A few days back I memorized the Act of Contrition, a Catholic prayer of confession of sin. It is a beautiful prayer of repentance, intent, and hope that I will repeat daily throughout the remainder of my life. Recently I had the opportunity to look deep into this prayer’s meaning and use by modern man as I drove my car on an errand.
Turning on my radio, I found myself listening to a discussion on EWTN radio regarding the matter of sin in our American society. The protagonist speaker continually referred to those secular or atheist people who viewed sin as if it were a moral strength or virtue. He noted that our media, whether it be television entertainment programming or skewed journalism (I agreed with him that there is no unbiased news reporting anymore), has saturated our society’s essence with acts of sin – adultery for example – portrayed as justifiable behavior for an intelligent, caring human being. I agreed with him. It is the primary reason our family has no television in our household. There simply is no way to exclude such sanctions of illicit behavior when watching and listening to television programing.
As I listened, I knew one thing and then affirmed another. First, that I have heard this discourse many times before. The spiritual prophets are many who see our destruction through the corruption of our media – the great provider of knowledge, freedom, and television based upon some form of reality (supposedly) in people’s lives. That thought, in itself, did not urge me to change the channel, but it did lead me to an affirmation of a belief that I have long acknowledged and wish to discuss here.
This recurring theme, by our well-meaning, Christian prophets, of a call to our secular society to repentance and “to sin no more” – quoting the Act of Contrition – can be an exercise in futility. Not because the goal is unattainable. All men and women are loved by God, no matter what the quality of their nature, and they all have an equal opportunity to seek God, to find His grace and forgiveness, and to become justified through repentance and a sincere desire to lead a life in avoidance of temptation to sin. What makes the prophets’ call to repentance potentially unattainable is that they assume too much of their listening audience.
They first believe that the sinners of their choice are listening to EWTN radio. Well, the seeker may well be doing that, but what about the rest; the ones’ who are either ignoring all religions altogether – seeing them as archaic, impractical, and useless to their questions and struggles in life – or worse; they see religion, and Christianity specifically, as divisive, discriminatory, inequitable, condemning, and very unloving, and therefore act in opposition to Christianity. Our well-meaning prophets may well be on the wrong stage.
Second, these prophets assume we all speak and understand a single language; that being a language imbued with the history of Christianity as the dominate influence on American society; with its morals and doctrines center stage. That once may have been true almost universally in America, but they now bask in a sun that shines no more, and therefore they appear to be speaking in ‘tongues’ to a society that cannot understand what they are saying. For those not familiar with such a reference “tongues’, I refer to the Christian belief of glossolalia, or speaking in a real, unlearned language; perhaps even the language of the spirit, or heaven, or of the angels. I am not qualified to venture into the reality of this language today as Christians seem to be in disagreement as to whether or not we can or should speak in tongues today. In truth though, there is a language Christians speak; Godspeak.
Good Christians center themselves and orient themselves to other Christians through a complex system of words, phrases and structured discourses that have a separate and singular meaning to them, and outside the normal meaning and understanding of secular language. It took me four years of serious study and immersion into Christian life to gain a sense of understanding of this language, and I am just beginning to attempt sensible discourse with other Christians. I am sure I could have learned to speak just about any national language quite fluently given the amount of time I have given over to Godspeak.
Christians willing to, or compelled to speak to our secular society invariably speak in their native language, Godspeak, and then do not understand why people scratch their heads in ignorance or disbelief. “How can pride be a bad thing?” one might ask. “My son’s high school signs notes in bold letters: Cougar Pride!” Recently I attended an ecumenical service. The opening invocation read:
L: Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; where knowledge is free; where the world has not broken up into fragments of narrow domestic walls; where words come out from the depth of truth; where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection; where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit; where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action. A: Into that heaven of freedom, let my country awake. You are our refuge Divine Light, You are our refuge Giver of Peace, You are our refuge Lord of Mercy, You are our refuge.
This simply is not the normal manner in which people speak to one another, and I mean the good, non-Christian people who attempt to lead a moral life based upon the absolute truths of God. And how about tossing scripture at people at an Outreach or in a grocery store checkout line, like they have some intimacy with and appreciation of meaning for the following example?
“At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.” 1 Corinthians 13:12
You know I am not pulling an extreme example to just prove a point. This entry is random. I could venture much further into obscurity. I could go to just about any line in the Old Testament. I’ve often wondered if this is the natural, eternal way in which God speaks, or if the structure and intertwine of prose and poetry is but a cultural distinction from the times, when these writings were being transferred from the oral traditions and redacted to current understanding.
I could not help but think, as I listened to the EWTN speaker, that most people today do not relate themselves to the meaning of the word “sin”. Remember, the word “sin” is primarily an Abrahamic religious reference to any action that violates God’s will – His divine law – and thus separates us from Him. Sin does not exist as a reality to several other major religious faiths, and if it does has an essence, it is usually more recognized as a misstep from the order of things or morals of the world; not as an actual offense against God. With the increasing divergence away from structured religion, and especially Christianity, society has a dispelled notion of the word “sin”. We see in the EWTN program that the speaker notes how sin has been ameliorated into a justifiable state through nothing more than the need by the producers of a series-based television program to promote excitement and action. They obviously have found that scandal – immorality – is a most excellent vehicle by which to deliver excitement and action to their audience. The producers also have the need to bring back their main characters each week, so the audience is left in a blur where past scandals seem to have little permanent effect on the interactions of the characters. In reality, Aunt Bessie would quit talking to her next-door neighbor when she found out her husband has been sleeping with her, but in the TV series, Aunt Bessie’s not only still talking to her, she helping to deliver the women’s illegitimate baby. But, of course, viewers know that scandal is brewing; either Aunt Bessie plans to drown the baby, or adopt it after her neighbor mysteriously disappears while driving to the grocery store. In reality, average people just are not that capable of cavalier conspiracy. I mean, look across the room to the easy chair your loved one is sitting in. Do you really believe he or she has the capacity of such fluid and competent plotting? Hence we are left in this moral dilemma that dissipates into acceptable behavior.
For many, while sin denotes immoral action, it also connotes religiosity. This is not a help to those Christians engaging secular society. Many, because of this connotation, have a predetermined disuse of this word merely based upon its origin, and thus choose to use other terms; like “immoral”. Christians should not think they are being understood by the secular person; especially when they use code words such as: sin, salvation, justification, sanctification, grace, love, repentance, redemption, born-again, evangelize, gospel, heaven, hell, rapture, Satan, The Ten Commandments, tongues, and so on and on. This is a short list of current ‘power’ words that are much tossed about with a great sense of power; a power that secular society has little or vague relation to or understanding of.
And that brings me to the third assumption many Christians have with their listening audience; they expect the secular person to both understand the concept of power in the meanings of these words, as used in proper context to express a reality of God and His creation, and that these concepts are real, viable, practical, and competitive with those counterpart principles and practices of the secular society. If man could have such foreknowledge, he would be in heaven on earth. Clarity of mind regarding good and evil would be a permanent cleanser of the soul; much to the spirit’s delight. But men and women do not have such foreknowledge. Yes, God; His creation, His love and His will, is manifested through our human language so that all men and women can see God’s omniscience, but men and women are given free will to choose their own principles and practices.
Man’s temptation to evil is brought about through ignorance, and in order for ignorance to reside as the great facilitator for man’s ego, man must first ignore that which tests his faculties of body, mind and spirit unceasingly. We speak of this ‘ignoring’ when we talk of things like the seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. Are these not conditions that describes one who ignores the absolute truths of God in His divine law? We refer to them as sins, and they are, but we all too often regard sin as a result and not as a source.
Man’s most basic instinct is survival. In ignoring the good counsel of absolute moral law – God’s divine law – and through the practice of justifiable, immoral actions, we find our ignorance as a hindrance to our survival. Therefore, we must contrive due truths by which to compete in a divergent world; we create our own realities from our social and media experiences and declare them good and sufficient. We demand respect of these contrived principles and practices, and seek the support of like-minded individuals, groups, corporations, and governments to justify our temporal beliefs. As the world has become increasingly materialistic, and the media (coming full circle now) declares that immoral behaviors are sanctified by the society for the purpose of good survival, then the secular mind sees only justification in material things and material purposes.
Power is in the material. That is how the secular mind works, and this belief is reinforced constantly through the media; placing the practice of ‘power through the material’ into the minds and hearts of us all so that it becomes habit; the new virtues. The material is relative; new products are invented and marketed continually as our minds expand to the possibilities of the material. Apple’s iPhone has generated itself to iPhone5, TV reality stars are goose-stepped before our eyes achieving Andy Warhol’s concept of fifteen minutes of fame, the producers of the Star Wars movies are entering into their third trilogy with The Clone Wars, and Christianity has fathered approximately forty-one-thousand physical denominations of Jesus’ single presence here on earth. We see the evolution of the material as the dominant feature of the very character of our modern society. It can only follow that the average person must associate him or herself with this evolution and see relativity as a sensible and good thing. What is new today will be old in the near future; what value can it possibly have with the evolving life. As a result, our relative feelings and personal desires become the basis for good; pushing any form of absolute, natural, or divine law into the gutter of disuse and ultimate disposal. And how has this all come about?
I believe that part of society’s problem lies, in how we view all things through the screen of the first-person vehicle; the pride of self-regard; the ‘I’. As we climb into the back seat of materialism, we find ourselves increasingly concerned with the self over the concern for others, and life becomes more of a drive-in, interactive movie whereby we make choices through our desires and watch our lives unfold. The media tells us that we are justified through our choice to appease our desires. We tell ourselves that what we see about us must be right and just; because to reject materialism and relativism – society’s means to an end – prompts our excommunication from society, and that is not a good survival tactic. The ‘I’ must survive, and so we chase our tails till we’re dizzy. And midst all that, one’s contrived reality must be justified; so the absolute must be rejected.
The first-person narrative even exists in our own faith. Look at sin. The first line of the Act of Contrition is, “I am sorry for my sins with all my heart.” The pride of self-regard – so deeply habituated into our normal thinking – views sin as a first-person action. We make sin out to be an internal failure, first. “I have sinned.” It is as if the act is something that harms us, and well it does. It separates us from God and offends Him deeply, but in sin there lies a second important reality; it not only offends God, but it always offends another human.
God’s love demands self-sacrifice; placing one’s own concerns in reserve while tending to all others. So it would naturally flow that when I sin, my first thought should be towards that person(s) I have sinned against, and not to my state of grace and salvation under God. Penance should be the immediate response, and not a calculated afterthought in determining how to get back into God’s good grace. I am happy to note that the Act of Contrition goes on to reinforce this idea.
“I firmly intend, with your help, to do penance, to sin no more, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin.”
Penance precedes the intent to sin no more, as well as the avoidance of those things that tempts one to sin. Should we not consider the salvation of another with greater urgency than that of our own? In so doing, will you have to actually worry about your own salvation?
Sin is as much an external harm as it is an internal failure. Sin harms others more than it does you. There is nothing you can do to harm yourself that does not harm others even more so. For when one sins against another, he places within that person a reservoir of vice that dilutes the quality of that person’s virtues; it tempts them, in effect, to sin. When one sins, he or she is not a child of God, who then runs to Him to say he or she is sorry, but rather an agent of evil; acting on evil’s behalf in an attempt to destroy God’s good work; that reservoir of virtue found in all men and women who seek God. God pours faith into those lively souls that seeks Him out, and we, in our act of sin against another, wish to drain it out of them.
So, what to do? If I am right with any of my assertions, we are in deep do-do. We have spent so much time on our own self-regard. It is home to our very souls. I continually find that ‘good’ Christians have a very hard time in placing themselves under the bus. Their actions always seem to be tempered by their own self-regard, and thus they have no idea why they fail and break; for tempering by pride will never forge “the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.” Ephesians 6:17
I can offer up but one consideration going forward, for I am as shallow in my reservoir as those I have just discussed. Let me give it a try…..
“Stop it! Just stop it!” Quit thinking of yourself so much, and change the subject and quality of your self-regard. Do not let your mind nurture the birth of sin as if your mind is a demonic womb. Do not fester on what someone else deserves by your hand or the hand of God. Do not doom and gloom yourself into a funk of despair that bleeds all over those you supposedly love. I have stated this before, “I do not think much of myself, but that’s all I think about!” Well, if you recognize your unworthiness, then try to recognize the why of your unworthiness.
And so I propose that you educate yourself to your faith. It does two very powerful things that push back against materialism and relativism in our secular society. First, it is that state of seeking God, and for every minute in His grace, it is one minute less in the hands of the world. Therefore, to be in the habit of virtue is to become virtuous. Second, as one increases in knowledge, true knowledge, there comes wisdom. In wisdom there is humility, and in humility, the ‘I’ can take a holiday. To not educate yourself in your faith is to ignore God. To ignore Him is to leave you ignorant and subject to the ‘I’ and it’s desires. Evil abounds in desire. It loves naive shortcuts.
And the education in your faith should not be narrowly defined by your own inclinations or abdicated to your local church for determination. We have wisely understood for some centuries that balanced knowledge is the surest way to harmony of man in the world. God’s physical world is extremely complex, and His moral law is even more so. Biblical scripture and church father letters & writings are all important on the primary level. And more important than memorizing scripture is understanding scripture. In school, our teachers test our understanding by asking us to interpret, in our own words, what is being said in the text books. If you say it as it is written we call that plagiarism. You get an ‘F’, and possibly expelled from school. So we must seek the second level of education in our faith; those writings on the subjects of philosophy and other sciences like sociology, anthropology and history too. Now before you go yuck!…. and as Christians love to define our scriptural meanings through the Greek and Hebrew languages, please do consider the Greek translation of ‘philosophy’: the love of wisdom, and how about anthropology: the science of humanity. Paul was an excellent sociologist. Now can you get more Godly in such a pursuit?
Educate yourself, now. I know Christians are bad at this simply through observation. I have been in many classes taught by a range of teachers; from the Catholic to the Pentecostal. If you want to hear crickets, sit in a religion class when the teachers offer up a question of theology to their students. You’ll wonder why the students are even taking the course. They just can’t give a good answer in their own tongue, and they are too unsure of the answer and its meaning to offer it up in Godspeak. Students in these classes remind me of surfers; they ride the crest in wild anticipation and then fall away behind the wave as shore nears.
I noted the necessity of not abdicating your choice of education to your local church. This may not be true in all cases, but I venture an opinion that Pastors are trained to deliver spiritual milk and not the meat of theology to their congregation, and thus have little reason to advance, in practice, a broad education as a valuable thing.
Our prophets, speaking on the corruption of our society by the media, have a hard road on which to travel; paved with the souls of many men and women just like themselves. I cannot help but think that to levitate themselves above that hot road with a language foreign to most secular people is at least a way to prevent a hot-foot, and at most an indulgence in self-regard.
As such, I have to suggest that we all learn to speak the language of the secularist when we discuss our faith with them and each other. If you cannot translate God’s will into their language, then you do not know the true meaning of God’s will yourself. Go out and learn it, so you can teach it.
And look to the spiritual health of the other, and not to yourself, first. Disarm yourself. Drop the shield. Let God carry the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. No one can resist such penetrating love. No one can misinterpret such love. It vanquishes the agents who promote evil through enticement. It illuminates God’s path. Let God be your hand.
God Bless – Reese