Saturday, February 09, 2008

it is finished

To finish up this first week of writing for Lent, I want to return to a hymn we sang during the Ash Wednesday service. The text is a poem by John Donne, “A Hymn to God the Father,” and is better than the tune, so that’s all I’m going to write about.

Wilt Thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.
Three main ideas here (as in each of the stanzas). First, Donne starts by inquiring about original sin. This is the guilt of Adam and Eve’s first sin, which is imputed to each of us as their descendants. Nothing to do for it except ask God’s forgiveness. Theologically, I don’t believe in original sin, although I do find the story of the Fall of Man a useful narrative. Let me briefly argue against St. Augustine. He famously declares (in the Confessions, Book I, chapter 7) that infants must be sinful, because they demonstrate such wanton selfishness. In support, he quotes David in Psalm 51: “I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” Conception, therefore, is the point at which we become guilty of sin, hence Donne’s phrase “where I begun”. But infants are not moral beings. They are entirely dependent, and if they don’t cry out, they will suffer neglect. (Augustine mitigates his argument with the acknowledgment that he can’t remember his infancy, so he can’t remember what it was like to be that selfish.) And I don’t think Adam was a historical person. He represents our right relationship with God, which becomes spoiled by our self-worship. No sooner does consciousness arise but we start rebelling, which is where Donne turns next.

The second point of the poem gives more convincing evidence of what Calvinists call “total depravity”—we want to be good, we even try to be good, but we consistently fail at it. As St. Paul says in Romans (quite extensively, but a single sentence sums it up), “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” This seems to be the main (extra-Biblical) argument put forth for the doctrine of original sin: why, if we are not naturally born to sin, would we keep doing it? Even if one posits the existence of a Satan, an arch-devil (which I do), this does not remove the responsibility and the guilt we bear for our persistent wrongdoing. I do not know why we do this. Paul doesn’t give an answer, either; he simply asks and answers, “Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! … For the law of the Spirit of life has set [me] free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”

But Donne isn’t there yet in this poem. Even once those persistent or occasional sins of which we are aware are forgiven, more remains.

Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallowed in a score?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.
We are all gateways. I don’t think even the most reclusive of us has no affect on other people. We are encouragers, for good or for evil. Jesus taught that when we tempt others, we are guilty if they sin: “Stumbling blocks are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to stumble. Pay attention to yourselves!” Jesus declared Himself to be a door, as well, through which those who enter are saved, and the good shepherd who enters by the door. He guides us, His sheep, in good paths. We can do either: lead people rightly or wrongly. And when our sin leads others to sin, we are doubly guilty.

Perhaps we have made amends. Perhaps we have turned from some particular evil behavior. Or maybe we gave something up during some past Lent, had a good year where we were on better behavior, “proved” we could give it up and don’t need to prove it anymore. It’s still incredibly difficult to overcome the guilt of these sins. If even a moment of weakness can haunt us years later, what about protracted obstinance of which we eventually repent, but still can’t bear to think about the damage done? I think the Catholics and Orthodox are on to something in the human psyche with ritualized confession and absolution. If a human can hear our deepest secrets and forgive us, it’s conceivable that God will, too. Jesus said that we cannot love God, who is unseen, without loving our brothers and sisters, who are seen. Conversely, it is easier to feel loved or forgiven by God when we know we are loved or forgiven by people.

But again, even if these particular transgressions are lifted from our record, something remains. We are not good enough; our actions continuously make this clear. If we depend on ourselves to earn God’s grace, we are lost. If we depend on asking God at each moment to forgive each sin, and thereby show that we’re sufficiently sorry, we are lost. And we know it.

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by Thyself, that at my death Thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And having done that, Thou hast done;
I fear no more.
Disbelief, lack of faith, doubt that God has fulfilled His own promise to us to save us—this is our final error and our final separation from God. It is interesting that at this moment of fear, Donne harks back to the pagan image of the spinning Fates, though he casts himself as one of the weavers. Paul tells us to run the race so as to receive the prize, but our strength is never enough. An athlete may deliver a perfect performance. We cannot deliver a perfect life.

Forgiveness—complete, eternal, and effective—is the light of Christ’s life and message. It is the “good news” after which the gospel is named. Jesus teaches us to live better lives, and we owe Him obedience to those teachings, but “what you should do to be nicer to people” isn’t news. That you are made holy by no work of your own—that is news. It is a glorious radiance for us to enjoy. It is the greatest sign of God’s love. I can hardly believe it. Indeed, on my own strength I can’t believe it. I need God’s illumination. I have the promise of it. I have God’s sworn oath that Christ will remain “a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek,” and the author of Hebrews adds, “This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant.” Better than the law, which condemns us, that is. The law (“do unto others” and all that) is not abrogated; it is fulfilled, just not by us.

Donne makes the usual wordplay on “Son” and “sun” as Jesus shines His light. It has been noted that the entire poem could be viewed as wordplay on “done” and “Donne.” (A weaker wordplay may be present in the word “more,” because Donne’s wife’s maiden name was “More.”) In the end, God has the poet, and the believer, and fear along with death and hell is cast away.

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