Sunday, December 28, 2014

Sin and missing the mark, Part I

Jumping spider with freshly killed prey, the author's home, Dec 2014

I write this on the morning that the Taliban have attacked a school in Peshawar, killing over 140 people, most of them children. 

There is an idea in circulation, in the traditions, that the concept of sin means “missing the mark.”  

Is today’s event “missing the mark?” I don’t think the phrase makes any sense here; neither do lofty philosophies of relativism and exoneration. The ancient traditions, for the most part, do admit a world of good, bad, morality, and sinfulness; and the idea that man both lives in and participates in that world is fundamental.

Though the concept of missing the mark may be technically accurate, I fear it whitewashes the matter; sin can’t be construed as a matter of mere inaccuracy. Inaccuracy is lamentable, but carries no moral weight; murder and measurement are not the same thing, and to be off center by an inch is very different than to betray one’s husband or wife, or one’s faith.   

The word sin, I think, must acknowledge a morality; and good and evil cannot be rendered ambiguous simply because one has a philosophical wish (no matter how well-meant) to “transcend our world of dualism,” to achieve a blissful indifference to the world, etc. 

It is, of course, a path fraught with pitfalls and dangers; in any moral world, man is tempted to arrogate the presumption of morality to himself—while claiming, always, the authority of his own God, whatever mask that God may wear— and of course reserve the right of punishment, which, taken to extremes, too often becomes an exercise of sin in its own right.   

To miss the mark is to turn away from God. Yes, to an extent, it’s true; this is an inaccuracy. Yet to turn away from God is, in its essence, to turn away from Love: and this is to turn away from the good. 

So sin is a turning away from the good.

The conundrum lies in this: everyone believes first in their own good, not God’s good; and thus each person thinks they turn towards the good, when in fact what they turn towards is their own selfishness. In this way, anything at all can be construed as good; and much of what the selfish person thinks is good (thinking from themselves, and not from God) is actually bad, since it comes not from the unconditional Love of God, which is (as the Sufis would remind us) all-forgiving and all-merciful, but self-love, which is conditional and punitive. It is this conditional and punitive love that runs our world; and it is where sin begins. 

Technical terms such as missing the mark cannot apply here. Sin is a turning away from the good; and the good is of and from God, that is, a principle higher than man. What comes from mankind may imitate good or approximate good, but it cannot be good; man exists below the absolute state of good. Hence mankind is called “fallen,” that is, beneath the good. We exist within sin; this is the default condition of mankind not because of some inherent pessimism or an indelibly evil nature (“original” sin, as some might have it) but because of our position in the cosmos. 

Arguing that we should strive to be without sin would be like arguing that bacteria ought to think more about being squirrels. It is not in the bacteria’s nature to be a squirrel; and it is not in man's nature to be without sin.

Gurdjieff made this clear enough in Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, in which he proposed (or, perhaps, merely documented) the Holy Planet Purgatory, a planet where all Beings, regardless of their arising, efforts, or development, must eventually end up in order to be purged (most painfully purged, it appears) of their sin—that is, an inarguable and ineradicable flaw which lies at the root of their Being. If this flaw isn’t a lack of unconditional dedication to divine Love, I can’t imagine what it might be. 

In the end, purgatory is there because we cannot be good; and purgatory itself is a divine (not earthly!) mechanism whereby one may, perhaps, achieve the final catharsis from sin.

Gurdjieff’s remorse of conscience, a critical aspect of what mankind needs within his inner Being in order to develop (to turn towards God), cannot exist without the idea of what is good and what is right;  what is good and right cannot exist without what is bad and wrong to illustrate it. For this reason I often say the bad is the servant of the good: it illustrates it. Sin is needed, in other words, to help define God

This may sound peculiar, but it is, I think, entirely accurate.

More on this in the next post.



  1. Yes, and Ilich has some things to say about this in 'The Rivers North of the Future'. '...what the new testament calls sin is not a moral wrong but a turning away or a falling short. Sin, as the New Testament understands it, is something that is revealed only in the light of its possible forgiveness. To believe in sin, therefore, is to celebrate, as a gift beyond full understanding, the fact that one is being forgiven.'

    1. 'We have lost the sense that virtuous behaviour is fitting and appropriate for human being, and we lost it in the course of the late 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries with the rise of the concept and the experience of value. Good is absolute.....the moment I speak about values I assume the existence of a zero point, from which values arise or decline in two directions..." (Illich)


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