“Bless me father, for I have sinned.”
This phrase is one that has haunted me most of my life. As a child, I went through a long phase where I thought that I had to constantly ask for God’s forgiveness and beg for his love. This is one of the tenets of the Catholic faith in which I was brought up: we are born in sin and must seek, for the rest of our lives, to free ourselves from its chains. Of course, failure to do so would result in an eternity of suffering in that most frightening of places known as Hell. What I realized from a very early age, and what was instilled in me by the Catholic faith, is that despite the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, we drag our sins around with us, like Marley’s ghost drags around his own might chain in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
But our own chain of sin does not carry with it the romantic notions that Marley’s does. Indeed, what is most frightening about sin as conceptualized by the Catholic faith is that we are all in free-fall toward Hell with only prayers to help stop that fall. The concept of Purgatory as a waiting station on the way to Heaven does little to add to comfort to the sinners seeking absolution. Yet, as Dante so persuasively conceptualized, the triad of Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell is a strong motivator for keeping people in line. Our conceptions of the triad come to us mostly, I suspect, through Dante, but even Dante seems to suggest that these conceptions are fictional instruments of coercion. For Dante, Hell might have been his exile from Florence, or perhaps more accurately, his “exile” from his beloved Beatrice. Nevertheless, our concepts of the triad have literary origins just as our concepts of Satan via Milton:
Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With the loss of Eden
(Paradise Lost, Book I, lines 1-4)
The reader sympathizes with Milton’s Satan, and he is certainly more interesting that Milton’s egotistical God. Nevertheless, Milton and Dante have done a great deal to modernize our conceptions of good and evil, God and Satan, and sin.
I was proud to make my first communion, that rite of passage so essential to the psychology of a Catholic youth. It was one station on the way to adulthood. But let me pause over this for a moment: that rite of passage is bound to sin. Before we can take communion, we must enter the confessional, get on our knees, and ask for God’s forgiveness. If we are all sinners seeking forgiveness from a largely absent God, then what about those who commit real sins, like murder? Are all sins equal in the eyes of God? Does murder in war somehow excuse the murderer? And what about the murderee? Does he or she obtain absolution on account of the way mortal life ended? I recall vividly memories of stepping into the confessional booth and giving the priest the litany of my sins for that week. This caused a great deal of anxiety in me from an early age. For almost the entire week I would try to think up something worthy of sin. I thought that the greater the sin the greater the forgiveness, thus highlighting my plight in the eyes of God. I would make up sins that I claimed to have committed, mostly because I had nothing to say. I never believed I had sinned until I started to pay attention to what the priests and nuns would tell us. The basic message to my childhood mind was that I was a born sinner and in sin I existed. It is not hyperbolic to say that I was traumatized. I thought that I would never reach Heaven and see my relatives again. Most important, I believed that once I died I would be forever plunged into a terrible and frightening abyss.
When decades later I had my own children, my wife and I decided to opt out of having our children go through the trauma of first confession and first communion. I reject the concept that we are all born sinners and should seek the forgiveness of God. In fact, I now believe, as I stand on the precipice of fifty years of age, that if there is a God it is He that should be asking for our forgiveness. I think we’ve had it wrong for two thousand years: Jesus Christ was not the son of God, but some charismatic teacher who preached a lifestyle that today’s “Christians” largely ignore. Moreover, I find it reprehensible that a God would sacrifice His son for others. I would never sacrifice my children for anyone or anything. But as a myth? Well, it makes a pretty good story, but the New Testament (which to my mind is not as good as the Old Testament) is not nearly as good a story as the ones created by Dante and Milton.
If we are all sinners, and God has indeed made us in his own image, then the concept of sin must come from him. Perhaps the sin God has committed, and continues to commit, is one of ego: “Thou shall have no other gods before me.” Well, to declare that takes one hell of an ego.
Humans do not need God or gods, but God or the gods do indeed need us, as the ancient Greeks has clearly demonstrated. Without believers, a god ceases to exist. Perhaps this is exactly why we have the concept of sin: the priests and the priestesses who served as custodians to the gods needed something to keep their own positions relevant, and what better way to keep the masses in line than creating the concept of sin. I don’t believe in fate, but I do believe that we are all responsible for our actions, be it individually or collectively. Perhaps we should start to grow up by finally doing away with this archaic and misleading concept of sin.