Sin and The System
The Cardinal or Capital Sins of the (Catholic) Christian moral code are seven in number and name. The same are called “The Seven Deadly Sins” and are presently identified as: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. These capital sins are further classified (depending upon the situation in which they are committed) as mortal sins or venial sins. Some sins have been added and some have been subtracted over time. But if you immerse yourself in the study of this code and the nature of these sins, you will emerge from it either totally confused, or a complete bundle of nerves.
There is only one useful core feature to the code: “Mortal sin, by attacking the vital principle within us – that is, charity – necessitates a new initiative of God’s mercy and a conversion of heart which is normally accomplished [for Catholics] within the setting of the sacrament of reconciliation.” Charity is “caritas” (Greek agape) which is love or loving-kindness. And it is of interest, in that respect, that Rosenstock-Huessy charged the Church with this same lack of charity — a mortal soul-destroying and -devouring sin — during the Inquisition.
In other terms, the potency which is the life of the soul is love, (or better, caritas, which has a more encompassing and potent meaning). The absence or destruction of caritas as vital principle is soul enervation or death. A mortal sin, by whatever name, is any act that extinguishes and snuffs out the soul’s vital core, which would be a thorough-going nihilism (Nihil being the contrary of Genesis). Perhaps our fascination, today, with vampires and zombies has some connection with this soul enervation and nihilism (Nietzsche’s “passive nihilism”). But that is also very much reflected in the devaluation of the meaning of “caritas” as a denuded “charity” — and tax-deductible, too.
It’s just one further example of the fact that (presently in any event) we live in a post-Christian society and era, even though everybody seems to be shouting “Lord!, Lord!”, as it were.
Life and love (or to love and to live) are equivalent and was the heart of Jesus’ original teaching: “I am come that they may have life, and have it more abundantly” is the point of it all — a point that seems to have become blunted. The Way was the way of “faith, hope, and caritas“, with the latter being “the greatest of these” dormant or latent powers (virtues) of the soul which needed to be aroused and awakened. In Jesus’ world, “virtue” was real power, strength, or energy — not the limp abstraction of “principle” or a mere moral detail it has become today. A “faith that moves mountains” was not merely a symbolic statement. For Jesus, “virtue” had nothing to do with morality. It was a superabundance of vital power or energy that overflowed the boundaries of his physical being and rearranged the natural order of things — even those of space and time, being something analogous to large-body gravitational force as it is conceived today in Einstein’s relativity theories.
People who obsess about “sin” and “morality” today are actually spiritual sloths who have given up the often hard work of igniting and awakening that dormant virtue that Jesus taught as being the human birthright. “The kingdom of heaven is within you.” “The body is the temple of the living God.” Jesus was not concerned with your “sins” except as they pose an obstacle to your self-realisation. His is not a “thou shalt not..” teaching, but a “thou shalt..” teaching, and that’s what distinguishes the New Testament from the Old Testament. (Or, as I wrote earlier, observance from faith.) There are simply no precedents in the Jewish tradition for many of the things that Jesus taught, which is why we still mark time in the Western tradition in terms of “before” and “after” even if the vast majority of people no longer understand why. “Conversion” here (as the word means) signifies having one’s face turned in a new direction. And that new direction was inwards and forwards, rather than outwards and backwards.
I know some readers have privately expressed disquiet with my suggestion that we live in a “post-Christian” civilisation, and that we have for some time. Nietzsche’s announcement of “the death of God” was only a very belated (and somewhat reluctant on his part) but honest acknowledgement of the fact that what we call “Christianity” today is but a tombstone… even the “whited sepulchre” full of dead men’s bones of Jesus’ New Testament parable. One has to be careful with Nietzsche, in this respect, to not misconstrue his intentions:
“One should not confuse Christianity as a historical reality with that one root that its name calls to mind: the other roots from which it has grown up have been far more powerful. It is an unexampled misuse of words when such manifestations of decay and abortions as “Christian church,” “Christian faith” and “Christian life” label themselves with that holy name. What did Christ deny? Everything that is today called Christian” (The Will to Power, s.158 (1888)).
Hardly the confession of an “anti-Christ,” I would suggest. It’s more like the outburst of a jilted lover who feels he or she has been wooed and seduced, then stood-up, cheated, duped, and sold a bill of goods. Left standing at the altar. In fact, young Nietzsche was so pious that he had earned the nickname “the Little Pastor.” At some point, his disillusionment set in and he, as Nietzsche-Zarathustra, carried his own ashes into the mountains for a ten-years’ sojourn in order to recover and reconstruct himself, emerging as the Nietzsche with the doctrine we now tend to associate with that name. But as the hermit monk who witnesses Zarathustra’s descent from the solitudes notes:
“This wanderer is no stranger to me: he passed by here many years ago. He was called Zarathustra; but he has changed. Then you carried your ashes to the mountains: will you today carry your fire into the valleys? Do you not fear an incendiary’s punishment?”
Yet, almost everything that the incendiary Zarathustra teaches, including the doctrine of the transhuman or overman, strangely echoes and reflects New Testament themes. The “Little Pastor” did not fall far from the tree, it seems. Thoughtful Christians who have engaged (bravely) with Nietzsche’s critiques have sometimes made note of the fact that Nietzsche’s philosophy still remains largely Christian-oriented. That’s probably not surprising given Nietzsche’s charge that the Church and the priests had inverted, distorted, and falsified Jesus’ teachings.
In contrast to the cornucopian superabundance of sins mortal and venial in Church doctrine, Buddhism is comparatively and blessedly economical in its evils. It recognises only three cardinal evils or sins: greed, malice (ill-will), and delusion. Other bad habits like drunkenness or sexual profligacy and indulgence aren’t so much sinful as aberrant or “unskillful” practices. That’s one reason I admire Buddhism. It doesn’t browbeat or play guilt trips. It doesn’t stone or burn at the stake. It just says, “You fell. But you can do better”. But greed, malice, and delusion are the real McCoy… real evils, spawn of the chiefest of all evils — ignorance.
The Buddhist-oriented sociology of David Loy recognises, also, that these evils or sins have become institutionalised in Late Modern society and, having been institutionalised, they have therefore become systemic. They now make up the fabric of the present social (dis)order and rule all our social relations. This sociological critique is an even more devastating indictment of our present historical situation than Nietzsche’s mainly psychological approach — the psychology of nihilism.
(It may even be more potent than Karl Marx’s historical materialist critique of the reduction of all conviviality and sociability amongst human beings to a mere shared commodity fetishism and the rule of the cash-nexus as forming the social bond. Interestingly, some Marx scholars — including Rosenstock-Huessy — have pointed out (very plausibly) that Marx’s critique could only have been arrived at because of his early personal upbringing as a Jewish Christian, which continued to shape his views and philosophy. In fact, Marx was anxious to make socialism “scientific” only because it was originally a Christian dissident movement rooted in and justified from the Gospels — the “communion” of the Last Supper in which Jesus elevated his disciples from servants to “friends” — comrades. That episode still informs the spirit of “the Society of Friends” — the Quakers. In fact, it was Rosenstock-Huessy’s view — another Jewish Christian — that the gospel penetrated the Confucian mind of China in the only way it could: as the implicit subtext to Marxism, like a thief in the night. Ironies abound at “the end of history”).
Loy is quite correct, and in some very profound ways. The present shocks and turbulence in the global economy and financial system are not due to technical problems or the problem of tweaking and fine-tuning the market mechanisms — the usual diversionary rationale. It is due to the shockwave effects of greed become deregulated and unleashed. Protected by “free speech” laws, commercial advertising even promotes greed and envy as normal and necessary to keep the gears of the socio-economic machine lubricated and turning. Commercial advertising is very subtle and cunning. Plain old greed is sometimes euphemistically sugar-coated in phrases like “profit motive” or “market exuberance” or “animal spirits”, and so on. But Mr. Gordon Gecko in the movie Wall Street mercifully cut through all the obfuscation, mystification, and plain old bullshit by simply saying, “greed is good”. It is also protected and encouraged by laws which, in some cases, even make it mandatory, and is justified as being based upon allegedly sound economic theory and principle forged by supposedly disinterested technocrats in university economics departments or think-tank experts. It is therefore correct to state, as Loy does, that greed has been institutionalised and made systemic, and that this is true regardless of how it is justified or rationalised — scientifically, religiously, or otherwise.
(And, by the way, the organisation of our economic relations today, in terms of “trickle down,” was specifically repudiated by Jesus in his parable of the poor man at the rich man’s gate. So one can’t claim religious sanction for this, or as “Doing God’s Work” as the CEO of Goldman Sachs claimed).
The second evil, malice or ill-will, has also been institutionalised and made a systemic feature of economic society. This takes the form of the military-industrial-state complex, which arose during the World Wars and remains in place today still. It was a Republican president in the United States, General Eisenhower, who first warned of the malicious and insidious character of this confluence and nexus of military, industrial, and state power and the threat it posed to peace, order, and good government. When the Cold War came to an end in 1989 with the dissolution of the USSR, and the Complex faced calls for a stand-down and a “peace dividend,” it panicked, and instead embarked upon “a search for enemies” and invented new existential threats to counter “the peace scare”, supported by think-tanks and university academics with a common stake in the old order. From this emerged another doctrine of self-preservation for the status quo — “the clash of civilisations” or “culture war” (Samuel Huntington, Bernard Lewis) and revisionist neo-imperialist ideologies (Niall Ferguson, Robert D. Kaplan, Michael Ignatieff, etc)
If Wall Street (amongst others) represents institutionalised greed, the military-industrial complex represents institutionalised malice. Institutionalised delusion — the third evil of Buddhism — is represented by the ubiquitous propaganda system, both commercial and political, that sustains and justifies both, but which presently goes by the term “perception management” (or oftentimes by names such as “public relations,” or “public diplomacy,” etc). This system of organised propaganda (which is today unbelievably vast), and which works its black magic under the aegis and protection of “Free Speech,” arose from and during the World Wars, when it became an applied science, taking advantage of the new means of mass communication that emerged during this period from 1914 – 1945. The propaganda system exists only to confound and obfuscate our reason and to obstruct the clarity of perception — therefore, largely to keep us in ignorance and to exploit that ignorance for other ends. The delusion it promotes and sustains is to paint a gloss and patina of moral virtue and righteousness over the mortal reality beneath the play of appearances — the old issue of “the whited sepulchre“. Plenty has been written on the origins and history of the propaganda system as it functions in democratic societies (Chomsky, most notably, but also the late Australian sociologist Alex Carey, Nancy Snow, and many others. Although Chomsky is best known for his book and film Manufacturing Consent, in my judgment his Necessary Illusions is his best summary presentation of his “propaganda model”).
These three institutions mutually support and sustain each other. Even that bastion of Enlightenment virtue and institutional truth-seeking, the university, has been fully compromised by them and subordinated to them (which is why we can speak of post-modern as being equivalently post-Enlightenment). The three evils are not just fully woven into the fabric of the social order. They have become the social order. They are also becoming, via “blowback,” the root causes of our unsustainable social disorder and the cause of our rapid disintegration on all fronts. It’s the same “Moloch” of Ginsberg’s poem Howl.
A house divided against itself cannot stand. I hope you can appreciate that in this saying is also reflected Nietzsche’s succinct definition of nihilism. “All higher values devalue themselves” has the same meaning as a house divided against itself. In this, as in so many other respects, Nietzsche has simply reworked many of the familiar themes from the New Testament and re-clothed them in shockingly unfamiliar rainment. Clever man, Nietzsche. Very clever and ironic. Hypocrisy is this house divided against itself. And that “house” can just as well be ages or civilisations or nations as much as the individual soul in its Jekyll and Hyde disintegration.
Here’s my “sin” and political incorrectness, as it were. When I read “historical materialist” Marx, or the “aristocratic radical” Nietzsche, or the “Buddhist” sociologist David Loy, or the Sufist mysticism of Rumi… I see that they are all speaking from the same root and source, only in very different languages, and each language speaks to a different facet of the human whole — body, mind, soul, spirit. Nonetheless, they form a synoptic unity in that very multiplicity.
This unity of diversity is the sometimes bewildering paradox of the Planetary Era presently unfolding. But that is still not understood.