The Roots of Sin
A new take on an old concept
Once “sin” meant shameful behavior and human weakness. Today it’s more commonly associated with self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and sexual repression. It’s an accusation thrown about by street corner evangelists, cult leaders, and nosy Puritans won’t be satisfied until nobody is having fun. “Sin” is as outdated as “Negro” and as mockingly funny as “temperance activist” or “church lady.”
Sin, like Race, is a product of the Bad Old Days. It’s a tool that encourages social conformity and keeps the wealthy and powerful at the top of their heap. But while we will not speak the word, we still kowtow to the concept.
To show you what I mean, let’s consider the word “kowtow.”
To kowtow is to scrape and kneel before a higher authority. It comes from the Chinese word 叩頭 or k’ou tou (“knock head”). 叩頭 was the homage one paid to the Emperor, part of which involved kneeling with your forehead on the ground.
Kowtow is the Anglophone version of the word. It carries with it the idea of abject subservience. English peasants once knelt before kings and lords, but Cromwell changed all that. For English merchants and soldiers, the courtesies extended by Chinese subjects were obsequious emperor-worship fit only for superstitious barbarians.
There’s a good bit of Orientalism in “kowtow,” with a heaping helping of European supremacism and British imperialism to boot. It’s a word that presupposes the superiority of Western Civilization against the dim and inscrutable East. It tells us that the Chinese are groveling flatterers who worship strong leaders, and hence need our strong leadership.
As the kids today say, it’s problematic. Belittling Asians and asserting White Supremacy is considered bad social form. It’s like impugning the Virgin Mother’s chastity in 13th-Century France. It brands you as a White Supremacist, one fit only to be driven out into the outer darkness with the other
This distaste for stereotypes and casual bigotry is a hallmark of a current that’s been labeled as “Wokeness,” “Political Correctness,” “Cultural Marxism,” etc. These devotees unpack their privilege, enlighten those who will hear, and cast out those who will not listen. They have little use for the idea of Sin and rejects many foundational concepts upon which Sin is built. But yet they tally the Elect and Damned.
Whatever our religious or irreligious ideas on God or worship, you can’t understand America without understanding Sin. So what does Christianity say about sin anyway? To answer that question, let’s look to the world from whence Christianity arose.
The Tragic Flaw
In Christ’s neck of the Roman Empire, Greek was the common tongue. Marcus Aurelius wrote his Meditations in Greek and Judaean merchants, traders, and officials did business in Greek. And as Christianity spread outside Judea, the earliest Christian documents were written not in Aramaic or Hebrew but in Greek.
The Greek word that English Bible translators render as “sin” is ἁμαρτία, hamartia. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, hamartia is derived from hamartanein "to fail of one's purpose; to err, sin," originally "to miss the mark," from the Proto-Indo-European root *hemert- "to miss, fail."
Hamartia is also used by Aristotle to describe what we translate as “the Tragic Flaw.” It is an innate flaw that leads heroes to their doom. But while Christianity postulates a possible redemption, Aristotle’s hamartia was inescapable. For Aristotle the heroes of Greek tragedy are brought down by the vices which are also their virtues. In his Poetics Aristotle describes the Tragic Hero as:
a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty.
When Oedipus learns that he’s doomed to kill his father and marry his mother, he runs from Corinth to save the people who raised him. A stranger who becomes king, Oedipus is by all evidence a just and honorable king. When a plague hits Thebes, the city he rules, he sets out to cleanse the land and find the previous king’s murderers. His actions are honorable and right, and yet they lead inevitably to his destruction.
We transfer to the tragic hero the pity and fear which is at the root of our existence and release those emotions through a process of κάθαρσις (catharsis). In weeping for Oedipus we weep for ourselves. In lamenting his evil fate we lament our own. Chesterton and others have noted the deep pessimism of pre-Christian Europe.
To Aristotle and Sophocles, the idea that one could cast off hamartia was absurd. Cheating fate was as impossible as avoiding death. But a few centuries later, in a restive Roman province, a Judean teacher in a restive Roman province departed radically from both Jewish and Hellenic thought.
Speaking in Greek to his audience of locals, tourists, and merchants, Jesus explained that we were fated to evil and doomed to death. Then he promised an escape from both. And after the Crucifixion, his following grew and his message was transferred and transmuted through the centuries to come.
The Great Renunciation
One of the strongest undercurrents we find in the Early Christian era is a deep distrust and loathing for the material world. Marcion of Sinope (85-160) preached that the world was created by an evil Demiurge. This Demiurge, the God of the Jews, was thwarted when Jesus, the son of the Monad, came to set the prisoners free.
Marcion was one of the first Christian scholars to make an extensive study of both the Christian and Jewish documents. and came to believe that God the Father was a stern, capricious tyrant. He rejected our Gospels and Old Testament, but compiled the first list of Epistles from the “one true Apostle,” Paul of Tarsus.
Marcion was excommunicated in 144 but Marcionism continued to flourish for generations after his death. Christians still use Marcion’s compilation of the Pauline epistles as part of their New Testament’s canon. And nearly a century after Marcion’s death, another world-denying philosophy arrived in the Roman Empire.
Mani (216-274/77) considered Buddha and Zoroaster to be earlier prophets. His philosophy combined Buddhism’s Non-Attachment with Zoroastrianism’s struggle between the good Ahura Mazda and the evil Ahriman. For Mani Jesus was the suffering Light trapped in the material realm of darkness. And to free Jesus and ourselves from our prison, we had to work to release the Light within themselves and the world.
Manichaeans considered birth to be a great evil, as pregnancy trapped the Light in a material body. While Christians granted that celibacy was preferable to marriage, they felt the Manichaean rejection of the body and pregnancy was a dangerous overstatement. But Manichaeism remained popular in the Roman Empire well after Mani’s death. St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was a Manichaean for years before becoming a Christian.
Early Christianity drew from these traditions even as they drew boundaries between them. Before the Theodosian Codes , Christians didn’t have the luxury of conversion by the sword. They had to argue their points with other Mystery Cults to win converts and supporters. And every ongoing debate must inevitably lead to cross-pollinization. The Christians won those arguments, but they also ceded a few points.
The Temptations of the Flesh
All the women thou hast ever met— from the leman of the cross-roads, singing under the light of her lantern, even to the patrician lady scattering rose-petals abroad from her litter,—all the forms thou hast ever obtained glimpses of—all the imaginations of thy desire thou hast only to ask for them!
I am not a woman: I am a world!
My cloak has only to fall in order that thou mayest discover a succession of mysteries.
Gustave Flaubert, The Temptation of Saint Anthony
Within early Christianity we see chastity and renunciation treated as the highest and best form of Christian life. Ceremonial chastity would not have seemed unusual to Romans acquainted with the Vestal virgins. But the Christian emphasis on turning away from the world and its seductions was noteworthy amongst the Roman Empire’s polytheistic practices.
The majority of Christians remained in this world but not entirely of it. They married, raised families, and behaved in most ways like other imperial subjects. They ate meat sacrificed to idols at pagan festivities and made the customary bows and nods to civic idols. Those gestures were all the Roman Empire ever wanted. So long as its subjects posed no social threat, Roman officials cared little about their religious beliefs.
Any Christian could lead a pious live and join the hero-cult of the Saints. But there were also fast tracks to this ascension. A Christian who vowed celibacy and renounced the world attained a special sanctity. Christians who died or suffered for their faith could also be honored as a confessor or martyr.
Today Western Catholics still speak of the White Crown of Chastity and the Red Crown of Martyrdom. As Christianity became the dominant faith, opportunities for glorious self-immolation became harder to find. But there were always opportunities for self-renunciation.
To that end, Christianity incorporated a number of discomfort devices and rituals. Devout lords wore hairshirts beneath their silks so they could suffer as they feasted. Monks tamed their passions with fasting and solitude. And Origen, an early compiler of what would become New Testament canon, famously (if perhaps apocryphally) resisted temptation by castrating himself.
Freudian and post-Freudian scholars have placed a great deal of emphasis on Christianity’s uneasy relationship with sexuality. Today it gets called out regularly for its unhealthy repression of harmless natural urges and its veneration of outmoded notions like chastity and purity. And one of Christianity’s greatest tales of internal struggle has become an emblem of disease and repression.
Notes from the End of Time with Kenaz Filan is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
The Liberation of Desire
Self-denial, chastity, and self-sacrifice are deeply baked into the Christian mindset. We might argue for or against this worldview, and both sides could make a reasonable case. But there’s definitely a Christian mistrust of sexuality, and of strong passions in general. Protestantism rejected clerical celibacy as unhealthy and un-Biblical. And even today you’ll regularly find gloating examples of popular preachers and pedophile priests led astray by lust.
We could certainly agree that rigid standards of sexual propriety lead to a great deal of hypocrisy, shaming, and self-loathing. We could also note that our modern more relaxed standards have not made young people happier, nor have they served to slow down our demographic decline. But we should remember that this “Sexual Revolution” was a reaction to Christian morality and social standards. And reactionaries often become their opponent’s mirror image.
St. Anthony the Great (251-356), the greatest of the Desert Fathers, triumphed over decades of sexual and demonic visions by prayer and fasting. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), a great fan of Flaubert’s Temptation of Saint Anthony, saw Anthony’s struggles as emblems of the eternal human struggle between desire and repression.
By 1874 Flaubert was deeply in debt. After years spent visiting brothels around the world, he was also showing increasing signs of tertiary syphilis. He knew all too well the seductions of earthly pleasures, but he also had a deeper view of evil and temptation. While Saint Anthony certainly struggles with his lusts, he spends more time resisting the temptation of various heresies.
Anthony’s long struggle ended with his canonization. Flaubert’s novel gives us one day of Anthony’s temptations, a day like many before and many that would come after. For Flaubert Anthony’s emotional struggle in the desert was as eternal as his sainthood, as eternal as Christ’s passion on the Cross. And his momentary glimpses of God provide more than adequate compensation for his ongoing struggle.
I long to fly, to swim, to bark, to bellow, to howl!
Would that I had wings, a carapace, a shell,
—that I could breathe out smoke, wield a trunk,
—make my body writhe,
—divide myself everywhere,
—be in everything,
—emanate with odours,
—develop myself like the plants,
—flow like water,
—vibrate like sound
—shine like light, squatting upon all forms
—penetrate each atom
—descend to the very bottom of matter,
—be matter itself!
Flaubert, The Temptation of Saint Anthony
Tell Me About Your Mom
By a Freudian reading, St. Anthony is a man made mad by his sexual hang-ups. Anthony’s visions are demoted from fallen angels to lust-fueled hallucinations. And instead of a triumph over the flesh, Anthony’s retreat into the wilderness becomes a doomed and delusional effort to escape from his own bodily urges.
Freud’s intellectual inheritors — Marcuse, Foucault, Reich and others — combined Freudian philosophy with Marxist theory to envision a Sexual Revolution. And that Revolution wanted to cast off toxic social customs upheld by old philosophies and religions. For them St. Anthony the Great is just another sexually repressed rich guy driven to psychosis by #nofap.
A post-Freudian reading would chide St. Anthony for his sex-negativity and misogyny. It would ask questions about power dynamics and encourage us to check our prejudices against people enjoying sex. It would note that the Church has always used its power to punish perverts. At some point we would hear some variant of the Utilitarian “It’s not hurting anybody, why should it bother you?”
This mindset has become the American default across most political spectrums. Posturing aside, most Americans don’t care what consenting adults do in private.
When Christianity was one of many competing cults, radical Christians would blaspheme in official temples so they could win a glorious if grisly martyrdom. Today many of these radicals are still venerated as saints. And today we see the idle rich supporting the new cults even as they did back in Rome.
The Secular Caste
Secularism is the default philosophy of the Western bourgeoisie. It favors State over Church and owes a great deal to Epicurianism’s visions of a sophisticated life in a meaningless existence. And it inherited materialist monism the way Christianity inherited Manichaean dualism.
There’s no room for the supernatural in Secularism. Society and the universe are governed by sane and predictable laws. Everything we know and everything we can know is a product of those equations. And we can gain power over individuals, societies, and empires if only we determine the rules that govern them.
Both Secularism and Christianity accept the existence of individual and cultural shortcomings. But instead of looking to souls, Secularists look to outcomes and environments. These provide data points that can be gathered and subjected to sophisticated statistical analysis. They help us set goals and develop programs to maximize individual and group potential.
Secularism lives by and for data. Data is cold and hard and objective. Data is proof. Data is evidence. There’s no need to rely on faith, all you have to do is tally up the numbers for yourself. But as we’ve gained access to ever-increasing download rates, we’ve come to realize how much of our Data is manipulated and scrutinized. And we’ve seen an increasing distrust in our information providers.
These pressures have caused many Secularist believers to double down on the PMC’s ruling social mores. During the COVID crisis Secularists not only masked up enthusiastically and advertised their inoculation status. They supported various sanctions against anti-vaxxers and cheered anti-vaxxer deaths. For Secularists Data outweighs not only religious superstitions but also constitutional issues.
Secularism has also spawned child prophets like Greta Thunberg and Doomsday cults like Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil. The sensitive have always seen skulls beneath the skin and the clever have always exploited fervor for profit. The data that lets you plot social trends also lets PR teams craft effective campaigns. But even those who reject the Gods can’t deny the power of the religious impulse.
Today we are seeing declines throughout the professional-managerial class. Young academics work longer hours for less pay and no hope of tenure. We have one of the greatest destabilizing forces that can befall a civilization. We have an excess of unemployed clerks, petty nobles, and minor aristocrats. And they will be looking for a new faith as the old world crumbles and the old ways die.