you are sinful, Part 2: the Measure of a Moral System
Written April 23, 2021
Last month I compared late medieval depictions of hell with vague post-religious affirmations of beauty and found the latter inferior as a motivational force. Toward the end of my essay I wrote, “… while I don’t pine for the harsh, hell-focused Christianity of [the 13th century], I do wish there were more acknowledgement today of how we are often not beautiful, how we have the capacity for ugliness—like sin.”
This part of my argument needs further explication. America is still in the middle of the Great Awokening, and now we are anything but short on people pointing out our ugly sides. After the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the bitter and often toxic debates of college campuses and Twitter became common throughout America. Millions of Americans are demanding accountability from other Americans for our failings and crimes related to race, gender, and sexual orientation. It is impossible to read, watch, or listen to the news without the topic coming up within minutes. So why do I think that there should be more acknowledgement of our capacity for sin?
Because sin is not what is being discussed in most of these discussions. While we might talk about America’s “Original Sin of Slavery,” it is a metaphor and not, to many secularists, a sin in the way a religious person might understand it. Sin not only means a serious moral failing, it also implies the ability to atone and to be absolved. Horrific depictions of hell are cautionary, therefore, not predictive. Woke culture, on the other hand, offers condemnation but not forgiveness. It offers is no path to atonement, no reconciliation acceptable but full surrender via radical reforms, controversial reparations, and rhetorical obeisance. This, naturally, only hardens and increases opposition.
Sin is a universal term. It is something everyone is prone to. In many of our discussions today—or, as it is framed in the cliché, in many of our Difficult Conversations on Race—we are talking about something much more limited: the failings and crimes of the majority white European settler and immigrant population and their posterity. We often further limit the current moral reckoning to white and male members of that population—though woe to the white woman who commits a transgression and is reduced to a sub-human “Karen.” Therefore, our current public discussions about our failings are not about something universal but about the very specific failings of very specific people. (Consider, for example, the claim that only white people can be racist. This explicitly denies any universality to racism.)
That monster eating people on the walls of the Florence baptistry is something different. He does not just bite into the rich or the poor or the tall or the short or men or women. He eats everyone who fails but does not repent. “Sinners welcome” he says, rubbing his belly. Medieval artists often depicted men wearing crowns or bishops hats cowering in hell. This was an equal opportunity fate, and everyone who saw it—rich, poor, tall, short, male, female, clergy, or laity—knew it.
13th century Florentines had one advantage over Americans. Though they were a diverse bunch, they were all Catholic and so hell as a warning and motivator had a broad appeal that would just not work in the U.S.A. Short of mass conversion to Catholicism along with a revitalization of the sacrament of Confession, it is hard to think of an admonition that would encourage all of us, in the words of many an apology extracted from Twitter mobs, to “do better.” Trite assertions that “you are beautiful” won’t cut it, but unfortunately neither will religious depictions of the wages of sin.
But anti-racism (as in the ideology and distinct from opposing racism), critical race theory, and attacks on various alleged patriarchies won’t cut it either. Digging through someone tweets from their teenage years is never something someone does to improve that person’s life, and demanding authors’ books be canceled for heterodox thinking is deliberately avoiding any Difficult Conversation. All of these punitive excesses of the left either make those on the right dig in their heels, or drives people from the left or the middle to the right. (Among other consequences, all bad. It makes some people recite maxims they don’t believe, others into keep objections and beliefs to themselves, etc.)
We are left then with the failure of the “you are beautiful” sign to beautify anything, not even a chain-link fence, and the ineffectiveness of the monster in the Baptistry of Florence to scare anyone born after the Battle of the Somme. So, where do we go? How do we forge a new moral system and with it adages and iconography as universal as Christianity’s that will not only chasten and inspire, but will provide the language through which we can have conversations, difficult or otherwise?
A related question: Will America ever create a place as beautiful as a European cathedral?
My wife and I followed some sage advice from Rick Steves when we visited the Sistine Chapel in 2014: go the moment it opens to the public at 9:00 am. Pay for your ticket, he says, then walk straight through the museum, through many, many rooms and hundreds of yards of hallways, and get inside the Chapel before the crowds. Don’t stop for anything.
It’s good advice. We were able to view the Chapel among a relatively light crowd for about an hour and then toured the rest of the museum. Around lunchtime, we tried to return to the chapel to take a passageway that we had read about—a short-cut, we had hoped, where you can supposedly avoid the mile walk from the Vatican museum to the front door of St. Peter’s basilica.
We never made it. The crowds were too thick. In one very long hallway, hundreds, maybe thousands of people stood ten abreast inching their way toward the Chapel. We kept bumping into the people in front of us and kept being bumped from behind. They all wanted to see the famous ceiling—and also the Last Judgement, with all its beauty and horrors. After fifteen minutes barely moving, we turned around and took the long way.
Will America ever create a space like that, where thousands upon thousands of people will come from all around the world, from every religion and culture, believers and non-believers alike, for centuries, to see someone’s vision of an awful truth, to view something that demands we each live a good life?
Today many people are, rightly, trying to create new moral vision for our world, a new ethic. But an ethic must not only admonish, it must inspire. It must inspire artists to create works that expresses its core tenets. It must compel people by the millions, from every part of the earth, to come view those works, to stand ten abreast in a long, long hallway, to endure the wait and the discomfort for a chance to look up, to strain their necks, and to consider the meaning.