Sunday, July 14, 2013

Road to Hell

We have all heard the saying "The road to hell is paved with good intentions" No one knows precisely where this comes from. most sources suggest it is an English paraphrase of St. Bernard of Clairvaux "L'enfer est plein de bonnes volontés et désirs."(Hell is full of good intentions and desires)

I would suggest that the road to hell is not paved with good intentions but with rationalization.

The first reading today reminds us that law of God which we must obey in order to enter heaven is not beyond us. In fact the first reading reminds us that it is written in our hearts. What we call natural law. The law of God "is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.”Jesus even reduces the Law to two commandments. And still we seem to have a difficult time living it.

Our problem it seems is two-fold. First, is the very nature of sin. Every sin is at its heart a form of selfishness, a choice of myself and what I want over the value of an other.

Secondly, rationalization. Human reason is one of the greatest gifts God gave us. All we have to do us look around us and we are surrounded by the incredible things the human mind has been able to create. One of the things that drew me to the Catholic Church was her understanding that faith and reason are not opposites, but rather work together to bring us closer to God.

That same reasoning capability, like any gift, can be misused. If it is true that we know right from wrong, if it is also true that we have free will, then how do we sin? The answer is simple. We rationalize. We create in our own minds a construct by which what we want is not a sin, or at least not a "bad sin", as if there were such a thing as a good one. And we are good at it.

Part of what is so insidious about rationalization is that when we do it we are lying to ourselves. When we pass on negative comments, we tell ourselves that we are not gossiping. We take something, but we are not stealing. We say something we know is not true, but somehow we are not liars. And if we are, it was a white lie. Really? What is that?

There is no such thing as accidental sin. For something to be a sin you must know it is wrong and choose to do it. And if we look closely we will see that somewhere between the temptation and the sin was a rationalization. At some moment we created some convoluted rationale for why, in this case, it was ok to do this thing.

In the gospel today the scholar of the law is beginning to work on a rationalization that would allow him to keep disliking certain people when he asks "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus hasn't even finished and he is already looking for a work-around.

The best is of course the Catholic, who not only rationalizes the sin in order to commit it, but then after they commit the sin, they rationalize a second time why they don't need to go to confession.

We are never going to be able to avoid all temptation. There will always be those things which are wrong but attractive. The trick is to know ourselves well enough to be able to identify when the rationalizing starts. We have to interrupt the process at that point. Before we speak, before we act, we must be truthful with ourselves.