Thursday, February 14, 2008

Implicit Demands

Or, "Another Criticism of a Christian stance on Sin."

In Slavoj Zizek's narcissistic adventure of a documentary Zizek!, there is a clip of him on the American talkshow Nightline. He's plugging his new book, and offers a glimpse into the spirit of the book.

He brings up two versions of the standard situation of a father telling his son that since it is Sunday, they are going to visit grandmother, a ritual the son finds painfully boring. In the first story, the father is a Stalinist. He is direct and insistent; "you are coming to visit your grandmother; you have no choice." In the second story, the father is more "loving" and "permissive." He says, "Listen, you don't have to visit your grandmother. But she loves you very much, and I know you love her."

So what's the difference? The first father is telling his son what he has to do. The second father is also telling the son what he has to do, but he is tacking on an implicit demand: "you have to enjoy doing this." Surely that is the far more insidious demand; the first father demands an action, the second father demands submission.

I'd wonder if something similar is going on with well meaning Christians and homosexuals. When a Christian tells a homosexual that they may first recieve God's love, and alter their behavior "when the time comes," it's basically saying "change, and enjoy changing."

There's an idea that I think is fairly common in our society: that one's own individual conscience is where one finds their freedom. That in order to be free, you must be able to follow your conscience and do what you believe is right. External rule systems are crushing and totalitarian. I think this maps onto a common articulation of grace and law; grace opens up room for all those things that are "permissible, but not necessarily beneficial" while the law brings impossible demands and so death.

But what if it is the other way around? What if it is individual conscience, and that common articulation of grace, that is in fact the most crushing and totalitarian?

(As an aside, I wouldn't say the type of grace I'm speaking of is the only kind)

What if the infinite demand for perfection does not come from the external law, but is something we internalize, basically saying that we must enjoy trying to fulfill that infinite demand? "God's grace will forgive you. . . (you're a jerk for taking advantage of it, though)" The seemingly gentle and loving offer of permanant support and forgiveness is a sneaky attempt to get someone to enjoy being under the law, or in other words, to get them to internalize the law that brings death.

So when one says to a sinner "recieve God's love and grace, and change when the time is right," doesn't the sentence continue silently, ". . . but if you love God, the change will come quickly"? This a far cry from "Go now, and sin no more" which silently continues ". . . because if you do, I'll kick your ass."


David Grant said...

Do you have a working definition of sin?

Mike said...

From my point of view, Romans 7:7 provides a description of the genesis of sin:

What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, "Do not covet." But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead. Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.

Sin is the underside of the law; the two are bound up together. Like when you tell a kid "Don't eat that cookie!", that statement really functions as "Don't. . . . . EAT THAT COOKIE!" The law creates forbidden fruit, and sin is the enjoyment of that fruit.

David Grant said...

I have no idea what you mean by the law creating forbidden fruit and sin is the enjoyment of it.

Mike said...

Like Romans says, you wouldn't know what sin was without the law. The verse says that sin seizes the opportunity afforded by the law. The law produces ever kind of covetous desire. The causal relationship is pretty clear there.

There's something I haven't bothered to explain in any of my posts on the Law, but I guess I should do so now. When I say "enjoyment," it's meant as a technical term, translated from the French "jouissance." I'm not sure exactly what overtones jouissance carries in day-to-day French usage, but French writers use it with a very sexual connotation. Jouissance is a disruptive, intensive experience, like an orgasm.

The Law (whether the Law of Romans, or the superego in Freud) conditions jouissance - it is normally achieved by some sort of transgression against the law. It disrupts the normal flow of things.

The Law is what first creates the possibility of intense enjoyment by prohibiting certain things. There's a reason the Devil owns all the best music!

To put it in other words, would Adam & Eve have given that tree a second look if God hadn't placed neon lights and huge arrows around it saying "Don't touch!"?

David Grant said...

"To put it in other words, would Adam & Eve have given that tree a second look if God hadn't placed neon lights and huge arrows around it saying "Don't touch!"?"

Don't touch was not the enticement for Adam and Eve. Read the story a little slower and see where the enticement came from.

I think you're looking at sin from a definition that is limited to the word don't.

Mike said...

Don't touch was not the enticement for Adam and Eve. Read the story a little slower and see where the enticement came from.

The involvement of the serpent as third party doesn't really change what I'm saying.

A friend was recently telling me about a book on medieval manners he had read. Apparently, in a certain time and in a certain place, one of the explicit rules of etiquette was "don't shit on the stairs."

Can you imagine a modern contemporary etiquette book including such a rule? It would be ridiculous. No one needs to be told not to do this. Clearly, when that book was written, some people needed to be told not to do this.

The point is, we only have rules against things we want to do. How often have you had to pray against the temptation to go to Darfur and join forces with the folks committing the massacre? I'm guessing that hasn't been an issue for you. You don't need a rule against that.

Temptations and rules go hand in hand. If there had been no rule to violate, Eve would have stared blankly at the serpent during their discussion, and probably would have just jumped to the most obvious response: why on earth is a snake speaking to me?

Also, why would the serpent have wasted his time tempting Eve to do something that God had expressed no disapproval of? Does Satan ever temp you to wear two kinds of stripes? A crime against fashion, perhaps, but not a crime against God.

I think you're looking at sin from a definition that is limited to the word don't.

Saying that sin is the infinite failure to live up to an infinite positive demand for infinite holiness doesn't change what I'm saying.

David Grant said...

I think the issue is much more relational than your applications seem to suggest. Your concern with external morals is still very limiting and rather religious.

I'm thinking of sin more in terms of a violation of our own conscience and/or violating another person.

Adam and Eve chose to hide (deny) relationship from God when they ate. God didn't deny relationship with them because of their eating.

Religion tends to focus on individual behaviour whereas God emphasizes better relationships. ie. Adultery is sin not because of the breaking of a moral taboo(a religious view found in most/all of the great religions) but because it violates a trusting relationship.

This is an often overlooked aspect when speaking about sin from the good versus evil religious mindset. The very thing that God instructed Adam and Eve not to seek after.

His "don't eat" command wasn't some arbitrary boundary to test their allegiance to Him. Even though many religiously minded people interpret this passage this way. It seems that you are in agreement with that interpretive model.

I think arguing about what good and evil was the very thing that God wanted Adam and Eve to avoid.

Mike said...

I'm not sure if you're directly disagreeing with me, in which case we've hit the "agree to disagree" point, or if we're misunderstanding each other.

One's internal conscience is the most oppressive force of all, far more oppressive than any external "religious" system of rules. One can resist the external system, but the internal conscience makes infinite demands that one can never live up to.

I would insist that the command against eating of the tree was arbitrary. A Law that has good, rational, logical reasons behind it is never anything other than a bureaucratic manual for life. Is that what morality is? The ultimate Dilbertean Human Resources department?

David Grant said...

For sure that's the seductive trap of conscience. As long as we live in and under the law we are doomed.

The way out is simply love and trust like a little child. Why don't we accept that? I don't know. Why did Adam hide from God?