Sins of Omission

Catholic theologian and former priest Paul Collins, as every one who has previewed this book has recognized, has a tough job. After saying flat-footedly that “those of us born after World War II will be among the most despised and cursed generations in the whole history of humankind,” it behooves him to say both why this is so and what we can do about it. (Judgment Day, University of New South Wales Press, 291pp, $34.95)

Ecotheology has been around for more than a generation and its themes have become stereotyped. They depend on a particular reading of the creation myth of Genesis that understands mankind as being placed in a stewardly or custodial rather than a dominant position towards nature. It was given to us in perfect condition: we messed it up.

Using myths in this way is perfectly permissible as far as I am concerned, as long as we understand that the Genesis story doesn’t actually teach us anything you can take to the bank or use in constructing environmental policy. According to Genesis 1.26-32, God is quite emphatic to Adam about fertility, productivity, and “dominion” over the earth. –A whole school of theology has taken its name from verse 28, which sees this dominion or authority extending beyond the natural world to politics and society. Whether out or not, most conservative Christians, especially the Tea Party variety, espouse some form of dominionism. Their numbers will grow in the wake of the American congressional elections of 2010.

According to a different account of creation in Genesis 2.15ff., Adam was created as a live-in caretaker of the Garden God had planted for his own pleasure and relaxation. He likes to stroll there in the cool of the morning (Gen. 3.8) and can be heard humming. Adam’s benefits (in kind) include free use of the property except for the tree of life (2.9) and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil–two trees whose magical fruit mythically explain God’s moral powers and longevity to the Hebrew writers who tell the story. And just to mention it, the story is not entirely consistent. Adam’s job description is that of an unskilled labourer, in or out of the garden. His punishment for being a bad caretaker (what if some other god or a mere mortal got hold of the fruit?) is just to transfer him to Arkansas with a shovel and a scolding. His status remains unchanged. The real estate changes.

Scholars see the second creation story as an etiology, a story told to explain not just the origins of agriculture and “sedentary” (non-nomadic) existence, but of the tribulations of crop failure and lack of irrigation. Things were much better back in Babylon, even Egypt-land according to Genesis 12.10ff; not so good in Canaan.

Paul Collins is deeply sensitive to his own better lights in seeing the biblical story, and the traditions it spawns, as a kind of “creation theology.” After all, didn’t God say that what he had created was good, and aren’t we the ones who have made it bad? What Collins especially dislikes is “development”, a trend he sees extending from ancient China in the east and Sumer in Mesopotamia (close to the mise en scene for Genesis 2) when the human race became “irrigation crazy.” And for Collins, irrigation is just the most primitive form of technological and industrial development.

It’s no good saying that at any stage along the way we have ever given a thought to the environment: not in the Middle Ages when the vastness of the earth was being intuited; not in the Age of Discovery, when greed for gold and possessions ruled the heart and inspired armies; not in the Renaissance when our planetary smallness became obvious, nor in the industrial era, nor in the nuclear age, and not nearly enough today. The term biocide did not exist before the twentieth century, but religion (not only Christianity) has been one of the great facilitators of killing the planet in the Name of its creator.

Is material development moral? Should leases be given to BP and other “oil giants” for deep water drilling, after the Deep Water Horizon catastrophe in which–it becomes increasingly clear–human greed and shortcutting and not merely human error played a significant role. How do you go about convincing a fickle electorate that the sin-deaf political party that gave us Dick Cheney (who gave us the vamped up Halliburton behemoth that gave us the cement that led to the rig that Jack built exploding in Jack’s face) should not be returned to power, just when we are becoming aware of the price the earth has had to pay for bleeding so much oil for so long, for so much money?

Collins’s thesis is that everyone should be indignant, but Christians (he thinks) especially so, because they have a mechanism for dealing with what’s going on. It is called sin. And sin is what God looks at, according to traditional theology, when he judges the world–and what we have done with the world.

Because we are both selfish and fickle, but don’t regard selfishness as particularly sinful, it is easy to think of sin as an equivalence-game–to focus on other people’s trespasses compared to our own meager wrongdoing and lapses. Who me? No, that’s you, not me. Better yet, it’s him, not us.

The planet is a very big thing. BP is a very big thing. But private sinners are something you can get your head around–or at least your nose into their business. It is why we love reality TV, Desperate Housewives, Jersey Shore, the Kardashians. They have the courage to be so much more sinful than we have the time or money to be, brave enough to make their private sins public so that we can enjoy them with tortilla chips and beer. Thievery, murder, backbiting, bare-faced lying, serial adultery–the “individual sins” that Protestants are grateful Jesus paid the price for (it saves us so much work), and Catholics can reference on mental index cards during their infrequent confessions–enumerated, of course–are hugely entertaining. Add to these hatefulness and attitude. It is difficult to judge what we have come to love, or the things that have seduced us, as Augustine once sighed reflecting on a boyhood theft at the age of sixteen: “It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own undoing. I loved my error — not that for which I erred but the error itself” (Conf. 2,5)

But the thrill of other people’s sins, and the voyeuristic mind-set that ensures its success as entertainment, is really not what sin is about. Collins is deeply sensitive to the way in which the Church has trivialized and individualized sin. Christian teaching is that the world itself is under judgment. We are under judgment for how we treat it–world both in the metaphysical sense (“world, flesh, devil”–delight) and in the physical way–its beauty and bounty. Sin is not just who you’ve slept with, you bad boy, or lied about not sleeping with, you clever dog, but lying to yourself for your own irresponsibility for the social, political and corporate sins you conveniently overlook. All sin in encapsulated in crimes against the idea of “world.”

It is difficult for the modern believer to vindicate God’s destruction of the “world” by flood “in the time of Noah,” except for this: it never really happened, and the story is told —de pilo pendet–to show that creation hangs on God’s favor, a grace that mankind has abused recklessly through that most biblical of words, “wrongdoing.” No one would argue with the story if, for God, we substituted the word “Planet” and saw the catastrophe as the consequence of inaction, greed, and stupidity. Only the most obtuse literalist can take exception to the need for stern correction of a race that has fallen miserably short, like the mythical Adam, of the role creation requires of it.

Once upon a time, there was a healthy sense of this: In Paul’s declaration that “The good I would do I do not and the evil I would not do, I do.” And in Cranmer’s eloquent rendering of the sentiment in the Book of Common Prayer, turning it into a general confession of responsibility:

“Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep,: we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, we have left undone those things which we ought to have done and have done those things which we ought to have done.”


Or in the Catholic church’s ancient catechism,
“…quia peccavi nimis cogitatione, verbo, opere, et omissióne — “in thought word, deed, and omission.” Or in Martin Luther King’s aphorism, that “In the end we will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

The numerical approach to sin favored by conservative Christians and dominionists will always be at odds with the social construct, the idea of a world under judgement for social failures and private indifference, especially when verses such as Genesis 1.28 can be used as an entitlement to wear and tear–drill, pollute, waste and wreck, or Adam’s punishment can be interpreted as an argument for better tractors and antiperspirants. “Development” is no more a neutral word than the word “weapon,” which forces to our consciousness the correlation between a greedy man and a murderer.

It is a tribute to the stupidity of Adam’s children that we can wring our hands over whether we are passing a trillion (three trillion, six trillion?) dollar debt to our grandchildren, but not worry too much about clear lakes, blue skies and green pastures. As Collins recognizes, generations of Christians (including a great many in the “dark ages”) used these very symbols as a cipher of God’s grace, beauty and bounty. Many of the Psalms could not have been written without a sense of the transcendental power of God in nature.

“… Sing praises to our God on the lyre, Who covers the heavens with clouds, Who provides rain for the earth, Who makes the grasses grow on the mountains, who gives the beast its food, and food to the young ravens which cry…. He makes peace in your borders; He satisfies you with the finest of the wheat.”

No one needs to believe in this sentiment descriptively, or in this God prescriptively. But it seems to me, the image of a God who provides for and cares about the world is at least as important as the image of a God who cares about stealing, adultery, how you feel about your neighbor’s wife. Or oxen. As the Church’s attention to sin has now shrunk to focus almost entirely on the uterus, the social, political, and environmental sins against the world receive proportionally less attention. Conservative Christians who believe in the “uterine sins” but cannot turn their attention to the skies, the air, the melting glacial fields, the rapid spread of ignorance and poverty by irresponsible parenting really need to have their baptismal certificates revoked. The only problem is, the Church condones and encourages their ignorance. It tells them to be good Christians by not having sex, or being very careful when they do. When this does not work–in Uganda or Bangladesh or Wasilla, Alaska, it is–reproachably–attributed to the will of God. And yet no one keeps track of how many deaths the culture of life evinces through poverty, disease, starvation, ignorance. The Catholic Church and missionary protestantism do not answer the door when the collection agent presents the bill for the culture of life.

The biblical writers made a close association between sin and destruction. A tormented first-century writer, Paul of Tarsus, sees the whole world order “passing away” as the eschatological reality of his time. It’s corrupt like an apple is rotten: to the core. There is nothing permanent about it.

The literature of judgement–called apocalyptic–can be amazingly detailed about how uncreation will work at the time of judgement; the images range from stars losing their place in the sky to mountains crumbling and seas overflowing the boundaries that were set for them in the beginning, a dizzying succession of events that resembles a super-fast rewind of creation saga. Instead of births, there will be miscarriages–because there will be nothing left to take care of. We will have become unnecessary. The world will end, but badly.

The apocalyptic vision, all of it frantic and fanciful of course, continues to fascinate the most literal believers because of this grotesque detail. They see themselves being scooped up to heaven with the angels because they were, after all, better than the desperate housewives and avoided the fleshpots of Reno. But for the creators of the genre, and the Christian copycats who followed them, it was all about sin and judgement. The world had got very bad. People had lost focus. The Law was being forgotten. The prophets had stopped prophesying, their work done. The unjust triumphed over the oppressed and the weak. Politics then as now, was rough, raw, corrupt, and open to the highest bidder. Eden’s apple lay rotten on the ground as a token of what cost our ancestor his job: abject failure to tend the garden. “Let thy Kingdom come” is a perfectly rational prayer under the circumstances.

It did not come. Jesus did not come. Salvation of the sort expected anyway–the incursion of a divine power from above–did not come. As Loisy once said the Church came instead. But what Christianity in the widest sense did possess is an ongoing sense of judgment and accountability.

It has not solved the problem of the cheap-grace Christian who is still obsessed with the uterine sins and calls herself “pro-life.” The church is now, and has been for a long time, in the reflexive mode of taking counter-cultural positions that it deems unpopular and therefore correct. It has pronounced secular culture evil and knows that other voices are competing for listeners. But in focusing on the “uterine sins,” it has lost track of the larger idea of sin and salvation and traded the chance to be a truly prophetic voice for the far easier task of singing the song it has always sung.

But secularists should take no comfort in the Church’s failure and shortsightedness. A consciousness of judgement, something equating to the ancient religious vision, might be necessary in assessing what anthropologist Thomas Berry calls “our inability to deal with the devastation of our planet.” Ironically, this failure of cognizance and will comes at a time when we know more than we have ever known about our wasteful and wanton habits, the effects of millennia of predation on the earth’s goodness and bounty.

It may be difficult to fathom, knowing what we know about the dangers of overpopulation, starvation, disease and poverty, why conservative religion’s remedy for this failure is to preach against birth control and family planning. But but is also difficult to know what the secular-moral alternative is. In a review of Collins’s book by John Birmingham, published in The Australian for October 9th, 2010, the following paraphrase struck me as significant:

Secular humanism and rationalism, which led us to the edge of destruction, offer little in comparison because, having driven God from our moral discourse, that discourse has become difficult in secular democracy, which has ‘neither the ethical apparatus nor the rhetoric necessary for it’.”

Is it the case that there are no good naturalistic arguments against raping the planet for fun and profit? Or, if it is too easy to say “Don’t be silly” to that question, is it the case that the dual role of applied science in the contemporary period has been contradictory and conflictual, especially for those of us who are not scientists but reap its benefits every day: to guarantee our pleasure, our longevity, our convenience and comfort by extending the outreach of technology, while pausing occasionally to warn us that the reach cannot be extended indefinitely. The warnings are not usually framed as moral caveats. They seldom involve the idea of “judgment”; they are framed as arguments about non-renewable energy resources and diminishing capacity. They are arguments for greater ingenuity and more development.

Drill, Baby, drill!

I do not see a consistent ethic of responsibility on the secular side. And like Collins, I find the vocabulary so far developed to be vacuous and uncompelling. It lacks what philosophers might once have called a “telic focus”: we need to know why oiled pelicans off the coast of Louisiana are an evil. We need to know why it is ever so much worse to pass on black rain and unbreathable air to our descendants than a trillion dollar deficit. We need to to know that in some way we are judged, not just that we need to be careful when we buy our next car.

sins of the flesh

Science as a facilitator of human pleasure, the life span, the ethics of convenience, can issue perfectly sane warnings about this urgent state of affairs–much as the ancient apocalyptic writers once made promises of judgment to overreaching kings and idolaters. But now, as then, consequences postponed do not constitute effects. Long range predictions are not threats. They are merely mystifying to most people in a distractable age. The delay between an eternal God’s anger and his punishment for wickedness extends back three millennia and promises to reach into futures we cannot imagine, because it will never take place in history and time. Our situation with respect to judgement for sins against Nature is more dire because there is no God to save us and no God to judge us. Scholars have found that the favourite prayer added to the numerous litanies developed during the Black Death in Europe was a a modified version of the ancient prayer, “Agnus Dei“: “Lamb of God who takest away the sins of the world, spare us O Lord.” But we have to help ourselves.

The consequences that science envisions are real enough. And without the moral equivalent of God, we need to develop ways and words to make the consequences and the judgement of our own irresponsibility plain and real: a people guilty of lethargy, hardheartedness and inaction–the sins of omission, a world under the judgment of universal conscience, a betrayal of the knowledge we might possess, and do possess, shoved to the margins of our collective vision.

5 thoughts on “Sins of Omission

  1. Wonderful analysis of creation myths, and such an ironically tragic review. This is so relevant in the dawn of this coming week – from the rather bizarre Rally to Restore Sanity drawing hundreds of thousands of people across America today, to Halloween, Guy Fawkes and the depressing and moronic options in the American upcoming elections. John Birmingham’s “Australian” article was very good too. Secular humanism and rationalism fail to provide solutions, and neither do Tea Party religious politics. They fail to provide anything like the approach to the four Christian cardinal virtues of prudence, fortitude, temperance and justice as reflected perhaps in the ponderings of Christians like St Francis of Assisi or Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, that Collins locates as the basis for a system of ethics by which we might remake our relationship with creation. But basically neither religion nor humanism have anything in place to save us from ourselves. As the poet Leonard Cohen sings, “Everybody knows that the dice are loaded, everybody rolls with their fingers crossed, everybody knows… the poor stay poor, the rich get rich, that’s how it goes, everybody knows, everybody knows that the boat is leaking… Everybody talking to their pockets, everybody wants a box of chocolates, and a long stem rose, everybody knows… Oh everybody knows, everybody knows
    That’s how it goes, everybody knows…’


    • Steph,
      Your comments on the “dawn of the coming week” – the Tea Party, etc.: “They fail to provide anything like the approach to the four Christian virtures of prudence, fortitude, temperance and justice as reflected perhaps in the ponderings of Christians like St. Frances of Assisi or Ricne Teilhard De Chardin, that Collins locates as the basis for a system of ethics by which we might remake our relationship with creation”, so overshadows my October 30th comment to Letting Go of Jesus, in the negative reference to differinces in senseablilties, that I want to withdraw it. Your reference to St. Francis opens an entirely positive diaglogue, however puzzled I remain with your assessment of Beginning From Jerusalem. My pace is slow but I still hope to make some advance to knowledge for “that growing number in the modern world who become more devoted to Jesus as they become more alinated to the church or as they have phrased it, between the religion of Jesus and the religion about Jesus.” (Jaroslav Pelikan).

  2. Pingback: Sins of Omission (via The New Oxonian) « The New Oxonian

  3. Nice one. Elegantly written, well illustrated and driven home with just that touch of polemic to bring the subject to life. You warn of an apocalyptic future that is no longer so far off. And you warn that we lack the moral equipment to avert the tragedy.

    All of this is true except the problem might be even larger than you think. As the third world modernizes and industrializes it develops a voracious appetite for our consumer driven life style that already places such a heavy burden on the planet. Add the growing avalanche of third world consumerism to our own unrestrained consumerism and you have the perfect storm of demand that outstrips resource sustainability. We cannot demand, from the comfort of our own excesses, they they show restraint. And if our own moral restraints have evaporated in an era of uncaring secularism, their restraints were destroyed in Maoist excesses.

    No, we created the problem but we may be unable to solve the problem because the third world will emulate our excesses to greater excess and then ignore our concerns as selfish attempts to preserve our advantages.

    Is there any answer? Steph perceptively notes ‘the approach to the four Christian cardinal virtues of prudence, fortitude, temperance and justice as reflected perhaps in the ponderings of Christians like St Francis of Assisi or Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, that Collins locates as the basis for a system of ethics by which we might remake our relationship with creation‘.

    A framework of virtue ethics focussed on the Christian cardinal virtues of prudence, fortitude, temperance and justice are indeed the way forward. Unfortunately the dominant ethical framework is a form of moral consequentialism. This self-serving and self-justifying moral framework is what enables our consumer driven excesses. It will not lightly give way to the self-imposed disciplines of virtue ethics.

    Only an apocalypse or inspired leadership will achieve this. Obama is too compromised, the EU is too complacent, the Catholic Church is being marginalized by aggressive secularism, so I am betting on the apocalypse.

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