For I acknowledge my offense,
and my sin is before me always:
“Against you only have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight.”
I don’t often open these reflections with a quote from scripture, but this one is important. For many humanists, the existence of God is questionable, and this statement is a negative reflection on Christians (and Jews because this is a Psalm quote) in the sense that these groups see themselves negatively only as their ‘sins’ pertain to God. Many secularist think this mentality justifies atrocities because “God’s law” is above “human decency.”
There are two particular problems with the humanist view of sin. 1) It assumes that the moral effort of religion is based solely on dictates which are often at odds with what they see to be worthy, and 2) It assumes that God exists (or doesn’t) in the same way that we exist.
The first problem is actually a result of the second, so I’m going to tackle that one and work backward. God does not exist. Yes, I’m still Catholic, Christian, and worship and honor God. He is not, however, a thing that we can point to and say, there he is. God does not exist, he is the basis of existence. This might seem like a fine point, but it is an important one. A line on a piece of paper exists in the plane of the paper, but the paper does not exist in the same way. You can erase the line, extend the line, make more lines, intersect the lines, etc. You can even draw beautiful art with a wonderful sense of depth to it. None of that fundamentally changes the paper. Take away the paper, however, and you are left with no line, nor even the possibility of there being a line.
This analogy is a simplification (as most are) and breaks down easily on scrutiny, but it is a good starting point. It takes God out of the box of being one of us, and shows that we are because he is. Our existence is an extension of his. It may not be a satisfactory answer for secularists, but it is the necessary thought upon which the statement from psalms is built. When we sin, we deny our nature in God. We defy the way we were created, and seek to be the basis of our own existence. Ultimately, our sin, even when it hurts others, is a denial of our very nature.
The one thing this statement does not mean, is that we are excused of any temporal consequences of our action, but rather, it is an acknowledgement of how to return to a right sense of who we are, and where we fit in the grander plan. This is all important, but what’s most important about the passages we read on Ash Wednesday is that they point to a truth. Our actions flow from our intentions, not the other way around. There are even times that we can do the right things for the wrong reasons (or the wrong things, for the right reasons.) Making sure that our actions and our intentions align, being certain that we have a right view of our place on the paper and where we are headed, is what religion is about.
Keep that in mind this Lent. Don’t fast, abstain, or offer personal penance that isn’t drawing you back in line with understanding God. Because the intention needs to match the action.