Hamartia and the Self

Response to Thomas Merton #2

From No Man Is an Island Chapter One:

“Love must be based on truth. A love that sees no distinction between good and evil but loves … merely for the sake of loving is hatred rather than love. To love blindly is to love selfishly. It is not interested in the truth but only in itself. f we are going to love others at all we must make up our minds to love them well. The first step to unselfish love is the recognition that our love may be deluded. The truth I love in loving my brother … must be at the same time supernatural and concrete, practical and alive.”

syn__0049_remainsofthedayIn the film version of Remains of the Day, Mr. Stevens the butler, who is the central character played by Anthony Hopkins, shows a frustrating inability to relate to people as people. For him, everyone fits into a prescribed, pre-determined role, and he defines them and his relationship to them by almost mechanistic principles. His rigidness in this regard forces him to distance himself even from his father, who seems to have taught him to see the world in that way. And the possibility of a genuine, human relationship based on love passes him by. Only when the ordered universe upon which he has built an artificial sense of security turns out to have been a deluded farce does Stevens look back and see his personal wasteland of lost opportunities.

Stevens is almost a Jungian archetype. He represents a selfistic principle that governs a large chunk of human thinking–judging by world history, anyway. The saints among us would argue that they try, really try, to be “selfless” about things. A cynic, such as myself, might ask–isn’t it true that the more we enjoy a sense of self-sacrifice in a value-system that makes us feel good about it, the more likely it is that we are trapped in a selfistic mesh even when we are being noble? Perhaps some have sprung the trap. But the quote from Merton suggests that we may stray on two equally deluded fronts–that we may appear to be both partial and impartial yet remain deeply selfish either way.

Try a “for instance.” William lathers compliments like margarine on a muffin, but with a view toward getting something in exchange. Kate, on the other hand, cannot bring herself to praise anyone. She tells herself that she behaves in the interest of “fairness.” In either case, the issue isn’t about the virtue of giving or not giving compliments, is it? The issue is how the Self figures into the equation.

It’s refreshingly easy to condemn Self-ism in all its grossest forms, commonly demonstrated through the Seven Deadly Sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. These are the Vaudeville stars of Sin that get all the good lines and all the bad press, like Hester Prynne in Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. These are the inheritors of fire and brimstone from countless pulpits around the world.

But Merton’s quote should give us pause. He suggests that Selfism is more subtle than the Big 7 and that sin bred of Selfism isn’t always of the neon-sign variety. In fact, most selfistic sins may not be visible as sin at all. Most of it, in fact, may be more like cracks in the wall beneath the paint.

What if most of what we really need to worry about regarding selfistic behavior isn’t heinous harlotry at all, but almost-accident? What if it constitutes behavior that somehow “misses the mark,” to use the word in the original Greek sense of hamartia?

Hamartia is the Greek word often used in the New Testament for “sin.” Our English word “sin” comes from a Germanic root that simply meant “guilty”–a “state” rather than an activity. The Hebrew has a lovely array of words for sin, but one closely mirrors the Greek concept of Hamartia. It is the word Chattah (the same word would make its way into the Aramaic spoken by Jesus and Paul). “Chattah” is the word used in the sacrificial language of the Tabernacle and Temple as being what the sacrifices were meant to address. Chattah and Hamartia were both originally used of an archer who missed the mark.

On the surface, the idea of “missing the mark” suggests an unintended action, and that’s probably a good enough way of looking at a one category of wrongful things we do. It would accurately describe the action of the kid who demonstrates a karate kick on his bedroom door. His intent is to demonstrate his prowess to his rapt audience of friends, not to kick the door off its hinges. But to his parents, who have to pay for the repairs to the door, the hinges and the doorjamb, the unintended consequences are substantial.

I’ve heard sermons that refer to the Biblical concept of Sin with a capital “S” as a Sin Nature, something that clings to us like an alien substance, and the “all things new” of redemption changes us, delivering us from the Sin Nature, ridding us of Original Slime, to paraphrase St. Augustine. After our glorious deliverance, we are still forced to deal with the nagging commission of small-letter sins. These require a steady regimen of repentance and forgiveness, like dealing with the weeds in our flower garden of righteousness.

But I am beginning to wonder whether Hamartia is a more subtle concept altogether, one which the Armor All of standard salvation sermonizing doesn’t actually cover because it doesn’t address the fundamental issue. It’s like giving a starving man a four-course meal, only to discover he is on death row. He will fry, but at least he’ll be full.

Okay. So I pushed the analogy too far. It sounded too cool to pass up.

The more I think about Hamartia, especially as it appeared to the Greeks, the more I begin to wonder whether or not the Apostle Paul and the others who used it intended it as more than mere linguistic spackle.

I don’t know enough Hebrew language and culture to be able to unpack the full meaning of Chattah. But there has been a lot of writing about the Greek concept of Hamartia, and it suggests a substantial alternative to our normal thinking about what it means to “miss the mark.” The archer fully intends to hit the target. But, for whatever reasons–a cramp, a gust of wind, a flash of light, a lapse of skill, Robin Hood misses and does not split his competitor’s arrow down the middle.

oedipus&sphinxWhat then? To the Greeks, Hamartia was the “flaw” that led to tragedy in human affairs. College students have endless trouble trying to figure out how this comes together in Oedipus. “Okay. Explain one more time just what Oedipus did wrong that made him unwittingly murder his father and sleep with his mother?” The message of Oedipus is neither fate nor guilt. The message of Oedipus is that human frailty mixed with uncontrollable circumstance equals “Bad things, man. Bad things.”

I’m beginning to think that the New Testament writers, following Christ’s lead, had a profound appreciation for this mix of things that resulted in human’s “missing the mark” in general, that this was the starting point of all human discourse and interaction. It did not entail finger pointing and leveraging of shalts and shalt nots, nor did it involve juridical pronouncements designed to find the location of the flaw. Instead, it created a deep-seated recognition of unworthiness and propelled an understanding of sacrifice. It was as if, in sacrifice, the supplicant recognized that no amount of cleansing, washing and sanctification could erase Hamartia. In fact, Hamartia never goes away. It is with us always, even in the lives of the redeemed. It passes from me personally only in death, but its traces linger on after me, in all the mix of the consequences of my actions as they have intersected with the lives of countless other people. In sacrifice, I ask God not to count Hamartia against me, as Christ said in the Lord’s prayer, commonly translated as “lead us not into temptation,” but actually saying, “Put us not to the test.”

Though we intend to hit the mark but miss for any number of reasons, Hamartia is not without a source. The source, ultimately, is the Selfism with which each of us is born. We all strive. We strive to excel, to do better, to be mediocre, or maybe even to be left alone to our own devices. We are all protagonists in our own stories–the root of that word being “agon,” conflict. Our striving is born in the complex breeding ground of motives, and our motives cling to the skin of Self in ways we rarely examine or even see, as we struggle for identity, for purpose, for the consent and approval of others. Our frailty then, our Hamartia, is closely linked to the mere fact that we are Selves, that we exist as separate beings living in the same limited space. And when you take my Hamartia and combine it with yours, it’s a wonder we don’t mess up any more than we do, though the state of the world at any given time may suggest otherwise. That is the ultimate reason for sacrifice. Sacrifice s supposed to represent as much nullification of Selfism as I am able, with God’s help, to manage.

OedipusOedipus, in despair over the consequences of his Hamartia, puts out his eyes so he won’t have to see his tragic reality. His blindness, as Merton says, is useless. His act is utterly Selfistic. Our only hope, according to Merton, according to Christ, is to do what we can, without self-disfigurement, without self-emolation, without a self-destructive distortion of the truth, to love. Christ demonstrated that only love, only an appreciation of Others as Other Selves, manages the consequences of Hamartia. It’s that part in His Prayer that says, “Forgive us as we forgive.”

Note: I realize this is really dense. I’m sorry for that. I just needed to get it down. I’ll build on it from here, unless the overwhelming cries of “heretic!” convince me that I’m full of beans. Thanks, if you made it all the way, for courageously hanging in there with me. It took three months to write.


7 thoughts on “Hamartia and the Self

  1. I’m hoping to comment more in length later, but I wanted to let you know that I really appreciated this post. Coincidentally (or perhaps serendipitously?), I found your article through a google search the day after you wrote it. The search term I used was “Why did Christ use the word ‘hamartia’?”

    Anywhoo … Thanks for putting this out there. It was deep, but I really got it and think that you are on to something.

  2. David

    When I read this post I kept thinking of possible points of view. Here, in America, in this day and age, I would think that we have little experience with kingdom mentality. Our point of view could be changed by a boot camp experience. Military people who have served their country in a life and death command following situation have a sense of what it would take to follow a king selflessly…to the death if need be. I also thought of some people that may not have had the strict modification to their self images and truely came out selfless in the last moment. The early Christian martyrs that ran to their deaths to honor Christ could be considered selfless. The wisest man in the world noted that pride is the only cause of contention.(Proverbs 13:10 (ASV)”By pride cometh only contention; But with the well-advised is wisdom.”) I could either think well of myself or ill of myself and be full of pride. I could have high esteem or low esteem and still be full of pride. Your post points out the slippery slope all people encounter with a full spectrum of possible results. My question was, “Where do I start?” I’m very glad that we are not alone and that there is a Counselor that leads us. For me, the answer came when I threw out everything but the basics and started over on a foundation I somehow missed. Unfortunately much of my foundation was built on pride so it took third party intervention to create the course correction. Thanks for the thought provoking post.

    1. meldenius

      You raise an interesting point about the martyrs and the issue of selflessness. In my latest blog, I talk about those who sacrifice themselves to a Collectivity. But the martyrs would only fit into that category if and only if they were responsible for their martyrdom, which takes us into interesting ethical territory. On the face of it, it would seem perverse to place the blame on the martyr.

      Having come from a military family, I winder whether the selflessness engendered by military training truly merits the distinction. Basically a soldier is trained to the point that habit and obedience overcome selfish instincts. The instincts are still there, but the positive/negative reinforcement of training propped up by the affirming presence of an armed community all but silence those instincts. In so doing, they silence other aspects of humanity as well (how else does one learn to kill?) which creates its own reoccurring set of problems both during and after wartime. I heard an interview with a Vietnam War sniper who was ordered to kill buddhist monks and women, though he never knew why. It was his job. Dealing with the trauma of his actions has haunted him for the rest of his life.

      I know you weren’t making a point along those lines. I think the answer to the pride/selfless dilemma resides somewhere in a degree of coterminous healthy self-acceptance and other-acceptance that most of us have trouble understanding.

  3. How does the righteousness of Christ figure in?

    Paul tells us we can “put off” our old self and “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” He talks of being “in Christ” and our old man having been put to death. Peter speaks of Christ having borne our sins *in his body* on the cross, which allows us to die to sin, live to righteousness, and be healed, by his wounds.

    The only effective answer to sin (intentional and unintentional) is not self-acceptance, but Jesus’ sacrifice. There’s nothing we can embrace within ourselves to infuse the divine nature into us. We have to look to God for that healing infusion.

    It is true, we grow in grace and sanctification and do not “see face to face” until we depart this world. But it is quite possible for a human being to love with God’s divine love, and that is what caused the martyrs to run…to Him, essentially.

    1. meldenius

      Ultimately, it has to be all about the righteousness of Christ, I would think.

      My sense of self-acceptance is an Augustinian one, not one that denies the truth of Isaiah 64’s filthy rags. Augustine writes about the critical need for a proper self-love in “De Doctrina” and about the transformation of the image of God in us (On the Trinity.) As such, the self is both the locus of our hamartia and of our redemption.

  4. Clara Hazelwood

    It seems simple, but so hard. I cannot make myself righteous, no matter how hard I try. And I keep trying! And failing. All my thoughts and feelings are “hamartia” indeed, so muddled and contorted. But yes, I am in Christ and He in me. That is my hope.

    I look to Him and He straightens out all my ways of doing things. It’s on a moment by moment basis, forget day by day.

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