More on the Damnably Foolish Virgins

UPDATE: there are Harry Potter spoilers in the comments section.  If this is a problem for you, don’t read my reply to Christian H or anything that follows.

Thanks a lot to everyone who weighed in with exegesis of the parable of the ten virgins.  More perpectives and references are quite welcome.  Several people said it was impossible (physically and metaphorically) for the wise virgins to save the foolhardy ones; no mortal can fully redeem another person.  A number of people took this as a jumping off point to talk about the limits of self-sacrifice.  dbp thought the lesson might be:

People should always, first and foremost, be concerned with maintaining their own holiness, even if it comes at the cost of not trying to make others more holy.

This is a very interesting proposition, and summons up for me both C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce and the semi-pagan tradition of sin-eaters.  In Lewis’s meditiation on Heaven and Hell, he tries to explain how the saved can be perfectly happy, even while their loved ones remain in hell. In the chapter of the Lady, the Dwarf, and the Tragedian, a saintly woman rebukes the shade of her earthly lover:

Stop it. Stop… using pity, other people’s pity, in the wrong way. Pity was meant to be a spur that drives joy to help misery. But it can be used the wrong way round. It can be used for a kind of blackmailing. Those who choose misery can hold joy up to ransom, by pity…

Did you think joy was created to live always under that threat? Always defenceless against those who would rather be miserable than have their self-will crossed? …You made yourself really wretched. That you can still do. But you can no longer communicate your wretchedness. Everything becomes more and more itself. Here is joy that cannot be shaken. Our light can swallow up your darkness: but your darkness cannot now infect our light. No, no, no. Come to us. We will not go to you.

So perhaps the idea here is that the wise virgins are incapable of compromising their light for the sake of those who were unprepared, because the unrighteous are not permitted to endanger the joy of the righteous.  Lewis presents a much stronger formulation of this idea: in heaven, it is impossible for the foolish to diminish the wise.  On earth, and in the parable, the principle seems closer to the lifeguard rule: you can’t put yourself in serious danger to save a drowning person.

It’s the exact opposite of the 19th century tradition of sin-eaters in England and Wales.  Sin-eaters took on the burden of a dying person’s sins by eating a crust of bread that was passed to them over the body, readying the patient for heaven.  The practice died out (and was never officially sanctioned) but you can spot it’s modern analogues anytime someone talks about “having the courage to get our hands dirty.”  It’s the spirit of a revolutionary who seeks to bring about a new world that would abhor the things he did to achieve it.

It’s easy to reject these choices in the abstract, but if you took personal purity as the highest good, it’s hard to avoid becoming a hermit.  At the very least, I imagine rejecting sin-eating might make it hard to sustain any kind of Christian Just War theory.  How could preserving the physical and temporal well-being of yourself and others trump the danger of training yourself to look at another human through gunsights?

What kind of schema do you use to decide when you’re getting in too deep?  I tend to use pretty parsimonious weighting (after all, one of the perils of being an atheist is that there’s no supernatural force to heal you when you break).  For Christians, does your faith lead you to be more reckless/profligate/trusting when it looks like helping someone else out of the hole could endanger your soul?

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Rob

    I think you’re on to something in bringing up Just War Theory. Catholics, the originators of the Christian JWT, are generally fairly comfortable adopting their practice to local customs. In comparison, Christians coming out of the Anabaptist tradition, like the Amish, Mennonites, etc. have a worldview that tries to be a witness more by looking set apart from the world, and are less prone to make compromises, like just war theory.

    A more compelling exploration of this dilemma can be found in the writings of Shane Claiborne, especially Jesus for President, and The Irresistible Revolution.

  • HBanan

    Well, we do have the sacrament of Confession, and we do believe that we should serve as good examples, and should look for good examples for us to follow. Forgiveness of sin and the Redemption from our sins by Christ are a huge part of our faith. Not sure how that compares to “sin-eaters.” Maybe a difference is that we still believe the sinner must actively repent, at least mentally, and that if they die unrepentant then other people’s actions can’t really do anything for them.

    I think it’s absolutely essential that we understand there is a limit to our good influence, and that there’s a limit to the benefit of the good examples in our own life. Regarding your question on knowing our limits, Christians who don’t have humility regarding their ability to change those around them risk not only the chance of starting to imitate the sins of the people they are trying to help, but also becoming prideful, judgmental, angry and complacent about their own spiritual state. You are thinking of someone who tries to change another person’s behavior and ends up joining in — like an alcoholic who goes to bars to preach the evils of booze and then just can’t help taking a drink. But don’t non-Christians, and even Christians, more often complain of the bossy church lady who just needs to criticize everyone for not being as perfect as she is? That’s a temptation, too, and needs to be fought. It takes humility to recognize our limitations, and we do have them, whether in volunteering, preaching, or raising kids. At some point, you have to let go and let other people find their own path.

    Knowing whether or not one is slipping into bad habits is the same for dangerous volunteering or just regular old temptation; it takes frequent examination of conscience, self-awareness, and prayer. That active pursuit of virtue is part of the wisdom a good Christian should have.

  • Iota

    Short comment:

    “rejecting sin-eating might make it hard to sustain any kind of Christian Just War theory”

    Perhaps no war ever actually met the Just War criteria?

  • http://bigthink.com/blogs/daylight-atheism Adam Lee

    I mentioned in my review of TGD that some religious traditions take a completely opposite perspective on this matter. In Buddhism, for example, a class of saints called the bodhisattvas voluntarily choose not to enter into nirvana, to remain in the world of suffering and change as long as necessary, in order to help others escape it. This is said to be their vow:

    “Never will I seek nor receive private individual salvation – never enter into final peace alone; but forever and everywhere will I live and strive for the universal redemption of every creature throughout all worlds. Until all are delivered, never will I leave the world of sin, sorrow and struggle, but will remain where I am.”

  • http://deusdiapente.blogspot.com J. Quinton

    Tom Verenna asks a somewhat related question at his own blog.

  • dbp

    Leah,

    I’m not sure if I was totally clear in my comments in the other thread. The point isn’t at all that we shouldn’t try to help others to holiness. It’s that we should balance that with an appropriate humility and an understanding of the economy of salvation. I am “unequally yoked” myself in my marriage: my wife is a non-Christian, and I’ve had to struggle with issues related to this myself. It isn’t a decision I made easily, but I also think– and have the support of a very serious, dedicated, highly-respected, and uncompromising 83 year-old priest, which makes me more confident that I’m not taking too many liberties with Catholic doctrine in this– that it is necessarily mere folly.

    It is, however, dangerous.

    It is essential to keep in mind is that the ultimate source of holiness is God and only God; that isn’t to say that we can’t be tools by which he brings holiness or forgiveness to others (in fact, I see it as our highest and foremost calling after seeking God ourselves), but rather that whatever our own efforts may be, they will at best be secondary causes of conversion. In fact, we aren’t even the primary causes of our own salvation, and to ‘give up our oil’ is to forget that. Both the ‘sin-eaters’ and the Buddhists in Adam Lee’s comment above would be corrected not in sentiment, but in realization of this fact: that there is, in fact, someone competent to effect the salvation of all who would be saved, and that someone isn’t us.

    This is the humility that I and others have referred to in this discussion. Yes, it demands that we never wilfully act in such a way as to diminish our holiness; but it gives us something in return: namely, the confidence that we can trust Jesus when he says ‘be not afraid.’

    This is the confidence that allows us to live in this world and engage fully with it. Just War (if there is in fact such a one in reality) is the same. You mention ‘training yourself to look at another human through gunsights,’ and it’s a very real danger. But I submit that even if participation in a Just War does deaden the emotional side of the moral instinct, a person appropriately rooted in humility and justice will not be swayed by it. And that is key, because temptation is not sin.

    So, the appropriate course of action is, like anything in this world, a matter of balancing and prudence. There is no sin in dining with prostitutes and tax collectors*, so engaging with them is not ‘giving up oil.’ It only crosses the line if we start to act sinfully– which is, however, really quite common, so care must definitely be used.

    [* It can, in fact, be sinful in this respect: that we should not put ourselves in such situations unless we are justly confident they will not prove too much of a temptation to us, and that it will not give rise to scandal. Again, humility and self-knowledge are key.]

    To answer your final question, about how to decide when you’re in over your head, that’s a tricky one. I think the simple answer is prayer, reflection, and communion with the Church (which entails participation in the sacraments and a certain measure of obedience). If you’re sure your orbit is around God and not yourself or someone else, then what do you have to be afraid of? That’s not to say you’ll always get everything right, but it does mean you won’t get it irreparably wrong.

  • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

    “It’s the spirit of a revolutionary who seeks to bring about a new world that would abhor the things he did to achieve it.” I assume you’ve seen /Serenity/? This is a question I was actually thinking about today, in terms of (among other things) /Battlestar Galactica/: perhaps we need to do more than survive; perhaps we need to be worthy of survival.

    Anyone who knows me will likely tell you that I am exactly the sort of person who would damage myself so another doesn’t have to. But, and I think this addresses your final question, I don’t see how doing so /could/ jeopardize my “holiness.” I think that category is a little broken in our current language, since it reminds me of the OT purity codes. The Gospels seem abundantly clear (insofar as they can be abundantly clear, that is) that we are supposed to be violating purity for the sake of others’ wellbeing, and in so doing we enter into a new category of “holiness” or what have you. The epistles (and so much contemporary Christian culture) would call this Christlikeness. So it seems to me that impurity for another –> “holiness”/Christlikeness. This being said, there are places where you’d seriously wonder, and war (or any other form of killing) seems like such a place. That’s more than just culturally taboo; that’s actually destructive. But then that’s rather like harming one in order to save another, and that’s where my objection to it would lie (if I objected to it, which I’m not sure I always do). I wouldn’t object on the grounds that it would hurt the one doing the killing (unless they would be likely to kill again as a result, but that still moves back into the hurting another issue).

    • leahlibresco

      I would have explicitly quoted Tigh’s speech from the occupation, but I didn’t want to be too BSG spoilery.

      I think there’s a difference between violating a purity code (Jews can break the Sabbath to save a life) and actually doing a bad thing so that someone else can be spared it’s taint. To discuss spoilers for a different series, if Dumbledore hadn’t been dying, Snape might still have been justified in killing him solely so Malfoy would not become a murder and view himself as beyond redemption. The marginal harm done to Snape would not be negligible, but would almost certainly be less that the injury to Malfoy, and Dumbledore would be just as dead either way.

      • dbp

        This is exactly where we need to realize that we are not capable of giving holiness. I haven’t read Harry Potter, so I can’t speak to your analogy, but killing someone so that another person who intends the same can’t do so is deeply flawed. Not only it is never permissible to murder in cold blood, but also the interior action and direction of the person (Malfoy?) which is a precondition for the action of murder is already serious enough that merely stopping the action is not enough to cure the soul.

        If a person is capable first of murder and then of despair of redemption, they are already deeply broken (either in terms of sinfulness or something else) in ways only God can heal. A Christian should absolutely try to help that healing, and to stop a murder if at all possible, but doing so by murdering preemptively is not the way to do it. Work to turn the murderer’s heart before the act takes place? Good. Die defending the target? Not bad, and very good in some circumstance. Help the murderer come to forgiveness and redemption after the fact? Good. But taking on their sin doesn’t address the internal conversion needed and forfeits your own soul along the way. Not good.

      • Charles

        First, you’ve ruined Harry Potter for me, thanks. (Have a fourth grader working through the books for the first time, as an adult already I never had anything to do with them on release, and we are only on book 4)

        Second, sounds like virtue ethics to me, that committing as act can make a change that is irreversible to someone.

        Third, as to this question of doing the ‘dirty’ work to spare someone I think it looks that way on the surface but is actually simpler. The blog that was linked to earlier asked if one would forsake their religion to get a billionaire to donate billions to a good cause. I would argue that in this case the intention is what matters, not the action. I don’t recall the specifics at this moment but I believe in Japan there was a point where Christians were made to walk on images of Christ as a way to show disrespect, they did so (showing an outward sign to others that they had forsaken their faith, when in fact they had not and asking Christians to figuratively trample on Christ in a degrading way shows a profound lack of knowledge in Christian theology anyway) — end result these tiles with Christ on them are now a uniquely Japanese feature of Christianity and hold a cultural place and meaning for those Christians. However I am sure there were Christians at the time who in their ‘heart’ abandoned faith for their own safety, they surely were not made more holy than the ones who were in effect martyring themselves for their faith in a small way.

        Double effect certainly also applies. Take Snape for instance if he willfully kills Dumbledore to achieve some good (salvation for Malfoy) this is a terrible sin (two wrongs don’t make a right and all that). However if he chooses to save Malfoy and in doing so causes the death of Dumbledore, even in a plainly foreseeable way, one can argue that he is not stained with that sin through ‘double effect’ — Intention. This applies to law as well, as they say: ‘intention follows the bullet’ – if I shoot at you to murder you and miss hitting someone else I am just as guilty, if I shoot at you to legally use deadly force to stop you from committing a rape (in my state one of the few overtly stated cases where lethal force is just is to prevent a rape) I miss and kill an innocent bystander, I can use the ‘to prevent rape’ defense in this case, as my intention was not for murder. (obviously this situation in practice would be complicated by all sorts of questions about due regard for the safety of others, recklessness, whether lethal force was actually justified, etc)

      • taosquirrel

        Ah, I was *wondering* why Snape and Dumbledore weren’t mentioned in the original post! This hypothetical seems unnecessary to me though, considering the depth and ambiguity of the situation that actually occurred in the books. Anyway, the chief problem with this entire line of thinking is that it presumes the ability to fully understand a person (unless it just has a completely wrong understanding of hell). The damnation of a soul is a tricky thing. It is not merely some divine version of a modern penal code, with proportionate sentences allotted to various violations, but is the very response of a person to the Love that is a consuming fire. It is impossible to know for sure how Malfoy, or anyone else, will react to that. Even Malfoy cannot know himself this well. He might certainly feel completely trapped, but conversion comes suddenly and unexpectedly, like a thief in the night. It opens locked doors and breaks bonds asunder and Leah you should really read The Brothers Karamazov because I’m thinking of it right now but don’t want to spoil it for you like you ruined Harry Potter for these poor people. Hehe.

      • deiseach

        You’re taking St. Paul’s position in his Epistle to the Romans, Chapter 9:

        “1 I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit— 2 I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, 4 the people of Israel.”

        But the Church teaches that no, you cannot damn yourself to save another. The end does not justify the means.

        Besides, the foolish virgins are not (or may not be) unbelievers. They can also be believers who are insufficiently prepared, those whose faith is lip-service only, lukewarm, a matter of habit and not of real interior change. After all, the ten are all waiting for the bridegroom together, so they must all have the expectation that there is a bridegroom to wait for (if I make myself clear).

        Their fault, then, is that they should have known better because they knew they might have a long wait and should have been prepared. It would be different if they just happened along and had no idea what was going on.

      • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

        I see the distinction you’re making, and I personally think the example is apt. Another movie example would be /Constantine/, in fact, and the theology in that film is clear: self-sacrifice is always a Get-Out-of-Hell-Free card. (But I wouldn’t take /Constantine/’s theology seriously.

        I think what some of the other commenters are missing with Draco is that this goes beyond a psychology of intent. If he doesn’t have to go through with it, he might not think of himself as forsaken and repentence and rehabilitation will be easier. If he /does/ go through with it, subsequent repentence and rehabilitation will likely be much harder. This is because past mental activity is easier to forget/justify/”correct” than past behaviours–though the opposite is true for future mental activity versus behaviours. (I wish I could cite actual case studies, but I can’t. However, I can say that this is coming from Peter Grey’s /Psychology/, and I’m sure that there will be sources in there.)

        I’m still not sure about all of this, though. What is morality? Is it, primarily, a way of relating to people? Or is it primarily a way of relating to God? If the former, then it would seem like Snape is justified. If the latter, that’s less clear; would God want us to do things that we expect will displease him so that another person can more easily do something that will please him (but of course that person may still choose not to)? Is it OK for you to hit your friend in the nose so that another of your friends can regain her trust by comforting her? (Of course, God, being omniscient, ought to be able to tell /why/ you’ve done this thing and be pleased by that, which complicates matters. I’m thinking of ways to think about the question, or dig out the assumptions underlying people’s differences; I’m not even pretending to venture an answer.)

  • deiseach

    I tend to have a knee-jerk mistrust of those who invoke the “afraid to get your hands dirty” defence of their actions (not you, Leah, I hasten to add!)

    Too often it boils down to dirty tricks, state-sponsored assassinations, legitimisation of torture and denial of basic human rights, all on the grounds of “this is the real world and ideals are all very well but you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”. What is really meant is “in order to safeguard our power and privilege, we will pay lip-service to our laws but break them under cover of national security or defence of the free world” or “it’s torture when THEY do it, but it’s interrogation when WE do it!”

  • http://technologeekery.blogspot.com Hendy

    This bit from deiseach really stuck out to me:

    Their fault, then, is that they should have known better because they knew they might have a long wait and should have been prepared.

    Regardless of what they knew or how long they compared, I just can’t imagine Jesus saying, “Well, too late. You knew better. I don’t know you anymore.” This seems exactly the opposite of what he did (living and dying amongst sinners) and commanded (evangelization). What of Paul’s excursions to the heathens? Did he have a fundamental advantage over today’s human?

    In a comment on the other post, Annabelle quotes the Magnificat’s read on this passage (which is similar to many others’ interpretations):

    I was wondering this same thing, but a little blurb in my Magnificat cleared it up for me: “Why do the five wise virgins not share their oil with the five foolish ones? Because it is something that simply cannot be shared. The oil is our personal virtue.”

    Unfortunately, I don’t think this works. If the foolish virgins embarked with some oil (their lamps were burning, after all), that means that they had some personal virtue to begin with. Where did it go? Even if they only had a small amount, they were apparently with strong believers (the wise virgins who had much more oil); couldn’t the virtue they had have sustained them?

    Regardless of the answer to this, the answer just doesn’t jive very well with me. If this is about virtue, and virtue is built via living life and choosing unselfishly in the face of hardship and temptation, why use oil as the metaphorical substance? Oil is bought, not earned/developed over time. The foolish lost because they didn’t stop at the local oil cart on their way out of town?

    At least the parable of the foundations on rock and sand illustrate an intangible structure built over time with great effort. Not planning carefully is devastating. The corrective action/lesson isn’t “Well, just run to the foundation store faster next time.” No, it’s a lifelong journey. This parable just seems stupid. Seriously, personal virtue parable suggests just making sure to buy a container of oil next time?

    Furthermore, it says that the bridegroom was delayed. Is it foolish to expect someone, especially the Jesus bridegrom, to be on time? Perhaps they could have anticipated something going wrong, but I don’t see this as foolish behavior. Lastly, while oil isn’t sharable, it isn’t clear why light wouldn’t be. Couldn’t they pair up? Side by side, lamp in between; the light source will only be half a body’s width further away from a holder who would have held it in the center of her body.

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