Confession in religion2

Paul Ricoeur has argued that the notion of human beings standing guilty before some transcendent tribunal for evil deeds they have committed is one that had to gestate over many centuries, and go through several stages of development, before it entered the minds of our ancestors.37 In its earliest stages, evil was viewed as some impurity in the environment that needed to be avoided because it defiled those who came into contact with it. Like an infection that was contracted through the body's contact with impure things, evil left those who touched it unclean and stained. Objects in the world that contained this taboo force were to be avoided; they were dreaded channels of the mysterium tremendum. Those who were defiled could expect to suffer any variety of calamities - their crops might fail, their fishing nets tear, their children fall ill. Purification after being stained was achieved through a variety of cleansing rituals - ceremonial washing, burning, sweating, induced vomiting. It is significant in this primitive understanding of evil that one could not always avoid being infected. Impurities were abundant in the world and not always obvious - they could be stumbled into unawares. Responsibility for sin in this scheme of things was a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and not yet that of the person who succumbs to temptation, carries through on a proscribed act, and is subsequently blameworthy for the action and its consequences. The modern notion of guilt as an anticipation of deserved chastisement (in this life or the next) for thoughts and deeds that can be attributed to a responsible agent - the sense that one carries a burden of weight accumulating from one's own past transgressions - emerged much later. Both testaments of the Bible offer a history of this evolution.

The phenomenon of the scrupulous conscience that examines itself in light of what it takes to be a divine demand to be holy, probing layer after layer of motive and perception, finally discovering at bottom an author of the action, uncovering a will that has set a wicked deed in motion - finding, that is, a self - seems to have emerged as a secondary effect of the sense of guilt. Ricoeur argues that human beings have become aware of themselves as selves because of an inchoate sense of guilt which they then reflected upon. "Man had the consciousness of responsibility [for sin] before having the consciousness of being cause, agent, author."38 In the West this came to eloquent expression during the first century in both Judaism and Christianity. It is described in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, which has parallels in rabbinic teachings of the same period, and rises again quite magnificently in Augustine's Confessions. Following on this, the development of the contours of the Christian conscience set out down a long and winding road in the history of the church.

The practice of confession and penance, what is sometimes called the "care of souls," is at the heart of this story. In the first few centuries of the church, sins were confessed publicly, and the forms of penance were often severe - humiliation before the community, fasting, abstinence from sex, exclusion from Christian fellowship and from the Eucharist. Absolution, or forgiveness for the consequences of sin (the time that would be spent in purgatory), was given only after the penance was completed - and until sometime around the sixth century, once baptized, a Christian could avail him or herself of absolution for more serious sins only once over the course of their lives. This once-in-a-lifetime provision was finally recognized as too severe and allowance was made for periodic rounds of confession/penance/absolution that an individual could make in private to a priest.

In caring for souls it was important that the burden of the penance fit the weight of the sin, taking into account not only the sinful action but also its motive and any extenuating circumstances that applied, and in order to guide clergy in assigning suitable penance, monks and bishops in the Middle Ages began composing Penitential Manuals, books which correlated sins to the penance they warranted. To make the practice more uniform, over time it became common to organize these handbooks following the scheme of the Ten Commandments or the seven cardinal sins, or some similar list of the sinful ways of human beings that the faithful could be taught to use as devices for inventorying their evil thoughts and actions since their last confession. This, as it turns out, proved to be a highly effective device for moral instruction. In memorizing these comprehensive lists of the categories of sin, a template for the moral life was internalized - the shape of the Christian conscience itself was formed, much as the Jewish conscience was formed by following the legal writings in the Torah. Moreover, in the fine-tuning that occurred over the centuries within the manuals, itemizing all the motives and circumstances that figure into the gravity of an offense, the complexity of human sinful-ness was mapped out in exquisite detail. A boy who steals food because of his poverty must fast for three days; a boy who steals food to make a profit must compensate the victim and fast for 30 days. If one man kills another out of a flash of anger, he must live on bread and water for 3 years; if he has killed another by accident, he must do penance for only 1 year. If one man maims another in a fight that arises from a quarrel, he must cover the medical expenses and do the victim's work until he has healed. In an Irish Penitential written in the seventh century, the priest hearing confession was instructed on the mitigating circumstances that he is to keep in mind in determining penance:

This is to be carefully observed in all penance: the length of time anyone remains in his faults; with what learning he is instructed; with what passion he is assailed; with what courage he stands; with what tearfulness he seems to be afflicted; and with what oppression he is driven to sin. For Almighty God who knows the hearts of all and has bestowed diverse natures will not estimate various weights of sins as worthy of equal penance.39

Many abuses arose over the centuries regarding the practice of penance and periodic reforms were necessary. Nevertheless, its role in shaping the Christian conscience and in training the faithful to interrogate their souls is an achievement that has left its mark on Western civilization in both law (canon law, a primary source of Western law, grew out of the Penitentials) and ethics. Moreover, in the whole confessional apparatus one can find the antecedents for modern psychology with its investigations of the layers of the human personality and its analyses of the mixture of external forces and internal motives that give rise to our behavior. The idea that there is a realm of self-interested forces at work in the depths of the human psyche was not an invention of Nietzsche, Marx or Freud. They probed it in new and instructive ways, but it had been an object under scrutiny for centuries through the manuals and practice of penitence.

While Protestants rejected the sacrament of penance and the belief in purgatory that it presumed, they retained many of its essential elements in their ethics and liturgy. The fundamental idea that good works can reduce one's guilt certainly survived, in spite of the Reformers protests that salvation depends upon grace alone, or that good works should be motivated by gratitude for God's mercy rather than by a desire to justify oneself. It merely mutated into what Max Weber called the Protestant work ethic - hard work and good works are an assurance of one's salvation. Moreover, somewhere in the scrupulous self-interrogation that both the Catholic sacrament of penance and the Protestant work ethic underwrote, Christians were reassured that they existed as selves who could author actions that would have consequences in the real world, and persuaded that these actions should conform to the will of God.

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