One of the major obstacles to communicating what belief feels like is that I’m not working with a blank slate. Our culture is smudged over with half-legible religious scribbling that makes people think that they know what believers are talking about when they really, really don’t.
Case in point: the word ‘sin’, that well-known contemporary brand-name for ice-cream. And high-end chocolate truffles. And lingerie in which the colour red predominates. And sex toys; and cocktails. There’s a brand-management agency in Australia called ‘Sin’. There used, God help us, to be a seaside panto for adults starring Jim Davidson which went by the name of Sinderella. Taxes on cigarettes and booze are ‘sin taxes’. Sin City, in Frank Miller’s comic book and the movie adaptation of it, is a locale where the population are entirely occupied in lap-dancing and extreme violence. Keep piling up the examples, and a picture emerges – meaning congealing from a pointillistic cloud. It isn’t tidy, this definition-by-use, and the cloud of meaning clearly has a light end (truffles) and a noir end (Frank Miller) but it’s entirely comprehensible all the same.
‘Sin’, you can see, always refers to the pleasurable consumption of something. Also, it always preserves some connection to sex, which is why it would seem creepy for it ever to appear in the branding of a product aimed at children, and sometimes the sex is literal, but usually it’s been disembodied, reduced to a mere tinge of the atmosphere of desire, and transferred from sex itself to another bodily satisfaction, to eating or drinking or smoking or greedy looking (all of which are easier to put on sale in bulk quantities than sex itself). The other universal is that ‘sin’ always encodes a memory of ancient condemnation: but a distant memory, a very faint and inexplicable memory, just enough of a memory to add a zing of conscious naughtiness to whatever the pleasure in question is. Whether the thing you’re consuming is saturated fat spiked with mood-lifting theobromine (truffles again) or the spectacle of non-existent impulse control rendered in moody black and white (Frank Miller again) you kind of know you shouldn’t. But not in a serious way. The pleasure comes from committing an offence (against good nutrition or boring old good taste) which is too silly to worry about.
Everybody knows, then, that ‘sin’ basically means ‘indulgence’ or ‘enjoyable naughtiness’. If you were worried, you’d use a different word or phrase. You’d talk about ‘eating disorders’ or ‘addictions’; you’d go to another vocabulary cloud altogether. The result is that when you come across someone trying to use ‘sin’ in its old sense, you may know perfectly well in theory that they must mean something which isn’t principally chocolatey, and yet the modern mood music of the word is so insistent that it’s hard to hear anything except an invocation of a trivially naughty pleasure. And if someone talks, gravely and earnestly, about what a sorrowful burden one of those is, the result will be to be to make that speaker seem swiftly much, much more alarming than the thing they’re getting worked up about. For which would seem to you to be the bigger problem, the bigger threat to human happiness: a plate of pralines, or a killjoy religious fanatic denouncing them?
If I say the word ‘sin’ to you, I’m basically buggered (as we like to say in the Church of England). It’s going to sound as if I’m bizarrely opposed to pleasure, and because of the continuing link between ‘sin’ and sex, it will seem likely that at the root of my problem with pleasure is a problem with sex. You will diagnose me as a Christian body-hater. You’ll corral me among the enemies of ordinary joy.
So I won’t do that. Because that isn’t at all what I mean. What I and most other believers understand by the word I’m not saying to you has got very little to do with yummy transgression. For us, it refers to something much more like the human tendency, the human propensity, to f*** up. Or let’s add one more word: the human propensity to f*** things up, because what we’re talking about here is not just our tendency to lurch and stumble and screw up by accident, our passive role as agents of entropy. It’s our active inclination to break stuff, ‘stuff’ here including moods, promises, relationships we care about, and our own well-being and other people’s, as well as material objects whose high gloss positively seems to invite a big fat scratch. Now, I hope, we’re on common ground. In the end, almost everyone recognises the HPtFtU (as I think I’d better call it) as one of the truths about themselves.
This is an extract from Francis Spufford’s book, ‘Unapolgetic; Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense’ available now from Faber and Faber.