A fellow student in my theology class told me that in his 69 years of existence he’d never encountered hamartiology. My own 34 year old pink body hadn’t either until two weeks ago. Hamartiology is the field of Christian theology which studies sin. Fascinating stuff. How many people even believe in sin anymore? Here in Denver the concept has very little support. I have had several older folks tell me bluntly, “Well, I don’t believe in sin.” Like I said, it’s fascinating. Then this past week we read about atonement and all the different reasons Christian thinkers over the years have deduced the reason for Jesus’ death to be.
As I hope the savvy reader can imagine, there are no clear cut answers. Christians have been doing their best and generally fall into only a handful of categories, but there is no universal agreement. (No surprise here). What was intriguing to me, however, was how integral a person’s concept of sin is to their concept of atonement and why Jesus had to die.
Obviously, I have nothing new to add to the study of sin, but I do have one observation that brings me some hope. One of the books mentioned that sin is both our condition and the result of our condition. We sin because we’re sinners and we’re sinners because we sin. That’s easy enough, nothing new. But then it went on to remind readers that we (humanity) commit sins not just because we’re sinners, but because we’re the recipient of others’ sins as well. For example, I have been living a fairly spartan life these last couple weeks. Early to rise, been memorizing scripture, reading voluminously, no movie/TV-watching etc. Yet I have still been sinning in some very easy to acknowledge acts. Before I read the aforementioned section about being on the receiving end of fellow humans’ sin, I was a bit perplexed. But now I feel like I’ve gained some understanding, or perhaps one more example, of the reality that I cannot ever do it on my own. Theoretically, if I could erase my memory and become a hermit on Mars with no more contact from humans, maybe I could avoid sins of commission. But even then sins of omission would be occurring because I’d be avoiding my purpose.
The point of all this is that hamartiology and the Christian doctrine of sin is the most accurate description of reality/evil I have discovered as of today. Consequently, I believe, like most Christians do, that I am a sinner in need of repentance and that God sent Jesus to die to take my place in order to restore the broken relationship that the first man caused by his sin. Those of you who know the story know that the ironic piece, of course, is that the biblical writers suggest that in my act of recognizing both my status and that there has been a substitution of characters; instead of being punished, I am forgiven. That’s a relief, a veritable un-burdening–especially compared to the sensation that accompanied me while I distorted the reality of sin’s effect on my life.
Oh. What is sin, you ask? What is the root of all sin? It’s the displacement of God from his rightful place.
In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Marlow’s apathetic voice is Conrad’s gift to readers. Through this apathy readers have a defibrillator to use on their hearts, which have slowed to a stop after contemplating the full meaning of the tale. Without this literary device, countless souls would be unable to return to their pleasant state of existence.
Conrad introduces Marlow as the novella opens. Within two pages we discover Marlow has decided to tell an unrequested tale containing an uncommon bleakness that offers no immediate value to the audience. By the end, we are left feeling despondent, depressed, and largely in a state of wonder. We ask ourselves, “If this horror happened to a man such as Kurtz, it surely would happen to little ol’ me. And that being the case, what’s the point of even trying?”
Add to these feelings the fact that the story is only 70-pages, and we find ourselves returning to page one with a singular goal. We long to discover that we overlooked the hope. Returning to page one with this new sense of purpose, we begin to notice that Marlow’s story is preempted by the notion that “the bond of sea…had the effect of making us tolerant of each other’s yarns—and even convictions.” Likewise, Conrad demonstrates his value by creating this tolerance in those of us without this bond.
Marlow’s apathy is palpable throughout the tale—evidenced by his ability to remain a detached observer. During this re-read we notice that this apathy, then, is Conrad’s gift to us. This apathy lights the path which will lead us out of darkness. Conrad doesn’t intend for us to remain in darkness. He wants us to take Marlow’s journey; not believe that we’re Marlow. The key to coming out whole is to remember this–remember that, unlike Marlow, we still care.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: Dover, 1990. Print.