4. The Cheerful Sinner
Today's sermon is a study in paradox: we will be taking a closer look at sin and investigating its dualistic properties. We will suggest that, as in all spiritual things, one man's sin may well be another man's righteous act.
First, here is some generic background material from Wikipedia:
"In Abrahamic contexts, sin is the act of violating God's will. Sin can also be viewed as anything within individuals that violates the ideal relationship between them and God.
Some crimes are regarded as sins and some sins are regarded as greater than others. In this nuanced concept of sin, sins fall in a spectrum from minor errors to deadly misdeeds. Catholicism regards the least corrupt sins as venial sins—which are part of human living and carry little divine consequence. Conversely, sins of great evil are mortal sins—which bring the dire consequence of going to Hell if unrepented for.
History of the term
The word derives from “Old English syn(n), for original *sunjō,... The stem may be related to that of Latin sons, sont-is guilty. In Old English there are examples of the original general sense, ‘offence, wrong-doing, misdeed'”. The Biblical terms that have been translated from Greek and Hebrew literally refer to missing a target, i.e. error.
In the Bahá'í Faith, humans are considered naturally good (perfect), fundamentally spiritual beings. Human beings were created because of God's immeasurable love. However, the Bahá'í teachings compare the human heart to a mirror, which, if turned away from the light of the sun (i.e. God), is incapable of receiving God's love.
In Western Christianity, sin is believed to alienate the sinner from God. It has damaged, and completely severed, the relationship of humanity to God. That relationship can only be restored through acceptance of Jesus Christ and his death on the cross as a substitutionary sacrifice for mankind's sin.
In Eastern Christianity, sin is viewed in terms of its effects on relationships, both among people and between people and God. Sin is seen as the refusal to follow God's plan, and the desire to be "like God" (Genesis 3:5) and thus in direct opposition to God's will (see the account of Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis).
Original sin is a Western concept which states that sin entered the human world through Adam and Eve's sin in the Garden of Eden, and that human beings have since lived with the consequences of this first sin.
In Hinduism, the term sin (pāpa in Sanskrit) is often used to describe actions that create negative karma by violating moral and ethical codes, which automatically brings negative consequences. This is different from Abrahamic sin in the sense that pāpa is not a crime against the will of God, but against (1) Dharma, or moral order, and (2) one's own self.
[Sidebar: We will return to sins against the self presently.]
Muslims see sin (dhanb, thanb ذنب) as anything that goes against the commands of God (Allah). Islam teaches that sin is an act and not a state of being. The Qur'an teaches that "the soul is certainly prone to evil, unless the Lord does bestow His Mercy" and that even the prophets do not absolve themselves of the blame. It is believed that Iblis (Satan) has a significant role in tempting humankind towards sin.
[Sidebar: We will certainly have cause to return to the subject of Satan; my next sermon will deal with him.]
Judaism teaches that sin is an act, but one has an inclination to do evil "from his youth". . . All sin has a consequence. The righteous suffer their sins in this world and receive their reward in the world to come. The wicked cannot correct their sins in this world and hence do not suffer them here, but in gehinom (hell). If they have not become completely corrupted, they repent in hell and thereafter join the righteous. The very evil do not repent even at the gates of hell. Such people prosper in this world to receive their reward for any good deed, but cannot be cleansed by and hence leave gehinom, because they don't or can't repent. This world can therefore seem unjust where the righteous suffer, while the wicked prosper. Many great thinkers have contemplated this, but God's justice is long, precise and just."
The comments above, taken from Wikipedia, state very generally accepted principles--there is none of the paradoxical promised in my introductory paragraph. But stay with me--the plot thickens.
Last week I introduced into these sermons some writings of William Blake. I mentioned that Blake was really the great-grandaddy of the Spiritualist movement, about seventy-five years ahead of everybody else; that he was an intensely original thinker, with a magnificently open heart, and a cosmically resonant vision.
For the next few moments we will be looking at some material taken from Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Proverbs of Hell. The following is from the Wikipedia article:
"The work was composed between 1790 and 1793, in the period of radical foment and political conflict immediately after the French Revolution. The title is an ironic reference to Emanuel Swedenborg's theological work Heaven and Hell published in Latin 33 years earlier.
Unlike that of Milton or Dante, Blake's conception of Hell begins not as a place of punishment, but as a source of unrepressed, somewhat Dionysian energy, opposed to the authoritarian and regulated perception of Heaven."
Here is our first hint of paradox: to Blake, Hell is not necessarily a place of punishment, but a source of energy; it follows therefore, that sin may not be merely an expression of evil, but a release of power--power that can impress itself upon the world. Energy is central to everything Blake has to say in the following quotations: he is making a case for the idea that: what the church, as a dogmatic authority, considers evil, may simply be active expressions, in the material plane, of the passive principles of the spiritual plane.
Indeed, it was the contemplation of the polar opposites of passive and active that inspired today’s sermon. I have often been in violent disagreement with many of the church's moral positions; its dogmatic pronouncements about what was sinful and what wasn't--especially since I have so often been pigeonholed on the sinful end of that continuum. Many times throughout history, the church, as a formal body, has condemned certain human acts, and the people who performed these acts, as sinful; sadly, these socially-invented moral codes have, quite often, been created by a committee of just a few church authorities. Thus, the general opinion has been created by a parochial opinion; a minority has spoken for the majority, without the majority's consent. How lame is that?
I have found that many of the activities, identified as sinful by the established church, are, in fact, FOR ME, very spiritually profitable and morally uplifting; and when I have acted in opposition to the church's moral directives I have felt myself righteous and spiritual. You may recall the sermon, given a few months ago, concerning hate (16 Happiness/Joy II). We discovered several contexts in which righteous hatred was not only acceptable, but which expressed a moral imperative. So, as we go more deeply into the subject of the active and the passive, the carnal and the spiritual, we will arrive at a deeper understanding of the message of Jesus, which, as we have said many times in the past several months, was to bring Heaven to Earth, and to allow man to enjoy the eternal spirituality inherent in physical existence.
As we consider the passive and active poles, one of the main expressions of the passive would be: obedience. We all agree that, as Christians, we must give over our will to that of the Father and allow our will become His. However, this is where the passive part ends, because once we are filled with spirit, we are filled with moral imperatives which command us to perform certain aggressive acts. And these acts, though active, though involved in carnal life, carnal relationships, earthly relationships, mundane institutions and entities, are still expressions of passive obedience to Divine Will, and, like the Christ Consciousness, or perhaps the same as the Christ Consciousness, these acts become the realization of a divine thought in the mind of God.
We continue, now, with more Wikipedia comments on Blake, but first we must insert a clarification concerning the 19th century definition of the word "genius", which is different than the meaning it has assumed in the 20th century:
a plural genii : an attendant spirit of a person or place
In ancient Rome, the genius (plural in Latin genii) was the guiding spirit or tutelary deity of a person, family (gens), or place (genius loci).
The noun is related to the Latin verb gigno, genui, genitus, "to bring into being, create, produce." Because the achievements of exceptional individuals seemed to indicate the presence of a particularly powerful genius, by the time of Augustus the word began to acquire its secondary meaning of "inspiration, talent."
"Blake's purpose [in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell] is to create what he called a "memorable fancy" in order to reveal the repressive nature of conventional morality and institutional religion, which he describes thus:
"The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged & numerous senses could perceive.
And particularly they studied the genius of each city & country, placing it under its mental deity;
Till a system was formed, which some took advantage of & enslav'd the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects: thus began Priesthood;
Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales.
And at length they pronounc'd that the Gods had order'd such things.
Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast."
[Sidebar: I'm sure that Blake found that crack about the priesthood to be sarcastically hilarious:
(Till a system was formed, which some took advantage of & enslav'd the vulgar)
but we must not overlook the serious side of the comment, which is that: the common man all too often surrenders to the priesthood responsibility for defining his own personal perception and experience of the truth. The general principle, here, is that: passive order that stifles spontaneous action it is not spiritual at all. Blake makes the claim that religion replaces spirituality with authoritarianism and therefore works contrary to true spiritual freedom.]
Back to Wikipedia:
"In the most famous part of the book, Blake reveals the Proverbs of Hell. These display a very different kind of wisdom from the Biblical Book of Proverbs. The diabolical proverbs are provocative and paradoxical. Their purpose is to energise thought. Several of Blake's proverbs have become famous:
[Sidebar: Before we can appreciate the next bundle of quotes, we must agree that operating in opposition to one's true identity is a sin against the self. Thus, if the pleasure of the flesh exalts the spiritual essence of the flesh, there can be no sin. Perhaps it is as simple as, "you can't have white without black." Blake insists (or let's say I insist)that the self, the self as an extension of the Godhead, can only act in its own service in a righteous way-- that those sins against the self are sins against the spontaneous expression of the divine impulses which may or may not be controlled, which may be, in fact, overwhelming. Also, remember that this overwhelming feeling may be just an illusion created by man's self-limiting concept of himself; and as we overcome our self-limiting concepts we come closer to the spontaneous acts which are engendered by true spirituality.]"The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom."
"The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction"
Blake explains that,
"Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.
From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil.
Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy.
Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell."
Blake's theory of contraries was not a belief in opposites but rather a belief that each person reflects the contrary nature of God, and that progression in life is impossible without contraries. Moreover he explores the contrary nature of reason and of energy, believing that two types of people existed: the "energetic creators" and the "rational organizers", or as he calls them in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, the "devils" and "angels". Both are necessary to life according to Blake."
Other Provebs from Hell include:
Man has no Body distinct from his Soul. For that called Body is a portion of Soul discerned by the five senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.
Energy is the only life, and is from the Body; and Reason is the bound
or outward circumference of Energy.
Energy is Eternal Delight. Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place and governs the unwilling. And being restrained, it by degrees becomes passive, till it is only the shadow of desire.
Drive your cart and your plough over the bones of the dead.
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.
He who desires, but acts not, breeds pestilence.
Expect poison from the standing water.
You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.
Improvement makes straight roads, but the crooked roads without Improve-
ment are roads of Genius.
He whose face gives no light shall never become a star.
Eternity is in love with the forms of time.
Back to Wikipedia:
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is probably the most influential of Blake's works. Its vision of a dynamic relationship between a stable "Heaven" and an energized "Hell" has fascinated theologians, aestheticians and psychologists. Aldous Huxley took the name of one of his most famous works, The Doors of Perception, from this work, which in turn also inspired American rock band The Doors' name. Huxley's contemporary C. S. Lewis wrote The Great Divorce about the divorce of Heaven and Hell, in response to Blake's Marriage."
We see a similarly paradoxical attitude toward Hell expressed in Swedenborg's Heaven and Hell :
"... hellish fire is self-love and love of the world, it is every craving that belongs to those loves, the craving being an extension of love because a person constantly craves what he loves. It is also a pleasure, since when a person gets what he loves or craves, he perceives it as pleasant. This is the only source of heartfelt joy for man. So hellish fire is a craving and a pleasure that well up from these two loves as their sources... "
This statement is even more paradoxical than Blake's, because it suggests that self-love is at the heart of sin. Here, Swedenborg is giving the impression that acts of self-love are acts of sinful, carnal indulgence. But, please remember that our joys are to be found in glorifying our true selves; therefore self-love can only be thought of as the highest form of devotion to God. Furthermore, the craving as an extension of love sounds a lot like sehnsucht to me, and splits up the idea of pleasure not only between Heaven and Hell, but Present and Future. Thus, the difference between love of pleasure as a sin, and love of pleasure as self-affirmation, becomes a razor's edge between which only the most spiritually discriminating can distinguish.
Blake's ruthless criticism of the priesthood, as the representatives of organized religion, and the bloodsuckers of true spirituality, is echoed in Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth:
"The Christian separation of matter and spirit, of the dynamism of life and the realm of the spirit, of natural grace and supernatural grace, has really castrated nature…The true spirituality, which would have come from the union of matter and spirit, has been killed." (p. 197)
"Our story of the Fall in the Garden sees nature as corrupt; and that myth corrupts the whole world for us. Because nature is thought of as corrupt, every spontaneous act is sinful and must not be yielded to. You get a totally different civilization and a totally different way of living according to whether your myth presents nature as fallen or whether nature is in itself a manifestation of divinity, and the spirit is the revelation of the divinity that is inherent in nature. " (p. 99)
The next section touches on the subtleties and some ramifications of Original Sin. There are many arguments which are in agreement with Blake, but there is a fatal flaw embedded in the argument that Original Sin is a bondage. Needless to say, next week's sermon on Satan must deal extensively with original sin. For now, just a few comments must suffice:
Commenting on the concept of original sin, a modern Scholar, Elaine Pagels explains:
"...I came to see that for nearly the first four hundred years of our era, Christians regarded "FREEDOM as the primary message of Genesis 1-3. Freedom in its many forms, including free will, freedom from demonic powers, freedom from social and sexual obligations, freedom from tyrannical government and from fate; and self mastery as the source of such freedom."[Sidebar: The message here is that the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden was originally thought to be an expulsion into freedom from the animalistic, unthinking, intuitive world of the unconscious, into the unlimited spaces of thought--almost, an entry from Earth into Heaven. The only problem is that, the freedom of thought gave Man the ability to reject God, because for the first time he could DISTINGUISH himself from God, he could tell where God ended and he began. Thus the freedom of thought is a kind of slavery--another razor's edge.
Back to Campbell:]
"As we examine this story for metaphor, it becomes clear that God somehow made known to early man that with consciousness and self-awareness came consequences:
And the Lord God commanded man saying,
'Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat but of the tree of knowledge of good end evil you shall not eat for in the day you eat of it you shall surely die. (Genesis 2:16-18)
It needs to be pointed out here, that while it is so often taught that the serpent is a representation of the devil, the Bible never says that. In many cultures, the snake is seen as a life force, and perhaps this meaning could be applied, and much more constructively, to the Creation Stories."[Sidebar: Notice this "life force" idea, that is so much a part of pagan religions; life force, and active energy--sound familiar? It is this expression "life force" that was so abhorrent to C.S. Lewis; to him it meant the depersonalization of God into an anonymous, faceless, natural power, the idea of which totally omits a consideration of the central concern of Christianity-Jesus. We will get back to this.
Back to Campbell:]
"It becomes God's plan that mankind evolve to have intellect and free will. Thus, the temptation of consciousness (knowledge of good and evil) becomes the force of human life itself."Life force, again. Ah, me.
One of the pivotal concepts in regard to Original Sin, suggested by many New Age sources, is the idea of Jesus as the first and second Adam. This is an idea which is bound to create much disagreement, the truth of which we can never really know. But Edgar Cayce makes maintains that, at a certain stage of human evolution, the world was surrounded by spirits who gradually started, recreationally, taking on human form. According to Cayce, Adam was merely the first one of these spirits to lose sight of his spiritual origin, getting completely enthralled and ensnared by the illusions of carnal reality. Thus, Original Sin, which is simply a function of higher consciousness losing itself in the material plane, was born.
Now, concerning Original Sin, the Garden of Eden, and Adam, all the arguments made by enlightened, modern, liberal Christians (as opposed to dull-witted, old-fashioned, fundamentalist Christians) encourage us to take all the Old Testament stories in a metaphoric sense. Although you have heard me speak out, many times, against a too-literal interpretation of biblical passages, you may be surprised to hear me speak out, in this case, of the danger in taking this story in a too-metaphoric sense. Stating that Original Sin is a general state of mind, that there was no actual Garden, no actual Adam, no actual serpent, suggests that there wasn't really any Original Sin. Where, in this picture, does that leave Jesus? Turning Adam (whoever he was) into a symbolic mythological character, reduces to insignificance the historical Jesus--second Adam or not.
There is one sin that I consider to be particularly abhorrent, and that is the sin of guilt. I was raised in a household where guilt was a very powerful, and omnipresent family stock-in-trade; it was the currency by which my parents negotiated their relationships with their children and each other. Thus, guilt became a primary source of emotional pain; pain inflicted by a moral attitude which, though possibly righteous in its origin and intention, was expressed in terms that were completely negative and and hurtful. Guilt was the tool that my mother used to make me feel bad about anything I did that was outside the passive realm of strict obedience. I will never forget the famous words of my grandmother who, in attempting to make my little brother feel bad about forgetting to take out the garbage cried passionately, “Honey, Jesus WANTS you to take out the garbage.” I'll admit that, in retrospect, that was extremely funny, but, in a way, it's very sad, because that sort of manipulation was was ever-present in my household and made, Jesus into a punishment-mongering ogre instead of a loving Shepherd.
A word on proselytizing suggests itself, because, on the surface, proselytizing appears to be aggressive righteous action. All of us have had the experience of opening the door to a group of two or three Jehovah's Witnesses, with their halos tightly pressed down on their foreheads, who have come to teach us the true way. Now, as we have discussed many times, it is our Christian duty to speak the truth, but it is not our duty to inflict our truth on other people when they are not ready for it. We discussed how such uninvited behavior would just tend to turn people away from the truth, instead of inviting them into it. Jehovah's Witnesses stand on your doorstep, inflicting their truth on you, thereby making you dislike them all the more, and reject whatever it is they have to say all the more. The parables of Jesus are an example of how the truth is veiled, and given to the people in small bits, in such a way that it can be digested a little bit at a time, and not thrown in their faces.
Thus, unwelcome spiritual aggression is not really spiritual action because it is not a true expression of Divine personality, but a mask, or façade. Jehovah's Witnesses are very comfortable standing there performing an act that is insulated by the common beliefs of their parochial community, wearing their little Jehovah's Witnesses uniforms. (Frank Zappa says, “Everybody in this room is wearing a uniform, and don't kid yourself.”) Passive aggressive action is not action at all, because it hides the self behind a shield that promotes anonymity instead of identity; it is a form of theater in which they are substituting some sort of made-up character for themselves; they are like the children in the marketplace saying, “We have piped and you have not danced, we have wept and you have not mourned.” These people are pretend Christians, and in their pretend proselytizing, they are pretending to speak the truth. There is nothing heroic about throwing truisms out over a protective wall created by your friends.
However, there are moments in our lives when speaking the truth really matters, moments when speaking the truth is really an act of righteous aggression, moments that take courage, and put you on the line. Responding to a moral imperative in telling a friend in a bar, “I think maybe you drink too much.” or, telling your son, “That friend of yours is not good for you.” or confessing to an associate, “I can’t be a party to this situation.” It is when speaking the truth exposes you to censure and rejection that it is a true act of charity and a great righteous aggression.
We have encountered several times, in the course of these readings, the phrase, “Sin against the self.” I find that sins against the self are the worst; this may require some explanation. We have said that to be truly ourselves we must surrender our will to the will of the Father. On the surface, many things, like:
recreational drug use, or
casual sex, or
cheating on your income tax,
to be very obviously sinful; but we must remember that our true self is the truth of the self that merges with the Self of the Father; and it easy enough to imagine scenarios in which any of the above-mentioned sins might work to strengthen our relationship with the Father, not weaken it.
We have a commandment from God not to kill, and yet there are many a situations in which killing is the only moral imperative open to us. If there's an activity which is self-enhancing, which truly does not compromise our relationship with the Father, strengthens our relationship to the Father by bringing the joy of carnality into the spiritual domain, this can be thought of as a cheerful or joyful sin.
And thus, we arrive at the crux of the sermon here today: the idea of a cheerful sin is the idea of a sin that may be considered by others, (and in fact might BE for others) a sin, a step away from the Father, but which, to us, is really a step toward the Father. Thus, we have paradoxical sayings like Blake’s,
“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom."
"The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction."To most of us, the road of excess leads to the tenement of ruin, and the tortoises of patience are wiser than the hares of flippancy. But not necessarily. These expressions of Blake's glorify the fact that human carnality is a gift and a blessing, and that only by embracing our physical being and penetrating to the spiritual source of that physical being, and relishing, and glorifying, and exalting the physical, will we get to the true meaning of our lives, seemingly so enslaved on the material plane. The energy in Blake can easily be mistaken for the blind self-indulgence of Satan, but if the energy that so enlivens the tigers of wrath are an outpouring, and overflowing of spirit, who dares complain?
The Buddhist may retreat into the world of abstraction and find the Christ Consciousness in the upper regions, but if he is not using the mediation of Jesus to connect with the physical world, he is doing nothing to serve the greater good. We've been hearing, recently, about the monasteries, and how there are two types of Monks:
1.) that type of Monk who retreats inward and seeks personal glorification by joining Himself to the abstract All, andI myself have always preferred the extroverted expressions of spirituality, and therefore find Christianity a much more attractive and truthful belief system. In the Buddhist system, which is certainly, in its description, more highflown is really a kind of narcissistic religion-- is a retreat from the gifts which God have given us on this earth. I prefer to fly, unbridled by the chains of mundane conception, on wings of angel music, rolling and flowing through clouds of eternal bliss.
2.) that type of Monk who reaches out into the world to do good works.
Let us pray: Jesus, thank you for allowing us to access the mind of God in a flower, in a breeze, in a touch, in a song. Teach us to tell the difference between the world that drags us down to Hell, and the world that buoys us up to Heaven. Let us focus our imaginations on the direction we ought to take, and let us remember that that direction always draws an image of your face looming in the distance. Amen.