Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Sins of Attention?

In the third installment of my series entitled "The Problem of Damned Sinners" (which also included parts 1 and 2 and an addendum), I argued that within the broader context of Calvinist theology, belief in the eternal conscious torment of the damned commits one to the view that the damned remain eternally mired in sinfulness. My case was of the form "A, but if you don't accept A then B; but if you don't accept B, then C"--where A, B, and C are all arguments for the view that the damned remain eternally sinful in a way that constitutes an ongoing affront to the good and to God as the supreme good.

Randal Rauser challenged the strength of my "argument C"--the argument that was directed towards those who claimed that the eternal conscious torment of the damned is so overwhelming that it utterly consumes them and thereby prevents them from actually sinning. In response to this, I argued that in order for the damned to suffer conscious torment, they would need to attend to their torment; and in order for this torment to wholly consume them, the torment would have to occupy all of their attention. But insofar as (on traditional theological assumptions) we ought to attend first and foremost to the divine, such fixation on oneself would qualify as sinful. Thus, the conclusion that the damned sin eternally cannot be escaped by insisting that they are too focused on their own torment to commit any sins.

Randal found this argument implausible and appealed to the analogy of someone being slowly skinned alive to highlight the implausibility of it. Now there's a sense in which I agree that the argument is highly implausible. But what I think makes it so implausible is precisely this: If someone is being subjected to extreme torment, the torment is driven to the very center of their consciousness so fully that they really cannot attend to anything else. And it seems implausible to hold someone accountable--as guilty of a sin--for attending to what they cannot help but attend to.

But to say that this is implausible is, really, to say that Calvinist theology in its strictest forms is implausible--because this theology holds that sinners cannot help but sin while still maintaining that the sinfulness they are incapable of failing to commit remains blameworthy. For the supralapsarian Calvinist, "ought" does not imply "can." What is required for sinful behavior is that the behavior is out of conformity with an established standard, whether or not behavior in conformity with that standard is possible.

But, clearly, what we attend to and don't attend to is an important dimension of sinfulness and holiness in the Christian tradition. To be holy, Christians are exhorted to "think on" the right sorts of things. We are called to love God and neighbor--but it seems impossible to love when we do not attend.

So, within the Christian tradition there clearly will be standards to which our attention must conform. And for the supralapsarian Calvinist, the ability to actually conform is not necessary in order for failures of conformity to be sinfully blameworthy. And so, if attending to God and neighbor and not just to oneself is the established standard, then the person who attends only to herself is sinning...even if the person is attending only to herself because she cannot help it, because the suffering she is enduring so swamps her that nothing else breaks through.

In fact, however, I think that this kind of fixed attention on your own torment isn't sinful, precisely because I think that when torment overwhelms your psyche in this way, the subsequent fixity of attention is a result produced in you by forces beyond your power to resist, and hence not something you can be held accountable for. But this way of thinking presupposes the very "ought" implies "can" principle that, it seems to me, the strict Calvinist theology I was assessing has to deny.

I might rest on that point, but as usual I think there is a more philosophically interesting set of issues lurking at the margins here. Specifically, I think that the psychological state in which we cannot help but attend wholly to our own suffering is precisely what the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil had in mind when she spoke of "affliction" (which she distinguished from mere suffering). And for Weil, such affliction has a unique place in Christianity--a place given to it by the crucifixion.

I think that there are lessons to be learned from reflecting on Weil's ideas here and bringing them to bear on the conservative Christian notion that some persons suffer eternal torment. In a near-future post or two, then, I want to explicate some of Weil's core ideas in relation to attention and affliction.

Before doing that, however, there are some more really mind-boggling bills being brought before the Oklahoma legislature that I want to call attention to as a public service...maybe tomorrow.

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