Friday, February 26, 2010

Flee From Sin / Occasion to Sin

"Have you sinned, my child? Do so no more,
but ask forgiveness for your past sins.
Flee from sin as from a snake;
for if you approach sin, it will bite you.
Its teeth are lion’s teeth,
and can destroy human lives." - Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 21:1-2

I came across an interesting theory/theology the other day. Fr. Vincent McNabb, an English Dominican, who lived at the time of Chesterton, argued that the Christian life is about avoiding sin, and for those who have not the heroic virtue to resist sin, then the Christian life is about avoiding the occasion to sin. Occasion to Sin is a very Catholic phrase that means putting yourself in a place to fall - actually I looked up the etymology and it comes from occidere which means 'to fall down'. So Fr. McNabb called Catholics to leave the city where more temptation was at hand.

This is reminiscent of the call in the New Testament out of Babylon:

"Then I heard another voice from heaven saying,
‘Come out of her, my people,
so that you do not take part in her sins,
and so that you do not share in her plagues" - Revelation (Apocalypse) 18:4

Dom Vincent actually called London: Babylondon. Clever. I was struck by this theology because it is much akin to my desire to run away to a monastery. I was thinking about how it applies to what the philosopher sayeth (Aristotle), that moral character/virtue is based on habit. For most post-enlightenment ethicists -especially of the Protestant Moralist tradition (I'm looking at you Richard Baxter and your 18th century Anglican Brethren) - ethics has been seen as the attempt of the sturdy individual to overcome temptation personally and thus triumph over evil and suceed in Christian living. St. Thomas and Aristotle would argue that actually allowing yourself to be placed in the occasion to sin and then failing, makes you weaker morally. Thus every time you try to face the same temptations you're actually getting weaker.

SO, the argument is that such 'weak' Christians should live in an environment that provides the least occasions to sin. I, being one such weak Christian, think such an impoverished, celibate, and obedient life might be a good opportunity to build my moral muscles in order to face the world.

Thus, while many would consider such an option cowardly and 'running away' from the world, I'm reminded of the words of our Lord:

"If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell." - Matthew 5:29-30

This passage beautifully echoes the teleological ethics of the Catholic system. Whereas many would say it is no virtue to run away because you aren't 'beating' the enemy vices, in Catholicism, what you do matters - not what you 'feel' like doing. If you're locked in a padded room and you feel like killing yourself (presumably after reading too much Nietzsche) but can't, then you will die without the mortal sin of murder/suicide on your soul. You will be saved. If you are given the option and fail, you will enter grave sin and be able to hope only in God's extra gratuitous mercy.

So there's my argument. It's the one Joseph used when he ran out of the house of Potiphar (semi)naked: run away, or in the King James: "flee from sin"

(I have a feeling the exact opposite argument could also be made so I'm ready for disagreement)

1 comment:

  1. I think you're right on, Andrew. My patron saint, Therese of Lisieux, who _was_ heroically virtuous, nonetheless sometimes during her life would literally "flee the scene" when she knew that her virtue wasn't up to the temptation.

    If she was willing to get outta dodge versus stand and fight, then it's a good strategy for us, too.