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sin

There are, unfortunately, an infinite number of bad choices we can make, those actions (and consequent habits) that serve to block our path to becoming who we are supposed to become. For Aquinas, hurting or destroying ourselves and sin are pretty much one and the same.

We can sin in many different ways, typically by wanting something either too much or too little. We can sin through ignorance, especially by not knowing what we could or should know; apparently for Aquinas cluelessness is not an excuse. We can sin from passion, because passion gets in the way of sense, arousing "vehement and disordered images and judgments" and creating a "disordered desire for some temporal good that arises from disordered love of self." We can sin from bad will, where we choose a lesser good, knowing full well the harm it can cause, or because we are weak and simply have become accustomed to slacking. Finally, we can sin from pure cussedness, freely choosing to hate what is good. This is where, from the point of view of our own happines, we get into deadly trouble.

The most devastating sins are those by which we destroy our natural responses to goodness. To be happy, we have to be willing to love: to know, recognize and be fully drawn by the good. Charity is essentially this simple act of affirmation, opening us to happiness. It then stands to reason that the greatest blocks to happiness are those acts by which we choose to cut ourselves off to this possibility. It's one thing if the intent of our action is good and we mess up through ignorance, passion, weakness or flawed choice; it is another thing if we refuse to be drawn by good in the first place. When this happens, we have no chance of flourishing and of ultimate beatitudo, since love of goodness is the only way to get there. Aquinas considers turning away from good as fatal to our ultimate happiness (i.e., mortal) because the very goal of our action is wrong.

Unfortunately for humans, it is very easy to screw up. Aquinas attributes this to "the nature of our species," to our ego-driven, flawed humanity. He finds "an inclination in us to disordered action," which makes us succeptible to sin. This predisposition to sin is what in the old days was known as Original Sin, arising (interestingly) one supposes, with the advent of the conscious ego, back when, as the Genesis story has it, we took that bite from the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. I certainly wouldn't read the Genesis story for science, but I do think the writers nailed the connection between Original Sin and the emergence of the self-conscious ego.

And what happens to us if we do sin? The more we sin, the more we block ourselves from true happiness. Furthermore, sin can make us stupid; it blunts our common sense, since we usually end up rationalizing our behavior at least to ourselves. And it weakens whatever habits of virtue we may have developed. Sin is ultimately bad for us because it interferes with or shuts down completely our growth towards what we are supposed to become. It is also obviously bad for those around us who happen to get in the way and suffer injustice as a result.

Fortunately, besides the inherent joy in doing right, there are two other strong forces which serve to keep our sorry selves on the straight and narrow: Law and Grace.

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"Sin turns away from our eternal good and fixes in a disordered way on a transitory good."
(3a, 86, 4)

 

"The natural inclination to virtue is lessened by every sin we commit, since all human actions set up a bias towards similar actions in the future, and strengthening an inclination to sin weakens the contrary inclination to virtue."
(1a2ae. 85. 1)

 
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