2/23/08

Thomas Merton on Sin

Thomas Merton wrote wonderful things, and I find many prescient insights in his work. Consider that he wrote the following passages around 1959. What a testament to the incredible clarity of vision that a human being can achieve through a lifelong pursuit of God, Who is Truth. (Excerpts from The Inner Experience, Chapter 13, The Sense of Sin.)
Guilt is a sense of oppression from the outside, an anxiety one feels when he thinks he is going to be called to account for a misdeed. The anxiety of guilt is a sign of moral alienation. It becomes active within us when we interiorize a reproof suggested by the presence of an authority whose edicts we have violated.

...The sense of sin is something deeper and more existential. It is not merely a sense of guilt referred to the authority of God. It is a sense of evil in myself. Not because I have violated a law outside myself, but because I have violated the inmost laws of my own being, which are, at the same time, the laws of God Who dwells within me. The sense of sin is the sense of having been deeply and deliberately false to my own inmost reality, my likeness to God. Sin is a radical evil and sickness of the spirit. Indeed, serious sin is more than that -- it is the death of the spirit. To have a sense of sin is to realize myself to be not only morally but spiritually dead. Moral death would savor rather of guilt -- I have been "killed" by the violation of a law. But spiritual death is the sense of having separated myself from truth by complete inner falsity, from love by selfishness, from reality by trying to assert as real a will to nothingness.
To put this in simpler terms, guilt is the admission that we've done evil things. When we ask ourselves honestly why, however, we've done evil things, then we confront our sin. We realize that we do evil things because a part of us is evil. That realization will be far more humbling than any admission of guilt. We must face our own willful separation from God, even if it seems completely impossible for us to control the problematic sides of our personalities. There is no way to correct these deepest breaches without first assessing them dispassionately. This soberest of tasks cannot be done by the histrionic.
The sense of sin is therefore something far deeper and more urgent than the prurient feeling of naughtiness which most pious people have trained themselves to experience when they violate the taboos of their sect. There is something scandalous about the religiousity of popular piety. All the empty gestures of people who do not do good and avoid evil, but make signs of the good, go through gesticulations which symbolize good intentions, and allay their guilt feelings with appropriate grimaces of piety. All these gestures are performed with scrupulous fidelity and accompanied with the right degree of optimism about God and man: but at the same time the most terrible of crimes are accepted without a tremor because they are, after all, collective. Take, for instance, the willingness of the majority of "believers" to accept the hydrogen bomb, with all that it implies, with no more than a shadow of theoretical protest. This is almost unbelievable, and yet is has become so commonplace that no one wonders at it anymore. The state of the world at the present day is the clearest possible indication that the whole human race is full of sin -- for which responsibility becomes more and more collective and therefore more and more nebulous.

It has been remarked that the more totalitarian a society is, for example, that of Russia or of Hitler's Germany, the less its members feel any sense of sin. They can commit any evil without remorse as long as they feel they are acting as members of their collectivity. The only evil they fear is to be cut off from the community that takes their sins upon itself and "destroys" them. This is the worst of disasters, and the slightest indication of disunion with the group is the cause of anxiety and guilt.

This is the way our world is going, and in such a world the spirit and the spiritual have no more meaning because the person has no meaning. But it is the vocation and mission of the contemplative to keep alive the spirit of man, and to nurture, at least in himself, personal responsibility before God and personal independence from collective irresponsibility.
It's astonishing that Merton wrote this almost fifty years ago. How much lower we have fallen since then. Our collective crimes are now far beyond comprehension and counting. Now the United States can take the place of Russia or Hitler's Germany, with our phony right-wing religiosity, our collective irresponsibility and our anesthetized consciences. We live in a country where corporations have superior rights to people, where we have started illegal wars and, most importantly, where many people actively refuse to face the truth, truth which can be apprehended with the slightest effort. In fact, people must now go out of their way to avoid the truth that 9/11 was an inside job perpertrated to lure us into much greater crimes against many more innocent people. 9/11 was a lie, the Iraq war is a lie, the economic expansion was a lie, and on and on. This grand plan has been hatched and executed by insanely greedy people who have separated themselves entirely from God, and who lust after power and feast on gratuitous violence. To follow them at all has been a dire mistake with worldwide, tragic consequences. Countless innocent people have suffered and died for Americans' inability to discern truth. How many more have to die to preserve the illusion?

The hysterical calls for God and patriotism ring hollow because they are hollow. The people who gladly followed this plan and demand obedience also scream the loudest about supporting the troops and making a police state here at home. These people truly suffer from terror. They are terrified of being held accountable for their sins, for their evil glee in supporting these plans and partaking of the spoils. They talk about personal responsibility, but when it comes to shouldering the guilt for our nation's crimes against humanity, personal responsibility is the very last thing they want. They want the guilt spread around as far as possible. Their zealous scapegoating testifies to how desperately they want it all to be somebody else's fault. Anybody but them. It is slightly encouraging that the leader and cheerleader of this unreality, George W. Bush, has a 19% approval rating. More and more Americans have tired of the lies and can now feel the weight of responsibility bearing down on our own, personal shoulders. It's becoming a heavy burden, but we have to carry it.

The fact remains that personal responsibility is the only way forward if we are to survive. The longer we allow this collective hallucination to continue, the more innocent people die, and the greater our sin and accountability before God. Those of us who have eyes to see must help our friends and family confront the truth. Remember that they are terrified, but do what you can to make them see. Don't think that by merely understanding and naming the evil our work here is done. Not at all. That's just the beginning. We still have to face it and carry the burden of responsibility we generated. And we have to take our friends by the shoulders and turn them around to face it with us. And they have to carry their share of the burden. Nobody here should be allowed to shirk this load, especially not those who enthusiastically piled it so high with suffering.

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