r m p







Real Sin


"Then the essence of sin really is…"

"In the taking of heaven by storm, it seems to me,' said Ambrose. 'It appears to me that it is simply an attempt to penetrate into another and higher sphere in a forbidden manner. You can understand why it is so rare. There are few, indeed, who wish to penetrate into other spheres, higher or lower, in ways allowed or forbidden. Men, in the mass, are amply content with life as they find it. Therefore there are few saints, and sinners (in the proper sense) are fewer still, and men of genius, who partake sometimes of each character, are rare also. Yes; on the whole, it is, perhaps, harder to be a great sinner than a great saint."

"There is something profoundly unnatural about sin? Is that what you mean?"

"Exactly. Holiness requires as great, or almost as great, an effort; but holiness works on lines that were natural once; it is an effort to recover the ecstasy that was before the Fall. But sin is an effort to gain the ecstasy and the knowledge that pertain alone to angels, and jn making this effort man becomes a demon. I told you that the mere murderer is not therefore a sinner; that is true, but the sinner is sometimes a murderer. Gilles de Raiz is an instance. So you see that while the good and the evil are unnatural to man as he now is to man the social, civilized being evil is unnatural in a much deeper sense than good. The saint endeavours to recover a gift which he has lost; the sinner tries to obtain something which was never his. In brief, he repeats the Fall."

(Arthur Machen, "The White People")


Real sin consists, then, in taking heaven by storm. Real sin is the mirror image and the first cousin of sanctity. Both are spiritual in nature, neither is fleshly or physical. And both are heroic. Can there be heroes of sin? This is what Machen makes us ask: not villains, of course there are villains of sin. But can there be heroes of sin?

We might think of Milton's Satan, the ultimate Invictus, the captain of his soul. That he is, even though he ends in Hell. True, God has closed the best harbors to him, but he sails where he will, his craft a barge on the sulphur lake. In him the modern redefinition of Hell, proposed by C.S. Lewis, makes some sense, and I think it is the only case in which it does: Hell is the rewarding, the granting, of the desire of the Godless to be without God. Where is the torment in that? The common profane man, the muddled hedonist, the irreligious and unthinking, does not care one whit about the fellowship of God --and thus will not miss it!

But the Miltonic Satan, the Great Satan, suffers for lack of God. Not that he wants to be with God, no he wants to be God, nay, feels that he is. And what torments him is the tragedy, the injustice of the world in which he is not the deity.

What of the hero of faith? Is he the opposite? And can we think of an example? I wonder if the essence of faith is receptivity, and gladful acknowledgement of receptivity, gratitude for grace? If so, then I fear there can be no heroes of faith. For heroism is self-exalting. It must be, since it is a bringing to bear the reserves of one's own force. It is works, not faith. The hero, as the ancient Greeks knew, was a rival of God or at least a lesser colleague of God! A Demigod! And then we are back to Satan!

But perhaps there is an available prototype for the faith-hero. I think perhaps the fanatic Kierkegaard has provided him. Kierkegaard wrote of the Knight of Faith, a friend of God who, at his friend's bidding, goes questing into a howling wilderness, a chartless waste, where as much as one might desire the pointing waymarkers of conventional morality and belief, one lacks them. This is the path that mystics and pioneer thinkers tread, often unable to gain a straight course. Kierkegaard's Knight was the patriarch Abraham, whom God had summoned to offer his son as a sacrifice. But how could God summon a man so to smash the tablets of the divine laws? 

Kierkegaard saw the dangerous vision of the truth: that the Word of Truth is a living word. The moment we stop our ears against its frightful voice in the name of some comforting truth enshrined from the past, we have made an idol of the old truth, and worse yet, a club with which to bludgeon the new truth to death. Old truth that bids us ignore new truth has forfeited its identity as the truth and to cover up this fact it hurls the epithet Sinner! Rebel! against the heretic, the heeder of new truth. And thus it happens that Kierkegaard's Knight of Faith wears the prophetic mantle of Machen's real sinner. They are one and the same.

Let me put it another way: the saint is the one who does the terribly difficult thing of climbing the ladder of spiritual ascent, a ladder that is coated with the venerable gold of the religious tradition. All will praise him if he makes it to the top. And he will deserve the praise! It is a feat few achieve, and not to be despised! Certainly I do not speak ill of it.

The knight of faith, the real sinner, is climbing, too, only he is climbing up a Babel tower of his own building. He is seeking unauthorized access to heaven. He wants to know, like Faust, like Prometheus (who are his only Gods) what secrets they are that Jehovah so jealously guards. In plain terms, he wants to know the truth that orthodoxy is afraid to know, for which it can make no room on its narrow shelf of holy and well-worn relics.

The saint takes a spiritual journey along the path prescribed and well-beaten with holy footprints. He uses the conventional doctrines and symbols to their best advantage. But the sinner, the real sinner, dares to question and even to reject those forms and names and paths. If he can leap high and far enough, he will even get, for a moment, beyond all our sheltering religious systems, all our inherited philosophies and worldviews, and he will reach the Void of outer space: the bare Suchness which no doctrine can contain and which mandates no doctrine. The Nihil, the Nothing.

And in that moment he will know that there can be no God to delineate truth and reality for him. That even God's word is God's opinion, and he himself can speak into being his own meaning, as God did in the dawn of all things. It is an airless heaven he has reached for a moment, but one where the stars shine all the brighter for it. He will return to earth, to walk among the familiar landmarks and familiar faces, but no longer familiar to himself. The Eden of simplicity and convention and assumption is forever barred for him, though all about still sport blissfully within. They may see him as trapped in Hell, like Milton's Satan, but he would rather rule it than be a docile slave in heaven.





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