The Other World Must Be Revealed
We have all known the person who can't seem to hear what others say, particularly if what the others say is unwelcome. The hoarder to whom a child says, "Dad, your house is an utter mess," who acknowledges what his child says but then explains why things are all right the way they are: "I know it isn't a good place for you, but it works for me and my seventeen dogs." The worker who hears someone say, "You don't finish the things you start" and who may respond "Yes, that is a problem." But then nothing happens. He or she seems not really to have heard the criticism.
Sometimes these are relatively small problems. But sometimes not. The doctor says to me, "You are overweight," but the reality of what he says doesn't sink in. I agree with him, then leave and tell myself that I have big bones, that the studies about weight aren't all that conclusive, that the body mass index doesn't tell a good enough story about health because it doesn't take enough factors into account. A failure to hear what we don't want to recognize can ruin families and destroy careers. It can kill us psychologically and physically. It also kills us spiritually.
Speaking to the Prophet Ezekiel, God defined that inability to hear (and see) as the condition of sin:
Son of man, thou dwellest in the midst of a rebellious house, which have eyes to see, and see not; they have ears to hear, and hear not: for they are a rebellious house (Ezek. 12:2).
Here rebellion against God, sin, isn't portrayed as open rebellion. Few of us are figures of Satan, confronting God face-to-face and refusing him and his commands. Instead we rebel by being unable to hear and see. We cannot see our real condition. We cannot hear the truth.
Of course there are sinful acts. Of course those acts range in severity from the petty to the awful. But ultimately sin is not a matter of doing those particular acts, whether small or great. It is a matter of living in a world where sinful acts are appropriate or justifiable in some way. "I can't help myself" and its many variations is one of the most common justifications. In sin I live as I do because, though there are many options within the world I inhabit, none of them include the possibility of the world itself being radically different than I now take it to be.
Sin is finding myself in a fallen world and not recognizing that it is fallen because I see no possible alternative. I rebel through a kind of ignorance, an ignorance of self-deception.
Perhaps that kind of rebellion is more difficult to overcome than open rebellion. (I'm not sure; I don't think I've ever seen a case of open rebellion against God.) If we rebel openly, then presumably we can stop. But if our rebellion is because we cannot see or hear the truth, then we cannot get ourselves out of that condition. I rebel not calling what I do "rebellion" for there is no alternative, regardless of how much I wish there were, regardless of how much someone else might insist that there is. I may agree with them in the abstract, but in truth I cannot see any alternative to the way I live.
So even if I hear the doctor and agree with him, I don't really hear him. What he says can be explained away, understood differently, or ignored. If I am to break free from my problem, something must happen that breaks apart the world in which he can be ignored or misunderstood. Something must happen that shows me, existentially, that there is an alternative to my self-deception about my behavior.
James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.