Sunday, July 6, 2014

Living in a world without sin

Continuing with my current tend of exploring values in GRP in a rather roundabout way, we find ourselves having to deal with the concept of sin. Or rather, the lack of sin present in the GRP worldview. This does not mean that actions have no consequences, or that we are not capable of offending the na trí náomh, only that the repercussions of such actions tend to be immediate and not tallied in some invisible counter to be used against us when we die. In fact, there is no moral component which determines our fate once we die; virtuous or detestable, we all journey to the House of Donn. More on this later, however, let us examine precisely what constitutes sin, its consequences and the overall impact the concept has had upon the discussion of religion as well as the wider culture in the west.

A sin, according to Abrahamic tradition, is any action (or thought in some traditions) which intentionally violates a rule or law as established by the Abrahamic god (according to such mythologies). In accounts of Temple era Judaism, sins were atoned for by offering an animal sacrifice in the temple, in penance and reconciliation for wrong doing. In later Rabbinical tradition, this atonement and reconciliation for sins would be accomplished through confession (ashamnu) and the avoidance of such sinful actions in the future.

In Christian tradition, Sin and how to atone for them depend greatly on the delineation one belongs to. One of the central rites in Catholic doctrine is the rite of contrition/confession, whereby a parishioner is absolved of sin through the acts of confessing to their wrong doing, acknowledging that they have deliberately perpetrated these actions or thoughts, will make some penance for those thoughts/actions and will strive to avoid such thoughts/acts in the future. This is all accomplished via the priest, who is singly ably to absolve their members of sins through apostolic succession. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the means and way is almost identical to that of Catholics, albeit they tend to be a bit more fluid on who is able to hear and absolve their members of sins (including monks and lay people, etc.); albeit only an ordained Priest may provide absolution for sins.  I will single out Anglicanism, as it is one of the few Protestant denominations which maintains the tradition of a confessional rite, similar to Catholic confession but more general. Finally, the vast majority of Protestant denominations/ churches do not hold that any sort of intermediary is necessary for the absolution of sins, and this is done through the initial act of contrition (as is common among Pentecostal churches, the process of accepting Christ as their personal saviours) or is incorporated into regular worship services (corporate confession). Many Protestants will also include a confession of their daily sins in the evening prayers.
In Islam, sin is again seen as any act or thought which violates the law as established by their god, and seeking forgiveness for sin is known as istighfar, and is one of the integral components of worship for Muslims. A spirit of admission and contrition is necessary in order for the sin to be forgiven, and if the sin is against another person it often requires their forgiveness as well.

In terms of necessity, the existence of sin in the case of Christianity is the core problem of ones existence, and it is only through the sacrifice of Christ (or through the power given to his representatives through apostolic succession/ tradition) that Christians can establish a spiritual position to reconcile themselves with their god. Yet, in general, the act of contrition and repentance alone are clearly not enough on their own, and theologically make the person of Christ the central figure in their world view. This is of course one of the many intrinsic differences between Christianity and Judaism and Islam. Sin, humanities natural state as being sinful, originated with the progenitor of the human race, Adam. So while the concept that Adam's transgression caused sin to become part of human nature, referred to as original sin in Christian tradition, is a component of the Abrahamic understanding and development of the term, the emphasis given to the single act differs amongst the religions considerably. Having said that, we can certainly appreciate the significance of precedent and its symbolic power, albeit appreciation is not the same as recognition.

For us, there is no concept of original sin, there is nothing which intrinsically keeps us separated from the gods. Of course the reason we seek out and worship them  is very, very different from the Abrahamic approach to the divine. Yet, this is not our cosmology, nor our theology at work. We are not a fallen people and our natural state is not one of depravity. We are meant to live in the here and in the now; our lives are spent not seeking some future eternal reward, but rather for a rewarding life in the present. We accept ourselves and our humanity and seek to do right by the Na Tri Naomh, not because we fear some eternal punishment, nor hope for some eternal reward. We choose to do so because it is simply the richest, most beneficial mode of living for us. Now, a caveat is also required, because Judaism's approach to the why of living is quite similar to our own; while there are beliefs about the afterlife, the focus is on living in this world.
Sacrifice is offered not as propitiation or extirpation, as payment for some cosmic crime or slight against the gods; sacrifice is offered as an acknowledged price for the maintenance of the world; quite literally. Or rather, there are very good reasons to understand the act of human (and animal) sacrifices as a means of providing to the gods the raw materials with which to stave off the entropic nature of the cosmos. Bruce Lincoln has made the case that when exploring the nature of sacrificial offerings, and in particular that of livestock or rare cases of human beings, IE cultures did so as a reversal of the divine process of giving shape and form to life:
primordial sacrifice => cosmogony => anthropogny => sacrifice => etc..

Which is not to say that the idea of punishment for crimes against the community lacked any sort of religious connotations. While there is little insular literary evidence of it, if we turn to the continent and explore some of the sources pertaining to the mannerism of the Druids and the communities they served we can make some observations. According to Cesar (not the most reliable of witnesses) one of the most feared punitive measures a Druid could inflict upon a criminal, was the prohibition of their participation in the communal acts of sacrifice. So while the crimes or transgressions are not seen as religious in and of themselves, the consequence of being unable to participate in the communal rites an sacrifices was seen as a very serious penalty. What is important to recognize, however, is that the decision was not oracular, was not some divine missive, but rather a decision rendered and enforced by the Druids themselves; a temporal penalty for a temporal crime.

Now, with this in mind and upon closer examination of many of the contemporary continental accounts from Greek and Roman sources, they certainly believed that the Celts they encountered did in fact offer up sacrifices (animal and especially human) in propitiation of the gods. As payment for victory in some coming battle or for the victory they had already received, they would offer up human sacrifices (usually prisoners of war).
What it all comes down to is the cosmological and theological framework ones point of view is informed by. The Abrahamic's understanding is that humans are a fallen species; either through their mythic progenitor, their own failings, or a combination of the two; their natural state of being is sinful. They also understand their god as being perfect and the origin of the law codes that inform their understanding of morality. Their failings necessarily make them separate from their god, and so acts of repentance and contrition are mandatory to close this distance called sin.
This life chose me; I'm not lost in sin.
This is not to say that we are "perfect", that we have no room for improvement or betterment. We struggle, we hurt, we fail, we die; yet all of these things are part of the deal. We are not perfect, because life is not perfect, and I rather think that setting up an impossible ideal as attainable (if only through divine intervention) is just that; impossible. You can feel bad about your shortcomings, but you can choose to wallow in them or overcome them. While the term (and philosophy behind it) are purely Greek, eudamonia ("the good life") is something which is attainable, and further does not require any impossible ideals of perfection to achieve. Rather, it requires dedication, effort and the realization that it is something which is a reward in and of itself. As virtue ethics is something which is reflected in the medieval literature and is a component of GRP, utilizing the most robust VE system in western philosophy as a means of informing our own approach to ethics is (in my mind) a reasonable adaptation of a pre-existing model.

The middle way is where virtue lives, and it is through living virtuously that we are able to flourish. We relate to and with the gods through mutually beneficial and reciprocal relationships. Make no mistake, we can offend the gods, we can offend our ancestors and we most certainly can offend the spirits of place. There are countless examples from folklore especially, so most of the "feedback" relates to prohibitions against certain actions or the use of particular items when coming into contact with spirits of place.
The destruction of a hazel was often avoided as much as possible, the avoidance of fairy mounds during construction projects was common in the 19th century, and the prohibition against the use of cold iron in any capacity when dealing with the fair folk are all examples of the fear with which folk practices reinforce the simplicity by which we could offend. Violations of the laws of hospitality, of bringing dishonour to ones self (and by proxy their family and group), disrespecting or desecrating the graves of the dead are likewise examples of the means by which we may offend our ancestors. The means by which we may offend the gods is a bit trickier, violating the rules of hospitality would be among those which are more obvious, as would be the violation of geasa. Yet none of these acts carry with them the same sort of punitive cost found among those religions which contain dogma relating to sin. Certainly the violation of ones geasa will result in ruination and more often than not death, yet this is once more a temporal (if rather fatal) end. No where do we find evidence of further punishment of payment owed beyond the loss of ones own life or honour; no punishment awaits those who violate their sworn oaths, their geasa or give other offence to the gods once their life ends.
Whether one has lived a fully flourishing life of virtue, or a craven, cowardly life of vice, their ultimate abode is the same. All of us will travel to the live under the care of the Lord of dusk, in his hallowed halls. This is because our behaviour in this life only matters in this life, because for all we know, this is all we get. I believe quite strongly that I will sit with my lord when my time on the mortal coil ends, but I am not certain. I'm repeating myself, but it bears repeating: Never forget that we seek to do right by the na trí naomh, that we uphold dírgas, not because we hope to gain admittance to a paradisiacal hereafter, nor for fear and avoidance of eternal penitence and pain, but because by doing so we are allowed to flourish and be excellent. Our live are meant to be lived as best we can, in the here and now, for the sake of living good lives. We have been given the gift of life, the beauty and the horror, that we may stake out a piece of time and space and say, "We were here, we lived, and this is what we were able to do". If we fear for the future, once we are no longer here to contribute to it, than all we have to fear is leaving behind a legacy of ignominy.
Live freely, fully and fight to win a place for those who come after us, while we honour those who came before us. We are not a degraded, fallen and callow species vainly begging our gods for their forgiveness for not living up to their unobtainable standards. Our gods ask much of us, but never more than we can bear. We are not a repentant lot, asking and receiving the blessings of a sacrifice we have not asked for, nor earned. Our gods accept our sacrifices, but they are ours, we do not ask someone else to pay them for us. All we can do, all that we would ever be expected to do, is live as best we can.
Thank the gods we live in a world unburdened by sin.


  1. When I was put into Confirmation Class, I scribbled angrily down on all the papers: "I Am A Proud Sinner." To no one's but my mom's surprise: I didn't get Confirmation in the Catholic Church for holding beliefs like that.

    I'm glad GRP doesn't hold concepts of Original Sin, or that leading an imperfect life somehow makes for a bad life. Christian Heaven always seemed boring to me. Imperfection is what makes things beautiful, not the absence of imperfection.

    1. It is always interesting, albeit in the flippancy of youth,that things seem so much more certain when we are young.

      I recall a conversation I had with a co-worker who taught what amounted to the "Sunday School" program at her church, which was Greek Orthodox. She informed me that she very much encouraged questions and critical thinking, to the point that her own students had her scrambling to find answers. I tried to explain to her that, in my opinion, there were limits to what questions one could answer, and still maintain a specific aspect of dogma or theology and still provide a satisfactory answer to her students. She did not quite get it at first, but eventually she came to understand, if a given element of theology (or properly world view) is rejected, then the ability to respond to a question which is beyond the scope of that worldview becomes impossible.

      In this case, if the basis of a given religion is that sin is absolute, universal and inescapable without accepting an intermediary, and one rejects the existence of sin, the power and meaning of that intermediary (and the need for them) becomes irrelevant.

      I would argue that GRP utterly lacks the concept of "sin" in and of itself, "Original" or no. True, we can bring offense to the gods, but this does not have future implications after our time here is done. Reaction and consequence tends to be more in the immediacy and is better reflected in the concept of geasa, as opposed to sin.