Monday, August 26, 2013

Sin and Virtue Considered from the Christian Perspective of Relationship and not Category

CCC 387:  “Only the light of divine Revelation clarifies the reality of sin and particularly of the sin committed at mankind’s origins. Without the knowledge Revelation gives of God we cannot recognize sin clearly and are tempted to explain it as merely a developmental flaw, a psychological weakness, a mistake, or the necessary consequence of an inadequate social structure, etc. Only in the knowledge of God’s plan for man can we grasp that sin is an abuse of the freedom that God gives to created persons so that they are capable of loving him and loving one another.”

Therefore, sin is ultimately a rejection of the relationship to God and therefore to one another. The temptation of the demonic was the insinuation that God was withholding a good from man to which he had a right, and therefore the disobedience and holding oneself as independent of God (and therefore of the others) as an act of rupturing the relationship/s.

Illich writes: “Jesus taught the Pharisees [in the parable of the good Samaritan] that the relationship which he had come  to announce to them as most completely human is not one that is expected, required, or owed. It can only be a free creation between two people, and one which cannot happen unless something comes to me through the other, by the other, in his bodily presence. It is not a relationship that exists because we are citizens of the same Athens, and so can feel a duty towards each other, nor because Zeus also throws his mantle over the Corinthians and other Hellenes, but because we have decided. This is what the Master calls behaving as a neighbor…. (W)e are creatures that find our perfection only by establishing a relationship and that this relationship may appear arbitrary from everybody else’s point of view, because I do it in response to a call and not a category, in this case the call of the beaten-up Jew in the ditch. This has two implications. The first is that this ‘ought’ is not, and cannot be reduced to a norm. It has a telos. It aims at somebody, some body; but not according to a rule. It has become almost impossible for people who today deal with ethics or morality to think in terms of relationships rather than rules. The second implication … is that with the creation of this new mode of existence, the possibility of its breakage also appears. And this denial, infidelity, turning away, coldness is what the New Testament calls sin, something which can only be recognized by the light of this new glimmer of mutuality.

(Viritue): “The stress which the New Testament puts on relationship is also visible in the new account of virtue which appears amongst Christians. In the Platonic and Aristotelian teaching, virtue is something that I can cultivate in myself by the discipline of repeating good actions until  they have become a second nature. Hugh of St. Victor, the twelfth century abbot,,, takes this traditional account of the virtues as his starting point, but says that, for a man of faith, each one of them can flower only as a surprising gift which he receives from God, usually through the intermediary of his interlocutor or the person or persons or community with whom he lives. The flowering of virtues, as evidenced by what Hugh calls the delicacy of their perfume, can come about only as a gift to me and not something which I can do on my own, as in classical tradition. Virtue, in that view is very self-centered, building on my powers. Hugh presents the gifts of the Holy Spirit as gifts which come to me through those with whom I live.”[1]

John Henry Newman speaks the same way concerning first "principles of the mind:" "And so again, as regards the first [principles expressed in such propositions as 'There is a right and a wroing,' 'a true and a false,' 'a just and an unjust,' 'a beautifiul and a deformed ' they are abstractions to which we give a notional assent in consequence of our particular experiences of qualities in the concrete, to which we give a real assent. As we form our notion of whiteness from the actual sight of snow, milk, a lily, or a cloud, so, after experiencing the sentiment of approbation which arises in us on the sight of certain acts one by one, we go on to assign to that sentiment a cause, and to those acts a quality, and we give to this notional cause of quality the name of virtue, which is an abstraction not a thing.... These so-called first principles  I say, are really conclusions or abstractions from particular experiences; and an assent to their  existence is not an assent to things or their images, but to notions, real assent being confined to the propositions directly embodying those experiences. Such notions indeed are an evidence of the reality of the special sentiments in particular instances, without which they would not have been formed; but in themselves they are abstractions from facts, not elementary truths prior to  reasoning.
   "I am not of course dreaming of denying the objective existence of the Moral Law, nor our instinctive recognition of the immutable difference in the moral quality of acts, as elicited in us by one instance of them. Even one act of cruelty, ingratitude, generosity, or justice reveals to us at once intensive the immutable distinction between those qualities and their contraries; that is, in that particular instance and pro hac vice. From such experience - an experience which is ever recurring - we proceed to abstract and generalize; and thus the abstract proposition 'There is a right and a wrong ' as representing an act of inference  is received by the mind with a notional  not a real assent. However, in proportion as we obey the particular dictates which are its tokens, so are we led on more and more to view it in the association of those particulars which are real, and virtually to change our notion of it into the image of that objective fact, which in each particular case it undeniably is" ("A Grammar of Assent," [October 30, 1870] UNDP {1992} 69-70). 

P.s. It is important to consider - for the sake of realism - in every experience of anything "outside of us," we experience ourselves experiencing the thing outside of us. And so, we experience the red dress. But we also experience ourselves making the red dress as gift for someone. In the latter, we experience (empirically) the value of "good" of self-in-relation. From that empirical experience of the "I" in relation as self-gift in the object of the dress, the mind is consciousness of the good and abstracts the notion: "good." Refer to John Paul II's "Crossing the Threshold of Hope" Knopf [1994] 34.

[1] Ivan Illich (David Cayley - Foreword by Charles Taylor), “The Rivers North of the Future – The Testament of Ivan Illich” Anansi [Toronto] (2005) 52.

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