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.

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 the president and co-founder of the American Chesterton Society. He is the creator and host of the Eternal Word Television Network series, "G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense." Dale is the author of G.K. Chesterton: Apostle of Common Sense and the recently published The Complete Thinker. He is also the publisher of Gilbert Magazine, and associate editor of the Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton (Ignatius). He lives near Minneapolis with his wife and six children.

  • ForChristAlone

    This has clear implications for the Church’s mission to evangelize the world. No sin – no need for a savior. No sin – no need for Christ. The original sin was Satan’s: NON SERVIAM.

  • David Brunk

    Clearness of the intellect is certainly lacking today. I recently saw a combox post where an atheist first attacked Scripture for condoning immoral acts like genocide and then said that “sin” was a man-made concept. It didn’t seem to occur to him that his second statement completely undermined his first. It certainly brought to mind Chesterton’s quote about the Church being attacked on inconsistent grounds.

  • Even primitive tribes value virginity. Even Hollywood, at one time, valued virginity enough to make the virgin sacrificed to the pagan god a common trope.

    • tom

      Louis Mayer dreamed of this! Weinstein writhes in it on his way to confer with Barack.

  • poetcomic1

    Chesterton explained our fallenness beautifully. When we say that ‘most men are not really manly’, everyone has an idea what you are talking about, but if you say ‘most whales are really whaley’ it is meaningless. In short, man is meant to fully be man the way a whale is utterly a whale. And a man right here in this world is something that “God so loves that….” (You finish the sentence.)

  • Adam__Baum

    It is impossible to diminish the evil that attends the denial of sin, specifically Original Sin.

    However, this bad penny has an obverse side. What the author observed is a an apparent advocate of something called “behavioral economics”, which is an emergent branch of economics that asserts that human beings are beset by primitive and irreparable or irremediable instincts that overrule their reason and rationality and render them incapable of not only of properly attending to their needs, but incapable of developing the habits and disciplines of deference, prudence, industry and thrift that prior generations took as things that could be developed through practice. (In short, you need not worry about sin, but you are irredeemably stupid). It’s Luther’s view of the soul, applied to the intellect.

    Generally, these noxious doctrines have inhabited only peer-reviewed literature, although sometimes they find their way into popular publications. Keynes built an entire fiscal theory around “animal spirits”. More recently, the book “Nudge”, advocated a variety of policies based on the idea of endemic irrationality. Some were relatively benign, such as having employees make a default 401k contribution (you opt out, rather than in to increase participation) but that is conditioned on the idea that all savings is financial (instead of say attending nigh school) and that the person who is too stupid to participate will suddenly demonstrate Peter Lynch’s investment skill.

    Once you diminish the human person to being irrational and unaware (or you nuture that), they lose their dignity and are reduced to animals (of course this affliction escapes our wisened “leaders”). It’s a short step to treating them as beasts of burden animals to herded and worked, and from there, to be branded, traded and slaughtered.

    • HowardRichards

      Maybe some people are taking those models too seriously, but most models either assume that people make perfect decisions (such as assuming that the market is “efficient”) or that their decisions are irrational. Any other model is almost certainly too complicated to use. The sole justification of such a model is how well it describes the BEHAVIORS of the GROUPS of people it is meant to describe, and sometimes they work pretty well — for example, when trying to predict where traffic jams will occur, or how to design rooms that can be evacuated quickly if necessary. They are not meant to give insight into individual human beings.

      • Adam__Baum

        Pick up a copy of “The Black Swan” by N.N. Taleb. Read the part about the nature, magnitude and frequency of “fat tails”.

        • HowardRichards

          What, you think I have nothing to keep me busy? Make your point, or don’t make your point.

          • Adam__Baum

            “a model is how well it describes the BEHAVIORS of the GROUPS of people it is meant to describe,”

            The point is the Guassian distribution fails this test for a great many variables it is routinely applied to describe.

            As for busy, that’s what the mp3 port on the car is for-we’re all busy.

            • Howard

              See, all you had to do was type 1 sentence. Instead you wanted me to go to the library, order a book, wait for it to come, find the chapter you wanted me to read, and ONLY THEN find that one sentence of information. I will always be too busy to waste my time like that.

              Yeah, I know that from reading Mantegna and Stanley’s book ECONOPHYSICS a decade ago.

              But you’re still missing the point. Whether the individual investor’s decisions are modeled as a Gaussian or a Lorenztian, if I’m modeling stock prices I don’t really care what the individual investor is doing — I care about what the sum total of all investors is doing. I will choose the simplest model I can make that gives me the right results for the aggregate variables that really interest me, gladly sacrificing irrelevant details. This is what statistical physicists do all the time. Having sacrificed those details, though, I have no right to claim that my model correctly represents the microscopic behavior I have glossed over just because it produces the correct aggregate behavior. The people who build these models know that. The people who use the models might not. (And of course, if my model does not even produce the correct aggregate behavior, it is useless.)

              • Adam__Baum

                I’d elaborate on what your missing here, but I’m busy.

                • Howard


  • Vinnie

    “The world does not wish to apply any moral standards to itself…”
    THAT’S TRUE! We are not of the world – just in it.

  • HowardRichards

    This is another example of that strange claim: “I don’t understand it, therefore it must be silly and trivial.” That’s not a real argument, Mr. Ahlquist, and it reflects badly on you, not on the research you mock.

    The word “addiction” was not used in this article, but I suspect that the psychologist was talking about phenomena similar to those involved with addiction. Now addiction is often used as a cop-out, but abusus non tollit usum. Addictions to gambling and pornography may or may not be real, but my pounding head tells me the addiction to caffeine is a biological reality, and a heavy drinker who quits too suddenly can actually die from the DT’s. The habitually excessive drinker has a spiritual problem, but he has physical problems, too, and if you’re actually interested in being helpful to him, you’ll see that it’s worth studying both of the problems he faces. It is likewise worth knowing whether those who make unwise gambles with money have more than one kind of problem, and if so, the precise nature of the problems and their treatments. This kind of problem cannot be answered just by journalistic wise cracks; it actually does require research.

  • tom

    The bump on the log offered the sub-prime mortgage is the innocent party. It’s the Wharton educcated swindler, back from government or into banking, who has really
    SINNED. The swindle has curdled all parties for a generation. The swindlers walked away with their profits, rich. The mortgagor got evicted. The government served as Judas, with pride.

    • msmischief

      If they are bumps on the log, they should not be running around loose to be offered such mortgages. The guilty party is those of their family and friends who do not see to their institutionalization.

      The “swindlers” offered mortgages whose terms were clearly written.

      • Adam__Baum

        There would have been no “mortgage crisis” if there hadn’t been pressure on lenders to originate indiscriminately to avoid charges of “redlining”, principally based on a flawed Boston Federal Reserve Study. This was government market manipulation, pure and simple.

        Rather than risk a poor CRA score, (or a lawsuit of the kind pioneered by one Barack Hussein Obama in 1995 against Citibank) especially in its Henry Cisneros reinvigoration, lenders simply dispensed with the three “C”‘s, and applicants were not informed of the factors that, under normal circumstances would have indicated a likelihood of default.

        In the old days, the loan officer would have said you need more collateral, a better job, better work history, less debt and you could work to increase your creditworthiness. In the early 2000’s you walked in, got a NINJA mortgage (no income, no job or assets) .

        In 2003, the Bush Admininstration began warning of risks in the mortgage market

        but Congressional Democrats such as Barney Frank blocked reform.

        • ForChristAlone

          No greater disgrace since Teapot Dome scandal. Watergate pales compared to what liberals have done to our once-fine country. But because of relativism, there are no more scandals because public morality has hit an all-time low.

          • Adam__Baum

            Dependency buys a lot of indifference.

  • Craig

    Excellent. You are a man of Tradition. Pax.

  • hombre111

    Too bad you did not try to understand what that psychologist was saying. People who are addicted are addicted to an increase to a chemical to their brain which stimulates the pleasure center. We learned long ago that alcohol stimulates the pleasure center, and this drive from within fuels the alcoholic’s inability to drink within reason. Now we know that many other things, such as sex, gambling, or pornography do the same thing. The addicts take great personal risks and seem blind to consequences. The result is great personal harm and harm to families and the larger world.
    We have not yet examined the effect of America’s most powerful drug: money. A few thousand wealth-addicted men brought the world’s economy to its knees. But America, the nation of merchants, has great love and respect for these addicts, and cow-tows to their power. I would suggest you read “Wealth Addiction,” by Philip Slater.

    • Adam__Baum

      You forgot the most addictive drugs of all, ignorance and envy.

      • hombre111

        Ignorance and envy is the most worn-out excuse of them all.

        • Adam__Baum

          Nobody has done more to wear it out than you.

    • thebigdog

      If you really are a priest, why don’t you suggest that people use the grace from the sacrament of confession (along with the fortitude to cooperate with that grace) to overcome addictive behaviors? It really helps, I know.

      Also, lust for money is not restricted by class — the poor probably obsess on winning the lottery more than the wealthy… but they get a free ride from enablers like you because when the word “class” is placed before the sin of envy, it somehow magically becomes a virtue.

  • Raymond

    “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.”
    I suspect that the world is not that interested in hearing about moral standards from a group that protects child molesters and protects those who protect child molesters.

  • Sin, original or otherwise, is not an “explanation” for why people do bad things. It is a description of those bad things from God’s point of view.

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