Sins & Sensibility
Why Sin Hardly Even Registers
In Canada, somewhere in academe, that compost heap of fermenting ideas, a retired professor has come up with the notion of requiring religious people to register with the state. They would be called RRPs (for Registered Religious Practitioners), and would be monitored, like other suspicious characters, to make sure they didn’t get out of hand. The professor in question is worried, he says, about preserving the separation of church and state, by which of course he means he is aiming to attain the complete domination of the church by the state, period.
One thing that RRPs would not be permitted to do, says the professor, no doubt tousling his bland white hair and smiling to the great world of lesser intellects, is to preach hatred. Now, all that means, in practice, is that the RRPs would have to shut their mouths about various sexual sins that are close to the hearts of many. They might fulminate all day long about evil capitalists, smokers, people who do not use sunscreen, seal hunters, and creation scientists.
Nor is it any defense to remind the professor that Christians are supposed to hate the sin, but love the sinner. For the sexual sinners of our age have identified themselves with the sin. To anyone who objects, “But what you are doing is not right,” they will deliver the childish riposte, “If you don’t like what I do, then you don’t like what I am—you hate me!”
That is silly. I can love the sinner and hate the sin—I do it all the time. I live in the same house with three other sinners I love: my wife, my son, and my daughter. And then there’s that Venetian invention, made of silvered glass with a lead backing, that shows you a sinner every time you pass in front of it—and unless you are seriously deranged, it will be a sinner you love.
Moreover, despite the frothings of a demented pastor here and there, and the demented you will always have with you, it is utterly unjust to accuse millions of people of irrational hatred merely because they disagree with your celebration of homosexuality, cohabitation, or whatever happens to be the favorite permutation of the day.
But the fact is, far from hating the sinner, most of us orthodox Christians in America have a hard time even hating the sin. That’s because we all live in the suburbs of Sodom, and have shopped in the Gomorran bazaars, and have gotten so used to the bituminous smell in the air that we hardly notice it anymore. What Christian congregation is free of the sins of divorce and fornication, not to mention the birth control that Thomistic philosophy includes under the general category of sodomitic sins against nature? Certain sins do raise up a callus—on the soul.
Yet hate is a misleading word here. The Italian sdegno serves better: It means “disdain,” without the connotations of snobbery. If you see a burly thug pummeling somebody, you become indignant; that is, you resent the offense to the dignity of the person suffering the wrong.
In the case of the sexual sins, you feel ashamed for the offender: You wish to turn your head away, lest you look into the eyes of someone so lost to his own self-worth as thus to degrade himself. You don’t want to clench your fists and start swinging, just as you would never want to kick the drunk in the gutter. You want to say a prayer and pass by, trying to keep your own mind free of the taint.
For there are some things that you’d be better off never seeing. When I was twelve years old, a kid brought me into the poolroom of a local candy store—the owner was a seedy old man nobody of any probity liked. There on the wall, hanging for all the boys to see, was a funny pornographic poster. As vile things go, it wasn’t that vile: a nude woman, standing, visible from behind. But I turned away from it, and got out of that room.
It upset me. I had never seen anything so pathetic; I was ashamed for the woman who posed for it, and ashamed for the guys who liked it. A few more years in the suburbs of Sodom robbed me of that natural feeling of shame. I am not a better man for the loss.
Many of us suburbanites can now discuss without embarrassment the sins that in a healthier generation we would have hesitated to name. We have nothing to be proud of. It is no great boast to be a shard of a broken pot, no matter the use that God in his mercy can make of it.
Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of The Ironies of Faith (ISI Books), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery), and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books). He has also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's The Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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“Sins & Sensibility” first appeared in the November 2005 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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