The Mystery of Sin and Forgiveness: Critical Examination

When I scoured the expansive list of topics for one that seemed the most interesting I came across, in bolded letters “Sin”. I chose that and raided the library for books on the same subject matter and came across The Mystery of Sin and Forgiveness edited by Michael J. Taylor, a large compilation book with pieces written by priests and other theologians. The book seemed simple enough, a thorough examination of sin and how to properly atone when we sin.

I chose sin as a topic for discussion and further inquiry because no one wants to think about that; sin is that dirty word that we use about others and not about ourselves. Sin is a word thrown around a lot but isn’t understood fully by most.

In a section of the book contributed by Kevin F. O’Shea, sin means “saying no to God” (90) and he goes on to say that “Sin is in the heart of man and disrupts the personal communion he must live with God in every action.” (91).This is a definition that most of us grew up with; sin was in a way a defiant act. A more theological definition comes on page 92 saying “Sin is a refusal of love in and through a detailed human action.” And that sin is a “violation of this covenant” The covenant being that which was made between God and the Israelites during the Old Testament times.

In mentioning sin we must consider that there are different types of sin, original sin and the seven deadly sins. Original sin is the sin that Adam and Eve first committed in the Garden of Eden. To us now original sin can be most aptly considered to be distant curse, placed on mankind thousands of years ago and we have no choice but to accept this reality. The best definition of original sin can be said on page 255 “They are born with original sin that is to say in a state contrary to God’s intention.” God loves us and as stated in the definition above is that “sin is a refusal of love”. I find this to be fairly accurate and that chapter to be true. Original sin has been a burden placed on us and that we have to live with. Modern philosophers have debated on whether original sin exists or if it is simply a modified mass version of determinism and indifferentism.

In the book there was also mention of determinism which states “that all of our actions, despite our illusions of freedom, are in fact dictated by the drives, urges and complexes that lie buried in the dark pit of the Unconscious of each of us.” (7) this doctrine much like predestination removes completely freewill and forces us into a “collective guilt” (7) this collective guilt is fueled by a sense of helpless due to the overbearing influence of original sin and a strong deterministic secular cultures. I have a problem with determinism, I was raised Catholic, so in being raised that way I was taught that God gives us freewill. Granted, I have no scientific proof to either effect, that life is determined or that I have choice in my life and my choices, be that to sin or not to sin. Determinism at its very worst removes personal responsibility and therefore removes the need for sin. If one has no say, then there is no sin because sin is a conscious choice to reject God’s covenant.

The book also mentions indifferentism (6) in which the attitudes towards anything is merely indifferent. The book also then says that under indifferentism “the act of sexual intercourse is indifferent as drinking a cup of coffee.” (6) .Under indifferentism it does not matter if we sin or not, we face a similar fate and either point of doing good or evil is irrelevant. The issue I have with indifferentism is that is removes love and passion from life and any other emotion that one can name. Indifferentism removes guilt from sin and from life itself and asks to have the same emotion for any event. Most would agree that the birth of a baby is considerably more significant than a cup of coffee. Indifferentism is a common way to cope with a feeling of insignificance and sadness in the world.

Sin also has varying levels of severity such as “venial” sins and “light” sins (105), these include but are not limited to little white lies and sin that only affects ourselves in a very small way. There are also “serious” and “mortal” sins (107) Mortal sins involve death most commonly. This class system is fairly typical of what most of us in the Catholic faith grew up with. The book emphasizes that each level of sin is still sin, saying that just because one is less severe does not make it acceptable though it can be agreed that murder is a more significant sin than a tiny white lie. There are ways to commonly skew the lines and rationalize those lesser sins. We brush off those occasional white lies and vow to say a few extra Hail Mary’s that night. Shrugging off the small sins is just as dangerous, such a disregard for any violation of the Covenant is precarious that can lead one on a slippery slope of rationalization and denial.

Another notion in the book that struck me was the opening line “The modern word has lost its sense of sin.” (3). I disagree with this idea completely. Especially as a modern Catholic, I feel as though we live in a world riddled with guilt and preconceived notions of sin and what sin is. We go to confession during every major liturgical season, we pray each time for the forgiveness of our sins. The secular culture is just as guilt-ridden but not in the same sense as Christians. The secular culture has some of the perspectives listed above, indifferentism and determinism. The secular culture uses those above perspectives to cope with the overbearing nature of sin without the Christian concepts of faith, grace or repentance. Without the concepts of faith and repentance one can either turn to despair or nihilism to cope with the overwhelming sense of remorse brought on by the unyielding burden of sin.

The second half of the book dealt with forgiveness. The only antidote for sin is forgiveness. In the book’s title forgiveness is under the title of mystery. I pondered on this choice in words for a while. For most, I believe that people generally do not think of much of forgiveness until they have to forgive. I believe that forgiveness is one of those words, like sin, is thrown around without much meaning. We casually toss around “I forgive you.” But we often do not understand the true meaning of forgiveness.

As Catholics we see formal forgiveness as Penance and this quote in the best described it best “When one of the faithful confesses, he comes to the Church to win by its mediation full reconciliation with God.” (158) this is a comforting notion to Catholics. I know I go to Confession when I can and I admit to a bit of a disconnection when I do miss the occasional service.

The book also noted that “The Church mediates grace through the priest, through the power he has received from Christ, with the bishop, and in dependence with him.” (207) this of course, chimes directly in with the Catholic notion of apostolic succession which gives power to the pope directly from Christ through the apostles and through the teachings of the Church. The other section in which the Church is mentioned the novel mentions that the Church body itself does not have the power to forgive but they do through God. I find this to be accurate. The Church body by itself cannot give Penance aside from on a personal level but on a sacramental level, the priest can authenticate the Penance.

Considering the mystery of forgiveness though is odd. I thought about it for a while and did my best to understand why they would consider forgiveness to be a mystery. As a Catholic, forgiveness is synonymous with Penance, so it seemed easy. I go into the confessional, I confess and the priest says a prayer and tells me what to do for my personal Penance. The book even had an explanation that more was more in-depth than that and makes my views of confession seem rather shallow “In confession the sinner addresses himself to the Church. He confesses to the priest because he sincerely believes he encounters Christ through the Church…By his repentance he expresses his desire to take his place in the community again, to live more faithfully as a Christian, and to participate more deeply in the life and mission of the Church.” (161) the book also stated that “Confession is the frank and candid disclosure of what is most intimately our own: our aspirations, our thoughts, our secret desires, our hidden actins insofar as they fall short of the ideal before us. Confession is the ultimate in human communication and self-disclosure.” (188-89) I am sure that this is one of the most accurate assessments of Confession provided by the entire book. The book also states that Confession is an act of self-improvement and I could not agree more.

But to say it was a mystery was a bit confusing. It had always seemed so simple. But then I considered personal forgiveness. How easy would it be of me to forgive someone who caused my family or my person physical or emotional pain? Therein lays the mystery. What allows us to forgive? Some evolutions believe that human forgiveness is almost like a fluke. No other mammals seem to have a concept of forgiveness as open as humans do. Theologians believe that forgiveness is passed down through the Church and through Jesus Christ. “The divine plan can be carried out only through Christ, the head of the new humanity.” (157) The answer to the mystery lies within this quote “By his Incarnation and the mysteries of his life, the Son of God becomes Lord in the power and fullness of the Holy Spirit. The essential relation between Christ and the sacramental actions of the Church should be realized in its full import.” (159).

In closing, the book The Mystery of Sin and Forgiveness fully explained and the definition of sin and forgiveness while also providing a deeper understanding behind the Theology, psychology and sociology of sin and forgiveness from both the Catholic perspectives and the secular perspectives. After reading this novel I found a deeper perception of the topic at hand. Each part of the book I comprehended and found to be useful in coming to understand this complex topic and assisted in answering questions I did not even know I wanted to inquire further into the subject and did not want to explore further until now.


Works Cited

Taylor, Michael J. The Mystery of Sin and Forgiveness. Staten Island, N.Y.: Alba House, 1971. Print.