Tuesday, November 7, 2006

"Sin is infection, not infraction."

Frederica Mathewes-Green in First Things has been inspired by recent events to reflect on sin:
"In the Eastern Orthodox Church, we speak of the impulses that move us toward any kind of sin as “passions.” You shouldn’t think of this term as related to “passionate.” It’s more like “passive” (as in “the Passion of Christ”; his passion is what he endured).

These impulses beat us up. They originate as thoughts, sometimes as thoughts that evade full consciousness. The roots are tangled with memories, shame, anger, fear—and the thoughts are also very often inaccurate.

All this mess damages our ability to see the world clearly. We go on misreading situations and other people, and venture further into confusion. The illness compounds itself, to the delight of the Evil One, who nurtures lies and has no compassion on the weak. To him, the weak are breakfast.

Eastern Christianity speaks of this as the darkening of the
nous, that is, of the perceptive center of a person. (Most English bibles translate nous as mind, but that’s not quite it; the nous is not the rational intellect but a perceiving faculty. Thoughts and emotions are subsequent reactions to the nous’s perceptions.) The damaged nous is like a pair of glasses fitted with distorting lenses. It needs healing.

The Greek word represented by this kind of “passion” is
pathos. It means “suffering.” It is because we are helpless in our suffering that Christ came. He took on vulnerable human form and went into the realm of death and defeated the Evil One. Now we are invited to gradually return to health by fully assimilating the truth that sets us free—by assimilating the presence and life of Christ himself. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” St. Paul said. This life fills and changes us like fire fills a piece of coal.

In the Eastern Christian understanding, sins are not “bad deeds” that must be made up in order to satisfy justice. They are instead like bad fruit, which indicates a sickness inside the tree (the analogy Jesus uses in Matthew 7:7–8). Sin is infection, not infraction. And God not only forgives freely but also sent his Son to rescue us when we were helpless.

With God’s help, we begin to heal. Like an athlete striving for the prize (I Cor. 9:24, Phil. 3:14, 2 Tim. 2:5), we resist succumbing to lying thoughts. The ancient spiritual disciplines—continual prayer, fasting, and love of others—are like the exercises in a time-tested workout routine. They make us stronger. When we fall, we get up. This is a life of continual repentance—and you can see in that word re-pent, “re-think.” Salvation is health, and health comes from knowing the truth and resisting lies. This gradually heals the
nous so that it is restored to its original purpose: to perceive God’s light permeating all Creation.

St. Paul writes, “Be transformed by the renewal of your nous.” The biblical word for repentance,
meta-noia, means literally the transformation of the nous. We are welcomed into God’s kingdom in an instant, as we see in the story of the Good Thief; but full healing comes slowly and will continue every day that we live.

So it is a mistake to present Christianity the way some churches do, as if it is the haven of seamlessly well-adjusted, proper people. That results in a desperate artificial sheen. It results in treating worship as a consumer product, which must deliver better intellectual or emotional gratification than the competition. And that sends suffering people home again, still lonely, in their separate metal capsules."

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