"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
"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
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.