From The Guardian – discussing a secular Lent verses a Christian Lent.
I am a b*****d. A complete s**t. And so too are you. Calvinists call it the doctrine of total depravity. And it is the existential driver of Lent. Of course, most Christians these days wouldn’t use my fruity language. Though this is, generally speaking, a modern squeamishness (Luther’s language, for instance, was perfectly foul). Rather, they would talk of sin – which I agree is a good and important word, but one that has come to be debased by the church’s obsession with the bedroom and the secular world’s appropriation of it to describe calories.
Which is why I rather despise the secular Lent of giving up chocolate and coffee, thus having a second go at the new year resolutions that ran into the sand somewhere in mid-January. This sort of Lent is such a pale imitation of the real thing that I prefer to have nothing to do with it whatsoever. This year, I am giving up giving things up. To be honest, I am not very good at it either. At least giving up giving up is something I reckon I will have a reasonable chance of achieving.
The irony of the secular Lent of giving up chocolate etc is that it turns a period of self-denial into one of self-regard. It makes it all about me, and most especially, the cultivation of my own beauty or sense of worth. This sits rather oddly with the message that most Christians received last Wednesday when they were marked with ash and told that they were going to die: “Know that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
It’s not the sort of encouraging cheery message one finds above the door of the gym or in the pages of those nauseatingly upbeat self-help manuals.
Yet, the language of sin and death – both, in Christian theology, the gift of Adam and thus a constituent part of the human condition – are, I think, much more compassionate ways of looking at human beings than the alternative doctrines of continual self-improvement.
This is counter-intuitive, I know. To use the language of sin sounds all terribly judgmental. But as the wonderful novelist Marilynne Robinson puts it in The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought: “The belief that we are all sinners gives us excellent grounds for forgiveness and self-forgiveness, and is kindlier than any expectation that we might be saints, even while it affirms that standards all of us fail to attain.”
What is crueller or more self-deluded than the idea that human beings might achieve some acceptable state of moral superiority? This is just setting us up to fail. And while it is the case that many of us do not share in the sort of venal practices of those who are lambasted in our tabloid newspapers for their moral failings – again, mostly sex-related – there is much wisdom in the “there but for the grace of God go I” philosophy.