For three years I have been working on a book about sin, The Dark Side of the Soul. When I started on the project I had no idea just how much I would learn in the process, or just how intellectually, emotionally and spiritually engaging it would be. But now the job is done and I have a copy of the book with its stunning cover in front of me.
It’s an obvious and easy time for a moment of reverie – all that reading and thinking and writing and rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting … (sigh), and editing and correcting. All that work and worry is now safely sealed between those covers.
So I look at my book I ask myself ‘Why did I write it?’ and, ‘What does it say?’
Why did I write it?
People today tend to think of ‘sin’ either as an excuse for a laugh, or as an excuse for a guilt-trip. Yet the truth is that the idea is not only really interesting, it’s ethically and spiritually important.
To say that human beings are sinful is a genuine, helpful and liberating contribution for Christianity to make to the world today. But it’s a hugely difficult idea to put across because people are so defensive about the suggestion and so dismissive of the language.
One of the slippery things about sin is that it hides under the radar of self-awareness. So a book about sin has to be a bit tricky too. As I say at one point, the idea is to shine a light into the dark side of the soul to give the demons a bit of a fright. Clearly this book isn’t a textbook, thesis or monograph! It’s serious about its subject, but not super-serious.
The last chapter is called ‘Demon Wrestling: A Practical Guide’. Maybe I should have called it ‘demon frightening for beginners.’ One reason for writing the book was to name and startle a few demons. These cheeky monkeys strut around the place full of vanity and pride, pretending that they do no harm, and how easily we let them deceive us.
Not that I really believe in demons. But the idea of demons does point to something about the experience of sin. We often think of it as coming at us from outside. The truth, however, is that what we think of as ‘outside’ us is probably just a bit of the inside that we are not very aware of – the dark side of the soul.
What does it say?
Well, yes it says that we are all sinners. I go along with the original sin idea, and I don’t think that there’s much point in thinking about how bad very nasty people are. In fact my chapter on ‘malicious tendencies’ is one of the shortest. The truth, I argue, is that more trouble is created, more harm done, and more people get hurt when no one is intending it and everyone believes him or herself to be acting in a well intentioned, justified or even benevolent way. I don’t say anywhere in the book that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. But that’s just because I try to avoid cliches. The point is a good one. Hardly anyone sets out to be horrible. Even trolls think that their actions are justified or helpful. Yet its often when we are high minded that we are at our worst – and vice versa.
One of the things I do in the book is to mash up the seven deadly sins and to come up with a contemporary list of deadlies or vices. My list runs to 23 which I group together in 6 clusters. What all these things have in common is that they are attitudes, habits or actions that, pleasurable or otherwise positive as they may seem, ultimately hurt the person who practices them as well as others.
I don’t think that there is a short list of capital sins from which all the others flow. My image of how sins works is more like a net or web of tiny, almost invisible, filaments. No one filament is that important or that powerful, but between them they ensnare and trap us in such a way that our wriggling and struggling only makes matters worse.
The things I’m most interested in are apparently blameless practices, or even virtues, that go sour on us. For instance, I’m fascinated by our obsession with the shortness of time these days, and while I think that some time management ideas are really smart, I still see expert time managers getting busier and busier. Indeed, despite my best efforts it’s constantly happening to me.
Busyness is one of my deadlies. It’s okay to be busy – sometimes – but as a way of life it’s bad. And I add ‘certainty’ and ‘control’ to my list of deadlies too. We tend to believe that if we were only more certain, or if we only had more control, the world would be better place. This is sinful fantasy. The truth is that many things are unknown and mysterious and when we are dealing with anything other than the most crude and basic processes it’s not control but guidance, and companionship, and facilitating the best efforts of others that will bring us closest to happiness, peace and flourishing.
Honestly I don’t think we will get to anything like peace, justice and flourishing without dealing with sin, especially the sin that hides itself in virtue. That’s why I wrote The Dark Side of the Soul.