Monday, December 06, 1999

Augustine and the Psychologist discuss Sin

Written for a class in Philosophical Theology, this is one of the first undergraduate papers of mine on integration that is any good.

The following fictional account is based on the interest that Psychologists often display in the psychological life of historical figures (such as Erikson’s Young Man Luther published in 1958). Augustine’s Confessions offers a particularly interesting avenue to discovery of the inner working of Augustine, as it is an intensely personal, first hand account. Augustine used personal introspection as the format for his extended prayer, which is the same method used by clinical psychologists in their counseling.

The Psychologist: Good to see you again Bishop Augustine. I am interested in discussing how you view yourself and what you think about your own self worth.

Augustine: How do you mean? I am of indescribable worth because I am a child of God. Did you have anything in particular that you were speaking in reference to?

P: Primarily I was concerned with the way you speak of “sin” in your Confessions. You, in fact, begin the work with a reference to the sinful state of humanity.

A: Indeed, and many of my confessions concern the patterns of sinful behavior that I have committed through the years.

P: Let’s discuss these shall we? You begin by making mention to the sins of your infancy, which you are not even aware of except as patterned by other infants that you have observed. How can you call the normal activities of a child sinful? Truly, if an infant were not “selfish” there would be little chance for the survival of that infant. It is the fussy baby in the overloaded orphanage that will survive. Those who remain silent will die for lack of physical contact and care. These are documented accounts. Could this means of survival be deemed a sin?

A: I do admit that the selfish behavior of a baby is often excused, where it would not be for an adult, because of the universality of the behavior. This makes it no less of a sin however. Nearly everyone is guilty of lying any yet deceit retains its sinful connotation to most (and our real concern is with how God views the deed). My own sin, and the one I can see modeled in nearly every infant is selfishness and no less a sin than for older people.

P: Infants do not have a self-concept and cannot but behave instinctually, for their survival depends upon others. In fact a child does not even begin to develop a concept of himself until he is well into his first year of life. Moral training is not possible until the child develops a sense of what is expected of him and has the ability to do otherwise.

A: What is the quality of a deed that makes it sinful?

P: Most people feel that an action is wrong when a person intentionally does something which society deems wrong.

A: The Christian is unconcerned with what society understands as wrong, but rather what offends God’s law. Sin is the outworking of a disordered soul. Man was created good, but with the potential for corruption. Having been corrupted by disobedience, the soul is now disordered and weak, unable to do the will of God perfectly. However, as to the matter of intent, it is true that sins differ in degree according to intent. Not all error is sin, for to be deceived is evil, but there is no culpability in it. To deceive unwittingly is also an evil, because it is error, but without intent it is not to be considered a grave sin. Any sin, however small, is sufficient for the condemnation of the sinner. My confession lies in the fact that I committed sin, perhaps without conscious intent, but with offense to the mandates of God nonetheless.

P: All babies are then sinners in the eyes of God?

A: All people in every stage of development are sinners and trespass God’s mandates. The very fact you brought up earlier, that some babies die, demonstrates this. Death is the consequence of sin and not the natural order of creation. Man was not created to die, but death is the result of our fallen state.

P: I cannot accept your explanation. My mind still recoils at the thought of babies being culpable and worthy of death. Indeed you claim that the mind of a child is “far from innocent”!

A: Is your recoil the result of your own thinking or is it a result of the manner in which you were raised? Could you not train a person with psychological techniques to place more value on the elderly than on the infant? For the Preacher of Ecclesiastes insinuates that the child who’s life is cut short is more blessed than the one who has a long life, for he who dies in infancy is spared the evil that is under the sun.

P: I concede that it would be possible to train a person to value age more than youth. But still my mind will not allow me to accept that a child is capable of moral wrongdoing before she can understand what is required.

A: I shall address the meaning of intent then. To say that one intends to do a thing supposes that the will is involved, does it not? We fear the ascribing of sin to infants because we feel that they lack the ability to do any other, is this not so?

P: Assuredly.

A: The bent and direction of human nature is, as a result of our fallen state, continually away from God and toward our own good. God, being sovereign ordains whom he will save. Therefore it is of no true consequence whether a child’s behavior is sinful. When she achieves maturity there can be a conscious turning away from sin, or repentance. Until then, however, our original sin is enough to condemn us justly to hell.

P: I am not fully convinced of the truth of this and yet there seems to be no way of disproving your last argument, as you have appealed to sovereignty. I am more concerned with the effects of this mindset that you are a sinner and have been since youth.

A: You err grievously if you neglect to see the praise that I offer to God for the days of my infancy, boyhood and youth.

P: What then is this business about cheating in the games of youth. You had a “vain urge to excel” so you were willing to be dishonest. Frankly, the study of children’s games reveals that rules are by nature fluid that that the working out of new rules in childhood play is essential to the development of interpersonal skills.

A: You must understand, dear Psychologist, that I am not examining my life in accordance to rules of typical behavior. Simply because something is usual, does not mean that it is right. Beyond that, these times I can remember, and in them my motives were not pure. Mine was to change the rules to suit me, and in this I committed error. The case that I make immediately after this, that sins of youth will grow in severity, is well documented, for sin of great consequence often results. My cheating became the basis for later lying and dishonesty.

P: This is so, but I contend that this is not the case in situations such as the pear tree incident, in which social influence facilitated an act that you would not otherwise have done alone. Indeed you make mention several times that you would not have done it alone.

A: I would not have done it alone, this is true, but the sin committed with friends served to loosen the reigns of what I would be capable of later. By being led into something that would not have been possible or even desirable to me alone, I facilitate future trespass. It is like the man who is pressured to drink to excess with his friends, and later finds that he has no reservations about drinking to excess alone and becomes an alcoholic. This is not even the purpose of the pear tree story. Instead it was to point out that in this particular case, none of us miscreants had any reason to do it, except for the love of the sin itself.

P: Is the minor sin not excused because of the social pressure? Should not your guilt be reserved for those times when you did things that had great consequences?

A: Those later sins, of which I was fully aware, were certainly more deserving to be called “mine” because they were done alone. There was also more consequence to them, so they are considered more evil externally. The chief disease harm in this particular sin was the utter lack of gain to be found in the theft. I would be no happier, or satiated, or healthier after the theft as before. My sole gain then was to be identified with my friends and not mocked for bowing out. This sin showed in me the tendency to do things entirely for appearance sake.

P: Would you then rather that you had not had those friends during your youth?

A: I consider my friendships to have been the Lords will. Even in sin, essential qualities of the imago Dei were apparent. No love is so corrupt that the essential goodness of love lost. Evil is a privation of good. For evil to exist it must inhabit, or rather corrupt something that is good. Our friendship was good and even corrupted by mutual selfishness there blossomed elements of future relationships. You are right, dear Psychologist, that what is done in childhood has great bearing on future activity.

P: So you reject the “gang-mentality” as nothing, even though it is proven to cause one to act in ways which are not typical.

A: I do. There is nothing of substance in the gang-mentality. When presented with temptation, we are to resist whatever the circumstances. It was not coercion, only influence. I reject the notion that it “caused” me to do anything.

P: Shall we move on to other instances in your life? How was it that you came to see sex as such a problem?

A: I see sex in the same way as the Apostle Paul, who wished that all would be chaste like himself. I will admit, however, that marriage is a good for the procreation of the human race, but in merely satisfying fleshly lusts it is a venial fault. Marriage for this reason is less sinful than fornication, but it remains a sin.

P: But Bishop Augustine, can you not see the great benefit that marriage serves? Even those scientists that do not accept Christianity can see that there is great benefit in monogamous marriage.

A: Marriage is a wonderful sign of the relationship between Christ and his bride, the Church. Sex on the other hand is only to be shared in marriage as an allowance for the other partner’s weakness.

P: Sex in the most intimate and connective of all of human behavior. How can something that so unites be also a sin, if even a venial one?

A: Marriage is that which unites, not so sexual union. God created the first pair to model the union of marriage, but sexual union was not had until the fall, because only mortal bodies can participate in intercourse. Intercourse was allowed as a “pardon” for married couples, indicating that it is indeed a sin.

P: How then do you view your own sexuality?

A: My son was a gift of God. In his birth I contributed only my sin. My long time mistress was not my love, though I though of her as such. But in her was embodied my lust and my desire to pleasure myself. My relationship with her was a block to my prayer and thus, I turned her away. I have renounced my sexuality as an ordained minister of the Holy Sacraments, yet I continue to struggle with sexual sin in my dreams.

P: How can you possibly assign blame to yourself for the content of your dreams? Research shows that dreams have next to nothing to do with reality. Considering the fact that you have had experience with women, these images will be stored in long-term memory and accessed at random. You will be unable to control dreams such as this unless you are successful at removing the memories from your brain.

A: Then perhaps the dreams are part of the temporal punishment for the sins that I once committed. Yet I do think that the dreams are themselves sinful, since I seem to be able to control them and bend the results with my reason much like in waking hours.

P: There are indeed instances when the dreamer knows that what he is experiencing is only a dream and can thus manipulate the outcome, but the vast majority of dreams are not controllable in this manner, for we do not know that we are dreaming.

A: I will hold that “out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks” and similarly, that dreams are a reflection of the heart’s condition. If I am mistaken and no sin lay in these dreams, at least my punishment has been meted out in full measure.

P: So you ascribe sin to dreams. I suppose it would follow that you also ascribe sin to the temptations of the flesh.

A: Nay, the sin lies in the overindulgence of the senses. To eat to excess is the sin of gluttony, but it is not so unless there is a disordered love for taste. Food is essential for the health of the individual, just as sex is essential for the health of society, however both can be abused. The same is true with all senses.

P: I do not see how you can ascribe sin to sight. How can one overindulge in visual stimuli? It has been shown that the more stimuli a child is given visually, the better those visual sections of the brain will develop. The same is true for audible stimuli. How can one overindulge in these? I’ll also note that there is no external evidence for this overindulgence, as there is in gluttony (that being obesity).

A: Why can’t there be overindulgence in these senses? Are they not identical to the sense of taste in that they are all senses? The overindulgence in this area does not have to do simply with how much one sees or hears, but the content of those sights and sounds. However, a general over-stimulation can also affect the mind without our awareness. We will “hunger” most literally for that constant stimulation. You cannot fail to see how this would keep one from his duty to the Lord. As to whether there are external evidences, I do feel that in many cases there are indeed. They become evident when you are near a theater or a show. Those with this affection are drawn, as if against their own power, into the arena. You cannot deny that there is more than subtle influence exerted here.

P: I simply feel that you may be confusing temptation for actual sin. Do you not also call curiosity the “lust of the eyes”? How would there be any discovery or any advancement without the curiosity of certain scientists. Could the depths of religion be plumbed without the curious mind?

A: There is a fundamental difference between the two examples you gave and the sin to which I was referring. These two, the scientist and the Theologian are both seeking after God’s truth, much like the Philosopher. One takes the natural revelation and the other the road of special revelation, but both are seekers after wisdom. The sin to which I refer is the product of curiosity toward those things that are better left undiscovered. Those who gawk at the circus are guilty of this, unnatural curiosity. This is most certainly a sin, as one can easily turn away from spectacles like this, but choose not to. The difficulty is that people reject authority and instead desire to experience things by himself. I would imagine that there are many other ways that this sin manifests itself, differing from person to person.

P: Could you perhaps sum up your view of sin for me?

A: I find the doctrine of the fall of humanity to be of utmost importance for all of my theology. By disobedience to God mankind has been plunged into a state of sinfullness that we cannot collectively or individually pull ourselves out of. This sin is ours and is passed down to all of our descendents. We cannot be free by our own power from its grasp. From this sin springs all manner of perversion of God’s good creation. We are actually sinful in our entire being and incapable of pleasing God.

P: I will accept for argument’s sake that we are a collectively sinful race. If this is true then we are all starting at an even place. No one is more sinful than another and we all have equal potentiality of gaining the graces of God. I am just as likely as my friend to please God and fall into his favor.

A: I am afraid that you are correct in at least one dimension…we are all equally deserving of eternal damnation due to our sinfulness. Our merit before God has absolutely nothing to do with what we do before him and therefore your argument falls short. Christ’s death is the only way unto Salvation, and that by acceptance of his gift and acknowledgement of his Lordship.

Works Referenced

Boulding, Maria O.S.B., trans. The Confessions of Saint Augustine, Vintage Books, New York 1997

Shcaff, Philip, ed., The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Volume 3, The Ages Digital Library, Version 2.0, 1997.
The Confessions of Saint Augustine
On the Good of Marriage
Of Holy Virginity
On Lying
The Enchiridian


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