Myodicy, Issue 21, June 2004

Sticking Up for Sinners

by Theodore Plantinga

How would you like to be called a scold? If you ever wondered what it would feel like, you might ask William Bennett. Or perhaps Robert Bork. Both of them are derided as "scolds" in a provocative and amusing book by Dan Savage entitled Skipping Toward Gomorrah: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Pursuit of Happiness in America. [NOTE 1]

Savage has a fine sense of humor, but his book is not intended as comedy: he means to make some serious points. In general, he would like to get the scolds off our backs. If we are inclined to indulge in what he calls "sins" (with tongue in cheek), we may then do so without fear of interference, and perhaps even without much in the way of disapproval.

As a Calvinist, I feel challenged by Savage's book, which I nonetheless enjoyed. Calvinists are widely thought to be people who don't have much fun. (I don't believe they deserve this reputation.) They are also thought to be people who, if given the opportunity, will prevent others from having fun. In Savage's terms, then, they make first-rate scolds.

Savage proposes to redress the balance somewhat. He tells us: "No one sticks up for the sinners -- not even the sinners themselves." [NOTE 2] And he takes pride in being reckoned among the sinners. He writes: "The list of sins I haven't committed isn't very long. ... I've burned with lust, eaten myself sick, envied people who are smarter or better looking than I am, and lain around the house watching television when I was supposed to be studying or writing." [NOTE 3]

Savage does not write as a self-conscious philosopher or ethicist, but he clearly stands in the libertarian tradition. He believes that just as the law and government should be kept to an absolute minimum, so that people are free to do whatever they wish unless very strong reasons can be found for forbidding certain forms of activity or preventing them from occurring, so it is in the moral domain. Therefore I should be free to do with my own body what I wish, as long as I'm harming no one else. Declares Savage: "... the law shouldn't be concerned with preventing people from harming themselves. Our bodies and minds and souls are ours, and we should be free to use and abuse and dispose of them as we see fit." [NOTE 4]

As he tours the seven deadly sins, he gently pokes fun of some of the people whose self-indulgence strikes many of us as wrong. He hints that their behavior is often self-defeating and probably injurious to their health, but he maintains that it's their business nevertheless. I would like to be able to applaud his conclusion, and in certain cases I can agree, but I find myself unable to endorse his overall thinking. It's worth reflecting on why one might feel compelled to take issue with Savage.

I have a friend who is an Anglican priest. In that capacity he served for a number of years as a hospital chaplain in a community in which there are quite a number of Dutch Reformed churches, and so he had considerable dealings with Dutch Reformed people. Since I'm also Dutch Reformed in background, he has shared his general impression of such folk with me. Part of his line is that he finds they are very hard on one another. They are most reluctant to give someone else good marks when it comes to morality. And their niggardliness in this regard often leads to hard feelings among them.

From long experience, I have concluded that there is something to what my friend says. And I thought of a puzzling and slightly painful experience of my own that illustrates and underscores the Dutch Reformed tendency to be very stern when it comes to moral appraisal.

The situation was a case of thoughtlessness on my part -- or was it more than thoughtlessness? It was about the second week of a new term and a number of students were talking with me after class, mainly about small things. I was not completely absorbed in any one of them, but then I heard one of them telling me a tale about a death in the family. I said to her: "I didn't know that -- I'm so sorry to hear it." She responded at once with words that stung me, and continue to haunt me to this day: "No, you're not! I told you the very same thing last week!" She had been hurt by how quickly I forgot her tale of woe, and she was right -- but not altogether. The truth of the matter was that I had not actually forgotten it: as soon as she made her comment, I remembered her telling me her sad news once before, and I remembered that I had made some similar response on that occasion.

Clearly I came across to her as an unthinking phony -- and I suppose that's what I was. She took me for a professor who pretends to care about his students but actually gives them very little thought. And now the question I am left with is how this episode should be appraised in moral terms. Sometimes I'm very hard on myself and feel thoroughly ashamed of that occasion -- not just embarrassed. But at other times I think of it as an understandable lapse in the busy life of a teacher. There are so many things and people to remember in those first weeks of the term!

Calvinists are taught to take a stern line with regard to good conduct. The beloved Heidelberg Catechism of the Dutch Reformed churches defines good deeds in an exacting way: "Only those which are done out of true faith, in accordance with the law of God, and to His glory, and not those based on our own opinion or on precepts of men." [NOTE 5]

It is this stern definition that helps to set up the famous problem of common grace in Dutch Reformed circles. If one operates by the Heidelberg Catechism definition alone, very few ostensibly good deeds turn out to be good in any significant sense. And so we are left with the impression that one needs a doctrine of common grace to offset the niggardliness implied in the definition of a good deed: because of common grace, many deeds performed by unbelievers can still count as good and as somehow inspired by God. But of course Herman Hoeksema steps forward with his objections and proceeds to deny common grace altogether. [NOTE 6]

Dutch Reformed people also have inclinations in the Kantian direction. One of Kant's most famous ethical pronouncements is that the only thing that can be called good "without qualification" is a "good will." [NOTE 7] Seemingly good deeds that are performed routinely, out of habit, once one's character has developed and matured, in a manner that both Aristotle and Confucius would smile on, cannot really be called good. It seems that for Kant there must be a struggle between duty and inclination. The upshot is that very little gets to be considered good without qualification. And so we wind up being rather uncharitable in our moral appraisal of one another.

And then there's the problem of Psalm 51. A text which echoes in my head, even though I do not claim to understand it properly, is verse 4: "Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in thy sight ...." Here one gets the impression that every transgression, however minor, is a direct affront to God. If so, God cannot be like the kindly grandfather who chuckles quietly as he watches the generation below him dealing sternly with the amusing misconduct of their children. Many of us are inclined to think -- or perhaps only hope -- that there are many technical transgressions of this or that law or rule that God does not take all that seriously. In other words, we would like to believe that God is more like the kindly grandfather than like the young father who is still out to earn his spurs in the parenting department.

In the light of these considerations, which crystallized in my mind in response to Savage's book, I am minded to offer a somewhat different approach to the question of moral appraisal. I would like to begin by stating that not all sins and transgressions are equally weighty. The fact that our tradition recoils at the very thought of blasphemy and -- even more so -- of the dreaded "sin against the Holy Spirit" already indicates that there are more and less significant transgressions, even though some Christians seem to think that all transgressions must be placed on the same level.

But many of our transgressions are of an inadvertent nature and may result from a lack of will or of discipline. One of my strong childhood memories is a prayer that my father used to pray at the table in Dutch, in which he confessed sins on behalf of those he was leading in prayer. And so, speaking to God for all of us, he begged forgiveness for our having done certain things that we should not have done, but then he went on to mention that we have neglected to do that which we ought to have done. That prayer was effective -- at least, it made quite an impression on me and led me to think. There are indeed many things we should have done, promises we should have kept, even if they were made too lightly. We need to acknowledge such failings as transgressions. We have often referred to them as "sins of omission," which we then contrast with "sins of "commission." Some of us even seem to believe that both categories are equally serious. I would like to plead for a more nuanced approach to moral appraisal, so that we could admit on the one hand that various sins of omission need to be recognized as sins, while allowing on the other hand that they are not of sufficient gravity to make moral monsters of us. In this regard, I propose to join Savage in "sticking up for sinners."

In the same spirit of becoming more nuanced, I would like to suggest that what is wrong with much of our conduct is that we go about things in a half-hearted way, whereas we should be putting our whole heart and soul into what we are doing. I have written about some dimensions of this problem in an essay entitled "Half-Hearted Thanksgiving," which was posted in an earlier issue of Myodicy. This problem applies especially to situations in which love is called for. On the one hand, it is hard to imagine loving behavior that is half-hearted; it almost seems a contradiction in terms. And yet we know from relationships such as marriage that love sometimes does cool off. And in the third chapter of the book of Revelation, we encounter the chilling words of Jesus about love that has grown cold when he addresses the church at Laodicea, whose "works" are "neither cold nor hot." Well then, is it a sin not to love one's wife as fervently as before? I suppose one would have to say yes. But it is a somewhat understandable sin. And even the best of marital relationships have their ups and downs in terms of the quality of the love exchanged between husband and wife.

And then there are various sins that have to do with lack of self-discipline. As we grow older, we realize that we cannot take our health for granted. We need to exercise, and we must watch what we eat. But periodically we indulge ourselves and ignore our exercise regimen. Then we chastise ourselves and sometimes make small jokes with others about how we have fallen off the wagon, so to speak. Have we sinned? I suppose any abuse of our health, which is a good gift of God, counts as a sin of some sort, but with my Anglican friend I would be inclined not to judge such people too harshly. Thereby I am also sparing myself, for I struggle in this area too. To lead a truly disciplined life and never let down one's guard, so to speak, is not possible for all of us. Because I was married for many years to a woman with a chronic health condition, who had no choice but to take heavy medications, I know from close up just how difficult it can be to do one's very best each and every day. And as I look back on her life (she died three years ago), I wish I had been more generous in my moral appraisal of her.

I suspect that Dan Savage, who does not claim to be a Christian, would be unimpressed by the reasoning I have offered. His libertarian proclivities leave him defending the right of each adult to neglect his own health and to engage in any sort of conduct that might appeal to him, even if others find it peculiar and claim to be offended by it. Libertarians maintain that what others do is none of my business and vice versa.

In Christian terms I must therefore ask an obvious question, through which I am alluding to an ominous chapter in the Bible: Am I my brother's keeper? Whereas Cain asked this rhetorical question to indicate that he had no responsibility for how his brother might be faring (see Genesis 4), Christians understand instinctively that in some sense we do indeed take responsibility for our brother. Let's review a few dimensions of the Christian life in which it becomes evident that I must indeed take on the role of my brother's keeper and accept a measure of responsibility for his conduct and even pitch in to clean up the mess he makes.

Since I teach environmental philosophy and therefore must defend the need and usefulness of environmental ethics, I find our common responsibility for the ecosystem that is Planet Earth a fine place to start. When one human being, or a community of them, produces environmental degradation, it is not only their own living circumstance that is endangered but also mine, and potentially that of the entire human race. In anger we might feel inclined to say: "It's their problem and so we'll just let them clean it up." But in a great many cases, such an attitude is not only uncharitable but downright short-sighted. We may well be threatened by environmental dangers that we had no share in producing. Therefore it is in our interest to cooperate with others -- including those whom we regard as the evildoers in the specific situation -- in dealing with the immediate danger. Environmentally speaking, it is very hard to say with a straight face that I am not my brother's keeper. In my judgment, the environmental challenge we now face is an excellent argument against the libertarian political philosophy.

It is also worth noting that what we call insurance is a subtle means of institutionalizing the principle that I share responsibility for problems created by others. I suppose it would be possible to produce a purely practical (or even secular) argument in favor of what we call insurance, but I also find a commendable Christian impulse behind it. I regard insurance as a partial fulfillment of the Biblical injunction "Bear ye one another's burdens" (see Galatians 2:6).

Libertarians who wish to limit government to the bare minimum will probably recognize that there is quite an overlap between the notion of insurance and the notion of government responsibility. By assigning government a more robust role, we are also sharing the burden with others and declaring that we are responsible to some degree for the misfortune and poverty of others. We may all complain about taxes and increases in insurance rates, but we could also change our perspective and come to the realization that it is a privilege to look out for our fellow human beings in such an organized and structured way, thereby helping them carry their burdens.

But if we make a commitment to bail others out when they are in dire distress, it is reasonable that we should have some small say in their conduct. Governments in Canada promise to take care of their citizens when their ill-conceived behavior leads them into serious health problems, rendering them unfit to work and to look after themselves. But no one is surprised when those same governments strongly discourage certain activities that lead to injury or ill health and thereby make public spending necessary to remediate the situation; indeed, some of the activities falling into this category are forbidden, or at least restricted. (Smoking is a current test case.) The libertarians may lament, but I wonder whether even they are genuinely willing to carry their libertarianism to the point of standing by as their fellow human beings writhe in pain or starve to death because of their own stupidity or neglect or moral weakness.

Savage proposes to stick up for sinners, and as I come to the end of this essay I find myself wanting to join him. But I would propose to attach a somewhat different meaning to this phrase than he does. I propose to stick up for sinners in two senses. First of all, I join my Anglican friend in pleading for a little more generosity in our appraisal of the moral conduct of others. Secondly, I propose to stick up for sinners in the sense of supporting governments and insurance schemes that bail people out when they get in into trouble because of their own stupidity or moral laxness. Of course, I must also carry this spirit into my personal life. It's part of the gospel mandate to love our neighbors.

I'm afraid that if we do not stick up for sinners but instead persist in our stern appraisal of the moral weaknesses and transgressions of others, we make of the moral life an impossible ideal. Why even try to be moral? It's obvious that no one can succeed, for the bar is set very, very high. There has only been one sinless human being, and he wound up on the cross.

With William James, I am greatly attracted to meliorism, which is the conviction that small changes and small reforms ultimately do make a significant difference. When it comes to the appraisal of the moral deeds of others, we should not think in black-and-white terms. Every little bit of improvement in the moral domain is to be applauded.

If Savage writes another book and lists more scolds, I should not like to be mentioned among them. To this day we can learn something from Jesus' deep disavowal of the Pharisees in New Testament times, a disavowal that came to expression in words we still find shocking. And remember what he said in the case of the woman caught in the act of adultery. "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." [See John 8:7] Those words are well worth reflecting on today.

But this is not to say that the ideal of the moral life should be cast aside, or that morality is not worth striving after. It is my conviction, as I explained in an essay entitled "Giving God a Helping Hand -- and All the Glory Too," which was posted in Myodicy a while back, that much of what we consider to be the moral life really consists of ideals and mandates which are of such a nature that we are going beyond the call of duty when we rise to the level to which they call us. A certain minimal morality -- avoiding misdeeds that are clearly beyond the pale in terms of the Bible's "Thou shalt nots" -- is expected of all of us. But we would do well to go beyond that minimalist call of duty. There are many different ways to do so, and we cannot pursue all of them, any more than we can emulate a certain character named Lord Ronald in a Stephen Leacock tale who jumped on his horse and galloped off madly in all directions at once. [NOTE 8]

Herein lies a challenge and an opportunity. And so I am convinced that if we stick up for sinners, assuring them that there is forgiveness, and if in addition we help them screw up the courage that will be needed if they are to pursue higher ideals, they may look forward to the day when their Master says to them: "Well done, good and faithful servant" (see Matthew 25). [END]


Published by Dutton of New York in 2002.

Page 14.

Page 25.

Page 13.

Heidelberg Catechism, Answer 91, quoted from the Book of Praise (Winnipeg: Premier Printing, 1987), pp. 512-13.

The rejection of the notion of common grace by Herman Hoeksema (1886-1965) was the central doctrinal point in a Christian Reformed controversy that led to the adoption of the famous "three points" on common grace at the Christian Reformed Synod of 1924 and also resulted in his expulsion from the denomination in a manner that is both controversial much to be regretted. Hoeksema and others who thought along his lines then established a denomination known as the Protestant Reformed Churches.

Opening sentence of the Groundwork, in Philosophy of Kant, ed. Carl J. Friedrich (New York: Modern Library, 1949), p. 140; beginning of the "First Section."

See "Gertude the Governess," in Nonsense Novels (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1963), p. 54.

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