The Almost Unforgivable Sin
The Almost Unforgivable Sin
Jesus has had theologians scratching their heads for millennia trying to fathom his cryptic saying, reported in each of the three Synoptic Gospels, quoted here from Mark 3:28 (NRSV): "Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin."
Strong, emphatic words, thrice repeated. I heard Billy Graham in a sermon at Shea Stadium in 1970 express regret that he could not offer an elucidation of these red letter words about the unforgivable sin. But fools rush in, and all that, and Bob Howard thinks the message pretty clear. When the Holy Spirit prompts a soul to acknowledge the presence of heaven and the soul responds with visions of the other place; when purity appears and it is identified as evil; when goodness stands in front of you and you claim it's just another form of wickedness: that's unforgivable. Because... the divine instrumentality of revelation and, therefore, salvation is the Holy Spirit, and if one is so thoroughly stiff-necked and perverse as to equate its promptings with the devil, what chance has God of getting into one's heart, except by spiritual assault, a measure the deity refuses to employ, for our freedom's sake.
More dangerous because more insidious and more likely to dress itself in righteousness is what I would name "the almost unforgivable sin": namely, the claim to know the will of God for the rest of us in the details of our lives personal and communal.
To be sure, the pulpit is regularly engaged in pronouncements on God's will; but the preacher with any humility and a modicum of intelligence shies away from specificity in favor of tamer generalities: like, "God wants us to dwell together in peace," without adding the divine strategy for accomplishing it.
Martin Luther famously explained himself, in those words I can still see in my mind's eye in the stained glass window at Lampman Chapel at Union Theological Seminary: "My conscience is held captive to the Word of God. Here I stand, I can do no other; God help me." He's being resolute without being rigid, certain without being arrogant.
Another echo from that seminary merits repeating in this context, ostensibly from the lips of Reinhold Niebuhr, who noted about those in a fervor to lay down their lives for Christ, that those who are fools for Christ (I Corinthians 4:10) often are only damn fools.
And a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times quoted Sigmund Freud in an analysis of Woodrow Wilson following the presidential idealist's failure to persuade Europe of the vision for peace God had given him:
Freud remarked: “I do not know how to avoid the conclusion that a man [Wilson] who is capable of taking the illusions of religion so literally and is so sure of a special personal intimacy with the Almighty is unfitted for relations with ordinary children of men. As everyone knows, the hostile camp during the war also sheltered a chosen darling of Providence: the German kaiser. It was most regrettable that later on the other side a second appeared. No one gained thereby: respect for God was not increased.” NB
Fifty-eight years before Wilson another U. S. president wrote the greatest American sermon of the 19th century. I mean Lincoln's Second Inaugural, in which he perceived with a wisdom that escaped almost everyone else the inevitable ambiguity of claiming God is on your side and not theirs. Just so, Wise Abe wrote about South and North:
Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh."
(What had previously escaped me is that twice in this brief passage Lincoln quotes Jesus, Matthew 7:1 and Matthew 18:7!)
Those who dare claim divine sanction for their proscriptions for the behavior of the rest of us, and who do so without any caveats, come at us from both the the left and the right. Twenty-five years ago in the heat of the Cold War I was accused by a colleague in the Christian ministry of being a coward, for not acting on the conviction he figured I certainly must have had (because he did!), in opposition to our country's threats of nuclear retaliation against the Soviet Union. And from the right we have been treated to a parade of inanities from TV evangelists, usually blaming me and those like me for everything that's wrong with the U. S. of A.
No need, certainly, to cite any of the ample chapters and verses from Islamic terrorists about Allah's will.
Somewhere recently I read a pundit's piece on what he looked for in a presidential candidate. High up on his list, maybe first, was modesty, and not just in personal habits, in policy pronouncements. I would endorse a similar rule for the pulpit, the dais, the chancel or wherever on a Sunday morning and other times those anointed to speak for God speak for God: do it with fear and trembling, with clear disclaimer that one speaks from one's own conscience as it is held captive to the Word of God, and that one's conscience should never be equated with God's will.
Then the almost unforgivable sin will be side-stepped, the pulpit will less likely be subjected to ridicule, and, best of all, the truth will be served.
NB. "Hail to the Analysand," George Prochnik, The New York Times, May 6, 2007