What Religion Is/Chapter 5

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“Whatsoever is not of faith is sin.”

The diversity or individuality of the good helps us to see clearly the nature of sin. Sin, it is said, only exists for the religious soul. For this soul has given itself wholly to the good and the perfect, but yet still lives in and as its own particular limited self, and its own particular defective world and will. It holds nothing to be real but the good, but yet its own wicked will and wicked world exist. And both worlds and wills belong to it; both the perfect, which it holds to by faith, and the false and perverse, which it disowns but cannot abolish. Thus the very working out of the good is a battle, in which our will actually fights against itself. The false will, which is disowned and condemned, which faith rejects and repels, none the less is there in fact, and opposes the will of faith in which the soul is saved and at home through religion. And this is sin; for it is the persistence in the religious man of the very will which as religious he disowns.

Again we must avoid dissecting the plain and sure experience. In the religious unity, we find, a contradiction appears which would be impossible but for that unity, and which actually depends upon it. The same will, the same impulse to self-completion and satisfaction, which in religious faith is made one with perfection, has a detailed existence in fact which contradicts this perfection. Any experience, entertained or pursued in a way hostile to the complete service and worship which faith embodies, is sinful. Lists of sins and rules about sin may point out dangers, but are no real guide. They are no real guide, because the object of a sinful desire may not be a bad object. It may be only its opposition, in the special case, to what the perfect will demands, that makes it a sin. There is no sin readier at the religious man’s elbow than to feel that he has for a moment achieved, that he has been something of himself and apart from that in which he trusts, that he has in himself been worthy. Now this is not a sin which can easily come of a “bad” action. It is pretty certain to spring from something which we should set down at sight as “good.”

Obviously if we refine and reflect upon these consequences, we shall come to matters of great subtlety — heresies of all kinds. Is not, then, all our righteousness as filthy rags? On the other hand, if a perfection which is not ours is the cure, does it matter what we do? That we are in fact sunk in sin, but are somehow real beyond and outside it, might even be a comfortable doctrine.

It is the old story. We are refining, and losing touch. Here is perhaps a plain though prosaic way of bringing home the simple fact. Bona fides is the ultimate need in all matters of conduct, and religion is the supreme bona fides. Your heart is really given to the best you can conceive. But your actual life is narrow and confused, and while willing the object of faith, you will, also, things that as you will them (for they need not be “bad”) are its enemy. Then we see the religious significance of faith, and what it means to be saved. This, which I am, is not really I. I am bona fide other, and this self, though I am it. I reject and disown. Sin is thus the very detail of the conflict in which religious faith asserts the supremacy of the good. It is a deep self-contradiction, which, but for the supreme faith, would dissolve and destroy my actual being. It is the embodiment of the flat contradiction, the rise in which we stay here. The good, I take it, is actually worked out, and has the substance of its victory, in this struggle, where the will is fairly and clearly occupied in re-creating itself.

Compare once more the position of morality. In pure morality, not allowing for the social ethical observance which is half a religion, the individual must always count as bad. In religion also he is always bad, but yet he is really and truly good. This depends on the nature of faith, and a religion which gives you this gives you all you need to see what is meant by sin.