Friday, August 05, 2011

The origins of morality -- Part 2

If Heinrich Hoffman meant to teach moral lessons with his "Merry Stories and Funny Pictures," he didn't succeed. The terrible torments that befell his youthful miscreants merely entertained. The long-legged scissors man may have caused nightmares for a particularly sensitive child, but for most of us toddlers he was a figure of fun. A little blood on the floor made the story all the more delicious.

Anyway, we Roman Catholic youngsters had more serious things to worry about.

We were never let to forget that a possible fate awaited us far more serious than snipped thumbs.

In the catechism, the soul was represented by three circles. A white circle was a soul in the state of grace. A splotchy circle was a soul besmirched by venial sin. A black circle was a soul in mortal sin. Die with a mortal sin on one's soul, unrepented and unforgiven, and one spent all eternity roasting in hell.

An elaborate conceptual apparatus kept the fragility of salvation constantly in mind: venial sin, mortal sin, examination of conscience, confession, repentance, penance, Acts of Contrition, indulgences, heaven, hell, purgatory. All meant to instill the fear of God and keep our souls sparkling clean. Who worried about the quick snips of the long-legged scissors man when a few "bad thoughts" might merit an eternity of fire and brimstone tended by cloven-foot fallen angels?

It all seems unbelievably silly now -- the Church's own "merry stories and funny pictures" -- but at the time we took it deadly serious. And when it all fell away, that whole shabby, moth-eaten brocade, guess what? One didn't automatically lapse into sin. It turns out that people around the globe are equally good or bad with or without religion. Humans would appear to be moral animals, with innate inclinations towards altruism. We have other instincts too -- thumb-sucking, day-dreaming, playing with matches, violent aggression -- that may or may not require social conventions to keep in check.

In that picture with yesterday's post, the real miscreant is not the child, but the sin-obsessed intruder with the scissors. The Church has a lot to answer for.