Sin and Purity

I once had the misfortune to watch a television program about the economic crisis. There was some attempt being made to explain why people kept investing in schemes that really were not very sound, why they kept getting bigger mortgages than they could not afford to pay back, why they kept believing that the value of real estate would keep increasing forever, why they kept trying to increase their wealth by plunging into unsustainable debt, and so on. It was an almost useful analysis until there suddenly appeared on the screen some psychologist from some big university who had been doing some major research. He had conducted a bunch of brain scans of the “oldest” part of the brain. Not sure what that means. He talked about “that part of the brain that we share with most other animals, even lizards.” Still not sure what that means. The psychologist explained that this was the part of the brain that is most stimulated by sex, drugs, and food. And his big discovery is that it is also stimulated by money. This then is the source of powerful “irrational” emotions.

I did not know that lizards are stimulated by money. I suspect rather that the psychologists are stimulated by grant money. But in any case, I think the real explanation of people’s bad behavior regarding money might be found in a good theology department where they still talk about sin. However, such theology departments are difficult to find, and likely don’t pull in much grant money. Nobody wants to fund research into sin. At least, not if it is called sin. Certainly if it is called by the specific sin of greed.

We never hear about sin. Unless of course, a Catholic, especially a Catholic priest, is found guilty of a sin. Then we hear all about it. The world does not wish to apply any moral standards to itself, only to the Church.

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The world ridicules innocence, but it also ridicules guilt. G.K. Chesterton talks about the way the world will mock an innocent girl, who is “always covered with blushes and confusion.” But he points out that it is another sort of girl who has “more of the confusion” and “less of the blushes.” He goes on to list “confusion of thought, confusion of phraseology, confusion of philosophy.”

The confusion of philosophy comes from the denial of sin. The confusion of thought is evident in the way innocence is assumed though not defined. People sneer when it is honored, yet they are outraged when it is defiled. The confusion of phraseology is seen in the way the world casts about trying to avoid the word sin. Sin is explained away with contradictory terms like “sophistication,” “emotion,” and “irrationality.” As a result what we hear from the newspapers and magazines and television and the internet is something Chesterton describes as “a hash of half a hundred inconsistent philosophies.” The denial of sin ranges from naïve ideas about the horrible things people are really capable of, to the rather nonchalant acceptance of whatever it is that people want to do.

Chesterton observes: “The follower of Rousseau tended too much to say: ‘I am born in a state of innocence, and therefore I can be as guilty as I like.’ But the new skeptics, who also deny Original Sin, seem rather to be saying: ‘There is no Original Sin, because everybody can be born bad and behaves as badly as possible without it.’ The modern humanitarian believes in Total Depravity without any Fall to explain it.”

Without a philosophy of the Fall, it is also difficult to discuss purity. Chesterton points out the same confusion of thought that on the one hand will brashly claim “To the pure in heart all things are pure”; and on the other hand try to explain that there really is no such thing as purity. The same confusion is seen when we all disapprove of prostitution, but do not all approve of purity. But, as Chesterton points out, we cannot deal with a social evil unless we “get at once to the social ideal.”

It should not be that difficult to understand what purity is, and that when we talk about purity, we mean something that has not been befouled by something that befouls, namely sin. There is something all-or-nothing about purity. Purity needs to be completely pure to get itself so called. A little purity does not go very far. A teaspoon of clean water does not purify a tall glass of sewage, but a teaspoon of sewage utterly ruins a glass of clean water. But physical cleanliness should not be confused with moral purity. As Chesterton says, “Saints can afford to be dirty, but seducers have to be clean.”

Chastity is sexual purity. Virginity was an ideal even in the pagan world, but it was Christianity that actually found a way to live out the ideal. Though the modern world seems utterly mystified by the ideal, Chesterton points out that there is an unconscious acknowledgement of it in the modern worship of children. Why else, he asks, would anyone “worship a thing merely because it is small and immature?” It is because we value purity.

But there is still such a thing as chaste sex. It is within the blessed bond of marriage. Something else the world does not understand: that sex should be restricted to a man and woman who are married to each other and open to the life-giving act. The world does not understand it because of the aforementioned confusion. In stunning contrast, says Chesterton, “The reward of chastity is a clearness of the intellect.”

Editor’s note: The image above depicts Charlton Heston as Moses in the 1956 film “The Ten Commandments,” directed by Cecil B. DeMille and distributed by Paramount Pictures.


  • Dale Ahlquist

    Dale Ahlquist is President of the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton and the author of Knight of the Holy Ghost: A Short History of G.K. Chesterton.

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