Saturday, October 10, 2009

She Said: Gradations of Sin

OK, I take your point, and I guess I agree that there are no victimless sins. For one, if ransom or substitution atonement theory holds any water, Christ at least had to suffer for my sins, even when they are as benign as staying up late. And secondly, I guess if I am in a bad mood due to my lack of sleep, others must suffer as well. But perhaps I can use this opportunity to talk about gradation of sins.

Calvin argued that all sin is mortal in the sense that it rightly deserves death. Since God commands perfect obedience to the whole law, the slightest misdeed puts us in opposition, and requires the atonement of Christ in order to be overcome. This is the teaching that we hear so often in the Mormon Church, and what, I think, influences Dr. B.'s discomfort in his previous post.

Most rational thinkers, however, realize that some sins are more destructive than others. In the Dante's The Divine Comedy a variety of sinners representing a gradation of sins and punishments are presented as Dante and the spirit of his guide, the classic poet Virgil, travel through the nine circles of Hell. The progression of sins revealed in the Inferno range from the least to the greatest. The lesser sins, which are really sins of omission rather than commission, belong to those spirits who inhabit Limbo, the first circle of Hell. The levels descend with the seriousness of the sin. Self -indulgent sins come next, followed by malicious sins.

The Roman Catholic church divides sin into the categories "venial" (lesser sins that do not concern a grave matter or are committed without full understanding), and "mortal" (which, unless confessed and absolved condemn a person's soul to Hell after death). Protestantism rejects the distinction between mortal and venial sin but affirms the gradation of sin. Levels of sin are also acknowledged in the Judaic tradition and in Islam. The very fact that we believe in degrees of glory in the afterlife should be an indication that Latter-day saint theology also involves the gradation of sin.

But we don't talk very much about this in the Mormon Church. In fact, many of our youth (and even adults) get the idea that a sin is a sin; and that is why you get some who, following a sip of coffee or an alcoholic beverage, think they are going to hell anyway, so why bother trying to keep any of the other commandments.

According to Rabbeinu Yona in the Jewish tradition, it is important to distinguish between gradations of sin for a number of reasons. First, this is necessary in order that the requisite repentance be commensurate with the misdeed. In Mormon terms, since we must confess the sin of adultery to a bishop, need we do the same when we gossip or get a speeding ticket? Second, determining relative importance of different sins is required so that the sense of guilt and shame be of the proper dimensions. How much pain and anguish need we suffer over staying up late at night when there are other, more important issues which might better merit our attention?