What follows are snippets from conversations with a friend about ‘sinner and saint’ — even the saint is still a sinner — but how does ‘sick’ fit into the equation?
Some trans-personal psychologists have recently argued that sickness was under-estimated by ancient mystical religions, which meant both [a] that psycho-pathological states in gurus, teachers, elders, holy persons, were indulged, and not challenged, but completely missed, often confused with illuminatory states, and [b] that psycho-pathology was usually not recognised as a source of ordinary people’s unhappiness, immorality, deluded condition. Are we sinners who must take responsibility for what we have done, and repent? Or are we sick, and crying out for healing? If we are both at one and the same time, how should these over-lapping factors be weighted?
It seems that the subtle line between ‘evil’ and ‘sickness’ has yet to be well thought out.. The old monastic traditions certainly ignored psychopathology, neurosis, psychosis, as a diagnostic category; they seemed not to take into account the influence of early childhood psychological damage in the portrait of the adult sinner. On the other hand, Eastern Orthodox Christianity did tend to see ‘sin’ itself as a kind of metaphysical ‘sickness’, a deranged and deluded state of being, a falling away from ‘well-being’ into ‘ill being’ [depletion of being]. You get this assessment in St Maximos and earlier Desert monastics..
To regard sin itself, or sin per se, as an illness leads to a more compassionate view of the error in sin, which marks most Orthodox commentary. In Greek, sin simply means ‘failure to hit the mark.’ Thus you tend not to get that Western puritanism, moralism, fundamentalism — “moralic acid” a friend called it — of ‘man, the miserable sinner’ that is the main emphasis of the West. This was already pretty extreme in Augustine of Hippo, but became even worse among the Protestant Reformers like John Calvin et al. The harsh ‘authoritarian’ view of sin goes to extremes in the West, and evokes the ‘liberal’ reaction, which tends to use psychological illness and poor social conditions to virtually ‘explain away’ sin. That is predominant today, though the reactionary fundamentalists want to go back to a very dualistic ‘right and wrong.’
So, the whole problem splits= ‘influences to be considered but no place for choice’ versus ‘all choice and neglect influences.’
I have never come across anyone who does justice to the reality of evil, its temptations, and inducements, and the will’s freedom to withstand or give way [strength vs. weakness] and at the same time takes into consideration just how sick we are, both individually and collectively= “the sickness unto death” David calls it, and Kierkegaard uses that as the title of one of his greatest books.
People are sick, lacking well-being, or any fullness of being, from fairly early on– some from the start [or even in the womb], some from early childhood, some from later in childhood. There is also a certain sickness inherent to family, society, culture, that no one escapes. Indeed, the sick side of things testifies to how influenceable, and open to damage, humans are.
We are a strange mix of immoveable strength and terrible vulnerability, of passion and pathos.
We are innocent and responsible; broken and responsible; possessed and responsible.
The Protestant existentialist theologian Paul Tillich probably wrestled with this paradox as much as or more than anyone else, in his famous book ‘The Courage To Be’, but I have not come across any modern Western writers, nor ancient writers from East or West, who really engage it in detail. Even Martin Buber, whose understanding of evil avoids both conservative authoritarianism and liberal permissiveness, seems not to connect ‘evil’ and ‘sickness’ explicitly.
As a whole, the West stressed moral culpability, a failure of duty before the Real, whilst the Orient stressed a derangement and delusion of consciousness and being, a lack of experience of — or really grounding in — the Real.
What strikes me is a sort of terrible weight of past sins and past sicknesses that every person coming into this world inherits historically and which crush the spirit almost before it can get going, making both choice and wellness difficult to attain. No one starts with a clean sheet, in truth. We suffer for each other, we suffer because of each other, both in the Now and coming from the Past. This is the key. Given this ‘suffering’ that arises from fundamentally being ‘with’ other people in the open-ended venture of this world, with no winners and losers but we all sink or float together, some sort of connecting, at a deeper level, of sickness and evil might follow..
Given how multifaceted and paradoxical the picture of ‘evil and sickness’ becomes once you really examine it fairly and fully, then it is no wonder that few people have embraced both horns of this dilemma; most people ‘side’ in one direction or the other, but that means there is little understanding of what it means to embrace both horns equally at once.
How can anyone spend time in this world without encountering the reality of both sickness and evil? Some try to reduce the former to the latter, others try to reduce the latter to the former. Isn’t it wiser to accept the reality of both?