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Giles Fraser: Why sin is not about being bad

24 August 2012

by Giles Fraser

I MUST admit that I had never heard of the Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina before. Roughly a contemporary of Shakespeare, de Molina was a priest of prodigious ability, producing hundreds of plays, including the extraordinary Damned by Despair, which is being staged at the National Theatre in October in a new version by Frank McGuinness.

It was a real thrill to be asked to talk to the cast, in advance of rehearsals, about its theology - not least because the theology it espouses is both shockingly subversive of much of what passes for orthodox Christianity these days, and yet is shocking precisely because it is so orthodox.

The two main characters are Paulo, a pious hermit, and Enrico, a murderous crook. Paulo, obsessed with his own salvation, is told by the Devil - or rather by a character who seems to shape-shift between an angel and a devil - that his salvation is to be found by matching Enrico. When Paulo finds Enrico, he is astonished to find that he is lacking in all moral virtue. How can this person be a signpost to his own salvation?

Here I ought to issue a spoiler alert: don't read on if you don't want to know how things turn out. But it will not completely surprise those familiar with the tradition of Catholic Christianity, as it came to be decisively shaped by St Augustine, that the moralistic Paulo (who is a little like Pelagius in his belief that morality and religious practice place a person on a conveyer belt to heaven) ends up being the one who is damned.

Yet the terrible Enrico, eventually facing and accepting his own depravity, ends up being saved. Like the parable of the prodigal son, the whole thing seems deeply unfair. We are saved by grace, and not by being good. We cannot manufacture the conditions of our own salvation; we can only accept that we are all broken and unable to get fixed - unless we are prepared to receive the gratuity of God's love, over which we have no control.

I suspect that the play will flummox some, because traditional Christianity still gets confused with various versions of Pelagianism, in which God rewards moral uprightness with a trip to the heavenly banquet. What this gets wrong is the idea that sin is fundamentally a moral notion; that sinning is all about being bad.

The whole idea of original sin, however, is that sin is more a part of the human condition, which is something about our fundamental brokenness. This is something that we cannot fix on our own. Paulo can be as moral and religious as he likes, but, unless he faces this, he is going nowhere. And so, tragically, it turns out.

Canon Giles Fraser is Priest-in-Charge of St Mary's, Newington, in the diocese of Southwark.


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