Saturday, September 02, 2006

The Devil Made Me Do It

As a fervent lover of the Hebrew bible, and speaking from a long history of exposure to Christianity, I have always had an ambivalent relationship with the New Testament's Paul. But in some instances, I have to admit that he gets at the complexity of being human:

"For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I" (Rom. 7:15).

Considering how frustrated I am with myself from time to time, I thought of this verse this morning and searched for it. I can relate with this verse. But then it gets a bit out of the realm of what I consider acceptable:

"Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing: for to willis present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not . . . Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me" (Rom 7:17-18, 20).

I know what Paul is getting at, but my fear is that it opens up a space in which people can too easily place blame on somebody, or something, else -- to say, metaphorically speaking, "the devil made me do it." Though I would love to blame "the devil" for many of my actions, I fear that I am always already responsible for them.

I suppose, though, that this is a valiant effort on Paul's part to explore the complexity of being human, and the potential for conflicting emotions and desires.


Casey said...

This has always perplexed me too. Paul's insistence that knowledge of right and wrong is the easy part--that acting accordingly is the difficult part--has always seemed to miss the mark somehow. Socrates used to say (I'm paraphrasing) that no man, knowing right, would choose to do wrong. I feel more kinship with Socrates on this point, who recognizes that knowledge is the most difficult part of the equation.

Don't be frustrated with yourself, Monica.

Monica said...

Thanks, Casey. I'll try!

Luke said...

Keep in mind that Paul was writing in a world that, unlike today's, was "fallen." Everybody in it was either exploiting or being exploited by others people. Christianity, as I understand it, was a heroic, romantic, desparate attempt to escape from that world -- one that Judaism itself adopted after the Romans finally and utterly destroyed Jerusalem.

Judging by the standards of modern liberal democracy, I would say there is evidence that they (both Christians and Jews) have at least partially succeeded in overtunring that old world of oppression. It was not a pretty story -- it was a horrible story of human sacrifice -- which is all the more reason why we should learn it. For in this case at least it is likely true that "those who do not study the past are doomed to repeat it."

Monica said...

I don't know, Luke, I think your description of Paul's world -- "fallen" and "Everybody in it was either exploiting or being exploited by others people -- seems equally applicable to today's world, don't you think? I think you're right, though, about Christianity being an attempt to reclaim the fallen world, but it's also why Christianity continues to be appealing today.

By the way, thanks for stopping by, Luke.

dridio said...

It seems to me when Paul refers to "the sin", and "desires of the flesh", he's merely refering to (to the extent possible given the complexity of language and metaphore), the natural drive of human biology - to live at all costs, to have sex, so on and so on. To Casey's statement on Socretes, "no man knowing right would choose to do wrong", where-as that's certainly romantic and idiological, it doesn't take into consideration that men do not necessaraly operate rationaly and that we are in fact subject to our own biology - we are at the mercy of ourselves so to speak. Biology is "the sin", in the sense that it is a form of value/quality which operates given it's own directives, what it does is good to it's own purpose and where-as the flesh is a part of my being it isnt necessaraly you.
We're duped into uncontrolable sexual urges because biology has made great efforts to make it feel good - even though we think the behavior irrational. In the end, nature/biology has to find a way.

Monica said...

I see your point, dridio, I just worry that blaming it on "biology" (even if it is, to a large degree, biology's fault) staves off the potential for human responsibility, and once that happens the world becomes a nightmare -- unlivable.