselves and fall into oblivion, nothingness, disorder and corruption.

When we opt for the lesser being or for non-being, something that should have happened in the real world did not happen. The turn toward nothingness has the effect of preventing something good from coming into being. In this interpretation of Augustine’s theory of evil, evil, (even though it is a mere nothingness) has real effects on the real world, precisely because the world is deprived of something that ought to have happened.

How does memory, time, scripture and creation/Church fit into this theory of evil? When the present recedes into the past it does not slip into non-being. It is captured in memory. We can be converted away from the plunge into nihilation via proper use of the memory. Memory can change the meaning of a past event and therefore it is sovereign over time. Time has no meaning in eternity. Memory gives us consciousness and awareness of time and therefore sovereignty over time. There is only the eternal present. Augustine compares memory to God the Father, the creator. Scripture, especially Genesis, gives us knowledge about this creator God. God, via His word, calls creatures into being out of nothingness. Will His creatures consent to this call? Do they want to BE? The consent is not given once and for all. We have to continually say yes to being and we do this via cultivation of the our cognitional processes (in this case memory) and of the virtues and via the grace of God which we receive in the Church.

Does Augustine’s notion of evil as a perverse willing of nihilation work? His central claim, that the turn away from God and toward nihilation was essentially perverse implies that there is no rational reason for evil. Evil is essentially a flight from reason. But if this is correct then individuals cannot be held responsible for their actions as their actions had no rhyme or reason. The choice to opt for irrational nothingness is essentially irrational itself and groundless in Augustine’s theory. Augustine’s arguments are based on the questionable equation of God with being itself. But scripture argues that God is the creator of Being; the cause of being. The cause must always be different from and greater than the effect. Therefore God cannot be equated with His creation; Being. Aquinas later argues that God’s essence is equivalent to his existence. He is not Being per se, but pure ACT—a category beyond Being. ACT is not a substance and therefore the opposite of ACT (evil) may be some form of substance. Both Lonergan and Aquinas appear to slip back and forth between treating God as the supreme Being and treating God as beyond Being. Lonergan refers to Being as the unrestricted pure desire to know (Lonergan 1957/1992, p. 372 and following) and the totality of all that is. God is the uncreated light. Lonergan refers to God’s goodness as something different from Being which is created. As we have just seen Aquinas refers to God as the only being whose essence is the same as His existence and in this sense He is beyond Being. Yet both Lonergan and Aquinas also treat God as the supreme Being just as Augustine did. I prefer to consider God different in kind from his creatures, though we creatures can participate in God’s uncreated light. In any case, Augustine’s focus on evil as non-being due to the perversion of the will cannot be the whole story. The will that chooses oblivion still has to be explained.

Augustine himself seems to intuit that this question needs to be answered. In Book II chapter 8 right after the lines I quoted above (“I inquired then what villainy might be, but I found no substance, only the perversity of a will turned away from you, God the supreme substance, towards the depths—a will that throws away its life within and swells with vanity abroad.” (Book II 8, p. 47 Boulding trs) Augustine says: “And yet, as I recall my state of mind at the time I would not have done it alone. It follows, then, that I also loved the camaraderie with my fellow thieves. So it is not true to say that I loved nothing other than the theft? Ah, but it is true, because that gang mentality too was a nothing.” (Book II 8, p. 47 Boulding trs)…”What an exceedingly unfriendly form of friendship that was! It was a seduction of mind hard to understand, which instilled into me a craving to do harm for sport and fun.” (Book II 9, p. 49 Boulding trs) Here Augustine traces his penchant for stealing the pears to the seduction of Mind the group imposed on him with respect to doing harm. But surely stealing the pears was not for mere sport and fun as Augustine himself realizes. Stealing the pears was imposed on Augustine (via “seduction of the mind”) by the group/gang, and he stole them to increase the power and density (the fusion of wills of its members) of the gang. How did the gang corrupt Augustine’s mind and will? To answer this question we need to first understand what mind and will are and how they interact to produce moral and immoral acts, and for this understanding we will need, in a future post, to turn to Aquinas.