Habit, Character, and Stains on the Soul

October 14, 2007    By: Jacob J @ 11:32 am   Category: Atonement & Soteriology

In his Principles of Psychology, William James has a chapter exploring the nature of habits.

Point One: Habits are physical. If a substance can be shaped or manipulated and then hold its new configuration, it is capable of developing a habit. For example, “everyone knows how a garment, after having been worn a certain time, clings to the shape of the body better than when it was new; there has been a change in the tissue, and this change is a new habit.” Similarly, “when a bar of iron becomes magnetic or crystalline through the action of certain outward causes” it has developed a habit. The structure of these materials resists change, which is why the developement of a habit takes time. However, “when the structure has yielded, the same inertia becomes a condition of its comparative permanence in the new form.”

Applying this to humans, we find that the nervous system and more especially the brain are capable of acquiring habits. In fact, we understand how the brain develops habits much better now than when James was alive. Every time we act we either create new pathways or strengthen existing ones in the brain. James summarizes his first proposition: “the phenomena of habit in living beings are due to the plasticity of the organic materials of which their bodies are composed” (emphasis in original).

Point Two:Habit diminishes the conscious attention with which our acts are performed” (emphasis in original). He states this so beautifully I must quote him at length.

If an act require for its execution a chain, A, B, C, D, E, F, G, etc., of successive nervous events, then in the first performances of the action the conscious will must choose each of these events from a number of wrong alternatives that tend to present themselves; but habit soon brings it about that each event calls up its own appropriate successor without any alternative offering itself, and without any reference to the conscious will, until at last the whole chain, A, B, C, D, E, F, G, rattles itself off as soon as A occurs, just as if A and the rest of the chain were fused into a continuous stream. When we are learning to walk, to ride, to swim, skate, fence, write, play, or sing, we interrupt ourselves at every step by unnecessary movements and false notes. When we are proficients, on the contrary, the results not only follow with the very minimum of muscular action requisite to bring them forth, they also follow from a single instantaneous ‘cue.’ The marksman sees the bird, and, before he knows it, he has aimed and shot. A gleam in his adversary’s eye, a momentary pressure from his rapier, and the fencer finds that he has instantly made the right parry and return. A glance at the musical hieroglyphics, and the pianist’s fingers have ripped through a cataract of notes. And not only is it the right thing at the right time that we thus involuntarily do, but the wrong thing also, if it be an habitual [p.115] thing. Who is there that has never wound up his watch on taking off his waistcoat in the daytime, or taken his latchkey out on arriving at the door-step of a friend? Very absent-minded persons in going to their bedroom to dress for dinner have been known to take off one garment after another and finally to get into bed, merely because that was the habitual issue of the first few movements when performed at a later hour. …We all of us have a definite routine manner of performing certain daily offices connected with the toilet, with the opening and shutting of familiar cupboards, and the like. Our lower centres know the order of these movements, and show their knowledge by their ‘surprise’ if the objects are altered so as to oblige the movement to be made in a different way. But our higher thought-centres know hardly anything about the matter. Few men can tell off-hand which sock, shoe, or trousers-leg they put on first. They must first mentally rehearse the act; and even that is often insufficient – the act must be performed. So of the questions, Which valve of my double door opens first? Which way does my door swing? etc. I cannot tell the answer; yet my hand never makes a mistake.

Just this week I was pulled over on my way to work. The first thing I remember is that I saw lights behind me so I signaled and pulled to the side of the road. The lights followed me. As the police officer approached, I tried to think what I might have done, but I could remember nothing. As often happens to me, I was pondering something and had no conscious memory of my trip thus far. Luckily, the officer described what I had done (failure to signal and then changing to quickly into the far lane). I tried to remember doing that. Nothing. It sounds like something I would do, but I had no memory of it. What we have done a thousand times eventually takes so little attention that we can perform it without almost no use of our conscious mind. Habit allows us to do subconsciously what we originally needed all our conscious attention to master (to which anyone who has tried to teach a teenager to drive can attest).

Point Three: What we call “character” is in large measure a collection of our habits. Not everything we do is according to our character, after all, we speak of people doing something which is “out of character” for them. However, character refers to all of the ways we usually act. It is an aggregate of all our habits. His closing paragraph is, again, so brilliantly stated that it must be quoted directly:

The physiological study of mental conditions is thus the most powerful ally of hortatory ethics. The hell to be endured hereafter, of which theology tells, is no worse than the hell we make for ourselves in this world by habitually fashioning our characters in the wrong way. Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state. We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone. Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never so little scar. The drunken Rip Van Winkle, in Jefferson’s play, excuses himself for every fresh dereliction by saying, ‘I won’t count this time!’ Well! he may not count it, and a kind Heaven may not count it; but it is being counted none the less. Down among his nerve-cells and fibres the molecules are counting it, registering and storing it up to be used against him when the next temptation comes. Nothing we ever do is, in strict scientific literalness, wiped out. Of course, this has its good side as well as its bad one. As we become permanent drunkards by so many separate drinks, so we become saints in the moral, and authorities and experts in the practical and scientific spheres, by so many separate acts and hours of work.

We have now touched briefly on Habits and Character, so we can mention Stains upon the soul. The brief exchange I had with britain a few days ago reminded me of my first conversation with BiV over a year ago. In both, we discussed the nature of the “stain” left by sin. We become so accustomed to talking about this through analogy that we forget the stain is not literal (we have not spilled grape juice on our souls). Rather, the stain seems to me to be explained in terms of habit and character. William James describes the stain of sin in that last quote. Every “fresh dereliction” is not “counted” in a bookkeeping sense. It is counted down among our nerve-cells. The stain of sin is left upon our character in that we literally become what we do. Our sins are captured in our habits and our character. Christ wipes away our sins by sanctifying us. That is, Christ helps us overcome our sinful natures until we are holy. Becoming holy (which we do by denying ourselves of all ungodliness, vs. 32) is what it means to be “without spot”:

And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot. (Moroni 10:33).

[Associated radio blog song: Operation Ivy: Healthy Body]

69 Comments »

  1. As always, I have enjoyed reading the discussions on atonement this week. It continues to intrigue me that none of us can come up with the quintessential explanation of atonement that will satisfy all of the problems.

    In this post, and in Matt’s post last Sunday, we read more analogies attempting to describe how the atonement works. Jacob says,

    We become so accustomed to talking about this through analogy that we forget the stain is not literal (we have not spilled grape juice on our soul).

    I think it’s fascinating that I find it nearly impossible to discuss this subject without resorting to analogy! And it seems I’m not alone. So bear with me, OK? Although I find much in your thoughts to commend them, Jacob, I still (after more than a year!) have not been able to give up the idea that there is some stain or spot or hole that must be washed away/cleansed/healed by the atonement. In addition to the above-mentioned sanctification and “becoming,” there is a remission of sins which to me refers back to previously committed sins which cannot simply be ignored now that the penitent has developed perfection of character.

    Unfortunately, I am no better able to defend my position than I was a year ago. Sigh.

    Jacob, do you agree that the way atonement is taught currently in Church settings aligns more closely with the “stain which must be cleansed” analogy? Now that I’m acquainted with your POV, I can see how many scriptures can be interpreted either way, but I’m still more comfortable with my reading. You use James’ closing paragraph to bolster your view, yet even he admits “Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never so little scar.”

    Comment by Behind the Infamous Veil (BiV) — October 14, 2007 @ 1:25 pm

  2. BiV,

    As always, great to hear from you.

    do you agree that the way atonement is taught currently in Church settings aligns more closely with the “stain which must be cleansed” analogy?

    I agree. I think the problem of mistaking this analogy for a literal description is widespread (in Christianity, not just in the LDS Church) and is the souce of a lot of confusion.

    James’ “never so little scar” left by sin is a reference to the impact that sin has on our characters. That is the entirely clear from the context of his statement. I think the analogy of sin as a stain is a good one, so long as we remember it is an analogy. Calling it a “scar” is just another (nearly identical) analogy expressing the same idea. I think James unpacks the analogy correctly.

    I still (after more than a year!) have not been able to give up the idea that there is some stain or spot or hole that must be washed away/cleansed/healed by the atonement.

    I know you said you are not prepared to defend your position, but let me ask my question anyway. Maybe you are more prepared than you think, or maybe someone else will want to step up to the plate.

    A stain is a mark which is difficult (but not impossible) to remove. What sort of mark can be left on our souls that is not the kind I am discussing in the post? If it is not a mark, the only other thing I can think of is that stain could refer to the fact that God remembers the sin and requires something specific to offset each individual sin (more like a mark on God’s naughty/nice tally sheet than a mark on our souls). But, what else could God require apart from us forsaking our sins? Is there another option, or can someone explain to me why one of those options makes sense?

    Comment by Jacob J — October 14, 2007 @ 5:53 pm

  3. I enjoyed this post and I think it makes a lot of sense. I’ve never thought of the stain in that way.

    However, I think I agree with BiV that there does seem to be something more to the stain. If the stain is only a mark left in our nerves–a formed (or in the process of forming) habit that reflects negatively on our character, then it is possible, even if difficult, to remove it ourselves, without Christ. If I have a deaply-set habit that I want to change, I can change it with enough commitment and willpower. However, from my understanding of the scriptures this is not enough to remove the stain. Just changing our habits would mean nothing if it weren’t for the power of the atonement to de-stain us from the sin we committed.

    If I commit adultery, and then afterward say, “That was stupid and wrong, I’ll never do that again” and thereafter live faithfully from that point. Is my stain removed? Not until I fully repent, including confessing and asking forgiveness, can the atonement be applied.

    I don’t claim to be your intellectual or spiritual equal, so forgive me if I’ve missed something basic.

    Comment by Mike the Horebite — October 14, 2007 @ 6:16 pm

  4. Jacob, I doubt that you will find anyone who will disagree with the idea that your character is derived from your habits, so I will address the question of “what is the stain of sin?”, which is surprising since I was just speaking about this very thing with my mom last night.

    President Kimball pointed out that sin comes “from deep and unmet needs on the part of the sinner.” I believe that orneriness and misanthropic behavior are not our innate ways of relating to others, rather they are the results of bad habits which originated in attempts to protect our fragile hearts from the injuries we have received in the past. Bad habits are formed by our attempts to meet our needs in a self-defeating way. However, what I need more than to protect my own heart is justification for my ongoing mistreatment of others (thank you Terry Warner); I need to feel that Justice is on my side.

    I looked yesterday at LDS.org to see if there were any uses of the word sin and pay (payment, paid, etc.) in the scriptures; and there aren’t any that relate to the atonement. I think so often that we have thought about sin as a debt to Justice that we have misconstrued what the atonement is about. What sin does is destroy relationships; that is it! The atonement heals relationships, especially with those that have hurt me and eventually for those I have hurt; not to mention my relationship with God. There is no pain in the past, only my memory of having felt pain in the past or me presently feeling pain in the present. When Christ removes the pain from those I have injured, I will no longer have a sense of debt to those individuals for my mistreatment of them, since they will no longer feel the pain in their “then present” (which will likely be completed in a post mortal world).

    My point in this is that I assert that there is no “stain of sin” in the traditional sense (a debt to some impersonal “Justice” leaving its mark of “unworthy” on our soul), rather only relationships that are at various levels of trust and love, for which I feel a sense of obligation. In this sense I agree with William James that there are no insignificant or private sins, in that my sins are what keep me from becoming fully engaged in the humanity of others. Habits to me represent the very deepest sense of how we see others and respond to their needs. The fruit of sin is not registered on some tally, but rather in my very habits, my entire way of being with others. I do not need to repent of my sins, rather I need to repent of sinning; I need a new set of habits which will lead me to a trustworthy character. Heaven is not just a place, but it is rather a society in which trust abounds; trust that my tender heart will be valued as highly as I value it. My character is defined by my trustworthiness with the needs of others.

    When the veil is removed at the day of judgment and I see the relationships I have squandered and injured, my own sense of “right conduct” and justice will be my judge; BUT it is a subjective, personal sense of what I feel I should have done for others, not some impersonal “Justice.” In this sense, as Joseph Smith taught, men are their own judges.

    I have a friend who constantly reminds me of his grandfather’s greatest advice/warning: Your habits are your boss. I like Blake Ostler’s idea that the atonement provides the space we need to reevaluate our relationships and choose to repent. In a literal sense, the atonement provides us with the divine perspective to see outside ourselves that would not otherwise be possible considering the fact that our brains are “wired” in such a way as to keep us from seeing our self deceptions. Without the atonement, our habits would literally overpower us so that our brains could never heal from addiction.

    This topic has led me to question why it is harder to repent in the next life, since why would I have a physical addiction after I die? I think that though the book “Return from Tomorrow” may say that you continue to seek your drug as a spirit, the issue is deeper than physical “need” since the addiction is a symptom of our inability to relate with others in a positive way. Without the immediacy of needing to feed and keep our bodies alive, without the pain of this life of giving and taking perceived scarce resources, would we have the desire or impetus to change in a world of abundance (Eden)? The external influences of this life provide us with people who have real needs that we can respond to, and thus form a character.

    Comment by Kent — October 14, 2007 @ 7:10 pm

  5. This is a cool post. Thanks for it. I am tempted to get the book so I can read the chapter.

    Comment by Kim Siever — October 14, 2007 @ 9:20 pm

  6. Kim,

    I linked to the whole chapter in the first sentence of the post. If you follow the link, you will find that the whole book is available online at that site.

    Comment by Jacob J — October 14, 2007 @ 11:19 pm

  7. Mike,

    You raise an interesting question. I’d be interested in what some others have to say as I’m sure some would have a different take than me. My response would be that we actually cannot change on our own without Christ. I think we give far too little credit to Christ for enabling, through the atonement, our free choices to repent and improve.

    If I commit adultery, and then afterward say, “That was stupid and wrong, I’ll never do that again” and thereafter live faithfully from that point. Is my stain removed? Not until I fully repent, including confessing and asking forgiveness, can the atonement be applied.

    We obviously mean different things when we use the word “repent.” For me, a person who recognizes a sin, turns from it, and forsakes it ever after has fully repented, by definition. Confessing is something that we sometimes need to help us make that change, but it is not necessarily repentance itself. Similarly, I fully expect to be forgiven of lots of sins that I have never asked forgiveness for. I am not aware of 1/100th of my sins in any given week. Actually changing myself is the essence of repentance in my opinion. As Moroni says, to be holy is to be without spot. Those mean the same thing.

    Comment by Jacob J — October 15, 2007 @ 12:04 am

  8. Kent,

    Thanks for that comment, you make a bunch of great points.

    Comment by Jacob J — October 15, 2007 @ 12:05 am

  9. Jacob, I will be thinking about this today. You may have already addressed the following, if so, please point me to your discussion. But if not, what is your conception of “remission” of sins? How are sins remitted? It seems as if you posit that effects of sins are gradually negated as one grows closer and closer to overcoming one’s sinful nature. (Or, more rarely, as in the case of Alma, remission comes with the sudden leap in righteousness and ability to comply with the will of God, aided by the Holy Spirit.) How is the atonement involved in this remission? What is taking place when sins are “washed away,” or remitted?

    Comment by Behind the Infamous Veil (BiV) — October 15, 2007 @ 6:33 am

  10. Jacob J: great song pick and great post.
    The follow up question is whether or not having any habit is good. In other words, is there anything that is good enough that in every situation that I want to be doing it without being consciously aware that I am doing it?

    Comment by Matt W. — October 15, 2007 @ 6:47 am

  11. BiV, I would like to take a stab at answering your question. The atonement removes the pain of the sin, which also provides perspective and allows you to gain value from the experience, as Christ literally absorbs that pain into his own being (as Alma said, “I could remember my pains no more”).

    Matt, one habit that I think is always good is to see others as children of God rather than objects. Working to maintain a paradigm may not seem like a habit to you, but I assure you that it is something that I practice on consciously and it becomes more characteristic of me and less work as time goes on.

    Comment by Kent — October 15, 2007 @ 8:26 am

  12. Kent, it might be comforting that the atonement is able to remove the pain of the sin, and I don’t disagree that it does. But I don’t believe that it is pain, but rather stain that keeps us from the presence of God and thus necessitates atonement/remission of sin.

    Comment by Behind the Infamous Veil (BiV) — October 15, 2007 @ 9:13 am

  13. BiV, please explain how the stain of sin keeps us out of God’s presence. The stain is the pain in my belief; it is the knowledge of injustice done to a relationship and the knowledge that that injustice cannot be undone without a mediator to heal the pain I have participated in. It is the knowledge that I cannot trust myself in other relationships because the pain I have caused is still unreconciled. How do you describe the stain of sin? Are you asserting that sin is more about the act than about the character it produces?

    Comment by Kent — October 15, 2007 @ 9:54 am

  14. I have just a couple of minutes.

    BiV,

    Sins are remitted as we forsake them. My view is that it is the atonement which enables us to change. Every step of the way the light of Christ encourages us and makes it possible for us to choose the right. So, the remission of sin (commonly translated forgiveness of sins) is enabled by the atonement, but is only possible as we repent. This is what I think Amulek was talking about when he said:

    15 And thus he shall bring salvation to all those who shall believe on his name; this being the intent of this last sacrifice, to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance.
    16 And thus mercy can satisfy the demands of justice, and encircles them in the arms of safety, while he that exercises no faith unto repentance is exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice; therefore only unto him that has faith unto repentance is brought about the great and eternal plan of redemption. (Alma 34)

    In other words, the atonement makes repentance possible (bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance) and then the whole plan hinges on whether or not they repent. The plan of redemption is not “brought about” for those who refuse to repent. That is because the whole thing is designed to turn us into something. If we refuse to go along and change from what we are to what we need to become, the plan which makes that change possible fails to accomplish its purpose.

    Matt,

    For starters, habits are of enormous practical importance. If it took as much attention for me to eat a bowl of cereal as it takes my two year old, or as much attention to button a shirt as it takes my 5 year old, I would never get anything done. In that sense, habits expand your capacity dramatically. The same is true of good/bad habits as an adult. If I must spend all my attention tamping down my anger all the time, I an not able to use that same attention for other things. If I develop a habit of responding without anger, my attention is freed up to do something active for someone else rather than having my attention tied up trying to contain my anger. So, I think there are all sorts of good habits I want to develop so that today’s struggles can be dealt with so automatically so as to be subconscious in the future.

    Comment by Jacob J — October 15, 2007 @ 10:25 am

  15. Kent,

    For what its worth, I don’t think the word “pain” fully captures the idea of a character flaw, at least not as the word pain is generally used.

    Comment by Jacob J — October 15, 2007 @ 10:26 am

  16. Okay, good point Jacob. I will attempt to be more explicit and backtrack a little. The stain of sin is personal knowledge of one’s alienation from others due to betraying an internal sense of morality, which results in pain. This is why there is no sin where there is no personal sense of morality to sin against. The atonement not only removes the sin, but also mitigates the personal knowledge of wrong-doing by replacing that pain and knowledge of wrong-doing with a joy/knowledge that all will be made right for those we have hurt. The pain and the knowledge go together, but the pain seems to sap us of our energy as we are generally able to ignore the knowledge of the small wrong act s that led to the pain of dis-ease and insecurity.

    Comment by Kent — October 15, 2007 @ 10:50 am

  17. Isn’t this fun? I hope you’ll keep up your efforts to persuade me that there is no stain of sin as traditionally viewed, since I am not at all sure that my refusal to let go of the idea is not simply due to long-term indoctrination.

    Jacob says, “sins are remitted as we forsake them.” Let’s break this up a little. What is the difference between a sin such as the above example–an instance of adultery which we are profoundly sorry for and resolve to never do again (thereby changing our habits by our own initiative)–and a sin in which we use the power of the atonement to be forgiven and achieve a remission, or cleansing of the sin?

    I see the first example as being illustrative of repentance in the sense of remorse and turning from the sin. But in this case there is no necessity of Christ’s sacrifice in order to achieve the goal of changing of character. If changing of character alone were enough to sanctify us, it might be possible to gain salvation without the need for an atonement.

    So to me this indicates there is something about using the atonement to become cleansed from sin which is different from simply changing and becoming perfected. Becoming perfect in Christ includes forgiveness, cleansing, discharge, release, clemency.

    I think.

    Comment by Behind the Infamous Veil (BiV) — October 15, 2007 @ 11:27 am

  18. Precisely. What we need Christ for is to heal our broken relationships and reconcile us with each other, not necessarily to just stop doing bad things. If you notice in comment #4 I stated that there is also a grace aspect of the atonement that presupposes our ability to change, in that the atonement provides the space we need to reevaluate our relationships and choose to repent. The atonement is a at-one-ment with not just God, but all creation that choose to participate in that love.

    Being cleansed presupposes the idea that I was dirty or unclean before the cleansing, which I am not rejecting. What I am rejecting is the idea that it is an external “shunning” by God and other “good” people, rather than an internal jugdment where we choose to remove ourselves from the association of others because it becomes too painful to see others in loving relationships without being able to participate. See Mormon 9.

    Comment by Kent — October 15, 2007 @ 11:38 am

  19. Oh yeah, and Kent #13 the idea that God cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance translates for me as us not being able to enter into the presence of the Lord with the stain of sin still upon our souls. But I can see how it could be interpreted differently.

    Comment by Behind the Infamous Veil (BiV) — October 15, 2007 @ 11:38 am

  20. BiV,

    Yes, this is fun, thanks for playing along.

    I see the first example as being illustrative of repentance in the sense of remorse and turning from the sin. But in this case there is no necessity of Christ’s sacrifice in order to achieve the goal of changing of character.

    What I am suggesting is that in this case there is a necessity of Christ’s sacrifice in order to achieve the goal of changing. How do you recognize your sins? You have a conscience. What inspires you to be better and to turn from sin? You have a conscience. Does a guilty conscience make you repent? No. It is still your own free choice. But if you did not have the light of Christ, you would (for all practical purposes) have no possibility of repenting in the face of the opposition you encounter.

    By the way, All,

    The Rancid blog song is added as a second blog song for this post, and Airline to Heaven is added as a blog song for this post over at 9Moons.

    Comment by Jacob J — October 15, 2007 @ 12:07 pm

  21. #19 If the idea in the scripture is that God will be “disgusted” with me and my sins, and therefore deny me a place in his presence, how is it possible for Christ to then condescend to save me, a sinner? I see this scripture as stating that God cannot give any countenance or permission for sin, but why not? It is because it causes alienation (spiritual death), “the fruit of sin is death”, not because he then finds us deplorable. This is my main point: Sin is something that keeps me from God, not God from me. Christ couldn’t take upon himself a guilty verdict, since that is something only I can pass on myself; otherwise when Christ atoned for us, he would remain unclean and guilty, since who would atone for Christ then? If the stain of sin is like a boulder that can’t be destroyed, only transferred, that boulder would still be crushing the only innocent one; but it isn’t God’s external “Justice”, it is my own sense of justice that condemns me. God’s love towards me is still unilateral even if I cut myself from that love. The idea that a Son of Perdition is kneeling before God, pleading for forgiveness and God crossing his arms and saying, “Sorry, my hands are tied; you committed the only unpardonable sin. I know you are sincere, and have repented all you can, but even I can’t help you now,” just seems so Calvinistic. I see God not pardoning the Sons of Perdition because they rather choose not to repent, not because God finds them deplorable and there is some law that God can’t change.

    The whole point of the veil is to protect us from sinning against greater knowledge than we can live with. God loves us in our sins and longs for us to be free of them so that we can choose to be in a loving relationship with Him.

    Comment by Kent — October 15, 2007 @ 12:08 pm

  22. John 12:46-48:

    46 I am come a light into the world, that whosoever believeth on me should not abide in darkness. 47 And if any man hear my words, and believe not, I judge him not: for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. 48 He that rejecteth me, and receiveth not my words, hath one that judgeth him: the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day.

    This scripture points out that the word convicts me, not God; again, internal vs. external. The Father has given judgment to the Son, so the only thing he has to judge is whether I have given my sins to him or not, not where I will be consigned to live out my days.

    Comment by Kent — October 15, 2007 @ 12:21 pm

  23. Kent, I agree.
    Jacob, Airline to Heaven, lol.
    btw, do you think humanity is so depraved that without the light of Christ we would be unable to recognize our sins and want to change?

    Comment by Behind the Infamous Veil (BiV) — October 15, 2007 @ 12:22 pm

  24. BiV, you agree with everything? :) And I thought this was going to be another 200 post thread.

    Comment by Kent — October 15, 2007 @ 12:29 pm

  25. I agree with the idea that sin is something that keeps me from God, not God from me. And we might need more than 3 participants to get this thread to go over 200.

    Comment by Behind the Infamous Veil (BiV) — October 15, 2007 @ 1:03 pm

  26. Great post and discussion.

    I’ve only had time to sort of quickly skim the post and comments, but I think this way of thinking about sin in terms of a habit-stain is very interesting. But, Jacob, am I thinking or reading wrong in assuming that what you are saying points toward a moral-influence theory? This is a pretty vague term, I think, but it seems to me that Atonement theories are typically categorized as being based on a a substitutionary view or moral-influence view—that is, some sort of requirement imposed by a meta-law or person for substitionary views, or simply the requirement for the sinner to change for moral influence theories.

    In this sense, I think Blake’s view (and I think your view, though I don’t think I understand quite what you are trying to say) is sort of on the fence b/c he seems to be appealing to a kind of physical meta-law that a sinner cannot change unless someone else suffers for or with him. However, I think substitionary vs. moral influence distinction is even more blurred if we think in terms of a “law” of human nature—that is, moral influence theory seems to be appealing to some sort of psychological meta-law that we can’t change unless Christ somehow suffers for us. Saying this, I guess I’m inclined to think about various theories in terms of an appeal to either: (1) a meta-law of justice (substitution theories), (2) a meta-law of physics (Blake’s view), or (3) a meta-law of psychology (moral-influence theory).

    In light of all this, I think this is why habits is such an interesting way to think of this, because it seems to rely on something between a physical and psychological law. I’ve only read a little bit of Merleau-Ponty, but I quite like what I know about his non-dualistic yet non-holistic approach to the mind-body problem, and I think his thinking might be an interesting complement to William James (though, in contrast to James, I don’t think M-P wrote anything explicitly about religion).

    Comment by Robert C. — October 15, 2007 @ 3:19 pm

  27. Reading this post reminded me of the following:

    President David O. McKay outlined the process: “Sow a thought, reap an act, “Sow an act, reap a habit, “Sow a habit, reap a character, “Sow a character, reap an eternal destiny” (quoting E. D. Boardman, in Conference Report, Apr. 1962, 7).

    Comment by Jared — October 15, 2007 @ 8:02 pm

  28. BiV,

    do you think humanity is so depraved that without the light of Christ we would be unable to recognize our sins and want to change?

    Excellent question. To be honest with you, I have gone back and forth on this. My inclination is to say that we would have had some rudimentary understanding of right and wrong without the atonement, but I have a hard time when it comes to the details of splitting that hair. Mark D can probably jump in at a time like this with a theory. It does seem that our knowledge of good and evil is graded (as we can see with children growing up) and that it continues to expand and grow as we progress spiritually. Either way, I contend that the light of Christ significantly expanded our understanding. In addition, there is the aspect of encouragement which I have spoken about a lot so I won’t repeat.

    I want to be clear, though, that I have never had in mind the traditional doctrine of original sin and total depravity. I have always said that we would have been, as a practical matter, unable to consistently choose good over evil in the face of the opposition and natural tendencies we experience. I don’t think we would have been, in theory, unable to choose good.

    Jared,

    Perfect. I have always loved that quote when I’ve heard it, but I had forgotten it.

    Comment by Jacob J — October 16, 2007 @ 9:43 am

  29. Jacob: It seems that what is missing in this post is a sense of actual moral responsibility. The notion of habit cannot ground guilt, moral responsibility and dessert or punishment. Dogs have habits. Rabbits have habits. While we have habits and somewhat predictable behavior if we are merely in unconscious action or re-action mode; a creative individual cannot be assessed for responsibility based upon habit alone. What is needed is the notion of an enduring agent or durational identity such that an agent at t1 can be said to bear responsibility for what that same agent now at t2 did at t1.

    Now what is about the agent at t2 that makes the agent responsible for what the agent did at t1? Your post assumes that it is merely the same tendencies to act the same way in the future. While that may be a part of why we hold agents responsible, it is not the entire story. Say John kills Mary at t1. Even if John never kills another person and it could be shown that John has no tendencies, habits or fixed behaviors that would suggest in the least that he may kill again, he is still responsible for having killed Mary. He bears the guilt of that act. Your approach seems entirely unable to explain why or how John could be responsible at t2 for what he did at t1.

    Comment by Blake — October 16, 2007 @ 1:14 pm

  30. Blake,

    You are correct that habit does not ground moral responsibility. We agree that an enduring agent is necessary for that and we also agree that one exists. This is a great point to make and I didn’t really say anything about it so I’m glad you did.

    James’ discussion of habit starts out by saying that habit is physical. Since we obviously think that something of our habits goes with us into the spirit world, this is not a sufficient explanation for use in Mormon theology (I am surprised no one pointed that out). It seems to me that his discussion is still good, but needs to be extended to include something similar which happens for spirit bodies in addition to our physical bodies. If we accept the idea that all spirit is matter, then perhaps that is not too much a stretch. In any case, habits must extend to spirits, which is part of what is required to account for an enduring agent, in my opinion.

    Now, in your final paragraph you bring up a point we have been over a couple of times before (here for example) and make the same mistake as always. The fact that someone will never do something again is not enough on my view. If we want to understand moral responsibility, what must be accounted for is why the person did it in the first place.

    If John murders Mary at t1, the fact that he murdered her says something about who he is. Specifically, it says that he is the kind of person who will murder Mary if put in the situation presented at t1. The fact that he will never face that situation in the foreseeable future does not change what he is. If, at t2, John has not changed and is still the kind of person who would murder Mary in the situation presented at t1, then he is still morally condemned based on who he is. He has not repented, so the same thing that made him uncelestial at t1 remains.

    It is true that “habit” does not account for this case because in this example there was only one action. In this regard, I think you are right to point out that habit is not the full measure of a person. However, the idea that moral responsibility is determined solely by what you are at the present moment is able (contra your claim) to explain why John is responsible at t2 for what he did at t1, as I have argued above.

    Comment by Jacob J — October 16, 2007 @ 1:52 pm

  31. If, at t2, John has not changed and is still the kind of person who would murder Mary in the situation presented at t1, then he is still morally condemned based on who he is. He has not repented, so the same thing that made him uncelestial at t1 remains.

    Jacob, I doubt that there is any such truth about us. What could ground such a proposition? John will never be in the same situation again and couldn’t remain the same person in all respects because by doing the action he has changed from the person before doing it, while in the process of doing it and is now a person with a history of having done it. Given that character doesn’t determine future conduct (which we both agree on) it seems to me that there is no such thing as “the kind of person who would kill Mary.” Note that this proposition is a subjunctive conditional rather than a counterfactual proposition; but as such it seems that there is nothing that could ground the statement that “John definitely would kill Mary again in the same circumstances” because: (1) it is logically impossible for John to be in the same circumstances (precisely since John is necessarily different) and (2) given LFW there is nothing that would ground this free choice.

    Comment by Blake — October 16, 2007 @ 4:16 pm

  32. Blake,

    I assume that you believe John must change in order to repent of murdering Mary. Right? If so, how can God tell that John has truly changed? This requires the kind of assessment of John which you are saying is impossible.

    Comment by Jacob J — October 16, 2007 @ 6:46 pm

  33. Jacob: God can tell if Jacob has truly changed by watching what he does. However, it is always possible for a person to fall. Nothing is sealed in terms of behavior (as opposed to a sealing ordinance which may overlook certain behaviors). I don’t see any basis for believing the subjunctive conditional about what John “would do” having any truth value. It isn’t grounded in his character, his past or his present being because John has LFW.

    Comment by Blake — October 16, 2007 @ 7:24 pm

  34. Blake,

    By watching what he does? That is a very problematic answer. If John does not murder again for the next week/month/year, does that means he has changed? Of course it doesn’t.

    Comment by Jacob J — October 16, 2007 @ 9:36 pm

  35. Jacob: that was my point. The notion of some enduring feature of responsibility is what is required.

    Comment by Blake — October 16, 2007 @ 11:57 pm

  36. Blake,

    Yes, I know that was your point, but your answer in #33 seems to make it a bigger problem for your view than for mine. Even if you assign some enduring responsibility for past acts (I am not sure of the details of how you do this) you still have to be able to explain how repentance works. If God is limited such that his only insight into me is based on what I do, then he has no way of telling when I have forsaken my sins other than to count how many days since my last offense. That seems like a significant problem in the view you have suggested.

    As to your points about my view. I agree that God cannot answer the question “What will John do in situation X?” That is because John is free and only he can make his own choice of what to do. Agreed. However, that doesn’t preclude the possibility that God can answer “What will John do in situation X if his choice is determined by his current character?” That question has to do with what John is right now and avoids the question of what John may become. If there is no such truth about us or if God cannot answer such a question, I am at a loss to explain how he judges us or responds to our repentance without resorting to the most superficial indicators (such as how many days since our last offense).

    Comment by Jacob J — October 17, 2007 @ 9:21 am

  37. Jacob,

    However, that doesn’t preclude the possibility that God can answer “What will John do in situation X if his choice is determined by his current character?” That question has to do with what John is right now and avoids the question of what John may become.

    But isn’t the answer to this question absolutely and completely meaningless under libertarian freewill?

    Joe: What will Blake do in situation X if he is a pickle?

    Steve: But, um, Blake isn’t a pickle. That doesn’t have a basis in reality.

    Joe: But I can use the answer to make judgements about Blake!

    [That was meant to be funny, not mean.]

    Cheers,
    Pace

    Comment by P. Nielsen — October 17, 2007 @ 11:22 am

  38. Pace,

    But isn’t the answer to this question absolutely and completely meaningless under libertarian freewill?

    Nope. LFW asserts that a person’s free actions are not fully determined by the causal influences at the time of their decision, including their past history. That is why I said God cannot with certainty answer the question “What will John do in situation X?” John is free to change in situation X such that his action is not fully predicable based on the past.

    However, LFW does not assert that in the situation where John does NOT change his actions are unpredictable. The fact that many of our actions are highly predictable shows that we are not changing radically from moment to moment. Most of our actions are in accordance with who we are and do not represent redirection or our character. If John exercises his free-will to change himself in the moment of decision, then the outcome of that decision is unpredictable. However, God can predict what John will do given God’s knowledge of the past coupled with his intimate knowledge of John’s inner thoughts and feelings. That prediction will be based on what John will do if he does not change direction in the moment of decision, and God’s prediction will often be right.

    If my claim still seems meaningless under LFW after that explanation you will have to be more specific about how it is meaningless.

    By the way, your example would have been funnier if you used “Larry” instead of “Blake” (VT fans will understand).

    Comment by Jacob J — October 17, 2007 @ 12:01 pm

  39. Jacob, you are presupposing that somehow God has to judge the individual. In what sense (and when) is God judging the individual here?

    Comment by Kent — October 17, 2007 @ 12:50 pm

  40. Kent,

    Well, if you want to argue that God cannot tell if we have really repented, then I would listen to your argument. I suspect you agree that God can tell when we have truely changed. That is the judgment I was referring to. I was taking for granted that God can tell if we have repented and that this knowledge affects his interactions with us. But then, how he can God tell that we have repented and not simply stopped sinning in some particular way. Blake’s explanation that he can tell if we have changed by watching what we do seems to me to be insufficient.

    In your comments above (#4 et al.) you have claimed that final judgment is our own subjective personal assessment of how we have done. But, can you really sustain the idea that it is fully subjective? Is the celestial law spoken of in D&C 88 different for each individual and based on their own assessment of how they’ve done? If I feel that I’ve done well, is that enough?

    Further, you have argued that the stain of sin is our knowledge of all the times we have not lived up to what we know is right (#16). But, if that’s the stain, how does the atonement remove that? Does it remove our knowledge that we betrayed our sense of morality? Surely not. But if not, then it doesn’t work well as the analog for the stain of sin.

    Comment by Jacob J — October 17, 2007 @ 1:38 pm

  41. Jacob-

    Of course God can tell whether we have repented. The idea that he needs to be able to tell the difference between when one is ceasing to sin and actually repenting is an unnecessary dicotomy. God knows the heart and so he accepts repentance when it is sincere. If we repeat the sin, then he reacts to that new situation. I don’t see the problem.

    I appreciate you discussing my earlier posts. I don’t claim that final judgment is a subjective personal assessment. I claim that final judgment is a subjective experience. The nuance lies in the idea that the experience is not a mental exercise but the rather the idea that who we are and how we relate to others is part of our being. In other words, who we choose to have a relationship is self determined and also determined by those who choose to have a relationship with us. I don’t just “go” to heaven, heaven is part of who I am.

    Now in answer to D&C 88, I see inheriting different kingdoms and responsibilities after resurrection being strictly determined by our abilities and our prior faithfulness with other tasks. If someone has an ability to accomplish something and God feels he can trust them, he will give them that responsibility. In this sense works play a huge role, not that we get “rewarded” and let into heaven as a result of our works; but the idea that prior faithfulness is a prerequisite to future tasks. I believe that there is no “reward” outside of purposeful work that is being described in D&C.

    In answer to your last paragraph, the atonement removes the pain of the knowledge of self betrayal by replacing it with the knowledge that Christ will heal any estranged relationship. The fact that I made a mistake or purposefully hurt someone isn’t what is killing me (I would have to have quite the ego to expect perfection from myself), but rather it is the idea that the person I hurt is still hurting and that my actions have eternal consequences for that individual. What kills me is the idea that others suffer because of my actions and I can’t take their pain. When Christ grants me the knowledge/feeling that he will make my bad into good for not only myself but for all of creation, I am able to let go of the pain, which he absorbs.

    Comment by Kent — October 17, 2007 @ 4:28 pm

  42. Kent,

    I don’t think the difference between ceasing to sin and repentance is an unnecessary dichotomy. For example, if I cease committing adultery for a time because I don’t have any business trips which provide the opportunity, that is not really repentance, as I am sure you agree with. As you said, God does not tell that we repented by checking to see if we have stopped doing something, he knows our hearts. But this is exactly what I am claiming which Blake has taken issue with. I am saying that God can tell whether or not we have changed without waiting for our actions to prove it. This is what I mean by saying that God can judge us (to answer your #39). You have simply replaced my “judge us” with the idiomatic expression “knows the heart.”

    Your point about heaven being based on who we are rather than just being a place we go is exactly my point as well. We agree.

    Comment by Jacob J — October 17, 2007 @ 5:00 pm

  43. Kent,

    In my haste, I forgot to respond to your point about the stain being knowledge. If I understand, you are saying that the stain spoken of is your knowledge that you have hurt others. Christ takes away that stain by healing the injury you caused, allowing you to stop feeling bad about your sin. Is that right?

    I have some questions if that turns out to be correct. For example, is there no stain of sin if I am a self-centered jerk who doesn’t give a rat’s behind about other people?

    Second question: My observation is that Christ is not able to make all bad things into good ones. To do so often requires the injured party to let Jesus heal them and turn it to good. If the injured person turns bitter and rejects Christ due to the injury we cause, does that mean the stain of that sin can’t be removed unless and until the person we injured allows the atonement to heal them?

    Comment by Jacob J — October 17, 2007 @ 5:09 pm

  44. Jacob: What I have in mind is that God need not judge us because we judge ourselves. Moreover, it is clear whether we have changed because we will be quickened by a degree of light or glory that befits our way of being. Thus, God knows by merely knowing the light that quickens us and that we have chosen to accept. However, this view is very close to the notion of stain on the soul because we can also be characterized by darkness and rejection of the light. I would think that such a view would be very amenable to your general theology.

    The fact is,would d given LFW, there is no truth about what we would do in a given circumstance. God knows that we have changed because our actions change to abide the law that governs us, according to that degree of light that we have chosen to abide. That is what D&C 88 states rather clearly in my view.

    The fact is that God never knows that we have changed once and for all for good or for evil because we always remain free to change, grow or diminish. We may become so set on the good that it is very probable that we will continue in the light — but it is merely a finite probability in my view.

    Comment by Blake — October 17, 2007 @ 5:31 pm

  45. Blake, does that mean that one can never be sure that God won’t change?

    Comment by Jack — October 17, 2007 @ 6:09 pm

  46. Jacob, I can’t believe we don’t seem to be speaking past each other (this never happens to me online)!
    There is no stain of sin if there is no self-betrayal. However, you only become a self-centered jerk through self-betrayal. Just because you are now a jerk and are no longer even having a moment’s thought about your inconsiderate actions, that only means you are living according to the light (or lack of) that is now in you. You have to have light to sin against to lose light.

    To your second question. The solution is actually more simple than it initially appears. Faith in Christ means faith in his ability to heal everyone. It is not necessary for him to have already healed the individual I have wronged for my pain to leave me, the fact that he will heal the individual sooner or later (or after death) is sufficient. I also am not asserting that we have to comprehend the atonement intellectually to be able to feel free of the pain of sin, the knowledge that things will be okay is a knowledge similar to one’s knowledge/feeling of the truthfulness of the gospel or the restoration. My belief is that Jesus can heal all, will heal all, and will save all as all will repent and receive the resurrection and enjoy a degree of glory.

    Comment by Kent — October 17, 2007 @ 6:16 pm

  47. Jack: We can be sure that God will change. He is always progressing. We can be sure he won’t retrogress because that would be irrational and stupid, and he is perfectly rational. We also can generally progress because we learn from our experience. However, we can also simply do something stupid — I see it all the time with folks who have lived an exemplary life and then ruin their families and lives. God exists on a level of relationship and shared indwelling intimacy that does not characterize our lives as mortals.

    Comment by Blake — October 17, 2007 @ 6:50 pm

  48. Blake, would you say that God has a full knowledge of the consequences of any action he commits to, and therefore he can choose perfectly because he is not “enticed” by a poor option?

    Comment by Kent — October 17, 2007 @ 6:53 pm

  49. 16

    “…but the pain seems to sap us of our energy as we are generally able to ignore the knowledge of the small wrong act s that led to the pain of dis-ease and insecurity.”

    Great comment Kent, I think “ignoring the knowledge” kills us because it allows our sins to build up.

    Comment by Howard — October 17, 2007 @ 9:03 pm

  50. Blake (#44),

    However, this view is very close to the notion of stain on the soul because we can also be characterized by darkness and rejection of the light. I would think that such a view would be very amenable to your general theology.

    Yes, this view is very much in line with my thinking. However, it seems I am parsing it a bit differently than you are. The darkness you are equating with the stain of sin above is a darkness that exists in the present. There is no need to refer to a past act. This has been my point all along which you were disagreeing with in your t1/t2 example from #29. At t2, there is a darkness resulting from actions at t1; that is another way of stating my position.

    The fact is,would d given LFW, there is no truth about what we would do in a given circumstance.

    This seems to ignore the distinction I made in #36 and #38.

    The fact is that God never knows that we have changed once and for all for good or for evil because we always remain free to change

    Of course it is true that God never knows that we have changed once and for all. I never suggested he did. Knowing that we have changed between t1 and t2 is entirely different than knowing we will never change back. I believe God is able to know the former but not the later.

    Comment by Jacob J — October 17, 2007 @ 10:51 pm

  51. Kent,

    I can’t believe we don’t seem to be speaking past each other (this never happens to me online)!

    This makes my night. For me, that’s what it’s all about. Now I feel like I should quit while I’m ahead lest I begin talking past you in this very comment.

    About self-centered jerks: Are you saying that self-centered jerks no longer have any light to sin against?

    I understand where you are going with your answer to my second question and I agree with your general point. I think you still need something like what I describe in the post to fully account for the stain of sin, but your point is a good one as far as it goes. To point back to the verse from Moroni at the end of the post, I think there has to be some notion of sanctification built into Christ’s washing away of our sins. My only reservation is that your notion of being able to let go of having caused injury must be inextricably tied to the process of becoming perfect or it would not seem sufficient to me. I am guessing you see this as being fundamentally tied to repentance, in which case we are coming at the same thing from a slightly different angle and with a different lexicon.

    Comment by Jacob J — October 17, 2007 @ 11:24 pm

  52. Jacob,

    I just got caught up on this thread. First let me say that I am on board with your ideas here generally. I agree that the so-called stain of sin is best described as the non-Godlike aspects of our characters and that our characters are closely tied to our habits.

    I think the glaring weakness in your position is the problem brought up by Blake in #29 and by Mike in #3. Specifically, you seem to be saying that confession and restitution are not necessary parts of our repentance. If I read you right, you think that the “stain of sin” can be erased by simply changing whatever bad habits led to the sin in the first place. I think this is a serious flaw in your theory if it is what you are really saying. (And since in #7 “Confessing is something that we sometimes need to help us make that change, but it is not necessarily repentance itself” I assume it is).

    If confessing is only a useful tool to help us change habits then the adulterer Mike brought up or the murderer Blake brought up would presumably never need to confess their crimes to be fully “cleansed” of them. I simply don’t believe that is true. One can’t cheat on one’s spouse, then have a mighty change of heart about the act, change the habits forever and just quietly continue on as a fully forgiven person. That adulterer would be largely devoid of the Spirit and unworthy to attend the temple or partake of the sacrament until confession and attempts at restitution (such as they may be in those cases) were made. So being forgiven for such a sin is much more that simply permanently changing habits.

    I suspect that this is because of the damage that is done to relationships in such sins. Adultery is a severe form of betrayal and unconfessed adultery is an ongoing form of betrayal. Betrayals like that are the opposite of at-one-ment.

    What say you about confession and restitution with regard to your ideas here?

    Comment by Geoff J — October 17, 2007 @ 11:47 pm

  53. Jacob, I’m not saying that self-centered jerks no longer have any light to sin against (light is in everyone), just that they have lost light and so are now held to a lower self-standard. In other words individual wrong acts get easier to commit since there is less hesitation due to less light. Again, the act is unimportant; what is important is the self-betrayal. If I feel nothing, am numb to the Spirit, how can I sin against light I no longer have?

    I also argue that the light within us is wanting to grow, in fact NEEDS to grow in order for us to be happy, and that light will fight the flesh all throughout our lives which creates an internal angst for all who regularly suppress their light. Light is a living thing in this sense, and general unhappiness is a result of not letting one’s light grow; but is it sin? Define sin and we can debate that.

    Comment by Kent — October 18, 2007 @ 8:06 am

  54. Jacob, you said:

    My only reservation is that your notion of being able to let go of having caused injury must be inextricably tied to the process of becoming perfect or it would not seem sufficient to me.

    If you could expand on this, I could better understand what you are trying to say. I see repentance as the ability to be at peace in the moment and to know that all will be well for myself and others. Of course this necessitates the Savior removing my pain. I see sanctification as the process whereby we are letting ourselves accept more light and we are living according to that light. Define your understanding of sanctification for me and I will better be able to address your concern.

    Comment by Kent — October 18, 2007 @ 8:13 am

  55. Jacob: At t2, there is a darkness resulting from actions at t1; that is another way of stating my position.

    Jacob also says: The darkness you are equating with the stain of sin above is a darkness that exists in the present.

    It seems to me that these two statements are not consistent. If my energy is dark at t2 because of what I did at t1, then the darkness in the present t2 is not a result of the present but of the past at t1. With this recognition, the notion that sin is merely a present reality seems to be dashed. I don’t like the “stain on the soul” idea because it views the soul as an enduring substance that has identity over times. The problem is the substantial nature of the soul in this view. In process thought, the present is what it is because of its memory of the past — the past continues into the present in terms of energy that is made a concrete synthesis of past causes. Thus, the energies of the actions that we perform persist into the present unless and until we do something to preclude the energies of the past from being included in our present concrete synthesis.

    Note that my idea of sinfulness, that our choices to alienate ourselves, continue into the present in their energy (light or darkness) unless we consciously preclude their continuance through repentance and reparation of the relationships we have damaged (the process of repentance). I think it is obvious how such a view also ties into my view of atonement as letting go (precluding the concrete synthesis of past causal energy) of the past and releasing this causal energy (which Christ then transforms through his loving acceptance of us and our past into his own life thereby quickening the darkness with light). It is literally painful to be in relationship with us for this reason. And there you have the essence of my ideas of sin, sinfulness, repentance and atonement. Sometimes I impress myself a little too much.

    Comment by Blake — October 18, 2007 @ 8:30 am

  56. Kent: I see repentance as the ability to be at peace in the moment and to know that all will be well for myself and others.

    It seems to me that you are mixing up cause and effect in some of your comments. It is not a sin to lack peace. Rather, sins (as in harm we cause to others and alienation we create with others for this conversation) create pain and destroy our peace. Am I misreading you here on this subject?

    Comment by Geoff J — October 18, 2007 @ 9:12 am

  57. To clarify: I see the knowledge/feeling one obtains through repentance as: peace in the moment and the knowledge that all will be well for myself and others.

    Comment by Kent — October 18, 2007 @ 9:31 am

  58. #55 …[causal energy of sin] which Christ then transforms through his loving acceptance of us and our past into his own life thereby quickening the darkness with light

    I find that I can accept this explanation of cleansing the “stain” of sin, which gives Christ a more active role than it seems he had in Jacob’s original post.

    Comment by Behind the Infamous Veil (BiV) — October 18, 2007 @ 1:34 pm

  59. Blake, your response doesn’t make any sense, bro.

    this If my energy is dark at t2 because of what I did at t1, then the darkness in the present t2 is not a result of the present but of the past at t1. completely agrees with Jacob: At t2, there is a darkness resulting from actions at t1; that is another way of stating my position.

    Jacob also says: The darkness you are equating with the stain of sin above is a darkness that exists in the present.

    So you are really just restating what he said, as far as I can tell.

    Comment by Matt W. — October 19, 2007 @ 6:33 am

  60. You’re not getting it Matt. If I have dark energy at both t1 and t2, then I don’t have darkness only at t2. Moreover, my darkness at t2 isn’t a result of what I do at t2, but what I did at t1 which persists over time. It is this causal relationship of our past guilt to our present guilt that Jacob denies. So I am hardly merely stating what Jacob said. However, as I said, Jacob’s admission that we suffer darkness now for what we did in the past is inconsistent with his view that sin is merely our present tendency to sin. ‘Nuf said.

    Comment by Blake — October 19, 2007 @ 9:17 pm

  61. Blake,

    I think Matt is getting it and for some reason I am having a hard time communicating it to you. The essential part of my position is that we are judged based on what we are at t2. I have never denied a causal relationship between the action at t1 and who we are at t2, in fact, that causal relationship is what my whole post is about. I never said that sin (itself) is merely our present tendency to sin. I said that the stain of past sin exists in the present by way of its effect on our current self. From your response to Matt I am wondering if our disagreement is largely due to my inability to communicate my position clearly.

    Comment by Jacob J — October 19, 2007 @ 9:21 pm

  62. Geoff (#52),

    If confessing is only a useful tool to help us change habits then the adulterer Mike brought up or the murderer Blake brought up would presumably never need to confess their crimes to be fully “cleansed” of them. I simply don’t believe that is true.

    Confession has multiple functions. A very important one stems from the fact that God runs his church through the use of humans. So, bishops and stake presidents are judges in Israel and are responsible for making sure that the people who go to the temple and the people who bless the sacrament etc. are worthy to do so. For this reason, confession becomes a practical necessity. Confession is also important in some cases as part of the helping a person change. The adulterer you mention should confess for both reasons.

    However, you cannot possibly believe that all sins must be confessed one by one. If not, confession is not intrisic to the nature of repentance. If it were, repentance could not occur without confession. Is it even possible to confess every one of our sins to God? Must you keep track of every sin and confess it to retain a remission of your sins? I am of the opinion that you cannot and need not.

    So being forgiven for such a sin is much more that simply permanently changing habits.

    As I have said, my definition of repentance is that we become a new person (the “permanently” above is not correct because a person can always change again). Habits are not a perfect measure of who we are because after we change it may take time to develop habits in accordance with our new person. I think habits are a useful part of thinking about this situation which is why I shared James’ comments on them.

    So, repentance is becoming a new person. But of course, the new person is connected to the old person by way of memory and identity, so a person who has truly changed and remembers the sins they committed as their old self will want to make restitution as a natural result of knowing what they have done. We use things like confession and restitution as ways to gauge whether a person has truly changed because we don’t have any better measures and we can’t look in a person’s heart. Attempting to make restitution and willingness to confess are natural fruits of the humility and remorse that accompanies a fundamental change of character. They are not repentance itself, but the fruits of repentance, and by the fruits we know the tree.

    Comment by Jacob J — October 19, 2007 @ 9:44 pm

  63. Kent (#54),

    If you are saying what Blake said in #55 then I think I understand where you are coming from. However, it seemed from some of your comments that you were focused mostly on the stain of sin as the sorrow I feel knowing I hurt someone which is washed away by Christ due to my knowing he will heal those people. That description is fine as far as it goes, but it seems to lack any requirement that repentance is fundamentally about changing who you are. Remorse and the removal of remorse must be accompanied by personal reform or I am not ready to call it repentance. I suspect we agree on that, but I was just not picking it up as a strong component of your explanation of sins/stains/repentance.

    Comment by Jacob J — October 19, 2007 @ 9:54 pm

  64. Jacob: so a person who has truly changed and remembers the sins they committed as their old self will want to make restitution as a natural result of knowing what they have done

    Hmmm… This seems like quite a stretch. This restitution thing is too important to just assume in any theory of repentance. And I think you are wrong that restitution is only useful as a gauge of the change in a person’s heart. I think it is much more important than that. If you were right then any old gauge would work and restitution would not be required at all.

    I think that confession and restitution and not just a fruit of repentance but a component of it. For instance, take the case of the adulterer. He can’t undo the act, but he also is never truly repentant until he does all within his power to restore the trust he has betrayed. That means he must confess to the spouse he betrayed (a confession that may be more important than confessions to ecclesiastical leaders) and he must work over time to restore that trust that he destroyed through his adultery.

    Now perhaps you are right that if he dies before he earns that full trust back he will be ok in terms of the judgments of God, but I suspect that is based on the trajectory of his character more than on the state of his soul/character at the time of his death (while he was still going through the long restitution process).

    I just think your model downplays these confession/restitution issues too much.

    Comment by Geoff J — October 19, 2007 @ 10:43 pm

  65. If you were right then any old gauge would work and restitution would not be required at all.

    Geoff, this misses the most important thing I said about restitution, which is that it is a fruit of true repentance. I never suggested that its use as a gauge of genuine repentace captures the importance of restitution. Obviously it does not.

    He can’t undo the act, but he also is never truly repentant until he does all within his power to restore the trust he has betrayed.

    Exactly my point. “He is never truly repentant until…” This is exactly what I am claiming by saying it is a fruit of repentance.

    But, you also make another important admission in the statement above, which is that he can’t undo the act. Thus, just like confession (which we can’t do in most cases), restitution is also impossible in most cases. It is the willingness to confess and the desire to make restitution that are the hallmarks of true repentance.

    You maintain that I am making too little of confession and restitution. Please answer my question about confession then. Is it required that we confess every sin to be absolved of that sin? Similarly, is it required that we make restitution for our sins to be forgiven of them? Well, we can’t make restitution for most sins, so maybe that is a bad question. How about: Given that we can’t make restitution for most of the sins we commit, how can you say restitution is a required part of repentance? If it is just our desire to make restitution, doesn’t this pretty much require the approach I have described?

    Comment by Jacob J — October 19, 2007 @ 11:10 pm

  66. Jacob,

    If sins are, as you are contending, actually character flaws, then yes we can confess and and make restitution for every sin. We confess our character flaws to those we betray (and to ourselves) and change them. We make restitution for our betrayals of others by becoming more and more worthy of their trust. The end of that road is becoming like God.

    My complaint was mostly that it seemed quite possible in the model you described earlier for an adulterer to confess to his priest or whatever and quietly reform/improve his character but never confess his adultery to his wife. I don’t think that is full repentance is all. Do you agree with that? If you are saying that confession and restitution efforts follow repentance then I suppose we are having one of those conversations similar to the faith-works debates. I say one must confess and attempt restitution to repent and you say that one repents first and those things always follow as signs of real repentance. (Perhaps it is a chicken and egg thing at that point)

    Comment by Geoff J — October 19, 2007 @ 11:33 pm

  67. Jacob: here is why I am having a hard time understanding your position. You assert what to me appear to be inconsistent assertions. You assert that we are judged based upon what we are at t2. Here is the problem: what we are at t2 is a result of what we did at t1. So we are not judged merely upon what we are at t2, but for the results of what we did at t1.

    As I see it, you are correct to the extent that “judgment” consists in the natural results of what we do. But then I would say there is no judgment in the sense of someone sitting down and assessing our moral status at t2 and then meting out reward or punishment accordingly. Rather, we just reap what we sow. Nothing revolutionary or new there. However,what we are at t2, light or dark, filled with spirit or empty of spirit, is the result and the “judgment” (natural consequence) that incur — but it is the result of the sum total of our lives, right? So the past is relevant because it makes us who we are now. So in a very real sense, what we reap is the direct consequence of what we sow, and that means in that sense we receive not what we are now, but the results of our past actions.

    So at best you have a false dichotomy — judged based upon what we are now and not on what we did in the past. At worst, it is simply inconsistent.

    Comment by Blake — October 20, 2007 @ 7:41 am

  68. Geoff,

    Yes, it is reminiscent of the faith-works argument. Good works are a fruit of faith, but for the person struggling to have faith, it can help to do works as part of building their faith. C.S. Lewis hammers this point a lot about acting as you have a thing in order to gain it. The same is true of confession/restitution. It comes naturally to the truly repenatant, but for the person trying to figure out how to get there, they can follow a list of steps including confession and restitution which will help them. As you can see from my description, though, I view the ones that spring naturally from contrition as the ones that are intrinsic to repentance while I view the ones on a checklist as a possible aid to repentance. Hopefully that helps further clarify what I am saying.

    If your concern is that I am telling adulterers they can repent while keeping their secret, I am happy to agree with you. In my mind, nothing I have said should give any comfort to them on that count.

    Comment by Jacob J — October 20, 2007 @ 10:13 am

  69. Blake,

    As I have said several times, the past in only relevant to the extent that it makes us who we are in the present. I have always said that our current self is a product of our choices in the past.

    You are calling my distinction a false dichotomy, but let me explain why I think it is a necessary and useful dichotomy. BiV’s position as of #1 was that even if I were to develop a perfect character there could still be the stain of sin upon me which refers back to previous sins. Discussing the way in which the past carries forward into the future is crucial to that discussion. This is exactly what you discussed in #55, and it is what I am getting at when I talk about being judged based on who we are rather than what we have done.

    Here is the problem: what we are at t2 is a result of what we did at t1. So we are not judged merely upon what we are at t2, but for the results of what we did at t1.

    I’m not sure what is problematic about this. You can say we are judged for “the results” of what we did at t1, which is fine (I agree), but then, you must admit that those results only exist in the present, which gets you back to my position. The importance of my point is that it focuses the problem of sin and the nature of repentance on what we are becoming rather than some tally sheet of sins which must be marked off one-by-one. The reason I think all of this is important is that it affects the way we approach repentance.

    Comment by Jacob J — October 20, 2007 @ 11:39 am

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